May 19, 2015
Just because it is light out does not mean it is daytime. Just because it is dark does not mean it is time for bed.
It seems a common reaction of the average working individual to look at a calendar and double take: “How is it May already?” The reaction is not necessarily a surprised one (as the person is likely well aware of the month), but rather simple disbelief that time can pass so quickly.
In Alaska there is one sure thing that will remind you of the time of year – the sun. It makes larger arcs in the sky each day from the winter to summer solstice. It can hardly be said that the sun “rises in the east” and “sets in the west” in Alaska. In winter, the arc starts just above the horizon in the southern sky, and each day becomes a little wider. Eventually the arc begins and ends in the northern sky when summer arrives.
My cabin has big windows on all sides, and the sun rises and sets in each and every one of those windows at some point throughout the year. When winter takes hold, the sun only glows from behind the mountains out of my south-facing window. Twenty-two days after the solstice, not a day sooner, it will finally break through the low passes in the range, flooding my cabin with sunlight in five-minute spurts before disappearing behind a mountain’s peak. By February, I can no longer work comfortably at my east-facing computer desk in the morning. The dawn beams come streaming through that window rather than from the south. By March, it is impossible to block the glare on the TV coming through the west-facing windows in the evening. At that point, I know spring has arrived. The sun signals summer when in the early hours of the morning, still the middle of the night for that matter, the sun’s rays burst through my north-facing window. It becomes near impossible to sleep through the constant daylight shining right into my eyes. Even with curtains, the light will find the cracks and remind me that summer is here.
People often ask how I deal with the darkness in winter. What they should be asking is how I deal with the constant daylight in summer. Each pose challenges for the psyche, but I fully embrace both. It gives me energy to watch the sun work its way through the sky, making dramatic changes as seasons come and go. Winter offers peaceful twilight, allowing for quiet evenings in front of the fire. As daylight creeps back, the long to-do list that piles up starts being checked off. Why not chop wood at 11PM when the bugs are put to bed and the sun is still high in the sky?
Before I know it, the sun isn’t coming up until my drive to work in the fall. Soon I do not have to use my sun visor on the highway on the morning commute, which means winter is arriving once again.
May 06, 2015
“Fun Hog” month is how we refer to March in Denali. It is the long anticipated arrival of spring for year-round residents. Spring in Interior Alaska does not evoke birds chirping or tulips popping out of the ground; there is likely still over a foot of snow and nobody flinches if daytime temperatures don’t make it above -20°F. The arrival of spring here means only one thing for certain: daylight. The sensation of going to bed and rising with the sun is one that has almost been forgotten. For Alaskans, it is time to cash in vacation days and go play.
For my first winter camping trip longer than a weekend, I could have done without the -30°F thermometer reading when my musher, 10 sled dogs, and I hit the trail. The two-week adventure would take us from the entrance of Denali National Park to Kantishna and back. For someone who spends all summer inside the Park, it was an incredible thing to see Toklat River frozen rather than flowing, Eielson Visitor Center blanketed in snow, and an empty Park Road. For the most part, the winter skiing & mushing trail stays off the road, wandering its way through the river valleys instead. Every once in awhile, we would hop onto the road for a low, straight stretch. It was surreal to see a 30MPH sign sticking out of the snow, signaling cars that hadn’t passed that way in months.
I would have written it off as a ridiculous notion if three years ago someone told me that I would seek out and be thrilled by a winter camping trip where temperatures stayed below zero, 15-30 miles of skiing per day would be involved, and better yet, I would be sleeping in a tent in winter, not a cabin. But I found myself with a smile on my face, in nothing but a base layer at -10°F relaxing in the sunshine. I was looking at Denali with a bluebird sky backdrop eating a well-deserved Snickers after skiing up and over Stony Dome. I had spent the last several hours skiing after a team of sled dogs going faster than reasonable for pulling 500 pounds of sled, musher, and gear.
I have camped more nights than I can count in wilderness all over this country, but no trip quite compares to stepping out in the morning to rosy, snow capped mountains, frozen landscape, and nothing but deserted horizon.
March 02, 2015
While there are certainly colder nights and more snow in New England than in the Park, winter still reigns, even as more light returns each day. Year-round staff busily work at setting up all the details for the summer. Simon and Jenna flew in to the lodges to see that all was well. Interviews for new staff are nearly wrapped up, and now the tough decisions begin about who to hire. Emails fly back and forth between returning staff expressing enthusiasm in contemplation of another season of work. In the office, reservations flood in, and cabins and rooms fill up for the season to come.
Each year as the summer season approaches, year-round staff compare numbers of guests in the previous season to those booked for the season to come. Last year? Two thousand, four hundred twenty-one guests. That makes for a lot of people ferried from the Park entrance to the end of the road, a lot of world-class meals served, and a lot of questions asked. How do you do this? Do you stock supplies over the winter? How does the food get here?
The simple answers? A knowing smile, no, and the same way the people get here. Truck, Cessna, or, as shown in the 2013 photo from early May, late snowmelt necessitated flights from Talkeetna, over the Alaska Range, and then snow machine to cover the four miles from Kantishna. With supplies. Enough to last until the road opened to traffic.
In another part of the office, Jenna reviews the previous season’s inventory as she ponders prospective orders for the season. Inventory lists show what a successful season looks like, and the revelation is mind-boggling. In 2014, we soaked through 12,000 tea bags. $3,960. As I sit here with my single cup of Earl Grey, I can’t quite get my arms around that number. Marginally easier to visualize are the 1,170 pounds of coffee beans, brewed into my addiction of choice at a whopping cost of $11,466. Then there are those 5,000 (five thousand) pounds of flour for daily bread and yummy cookies. That’s one hundred 50-pound bags of flour hefted in and out of the Warehouse. Hmmm. No wonder our bakers are so fit. And the eggs: 5,400 eggs. Per month. Twenty-eight thousand (28,000!) total eggs consumed.
But the statistic that amuses the most and prompts hoots of laughter is toilet paper. TP. Outhouses and bathrooms require lots of paper, apparently 1,680 rolls of it. The details continue: each of those 1,680 rolls contains 2,000 inches of paper which divides out to 280,000 feet. Taking that another step, you end up with fifty-three miles of toilet paper. Picture a TP trail going eight times up and down the Wickersham Wall. Or covering the trail out and back to McGonagall Pass with enough length left over to make up for the amount that washes down the McKinley River.
Now that is a statistic.
Exuberantly everyone prepares to pitch in with the work, the lugging and hauling, stowing and shelving, dusting and scrubbing. Thoughts spring forward to the guests’ smiles at the first whiff of morning coffee, their joy at finding a basket of Focaccia on the table, and the satisfaction of seeing that little white roll hanging on the wall.
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.