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The Mystery Creature

Posted By: Jan     All Posts by Jan  

December 09, 2014

In mid-December a mysterious set of animal tracks appeared along a favorite local trail near our winter office (outside the Park).  We call the trail “the bluff trail” because it meanders along the edge of a bluff with a gradual drop about 500 feet to the Nenana River.  The area is boreal forest, dominated by white spruce trees and wiggly-trunked aspens, braving the sometimes high winds along the bluff. We commonly see animal sign along there….from black bear scat laden with berries in the fall, to perfect lynx and snowshoe hare tracks in winter, along with the ubiquitous and ever present runs of red tree squirrels and voles.  Twice I’ve seen the tracks of wolves…..about the size of salad plates; they couldn’t possibly be confused with even the largest sled dog in the area.

One thing I’ve learned in my years as a naturalist is that sometimes the most helpful description of an unidentified species includes the type of habitat it was seen in.  For instance, if someone saw a “big, brown bird”, asking where is was (cliffs, lake, tundra meadow, dense forest, willow thicket?) can help scores in its potential ID.  There are outliers, of course, but typically an animal’s habitat falls within fairly narrow parameters.

So, this mysterious animal track.….Austin first spotted the tracks and attemped to describe them to me, and I was flummoxed.  It had small feet, only about one inch long, with a very prominent tail drag mark.  It had very pointy, clawed toes (like a squirrel’s?) and walked with a gait that was walking, not hopping.  I was racking my brain to think what it could porcupine? (no--still too small and porkeys have rear feet like bears with a furry-looking, large tail drag), a tree squirrel dragging a stick?  (no--they hop, and the tail marks swooshed side to side), flying squirrel? (no--the tracks walked around on the ground too much, and they hop, not walk), pine marten or elusive long tailed weasel?  (no, they hop...also don't have long pointy toes), Ashley’s dachshund? (no--his feet are obviously doglike with a longer gait and no tail drag).  What other small animals inhabit the forest here that could leave such marks? I studied them long and hard, and even took the attached photo. The tail looked to be a possum tail....not furry. They honestly looked like the tracks of a large, common RAT.

And then it hit me....muskrat!

Yep. Confirmed with track descriptions from a tracking book.  Now the only mystery is: what was it doing on the bluff trail!?  The nearest lake was perhaps two miles away, and the river was very, very far below.  Spruce forest is not the realm of the aquatic muskrat!  Many ideas came to my mind…perhaps the family unit had grown too big and this was an adolescent pushed out to find its own way in the world?  Perhaps our snowless winter has been producing too much ice that is crowding them out of their lairs?  A few days later, our neighbor, Fritz, showed Ashley and Teresa a curious set of tracks near his home. Indeed, they were the same. 

One mystery solved, another began.

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A Soup to Spice Up a Cold Month

Posted By: Jan     All Posts by Jan  

December 04, 2014

Winter is upon us!  While it has arrived a bit late here in Denali (we only have a few inches of snow currently and November was unseasonably warm) the joys of the season are now in full swing.  Whether it’s ice skating or hockey, community events like yoga or craft bazaars, mushing a team of dogs, or simply holing up with a good book or a podcast, our winter staff is enjoying it all.  And to keep our internal temperatures high during it all, we always enjoy a good soup recipe.  This one comes from Laura Cole, who was in charge of the kitchens at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge for many years and now runs the exquisite “229 Parks” restaurant at the park entrance area of Denali.  Bon appétit!


Spicy Tomato Soup

Cilantro stems add a refreshing flavor to this spicy soup.  It is great served either hot or cold.

**This recipe makes a lodge-sized serving of a whopping 30 cups! While perfect for holiday gatherings, you may wish to size it down for your family!

4 T   Olive Oil                                                                                                 

3 C  Red Onion, diced                                                                                             

1 1/2 T Garlic, minced                                                                                                         

1 T Kosher Salt                                                                                                        

1 T Crushed Red Pepper Flakes                                                                      

3 C  Cilantro, chopped, stems included                                                                      

4 each   28 oz Cans Crushed Plum Tomatoes in Juice                                             

1 Jalapeno Pepper, seeded & minced                                                          

use care with pepper the juice is very hot           

8 C  Rich Chicken Stock                                                                                                         

1 T  Sugar                                                                                                                                  

4 T  Fresh Lime Juice                                                                                              

1 1/2 C   Sour Cream                                                                                             

1 1/2 C  Basil, cut into thin strips                                                                      


In a large stock pot heat oil over medium high heat.

Add onion & garlic, sauté until tender & slightly golden.

Add salt & red pepper flakes. Stirring to combine.

Add jalapeno pepper and sauté until tender.

Add tomatoes & their juice.

Simmer on high heat for 10 minutes, when liquid has reduced by 1/4, stir in sugar & lime juice.

Stir in chicken stock.

Reduce heat to medium, simmer for 20 minutes to combine all flavors.

Add cilantro.

Taste & adjust seasonings.

Serve garnished with fresh basil & a hearty dollop of sour cream.

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The Insider's Guide to Denali

Posted By: Jan     All Posts by Jan  

October 06, 2014

There are always things that those who live in a place know that those who visit oh-so-wish they knew!  I’ve compiled a short list that you, if you’re thinking of visiting us in Denali, may want to know!

#1 The weather is unpredictable.  The longer I live here, the less I know about what the weather is going to be on a daily basis.  Bluebird mornings yield to thunderstorms by 3pm, snow falls in July, cold, hard rains give way to sunshine within minutes. If it’s glass calm at Wonder Lake it might be a gale force wind at Highway Pass.  We are only 30 miles away from the summit of the highest mountain in North America, and the weather does what it will!  There is no “best” month for weather, every day is a season in miniature!  Pack your long johns, ski hat, and gloves as well as a pair of shorts, sunscreen, and maybe even a swimsuit!

#2 Wear light colored tops and dark colored pants.  Now that seems like a random suggestion. Do we have fashion police here in Denali?  Actually, many people swear that mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors.  And given that in nature most of the animals they feed on, moose, caribou, and beaver, have dark colored hair or fur, that anecdote may be true.  If you’re coming to Denali in blueberry season (late July-mid September) be sure to wear dark colored pants, for obvious reasons, when we sit down in a berry patch to eat our lunches in the tundra!

#3 BYOB!  Our meals are exquisite and all-inclusive, but we don’t hide the fact that we don’t have a liquor license. You are welcome to bring your own bottle.  We do have wine glasses, ice, and bottle openers.

#4 Getting up in the middle of the night can be a good thing!  Think that needing to make an outhouse run in the night is a bad thing?  Not necessarily…in the land of the midnight sun our sunsets and sunrises are at odd hours.  For example on July 1st sunrise is at about 3 am, so you might catch the most spectacular pink alpenglow on Denali then!

#5 Bring binoculars!  Denali is not the Serengeti, it’s a sub-arctic ecosystem with many wide, vast landscapes punctuated by a distant grizzly bear or small band of Dall sheep high on a mountain slope.  The freedom to roam is what makes Denali such an awe-inspiring part of America’s last truly wild places.  It’s best to bring those binocs to decipher if indeed that distant lump is a bear or a boulder.

And that’s just the beginning of helpful tips!  Read more on our website FAQ page here.

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Denali Dispatch

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.