Small Stories from Big Places

Posted By: Elizabeth Bradfield     All Posts by Elizabeth Bradfield  

July 31, 2015

How do you capture the bigness of tundra?  The shiver of suddenly spotting a grizzly bear in what, seconds before, seemed merely “landscape?”  The helium-balloon-in-your-chest feeling of being out in a wild place, a place where wildlife holds all privilege, both legally and practically? 

One of the traditions I love at Camp Denali and the North Face Lodge is the evening story hour.  The time during dinner when we all take a few moments to share something from the day.  Each hiking group chooses a speaker—some are comedians, others serious; some detailed and dramatic, others succinct—and that person stands up and tells the rest of us what they experienced when they were out and about.

For me, this moment is one of attention (a hush in the room, ears perked), excitement (what will they say?), and sometimes envy (a wolverine?!! phalaropes on a pond??!!).  More, though, this tradition connects us to the web of our time in this place together.  We were all out, were all surprised by something. To hear others’ stories made our short time in Denali richer, more nuanced and expansive.

On the walks I shared with other travelers, we made collaborative haiku.  What seemed most amazing? We asked ourselves.  At what point did time stop and every color become a bit brighter?  It was a treat to sit and scrawl the responses, each of us counting out syllables on our berry-stained fingers.  We wrote one haiku about the contents of our lunch (so amazingly delicious after a couple hours of walking).  Another about all the poisonous, beautiful plants (bog rosemary, monkshood, death camas).  Most days, one haiku was not enough.  There were too many facets, too many amazing moments to consider.

One of the hikes included a quartet of travelers from Tokyo, and they taught us the words for bear (kuma), for scat (unchi), and—my favorite—bushwhacking (yabukogi).  They said it really translated as “bush swimming” or “bush rowing.”  What a word!  Together, after a ramble that included bouncing through spongy tundra, air spiced with Labrador tea, and a discussion of the amazing strangeness of lichen we wrote:

lichen underfoot

scrambling taxonomy

oh, yabukogi

How do you translate place?  Experience?  Understanding?  How do you share what it’s like to listen to water fall from the scooped palms of a bull moose’s antlers?  In the end, it might  be impossible, but trying is fun.  We laughed.  We nodded when someone captured the spirit of it.  And somehow, the smallness of haiku seemed an appropriate answer to the vast sweep of Denali’s tundra and sky. 

It’s even possible that we experienced bits of our walks more acutely from the attention we tried to pay them as we counted and re-counted and pared down words to what felt essential and right.

—Elizabeth Bradfield is a naturalist and poet whose newest collection of poems is Once Removed (Persea, 2015).  She is the editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press, lives on Cape Cod, and teaches in the MFA program for the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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A Hot and Dry Summer

Posted By: Jan     All Posts by Jan  

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.

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Tiny House Living

Posted By: Teresa     All Posts by Teresa  

May 27, 2015

When my mom visited my Alaskan home for the first time, she looked around my 325 square foot one-story log cabin with a half loft and said “but where is all your stuff?” I could not help but laugh at her reaction. The joke of a cabin dweller is that you know you live in a cabin, not a house, when you can see all the possessions you own at once. From whichever spot you are standing in. She was in fact looking at everything we have, which in reality is not a lot. My dad’s reaction was by far the more hilarious one. He sat on my couch, taking inventory of our four 15-foot long walls, and said under his breath, “My God, Teresa.”

I have friends who gush about my perfect life, living the reality of the “tiny house” phenomenon. I just have to smile and do my best to not give them a reality check of what it is usually like living in a home smaller than my freshman-year college dorm room with another person. Although I suppose most of those friends’ assumption of a “tiny house” would at least involve a separate bedroom, a bathroom, and maybe even a “cutsy” lounge space for watercolors or crafting. I do not assume that they envision a 325 square foot cabin with no dimensions, doors, and only 4 corners.

I will admit that at times a small cabin is incredibly cozy and even has its romantic moments. Stringing up Christmas lights during the dark winter months makes the logs glow with warm light. Having a dinner party of six seems like a rambunctious affair. When there is space for only one loveseat (not even a full couch), there is no choice but to cuddle up to watch a movie. Although then the dog follows suit and someone usually ends up on the floor. It is typically not the dog.

For the most part however, a “tiny house” involves awkward arrangements of personal items and overlapping uses of space. My toothbrush lives on the shelf beneath the pint glasses. The dog’s crate doubles as a side table for the couch. Leaving dirty dishes out for the night is not an option, as they take up the only prep space next to the stove to prepare morning coffee. There are no doors inside the cabin, making the dramatic gesture of slamming the door in frustration quite difficult. Unless you were to physically leave the cabin in such a fashion, which is not incredibly appealing when it is dark and minus 30ºF outside. The thought reminds me of a favorite Mitch Hedberg joke: “I got into an argument with a girlfriend inside of a tent. That's a bad place for an argument, because then I tried to walk out and slammed the flap. How are you supposed to express your anger in this situation? Zipper it up really quick?”

At least I only have 325 square feet of floor to vacuum; there’s the silver lining. Needless to say, we are building a house on our 12 acres of paradise, and we are going all out. Two stories and 1,000 square feet. I cannot express how excited I am to have stairs.

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Denali Dispatch

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.