March 13, 2013
It’s a clear night in mid March. It’s 10pm and I’ve just gone outside my cabin to take a quick trip to the outhouse before bed. But something stops me. A faint line of light green is shimmering over Mount Healy, to the north. I watch it a few moments, breath puffing in cold circles in front of my face….I’ve only thrown on a jacket for what I thought would be a minute in the -10 F temperatures. The aurora stalls me, but it’s the noises that stop me.
Somewhere in the boreal forest comes a hooting. A five noted, deep resonant clear “hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo” song echos toward me. I can’t see the Great Horned Owl hiding somewhere in the spruce trees of the night, but his (or her, in the case of Great Horns!) song is clear as day. They are calling out to one another in the cold, dark nights of winter.
Mating season for owls is December through March here in Alaska. Four species are common in winter, the Great Horned, Boreal, Northern Hawk, and Great Gray Owl. The latter of the four I’ve never seen but, at up to 33” long with a large disc of flattened feathers lining their face, one sighting would be a showstopper. The Boreal owls one can hear and see fairly commonly in the spring. Their mating call is a few seconds of a staccato trill. The first time I heard it I thought “What is a snipe doing back in Denali so early??” having confused its call with the mating winnowing of the snipe (which we hear in May and June evenings and early mornings around the ponds in the park). Boreal owls eat songbirds, hence their frequent hideouts in the spruce trees near our bird feeders, I presume.
In addition to the Boreal, Great Horned, and Great Gray Owls there are two others in Denali. The Northern Hawk Owls prefer forests on the edges of meadows, and I see them in the fall along the clear cut lines of spruce near power lines, watching the grass as my dog and I bumble through scaring up voles. The name comes from the streamlined body shape, efficient hunters that they are. The Short-eared Owl, which heads south to avoid the sub-arctic winter’s scare prey pickings, is a rare species even in summer. Some years we’ve seen many of them in Denali, such as 2004, when it was a scare day to drive along the lateral morraine of the Muldrow Galcier and not see one. Other years their numbers have been much slimmer, likely in response to rodent populations. In 2007 the Short-eared owl was added to the Audubon Watlist species of concern due to its declining numbers. Both the Northern Hawk Owl and Short-eared Owls hunt diurnally, or in the daytime.
So if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with woods nearby, and unlucky enough to have to go outside to an outhouse nightly, be sure to pause a moment to listen to the late winter mating calls of the owls. You might not see them, but they are sure to have within their big yellow eyes the look of love.
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March 09, 2013
Camp Denali founder Ginny Wood, 95, died peacefully last night (around 1:00 am) in her Fairbanks home. Friend Susan Grace sat with Ginny, whose eyes had been closed for days, and noted that in her last moments Ginny opened her eyes suddenly, smiling through them, she took a few more breaths and exited this life. What a long, full adventure for a remarkable woman!
“The wilderness that we have conquered and squandered in our conquest of new lands has produced the traditions of the pioneer that we want to think still prevail: freedom, opportunity, adventure, and resourceful, rugged individuals. These qualities can still be nurtured in generations of the future if we are farsighted and wise enough to set aside this wild country immediately, and spare it from the exploitations of a few for the lasting benefit of the many.” –Ginny Wood
Many stories and episodes from Ginny's remarkable life are recorded in Boots, Bikes and Bombers: Adventures of Alaska Conservationist Ginny Hill Wood by Karen Brewster.
February 28, 2013
On our last full day at Camp Denali, I chose to stay in my cabin while Frank went off hiking and bird watching with our friends. I relished the opportunity to lie in bed and commune with the mountain, which was "out." I had seen it out in so many different scenarios- when I went to the “house out back" in the middle of the night (bright as day!) and it was bathed in a pink alpine glow; or when I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and it was unmasked in its full glory. Some things cannot be conveyed by mere words.
This last day, I had a great breakfast and packed a sandwich and some snacks so that I could just give in totally to enjoyment. Through the window I could see the mountain, with clouds wafting across its face from time to time, and the other times shining in blinding yellow-white light. I napped and ate and watched the mountain some more.
And somehow in the silence a most profound thought awakened in me. It was as if the mountain was transmitting: "You know what? Look at the size of me and the size of you- a little different, yes? Relatively speaking, I am permanent and you are like chaff in the wind, here for a century if you're fortunate. So I really don't need you to 'protect' me. What I require of you and the other humans is that you wake up and recognize where the true power lies. Appreciate the force that created me, that created you and all life, and respect that."
I will carry that thought with me for the rest of my life. Thank you, Alaska!
“The ‘Great One’ Speaks” is an excerpt from Audrey Peterman’s book Our True Nature: Finding a Zest for Life in the National Park System. Audrey and her husband Frank visited Camp Denali in 2012. She is a national award-winning environmentalist. A native of Jamaica and a citizen of the US, she and Frank co-authored the book, Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Treasures and Tells Why Every American Should Care. Since 1995 she has visited more than 160 of the 397 units of the National Park System and is an advocate for their continued protection. For more information on Audrey and her books, visit www.legacyontheland.com.
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.