July 02, 2013
On a cool night in June with dark clouds on the horizon, thunder came rolling down the Kantishna valley. With each resounding boom, the storm was getting closer. This rainstorm was a welcome sight after a month of unseasonably high temperatures. We could use the rain in Denali to cool down and restore moisture to the dry vegetation. But amidst the storm one sight and sound was not welcome: lightning.
Smoke began to billow up. The lightning had ignited a fire on nearby Brooker Mountain (only 3 miles southwest of Camp Denali). As we watched the flames begin to engulf spruce trees, we called to alert the fire crews. With the fire danger high in Alaska, fire managers have been on standby, ready for action. In less than an hour, they responded with scooping aircraft dropping water on the fire. The planes flew over Wonder Lake to gather water to drop over the fire. Another plane passed by and smokejumpers dropped to mop and secure the perimeter. Within a short time, we witnessed the fire quickly extinguished. Only .5 acres burned that night last week on Brooker Mountain.
Currently, there are 118 active fires (and counting) in the state. On particularly windy days, we’ve had smoke blow over our lodges from nearly 100 miles away, limiting visibility and covering the mountain range. Last week smoke from a fire in interior Alaska caused the Parks Highway to close for nearly twenty four hours due to lack of visibility.
The National Park Service manages 93% of Denali National Park as a Limited Management Option meaning fires are generally allowed to take their natural course. The strategy protects human life and specific resources while allowing fire to contribute its natural role in the ecosystem. Much of Denali consists of higher elevations which lack substantial fuel and aren’t prone to fire. The majority of fires occur in the northwest corner of the park in fire-prone lowland black spruce forests. Since the 1950’s nearly 830,000 acres have burned in the park (compare that to the 1988 massive Yellowstone fire where nearly 800,000 acres burned that year alone).
Eighty-two percent of fires in Alaska are caused by lightning and burn in the boreal forest or tundra. Fire is a natural process that restores ecosystem health and wildlife habitat. It changes the vegetation structure and composition, as well as permafrost dynamics, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity.
Consider the fireweed, which we have just begun to see blooming in Denali. This beautiful wildflower thrives in burned or disturbed soiled. The seeds remain viable in the soil for many years. When a fire removes the dense vegetation and opens up the ground to light, the seeds germinate. This wildflower thrives, taking a scorched landscape and transforming it into a field of color.
To guide fire and land management planning in Alaska’a national parks, the regional fire ecology program conducts studies in fire-adapted ecosystems. For more information on these studies, visit http://www.nps.gov/akso/nature/fire/index.cfm.
May 31, 2013
Summer has been slow to come to Denali, but it has finally arrived! This week we have been enjoying sunshine and warm temperatures. The birds are singing, the snow is melting, and yes, mosquitoes are even out. There is a flurry of life all around. It's hard to believe just last weekend we had a winter storm warning and received nearly a foot of snow overnight! For nearly two months we have been expecting spring to be around the corner, but when it comes to weather in Alaska: expect the unexpected.
This winter was a long and strange one. From the first substantial snowfall in September to the May blizzard, here’s a short recap of the past eight months:
With the late winter, our lodges have had to adapt to the unusual weather. The road leading into our lodges has seen a number of challenges. The park road crew encountered large 20-foot snow drifts, and, as the snow quickly melted: mud. We normally have several trips of both cargo and staff heading in and out of the lodges in May. This year, a number of those trips were delayed. For the first time in a number of years, the majority of our staff came by sprinter vans this week instead of the normal large bus (or “Happy Bus” as we like to call it, because our staff are happy to be returning!).
On June 3rd, when we receive our first guests, we'll be ready. Regardless of the weather, the road conditions, the challenges posed by mother nature: Denali still beckons. The mountains stand tall and snow capped. The wildlife are having babies and feasting on the fresh spring growth. The birds soaring above are setting up territories and nesting. So come prepared with a sense of adventure and don't be afraid to get a little wet or muddy. After all, it's part of the Alaska experience.
