November 10, 2014
Well not yet at this exact moment, but having just “fallen back” to Alaska Standard Time, our days suddenly feel a lot shorter. Here we are coming up on 4pm, already on the heels of a quickly-setting sun. That, though, being relative; those of you who’ve visited towards the end of our season are familiar with our long, lingering twilight. So too it is in winter. It just starts earlier and stays darker longer.
So to answer that burning question: just how dark are Alaskan winters?
First, let’s look at our celestial milemarkers: summer solstice around June 21, the longest day of the year; autumnal equinox around September 23, one of two times annually when night and day are of equal duration*; winter solstice around December 21, the shortest day of the year; and vernal equinox around March 20.
To dispel a misconception: we at 63 degrees north do actually get daylight in the winter. In fact, depending on the topography in our view shed, most of us even see the elusive glowing orb itself, albeit for a mere 45-ish minutes a day around winter solstice. It’s not that the sun disappears, it just doesn’t get that far above the horizon, instead sleepily making its way along playing peek-a-boo through a valley now and again. But we still have about six hours of usable daylight—think twilight—from roughly 10am to 4pm.
Above the Arctic Circle, however, it’s a different story. This imaginary line demarcates 66 degrees north, the latitude at which the sun neither rises above nor sets below the horizon on the respective solstices. Go further north, and the duration increases. In Barrow, at 71 degrees north, the sun sets from approximately November 18 until January 22, leaving our northernmost city in two months of polar night. Though they, too, still have about three hours of twilight.
People ask if it’s “weird,” or if I’m affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. No on both counts. What’s weird are the times of rapid change around the equinoxes when we’re gaining or losing an hour of daylight each week. Not to mention, the shorter days are actually a blessing for night owls and late sleepers; it’s the only time of year we’re awake early enough to catch the sunrise. On the flipside, it also means that you don’t have to stay up until the wee hours to catch a glimpse of the aurora or stargaze.
The darkness itself isn’t so scary. In fact, two of my favorite wintertime memories center around darkness. The first was several years back, walking home from a sauna at the neighbors’ cabin. It was very cold. And very dark. And I was very warm. As I was strolling down the center line of the highway (because you can do that up here in winter), I vividly recall feeling comforted by the night sky and the quiet, snuggled deep under a blanket of stars. The darkness felt peaceful, like being wrapped in a giant, warm quilt.
My other memory is of another cold night. 40 below, clear sky, and a spectacular aurora dancing overhead. I put on my insulated overalls and big burly parka, grabbed a thermos of hot chocolate and an ensolite pad, and made for the backyard where I plopped down into the snow, poured myself a drink, and sat back to watch the show.
It’s not for everyone, but I like the darkness. Its tranquility is a nice balance to the intensity of our summer daylight. But even so, everything is best in moderation, and come February and March, you will still find me enthusiastically welcoming our longer springtime days.
*The earth’s atmosphere refracts light, allowing us to observe daylight prior to the actual sunrise. Thus to our perception, the day still appears longer. This is also why the duration of our winter darkness is not an exact mirror image of our summer daylight.
October 06, 2014
There are always things that those who live in a place know that those who visit oh-so-wish they knew! I’ve compiled a short list that you, if you’re thinking of visiting us in Denali, may want to know!
#1 The weather is unpredictable. The longer I live here, the less I know about what the weather is going to be on a daily basis. Bluebird mornings yield to thunderstorms by 3pm, snow falls in July, cold, hard rains give way to sunshine within minutes. If it’s glass calm at Wonder Lake it might be a gale force wind at Highway Pass. We are only 30 miles away from the summit of the highest mountain in North America, and the weather does what it will! There is no “best” month for weather, every day is a season in miniature! Pack your long johns, ski hat, and gloves as well as a pair of shorts, sunscreen, and maybe even a swimsuit!
#2 Wear light colored tops and dark colored pants. Now that seems like a random suggestion. Do we have fashion police here in Denali? Actually, many people swear that mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors. And given that in nature most of the animals they feed on, moose, caribou, and beaver, have dark colored hair or fur, that anecdote may be true. If you’re coming to Denali in blueberry season (late July-mid September) be sure to wear dark colored pants, for obvious reasons, when we sit down in a berry patch to eat our lunches in the tundra!
