January 31, 2014
What is the temperature right now where you live? Above average? Below?
We have not yet had a compilation of January’s average temps and how they compare to past years, but we already know a lot about how this unusual month has gone here in Denali…..
In early January warm southern winds (typically called “Chinooks”) swept north and into central and interior Alaska. This in of itself is not too unusual….we often have one or two Chinook winds a winter that bring the temperature precipitously close to 32°F. But this time the temperatures rocketed skywards, and stayed above freezing…for nearly the rest of the month.
On January 26th Denali National Park broke an all-time January high of 52°F. Records dated back the past 92 years. In comparison, this is typically the average temp for mid-May here in Denali. The average high for that date is a full 40 degrees colder.
Our beautiful fluffy snowpack has been reduced to ice and rock solid, gravel-like snow. Walking becomes perilous and skiing is out of the question. For us local humans, this is terrible indeed. But for the animals of the park, it can prove even more challenging.
In the winter months moose, caribou and other large mammals move around the snow selecting the best forage (in the case of moose, it is the tall willow shrubs they browse, and for the caribou it is the lichen buried beneath the snow). Animals will have a hard time getting their food through this hard packed snow and ice, and they face the hazard of leg injuries from punching down into the icy drifts.
For the subnivian creatures among us (meaning the animals that live buried beneath the snow, like voles, a mouse-like creature with fully ears and a short, furry tail) the dilemma is compounded. They are no longer sheltered from the elements by the soft and insulating snow. Contrary to intuition, snow can be a very insulating substance that traps heat…think of igloos. It might be -30°F air temperature, but under the snow it would be a “toasty” -3°F. Our office here at Denali’s Park Entrance area has received visits from a few rodents as of late….my coworkers Martha, Teresa, and I have trapped 5 voles in the past two days. With very few other options, the voles are making their way into spaces they normally avoid. How will this affect their numbers? How will that affect the nestlings owls and hawks that rely on them come spring?
Today the temperature is back to a normal 0°F, but the effects from our little heat wave linger. The tundra snow largely melted out, and the packed trails from mushers and skiers all that remain. With an average of only 1.25” (yes, that is inches) of precipitation for February and March, it might be a very long wait for us to get our snow back. Meanwhile, most of the rest of country remains in a relative deep freeze…making us wonder, when will we be trading back to normal again??
October 10, 2013
On July 15th, 2004 Simon Hamm was leading an exploratory strenuous hike and stumbled upon something rarely seen in the natural world. About one mile north of the Denali Park Road, near mile 75, some bones could be spotted gleaming on a low rise. Approaching the site they found evidence of where an epic struggle had taken place. The tundra and grasses had been matted down in about a forty foot diameter littered with sections of vertebrae, hunks of clavicle and pelvis, cracked long bones, scads of matted hair and fun, abundant wolf scat, and, most notably, two large moose skulls, each with roughly 50 pound antler racks, entwined in the center of it all.
Members of the deer family (Cervidae), of which moose are the largest, grow antlers each mating season. These racks are made of solid bone and can grow as much as an inch a day (imagine that for growing pains!). In most deer family members it is only the males who grow antlers, with the exception of the caribou, in which both sexes have racks (albeit the females have much smaller ones). Antlers differ from horns, which are made of keratin and are kept throughout the life of an animal, growing a small bit more each passing year. Moose antlers are truly stunning objects of sexual prowess; Alaskan moose antlers can span up to 6 feet across! Antlers are the fastest growing organ known; these behemoths take only around 3 months to reach their peak size. A layer of skin, or velvet, covers the antlers to provide a network of vascular tissues and blood for growth. Typically beginning in late August we start to see the velvet begin to tear off in long bloody strips exposing the gleaming white bone beneath.
The rut, or mating season, is typically September and October. A mature bull moose will gather together and defend a “harem” of females, which can number as many as twenty. Younger moose with smaller racks of antlers will sometimes skulk in the willows nearby, awaiting a chance to nab an unattended female. The bulls rarely eat during the rutting season. Stress levels are high, and most dominant bulls will lose substantial amounts of weight by the time of the rut is though. If they are successful, however, their genes will be passed along to a higher proportion of next years calves than their fellow bulls.
