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.
June 25, 2013
As our bus noses around a corner on the Eielson Bluffs in Denali National Park, we catch a glimpse of an animal on the road up ahead. Passengers perk up, cameras and binoculars are readied. As we round another corner we get a clear look….a tan wolf, wearing a radio collar, is trotting down the road just ahead. A murmur of quiet appreciation rises. The wolf drops into the willows and pauses once, looking back, before disappearing.
Moments like these have been fewer in recent years. This spring the National Park Service counted 49 wolves in 11 packs, the lowest number of wolves since monitoring began 27 years ago. Why are there so few wolves? Will this trend continue? How might this affect their prey species?
Adolf Murie famously studied the wolves of what was then Mt. McKinley National Park in the 1920’s, and was one of the first biologists to show that healthy predator populations can actually increase the numbers of prey species such as dall sheep and caribou by culling the weak individuals out a prey population. The wolf packs in Denali typically feed on caribou, dall sheep, ground squirrels, voles, and on the Kantishna River (1,200 river miles from the ocean) even salmon. In 1986, an extensive wolf study was begun in the park after illegal killings of wolves took place in the western portion of the park. Aerial population counts since then have typically found around 100 wolves every year.
While prey availability, winter snow conditions, and other factors are known to affect wolf populations, another more politically sensitive reason may also have a contribution. Many of the wolf packs seen along the park road move northward into state land in the wintertime. They follow the caribou, which also migrate there for better winter foraging. Wildlife management practices on state vs. federal lands differs drastically. The State of Alaska manages populations for “maximum sustainable harvest” for humans, meaning they often curtail predator populations to artificially bolster prey species for hunters. The National Park Service, in contrast, manages populations to be “natural and healthy” thus typically applying a lighter touch. In the mid 1990’s portions of state land immediately outside the national park had a “buffer zone” placed on them that outlawed hunting and trapping of wolves. In 2010 the Board of Game removed the buffer zones against the desires of park scientists and many locals. Shortly thereafter the collared alpha female of the Grant Creek pack was legally harvested in the former buffer zone. This female had had have several litters, and was frequently seen by visitors along the park road since 2006, primarily in the Toklat area. With her death, the Grant Creek pack shrank in size. This year’s count estimates only three wolves in a pack that was formerly nearly 20 strong. The “buffer zones” will not be reevaluated until 2018.
What will happen in future years? Is the hunting and trapping pressure surrounding the park more than the wolf packs can withstand? State and federal management practices seem to be directly at odds when it comes to the wolf populations of Denali. One values human needs and economies, while the other aims to support natural predator and prey populations. What is the value of watchable wildlife? Denali has often been counted one of the best places to see wolves in the United States. Will it continue to be so?
So when we saw that wolf, dipping off the Eielson bluffs and down into the willows a few weeks ago, hope surged that a small piece of wilderness, representing so much, was still alive and free.
June 11, 2013
Do you belong to a place?
Does the air you breathe root you to the earth? Do the trees whisper familiar thoughts and the landscape, seen from a bird’s eye view as you descend to your home airport, ground you in a way nowhere else can?
And why do you travel? It seems us humans need to leave our homes in order to appreciate them.
Twelve thousand years ago, before agriculture, all humans were hunter-gatherers. Relatively speaking, we have not been a sedentary species for very long. The urge to wander the land is in everyone’s blood. Our nomadic ancestors rest in our genes – our bones ache to explore. Perhaps fear holds you back?
Aldo Leopold, influential conservationist from the 1930’s, wrote the following in A Sand County Almanac:
We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, longlife, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. Measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world.
What a funny species we are, attempting to domesticate our animal: we train ourselves to sleep in isolated buildings, walk only on pavement, spend hours driving cars, and live in cities where green space is an afterthought. Wallace Stegner, while addressing the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1960, wrote the “Wilderness Letter” advocating for the preservation of wild places. Four years later, congress passed The Wilderness Act.
We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to domesticating ourselves. Not many people are likely, any more, to look upon what we call “progress” as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us.
Our souls may need the wildness of the natural world, and yet, we also crave home. Our more recent relatives tilled the earth for generations – this too runs through our veins – to belong to a place, a home where we can work, sweat, love and play. Is the need for wildness and home truly a contradiction? Perhaps it is for these primal needs that the modern human travels, and the reason we return home.
Our guests at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge often comment that the staff creates “a home away from home” atmosphere. The sense of community that evolves over three or four short days astounds our visitors. It is the comfortable amenities– the safety – of a warm bed, friendly hosts, and filling meals that allows the modern person to step out of their comfort zone and into the wilderness of the park.
Hiking through wilderness without trails, exposed to the wind and rain, Denali tugs at something deep in all of us. It may challenge your sense of safety, it may question your significance, but it will certainly quench your ancient, primal thirst to wander – or awaken it.
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.