November 18, 2015
Living along the border of one of the worlds most famous and stunning National Parks, it’s relatively easy to be occasionally touched (or even blown away) by moments of wonder and awe. In the summer at the lodges we have the great fortune to hike across pristine tundra meadows and watch while caribou prance along in front of us. We gawk at the long-tailed jaegers flight and ponder the long migrations of nearly 150 bird species that breed in Denali, but fly south for the winter. We light a fire in our woodstove or firepace and savor fine meals and warm conversations with fellow travelers. And we get to share those experiences with you, our guests.
Winter in Denali holds no less of a thrill, though a very different one. The way the high winds blow snow off the tall peaks, the tracks of a lynx, the aurora dancing overhead in a star-filled night sky. These moments still catch our breath and hold us captive to the wonders of the earth, if not for just a moment. Our nose stings, our fingers are white and numb, and the reality of a winter in the continental climate of northern interior Alaska comes back to you. This last week our thermometer has been hovering around zero Fahrenheit (-18C), and we’ve been losing five minutes of sunlight per day. The Christmas lights have been strung up, and walking the dogs before and after work means using a headlamp and mukluks, or skis. Yesterday morning was a chilly -25F when our office crew came in for work. It was so cold my knees absolutely ached from being outside for 30 minutes.
In temperatures like these, as the dark and cold of winter takes hold, it’s easy to forget the zest and wonder you have for a place, or a particular passion in your life. We want you to bring those awestruck and thankful moments back into your life, even with challenging weather, stressful holidays, or getting too far settled into a routine. We are lucky to be able to live in a place that ignites that spark in people. We love nothing more than to show you the grace of the natural world. The explosive flavors of a pesto made from our greenhouse basil. The calm that comes from being a place with no internet or cell service. The majority of our guests, now our friends, hold these few days close to their hearts and bring that sense of wonder back to their normal lives.
Forget not how blessed you are to have friends, family, a safe and warm home, and the small wonders around you. Try not to wear your busy schedule as a badge of honor, rather try to slow down a moment to thank a friendly neighbor, savor a warm cup of tea, and pet the cat or dog for a nice, long while. Look up at the waning morning moon as you shuffle though the busy streets, go for a walk with a friend, read a beautiful poem as you ride the bus, and delight in the laughter of a child. It doesn’t take the highest mountain in North America to bring a sense of thankfulness and awe in your life, though it can help you to recall those things more easily, we acknowledge! Take those moments to heart, and hold them daily in your beautiful, simple, and kind life.
June 21, 2015
Our season here at the lodges in Denali National Park has been in full swing for about three weeks. The amount of sunlight is almost at its summer maximum, almost 21 hours of daylight, and summer is at full speed. The flowers have been blooming early this season, coloring the tundra in sweeps of yellow Arnica, pink Moss Campion, and blue Forget-Me-Nots. Temperatures even soared into the 80’s the past several days, making this an unusually warm spring, following a mild winter.
The simple pleasures of summer have not been lost to us, however. Swimming dips in Moose Creek or Nugget Pond, a bottle of iced tea nestled in your sack lunch, and the chance to lay out on the tundra for lunch without bundling up have been welcome summer delights. Not every piece of the warm weather has been easy, however. Several fires currently burn across the state, one, the Sockeye Fire, even closed the George Parks Highway for a spell, causing several of our guests to need to reroute and re-plan their arrivals. Last year we experienced heavy rains in a short period of time, which washed out part of the Denali Park Road. Each season brings its challenge!
Of course, the warm weather is not likely to continue without end. Only two weeks ago we had a cold snap come through that deposited 6” of snow at the Eielson Visitor Center and other areas of the Park over 3,000 feet in elevation. Two days later, the temperatures soared into the 70’s. On one of my hikes this season we started out in t-shirts and shorts, only to be quickly pelted by a small hailstorm midway through the day.
Overall, we would classify this season as unusually warm. The idea of “normal” weather is perhaps an anomaly in Denali, regardless. As previously mentioned, we are only 30 miles away from the largest mountain in North America, so unpredictable is the typical forecast for the day! This warm spell has begun to cause us to bite our nails a bit, however. The tundra is very dry, and I worry about the amount of available water for the root systems of our vegetation, for the insect life, and for birds.
Last evening, thunder cracked across the sky above the mountain range, a few bolts of lighting struck across the tundra, and localized rain squalls pelted parts of the Denali Park Road. CDNFL staff camping on Turtle Hill even witnessed lightning ignite a small tundra fire to our west. Wildfire smoke from the western and southern parts of the state has rolled into our area, creating a bit of a hazy view looking out toward Denali.
We look forward to some more rain spells to alleviate these dry, hot conditions. Until then, we will continue to have fun dunking ourselves in Nugget Pond and Moose Creek to cool off from the warmth.
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 be...baby 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 solid....like 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.
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.