How those final hours (or days) for these two very large, mature adult bull moose played out is anyone’s guess. One of the brow tines (the lowest spike of the palmate antlers) protrudes into the eye socket of the other bull, though does not appear to have pierced deep enough to touch the brain. Evidence around the area also indicates that wolves found the two moose, cumulatively a roughly three thousand pound bonanza of meat. Perhaps they found the moose while both were still alive, one was, or neither. It would have been relatively easy for a pack of wolves to take down the moose in such a weakened and impaired state.
Camp Denali and North Face Lodge hiked to the area on occasion for the next few summers. In 2007 the National Park Service airlifted (using a sling and a helicopter) the skulls to the newly reopened Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 of the Park Road. Today they still lie there, interlocked for all of time, beneath the flagpole outside the visitor center. You can feel and see the skulls for yourself, and ponder the story of dominance, breeding, and the food chain for yourself.
July 30, 2013
One of the most frequent questions we receive to our office goes something like this “I’m planning on coming to Denali June 24th for a week….what will the weather be like?” I think most people assume we’ll give an answer along the lines of “It tends to be dry and sunny in June, but then rainy in July and cooler in August.” Rather, our explanation tends to launch into a several minute discussion on the unpredictability of mountain weather, seasons, rain gear, and the importance of dressing in layers. This can all be wrapped into one short phrase: “Expect anything.”
In my decade of working in the park we have seen the mountain for two consecutive weeks straight of bluebird skies, or it’s been hidden for nine straight days behind a solid layer of clouds. We’ve built snowmen on the lawn at Camp Denali on July 4th and felt the need to take a plunge into Moose Creek to cool down in late September. We’ve hiked in the hail at 35° F to then find ourselves half an hour later basking in the sunshine while drying out our raingear.
A “typical” Denali day will have some rain, some clouds, some sun. We are literally thirty miles away from the base of the highest mountain in North America, and weather can change on a dime. Though our mean annual precipitation is 13-20” (the same as Tucson, AZ), most of that moisture falls in the form of rain June through September. Of those months, it’s a shot in the dark when we might get the “most” rain or sun.
Your safest bet is to pack expecting any conditions. Long sleeve, loose fitting, non-cotton clothing is best for protection against the bugs and brush as we hike, and bringing warm layers (including a warm ski hat and pair of gloves!) is also essential. It never hurts to have a non-cotton t-shirt and pair of shorts in bag as well, in case the thermometer climbs! Of course, the most essential items are good hiking boots and rain gear. Hiking boots protect your feet and offer good traction, while rain gear will keep you warm and (relatively!) dry in even the strongest of downpours or if we end up hiking in a bit of snow.
As Wally Cole states it “There’s no poor weather, only poor clothing.”
The changing weather patterns offer a chance to experience the land here like no other place on earth. Our broad viewscapes looking over the tundra and taiga allow us to watch the clouds rolling in and out and the light patterns falling on the hillsides. Sometimes the mountains are bathed in alpenglow in the wee hours of the mornings; sometimes the raindrops hang from the blueberry bushes in seemingly suspended animation. This summer we’ve been hiking in snow patches in early June and sweating our way up hillsides in 80°F temps for much of later June and July. Although we’ve also had a near solid-week of rain and evening thunderstorms!
We can, however, predict the annual change of the amount of daylight we have (from the June 21st solstice with near 24 hours of daylight!) and hence the seasons. June brings wildflowers and the birth of young animals in the park, July is the peak of summer when vegetation is at it’s most lush, and as we roll into August and September we see berries ripening and fall colors coming to the tundra. You will always experience the wonder and joy of being up close to nature in Denali, a thrilling and ever changing environment.
It is our pleasure to present Dispatches, a journal of the goings on at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge. Written by members of our staff, Dispatches is an opportunity to peek into the special sightings notebook, brush up on Denali National Park issues, read about our ongoing projects in sustainability, and maybe get a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchens. Dispatches will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.