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.
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.
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.