March 29, 2013
In many northern hemisphere countries March and April are considered the prime months for skiing. In Norway, for instance, families often head to the mountains for a week of cross country skiing and staying in huts. This period is a holiday from school, called a “Påsketur”, or “Easter trip”. Alaska is no exception in our love for spring skiing. This is generally due to three factors: warming temperatures, high snow pack, and increasing daylight. On February 1st we have 8 hours of daylight, by March 1st we have eleven hours, and by April 1st a whopping 15 hours! The fast-returning sunshine goes straight to our heads, and we long to get out into it. Other biological shifts seem to happen as well. Simon observes that “January is when you long for cookies and cakes, but by March you begin to crave fresher items, like vegetables!” Simon and Jenna’s children, Danika and Silas, now protest going to bed at 8pm “But it’s still LIGHT outside, momma!” they observe.
Our staff have embarked on many fun and lengthy ski trips in spring the past few years. Last year our winter office was fortunate enough to fly into Camp Denali and North Face Lodge for a week of shoveling, skiing, and sledding around our summer facilities! Katherine, our program coordinator and naturalist guide, recently spent a long weekend at local ski-in hot springs with fellow guides Maria, Mateo and friends. Martha, our personnel coordinator and also a naturalist guide, is currently in Colorado learning how to snow kite (imagine wind surfing, but with skis!). This year I embarked on a few ski trips of my own from our backyard here at Denali’s Park Entrance.
On the first trip my bother, dog, and I skied along Denali National Park’s north boundary as far as the Toklat River for a week in early March. It is practically worth noting that Chulitna the dog was the only member of our party who had done that route before, as she is retired from the Denali National Park Kennels and has done 8,000 miles of sled dog patrols in the park! On our third night of camping we awoke to 70 mile an hour southerly winds, and as temperatures climbed to 40 degrees and we struggled on our skis in the sinking and sticky snow, we had to turn back and ski the long 50 miles back to Stampede Road, where we had begun. We were fortunate enough to explore a region of Denali we had not seen before, and the only people we ran into were two fur trappers and two biologists from the University of Alaska.
A few days later I met up with former staff member Anne Beaulaurier to attempt a ski from the Denali Highway area into the Yanert Valley. After several days of trailbreaking and fighting cold headwinds and blowing snow, we spent two nights camped out at the base of the pass. We watched the spindrift blow off the tops of the mountains and spent one nail biting night thinking our tent might collapse, so ultimately had to abandon our proposed route and head toward the safety of the spruce trees. Over the course of our seven days out we did see a lot of wildlife (including bands of caribou, moose, a fox, ptarmigan, and both wolf and wolverine tracks) and we sure laughed a lot, even when Anne’s little pocket thermometer bottomed out at -20F!
March can be a fickle month. The flood of daylight returning as the earth’s tilt moves the northern hemispheres towards the sun is a constant, but nothing else seems to be! This March we saw temperatures as high as +44F and as low as -32F. We had weeks of blue skies and sun followed by a weekend of a snow dump that amounted to almost 18 inches. There is no such thing as “average” here, in summer or in winter! It’s all part of what makes this country so fascinating; it’s rhythms, cycles, and surprises!
March 13, 2013
It’s a clear night in mid March. It’s 10pm and I’ve just gone outside my cabin to take a quick trip to the outhouse before bed. But something stops me. A faint line of light green is shimmering over Mount Healy, to the north. I watch it a few moments, breath puffing in cold circles in front of my face….I’ve only thrown on a jacket for what I thought would be a minute in the -10 F temperatures. The aurora stalls me, but it’s the noises that stop me.
Somewhere in the boreal forest comes a hooting. A five noted, deep resonant clear “hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo” song echos toward me. I can’t see the Great Horned Owl hiding somewhere in the spruce trees of the night, but his (or her, in the case of Great Horns!) song is clear as day. They are calling out to one another in the cold, dark nights of winter.
Mating season for owls is December through March here in Alaska. Four species are common in winter, the Great Horned, Boreal, Northern Hawk, and Great Gray Owl. The latter of the four I’ve never seen but, at up to 33” long with a large disc of flattened feathers lining their face, one sighting would be a showstopper. The Boreal owls one can hear and see fairly commonly in the spring. Their mating call is a few seconds of a staccato trill. The first time I heard it I thought “What is a snipe doing back in Denali so early??” having confused its call with the mating winnowing of the snipe (which we hear in May and June evenings and early mornings around the ponds in the park). Boreal owls eat songbirds, hence their frequent hideouts in the spruce trees near our bird feeders, I presume.
In addition to the Boreal, Great Horned, and Great Gray Owls there are two others in Denali. The Northern Hawk Owls prefer forests on the edges of meadows, and I see them in the fall along the clear cut lines of spruce near power lines, watching the grass as my dog and I bumble through scaring up voles. The name comes from the streamlined body shape, efficient hunters that they are. The Short-eared Owl, which heads south to avoid the sub-arctic winter’s scare prey pickings, is a rare species even in summer. Some years we’ve seen many of them in Denali, such as 2004, when it was a scare day to drive along the lateral morraine of the Muldrow Galcier and not see one. Other years their numbers have been much slimmer, likely in response to rodent populations. In 2007 the Short-eared owl was added to the Audubon Watlist species of concern due to its declining numbers. Both the Northern Hawk Owl and Short-eared Owls hunt diurnally, or in the daytime.
So if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with woods nearby, and unlucky enough to have to go outside to an outhouse nightly, be sure to pause a moment to listen to the late winter mating calls of the owls. You might not see them, but they are sure to have within their big yellow eyes the look of love.
February 22, 2013
Alaska is a land of contrasts. We are “resource”-rich. Our economy depends largely on revenues from non-renewable resource extraction: oil, natural gas and coal. And Alaska is “wilderness”-rich. Our temperate rainforest, subarctic and arctic ecosystems are fully functioning and largely intact. Last summer, a million and a half visitors traveled here to experience our wilderness and wildlife. The struggle to achieve a balance between these land values is keenly felt throughout the state.
This struggle is currently being played out in Southwest Alaska at the site of the proposed Pebble Mine. The mine is centered on the major watersheds of Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay is the world’s most productive fishery for all five species of wild salmon. The resources Pebble hopes to extract include gold and copper. The Pebble Limited Partnership plan calls for strip mining an area over 186 square miles in size. That’s over 20 times the size of ALL of the current mines in Alaska!
The stakes here are high. The world’s most productive fishery, and one of the last remaining wild salmon resources, could be forever diminished in order to obtain a finite resource. The fishery brings in $310 million annually to Alaska. If managed correctly, it should continue into perpetuity.
The mine would be one of the most massive works of man ever constructed. Toxic tailings would be stored behind earthen dams built to 750 feet high, a storage unit larger than the Three Gorges Dam in China. The tailings would contain sulfide wastes which, when exposed to air, turn into sulfuric acid. These wastes have no half life, and will never break down. This means they need to be stored underwater forever in order to keep them from leaching back into the environment. Brentwood Higman, in the book “A Long Trek Home” states “In geological terms, forever doesn’t even make sense!” Read the webpage by Ground truth Trekking on the project.
Could earthquakes damage the storage dams? Could funds for storage and maintenance run out? Does in perpetuity make sense for hazardous materials? Compare the Hanford Nuclear site along the Columbia River in Washington State. Though now decommissioned, it now takes more personnel and funds to secure the wastes and cleanup than the plant cost previously to operate. What is the ultimate price of extracting these limited resources?
For a comprehensive article on why Pebble Mine is a dangerous idea, consider reading Ted Williams article from the Incite section of Audubon Magazine.
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.