April 18, 2014
Walking into the dining hall after a day of guiding in Denali, I glance around for the wooden clothespin hand printed with my name to locate my seat for the evening meal. My clothespin is hand painted by fellow staff member, Hannah Berry, and I love its familiar sight. Tucked over a linen napkin, it shows I am seated with five others. Some faces are familiar, guests I’ve hiked with the past few days, and guests I have yet to meet.
First, the soup for the evening comes out (a wild rice and mushroom soup that has our mouths watering from the moment we catch a whiff from the kitchen) and a basket of still warm Alaska sourdough is passed around, with generous scoops of butter (we hiked today! We earned it!). We talk of what we saw on the hike…caribou, bear tracks, wolf scat, a lingering snow field the kids made snow angels in as our dinner plates arrive—pan seared NY strip steak with chimichurri, crispy Alaskan potatoes, and Alaskan green and purple beans. Unbelievable that we are so far from grocery stores, and yet have this bouquet of smells and flavors before us.
A tiramisu, made by our baker and elegantly plated with an edible blue bachelor button flower grown in our green house, arrives before me. I’ve always smiled inside to know tiramisu is Italian for “lift me up.” Our host, John, dings a glass to draw our attention, and, in a ritual familiar to us all from last night, asks an appointee from each hiking group to give a short “hike highlight” from the day.
The “foray” level group (the easiest level of hike with walks that may go up to a mile) had a tremendous sighting of a sow grizzly nursing her two cubs. They were able to watch from the road shoulder through a spotting scope and shared binoculars. The “strenuous” group told a brave tale of crossing a stream and surprising a small group of caribou cows and calves. The last group to give a highlight has appointed its youngest member, a 10 year-old girl. She shyly got up and mentioned how a highlight was getting to see a fox with a ground squirrel in it’s mouth, but mostly, she liked the cup of hot chocolate her guide, Shaleas, made for her when she reached the bus at the hikes end.
Why have cocoa at the end of a hike? Weather in Denali is unpredictable, and a bluebird morning can turn to a cool drizzle in a heartbeat. We embrace the constant changes of weather, wearing layers we can adjust and knowing that the changes in light can make the landscape so much more beautiful than any bright sunny day. Our guides come prepared with our own clever accompaniment, however. In the buses and vans, for the days when our hikes require an hour drive or so to get to our starting points, we bring thermoses of hot water, blue plastic cups, and a smorgasbord of hot drink items. We mix up refreshing apple ciders, hot tea, instant coffee, and every adults favorite, the Denali Mocha (a mixture of cocoa powder and instant coffee-sometimes it seems nothing has ever tasted better at the end of a hike in the park!). We have these little “bistros” pulled over at the side of the road, perhaps watching a moose browse in the distance, or in the parking lot of the Eielson Visitor Center.
Whether your highlight from Denali is a quick inhalation of breath as the bus takes the curves along the road at Polychrome Pass, the moment you learn that Denali is home to breeding birds from 6 continents, seeing the top of the mountain for the first time, stepping off the road into “spongy tundra”, or having a “Denali Mocha” amongst the camaraderie of new friends after a hike, we hope the opportunity to experience this National Park leaves you with a memory to last a lifetime.
March 26, 2014
All summer our staff drives buses, leads hikes, chops kindling, maintains generators, washes sheets, prepares hors d’oeuvres, mops floors, and an endless stream of intricate and sweeping tasks that keep our lodges running smoothly and in observance of our mission. We hike, we camp, we collect berries and stand in awe seeing rainbows or northern lights. In the winter, most of our staff take wing to far off corners of the globe, working in Antarctica or Africa, then coming back to Denali for the brilliant summer season. A small cohort of winter staff stay on at our office at the park entrance area, answering phones, paying bills, hiring summer staff, and ordering. Owners Simon and Jenna Hamm, knowing how prolonged the winter can be at 64°N, began to scheme a retreat for the year round staff members living at the park entrance area.
On March 16th, with a few clouds hugging the mountains that the pilots at Talkeetna Air Taxi termed “fuzz”, we took off. In two small planes outfitted with skis for landing on snow, our party of 9 (including Simon and Jenna’s two children and a guide from Alaska Mountaineering School) landed on the Ruth Glacier on the south side of Denali. We unloaded 1000 lbs of gear, skis and food into the deep snow and bid farewell to the planes for a week. Our retreat was the Don Sheldon Mountain House, an hexagonal hut 14’ in diameter located on a rocky outcropping jutting into the giant Ruth Glacier at 5,600’ elevation. It was built in 1966 and is equipped with a white gas stove for cooking, a wood stove for heat, and sweeping views of Denali, Mount Dan Beard, Mount Silverthrone, and many more craggy, daunting peaks than can be named here. Looking out over the crevassed surface of the glaciers surrounding us, we breathed in the cold, clean air of the place, strapped on our telemark skis, and began to ferry our gear.
Over the course of the coming days we fell into a happy routine. We would emerge from our tents or snowcaves and walk to the hut for breakfast (oatmeal or dehydrated hash browns-certainly not our normal Camp Denali and North Face Lodge locally sourced cuisine!). We had outdoor classes on glacier travel and crevasse rescue techniques (afterall, anyplace we skied away from the hut was a glacier, and you need to travel roped together for safety!). We went on skiing excursions away from the hut and practiced our telemark technique on a nearby hill. In the evenings we came together for a meal, games, and reading.
Surprises abounded, such as Teresa discovering that the snowcave Martha dug was so much warmer than sleeping in a tent she actually got too hot at night! Or that, while we didn’t need to worry about bears sniffing out our food, the local ravens were so adept at finding mountaineers’ food caches that we came back from a ski trip to discover they had opened a zipper on a duffle bag and pulled out small gear items from inside it! We celebrated a birthday and schemed about future possible climbs and trips in the area. We found that none of us really like powdered scrambled eggs but everyone likes Caramello bars. We were in stitches laughing during charades as Jenna mimed the hydrological cycle and slithered about the hut floor “forming a glacier.” We were completely dwarfed by the mountains around us, happily jabbering words like “Areté” “Nunatak” and “Bergschrund”, glacier feature names that are also cabin names at Camp Denali. We were spellbound, and happy.
At Camp Denali and North Face Lodge, our coworkers are both our neighbors, and our friends. Perhaps not many people can imagine an office retreat where required packing items are crampons, ice axes, a 0°F sleeping bag, and white gas. But we love being outdoors, we love each other, and we love this home we call Denali. Summer and winter brings us close to the land and the park we are grateful to call home.
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??
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.