#3 BYOB! Our meals are exquisite and all-inclusive, but we don’t hide the fact that we don’t have a liquor license. You are welcome to bring your own bottle. We do have wine glasses, ice, and bottle openers.
#4 Getting up in the middle of the night can be a good thing! Think that needing to make an outhouse run in the night is a bad thing? Not necessarily…in the land of the midnight sun our sunsets and sunrises are at odd hours. For example on July 1st sunrise is at about 3 am, so you might catch the most spectacular pink alpenglow on Denali then!
#5 Bring binoculars! Denali is not the Serengeti, it’s a sub-arctic ecosystem with many wide, vast landscapes punctuated by a distant grizzly bear or small band of Dall sheep high on a mountain slope. The freedom to roam is what makes Denali such an awe-inspiring part of America’s last truly wild places. It’s best to bring those binocs to decipher if indeed that distant lump is a bear or a boulder.
And that’s just the beginning of helpful tips! Read more on our website FAQ page here.
July 26, 2014
It’s almost time! Time to grab your blueberry pail, a pair of pants you don’t mind getting stains on the knees and bum, a bandana to keep the rogue mosquito from flying into your ear, and a friend or two, and head into the berry bushes! Denali has multiple species of edible berries: nagoonberries, crowberries, soapberries, cloudberries, blueberries, currants, and three species of cranberries, to name a few. All are food for the voles, bears, foxes, and birds of the park, but are thoroughly enjoyed by the human residents as well!
I begin thinking about blueberries in June, when the plants produce the small, delicate, pale pink and white cup-shaped flowers which will become berries in a month or two. The flowers are so tiny (about the size of my nail on my pinkie finger) that it used to be thought mosquitos were the main pollinator. Such a lovely tale…but alas, not true. Denali’s major pollinators are bumblebees, flies, butterflies, and moths. Once a flower has been pollinated, the petals fall away and the ovary swells into a small green berry. In late July and early August the blueberries begin to turn blue and build up sugar content, “hoping” to lure a seed dispersing animal into eating them. Bears, birds, and other critters amble by, gorging on the ripe berries and dispersing the seeds away from the parent plant, sometimes miles away, in a conveniently nutrient-rich pile!
Our berries in Denali are aided in their growth by our near 24 hours of sunlight at 63 degrees north latitude. They are not as sweet or as large as the commercial blueberries you buy in stores, but, boy, do our berries have flavor! They are also powerfully packed with antioxidants and vitamins. Every summer I try to spend as much of my free time sitting in blueberry patches, filling my buckets to fill my freezer for the long Alaskan winter ahead. The berries go into my pancakes, smoothies, pies, and desserts throughout the year. Our staff here at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge collect the berries to be made into jams and syrups for guest use in our picnic supper while driving into the park and sourdough pancake breakfasts. And some of our staff pick and can the berries to give to each other as gifts during our annual “Christmas” in early September!
Believe it or not, there is a “code of ethics” to picking berries. You begin by picking as far away from the lodges as possible, leaving the berries closest to the cabins and the trails for our guests. Secondly, you pick every patch thoroughly….leaving only a few berries on each plant would tempt someone else to that patch, while a bare patch symbolizes “look someplace else!” Pick only in dry weather to avoid soggy, smooshed berries. Be gentle when picking. Getting some leaves and sticks is inevitable, but let’s not grab the whole plant! And of course, be mindful of bears. Never crowd them away from their berry buffets!
At the end of a good day of picking I feel happy and satisfied to have spent my time under a broad Denali sky, sometimes with the Alaska Range over my shoulder, smelling the sweet aroma of Labrador tea as it wafts up from the tundra and knowing I have an ever increasing larder to get me through the winter. When I close my eyes at night I see images of round blueberries hanging off the low branches in front of me, just like you continue to feel the motion of waves after a day of playing in the ocean. The sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of Denali come so vividly alive in those fleeting few weeks of summer when the berries are ripe.
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.