October 10, 2013
On July 15th, 2004 Simon Hamm was leading an exploratory strenuous hike and stumbled upon something rarely seen in the natural world. About one mile north of the Denali Park Road, near mile 75, some bones could be spotted gleaming on a low rise. Approaching the site they found evidence of where an epic struggle had taken place. The tundra and grasses had been matted down in about a forty foot diameter littered with sections of vertebrae, hunks of clavicle and pelvis, cracked long bones, scads of matted hair and fun, abundant wolf scat, and, most notably, two large moose skulls, each with roughly 50 pound antler racks, entwined in the center of it all.
Members of the deer family (Cervidae), of which moose are the largest, grow antlers each mating season. These racks are made of solid bone and can grow as much as an inch a day (imagine that for growing pains!). In most deer family members it is only the males who grow antlers, with the exception of the caribou, in which both sexes have racks (albeit the females have much smaller ones). Antlers differ from horns, which are made of keratin and are kept throughout the life of an animal, growing a small bit more each passing year. Moose antlers are truly stunning objects of sexual prowess; Alaskan moose antlers can span up to 6 feet across! Antlers are the fastest growing organ known; these behemoths take only around 3 months to reach their peak size. A layer of skin, or velvet, covers the antlers to provide a network of vascular tissues and blood for growth. Typically beginning in late August we start to see the velvet begin to tear off in long bloody strips exposing the gleaming white bone beneath.
The rut, or mating season, is typically September and October. A mature bull moose will gather together and defend a “harem” of females, which can number as many as twenty. Younger moose with smaller racks of antlers will sometimes skulk in the willows nearby, awaiting a chance to nab an unattended female. The bulls rarely eat during the rutting season. Stress levels are high, and most dominant bulls will lose substantial amounts of weight by the time of the rut is though. If they are successful, however, their genes will be passed along to a higher proportion of next years calves than their fellow bulls.
How those final hours (or days) for these two very large, mature adult bull moose played out is anyone’s guess. One of the brow tines (the lowest spike of the palmate antlers) protrudes into the eye socket of the other bull, though does not appear to have pierced deep enough to touch the brain. Evidence around the area also indicates that wolves found the two moose, cumulatively a roughly three thousand pound bonanza of meat. Perhaps they found the moose while both were still alive, one was, or neither. It would have been relatively easy for a pack of wolves to take down the moose in such a weakened and impaired state.
Camp Denali and North Face Lodge hiked to the area on occasion for the next few summers. In 2007 the National Park Service airlifted (using a sling and a helicopter) the skulls to the newly reopened Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 of the Park Road. Today they still lie there, interlocked for all of time, beneath the flagpole outside the visitor center. You can feel and see the skulls for yourself, and ponder the story of dominance, breeding, and the food chain for yourself.
July 30, 2013
One of the most frequent questions we receive to our office goes something like this “I’m planning on coming to Denali June 24th for a week….what will the weather be like?” I think most people assume we’ll give an answer along the lines of “It tends to be dry and sunny in June, but then rainy in July and cooler in August.” Rather, our explanation tends to launch into a several minute discussion on the unpredictability of mountain weather, seasons, rain gear, and the importance of dressing in layers. This can all be wrapped into one short phrase: “Expect anything.”
In my decade of working in the park we have seen the mountain for two consecutive weeks straight of bluebird skies, or it’s been hidden for nine straight days behind a solid layer of clouds. We’ve built snowmen on the lawn at Camp Denali on July 4th and felt the need to take a plunge into Moose Creek to cool down in late September. We’ve hiked in the hail at 35° F to then find ourselves half an hour later basking in the sunshine while drying out our raingear.
A “typical” Denali day will have some rain, some clouds, some sun. We are literally thirty miles away from the base of the highest mountain in North America, and weather can change on a dime. Though our mean annual precipitation is 13-20” (the same as Tucson, AZ), most of that moisture falls in the form of rain June through September. Of those months, it’s a shot in the dark when we might get the “most” rain or sun.
Your safest bet is to pack expecting any conditions. Long sleeve, loose fitting, non-cotton clothing is best for protection against the bugs and brush as we hike, and bringing warm layers (including a warm ski hat and pair of gloves!) is also essential. It never hurts to have a non-cotton t-shirt and pair of shorts in bag as well, in case the thermometer climbs! Of course, the most essential items are good hiking boots and rain gear. Hiking boots protect your feet and offer good traction, while rain gear will keep you warm and (relatively!) dry in even the strongest of downpours or if we end up hiking in a bit of snow.
As Wally Cole states it “There’s no poor weather, only poor clothing.”
The changing weather patterns offer a chance to experience the land here like no other place on earth. Our broad viewscapes looking over the tundra and taiga allow us to watch the clouds rolling in and out and the light patterns falling on the hillsides. Sometimes the mountains are bathed in alpenglow in the wee hours of the mornings; sometimes the raindrops hang from the blueberry bushes in seemingly suspended animation. This summer we’ve been hiking in snow patches in early June and sweating our way up hillsides in 80°F temps for much of later June and July. Although we’ve also had a near solid-week of rain and evening thunderstorms!
We can, however, predict the annual change of the amount of daylight we have (from the June 21st solstice with near 24 hours of daylight!) and hence the seasons. June brings wildflowers and the birth of young animals in the park, July is the peak of summer when vegetation is at it’s most lush, and as we roll into August and September we see berries ripening and fall colors coming to the tundra. You will always experience the wonder and joy of being up close to nature in Denali, a thrilling and ever changing environment.
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.
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.