*On May 14th, the ice finally broke up on the Nenana Ice Classic, an Alaskan lottery where you bet on when the ice will break on the Tanana River, breaking the 97-year record for the latest breakup.
April 11, 2013
2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the first flight in Alaska. In 1913, a group of merchants in Fairbanks shipped a plane up by steamboat. Two barnstormers* flew the biplane 200 feet above Weeks Field in Fairbanks, going a mere 45 miles per hour. The flight was considered a spectacle, and they sold tickets to the show. 100 years later, Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita than any other state with 8,550 pilots or 1 in 78 residents.
Prior to the airplane, dog mushing (the official state sport of Alaska) was a major means of transportation. The famous 1,150 mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome commemorates the 1925 serum run, in which mushers delivered medicine to diphtheria-stricken Nome when all other forms of transportation failed. Today, a number of small towns and villages rely on scheduled or charted bush flying services for cargo, passengers, and mail. Many communities have small air taxi services, which help meet the demand for customized transport to remote areas.
In Denali National Park, the first airplane landed in 1924 by aviator Carl Ben Eielson along the bluffs of Copper Mountain**. Between 1925 and 1927, the Alaska Road Commission built two airfields in the area: a 1500-foot strip near Lake Minchumina, built as an emergency landing area, followed by the 600-foot-long Kantishna Aviation Field, “on the left limit of Moose Creek between the creek and Wonder Lake,” which was used by area miners along with an “occasional tourist”. Nearly thirty years after the introduction of aviation in the park, Camp Denali founders Ginny Wood, Celia Hunter, and Woody Wood took a flight to Wonder Lake that would change their lives.
Ginny and Celia were WASPs (Women Air Service Pilots) in WWII. They were trained to fly planes from the factories to training centers and ports of embarkation. They met while ferrying surplus planes. After the war they traveled to Alaska and worked in a number of early tour agencies, flying cargo and visitors to remote locations in Alaska. Ginny once said, “Flying is 90 percent boredom, but in Alaska, 10 percent is sheer terror! You may have to land dead stick on a sandbar or in the tundra. When I first came here there were no airfields, and definitely no wheat fields where you could put a plane down safely.”***
In 1950, Ginny’s husband Woody was a park ranger in Denali and heard about a particular ridge from Superintendent, Grant Pearson, above Moose Creek just beyond the north-western boundary of the park that he thought they should explore. So, one weekend Ginny, Woody and Celia flew their Cessna 170 out to the airstrip at Kantishna, shouldered their rucksacks and set out with Les Viereck, the Wonder Lake ranger. Hiking through low clouds and drizzle, they happened upon an exquisite tundra pond at the edge of the ridge. They asked Les to return on a clear day and let them know if the mountain could be seen from there. A week later Les’s written message back to the park entrance was simply, “WOW!” That fall, they homesteaded 67 acres of that ridge, centered on Nugget Pond, and built Camp Denali. They ran it for 25 years, forging livelihoods out of ingenuity, hospitality, and love of the land.
Camp Denali started arranging flights for guests in 1981. Lowell Thomas Jr. flew guests around the mountain in his Cessna 207 for twelve years. Today, locally based Kantishna Air Taxi provides flight seeing tours around Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range where you can see the vast scale of the mountains, glaciers, and landscape.
If you are coming through Anchorage this summer, be sure to check out the Anchorage Museum exhibit Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation. The exhibit features historical artifacts, video footage and photographs telling compelling stories of survival, adventure and ingenuity. Demonstrating in 100 years, how airplanes have evolved from frivolous spectacle to crucial part of the Alaska way of life.
For more information visit www.anchoragemusuem.org.
*Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920’s where stunt pilots would perform tricks with airplanes, either individually or in groups called a flying circus.
** A pioneer aviator, Carl Ben Eielsen attained international recognition for several polar expeditions. After he was killed in a crash in 1929, the U.S. Congress changed the name of Copper Mountain to Mount Eielson to honor his memory. Eielson Visitor Center, at mile 66 on the Denali Park Road, is also named after him.
***Excerpt from Women Pilots of Alaska: 37 Interviews and Profiles by Sandi Sumner.
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.