April 11, 2013
2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the first flight in Alaska. In 1913, a group of merchants in Fairbanks shipped a plane up by steamboat. Two barnstormers* flew the biplane 200 feet above Weeks Field in Fairbanks, going a mere 45 miles per hour. The flight was considered a spectacle, and they sold tickets to the show. 100 years later, Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita than any other state with 8,550 pilots or 1 in 78 residents.
Prior to the airplane, dog mushing (the official state sport of Alaska) was a major means of transportation. The famous 1,150 mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome commemorates the 1925 serum run, in which mushers delivered medicine to diphtheria-stricken Nome when all other forms of transportation failed. Today, a number of small towns and villages rely on scheduled or charted bush flying services for cargo, passengers, and mail. Many communities have small air taxi services, which help meet the demand for customized transport to remote areas.
In Denali National Park, the first airplane landed in 1924 by aviator Carl Ben Eielson along the bluffs of Copper Mountain**. Between 1925 and 1927, the Alaska Road Commission built two airfields in the area: a 1500-foot strip near Lake Minchumina, built as an emergency landing area, followed by the 600-foot-long Kantishna Aviation Field, “on the left limit of Moose Creek between the creek and Wonder Lake,” which was used by area miners along with an “occasional tourist”. Nearly thirty years after the introduction of aviation in the park, Camp Denali founders Ginny Wood, Celia Hunter, and Woody Wood took a flight to Wonder Lake that would change their lives.
Ginny and Celia were WASPs (Women Air Service Pilots) in WWII. They were trained to fly planes from the factories to training centers and ports of embarkation. They met while ferrying surplus planes. After the war they traveled to Alaska and worked in a number of early tour agencies, flying cargo and visitors to remote locations in Alaska. Ginny once said, “Flying is 90 percent boredom, but in Alaska, 10 percent is sheer terror! You may have to land dead stick on a sandbar or in the tundra. When I first came here there were no airfields, and definitely no wheat fields where you could put a plane down safely.”***
In 1950, Ginny’s husband Woody was a park ranger in Denali and heard about a particular ridge from Superintendent, Grant Pearson, above Moose Creek just beyond the north-western boundary of the park that he thought they should explore. So, one weekend Ginny, Woody and Celia flew their Cessna 170 out to the airstrip at Kantishna, shouldered their rucksacks and set out with Les Viereck, the Wonder Lake ranger. Hiking through low clouds and drizzle, they happened upon an exquisite tundra pond at the edge of the ridge. They asked Les to return on a clear day and let them know if the mountain could be seen from there. A week later Les’s written message back to the park entrance was simply, “WOW!” That fall, they homesteaded 67 acres of that ridge, centered on Nugget Pond, and built Camp Denali. They ran it for 25 years, forging livelihoods out of ingenuity, hospitality, and love of the land.
Camp Denali started arranging flights for guests in 1981. Lowell Thomas Jr. flew guests around the mountain in his Cessna 207 for twelve years. Today, locally based Kantishna Air Taxi provides flight seeing tours around Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range where you can see the vast scale of the mountains, glaciers, and landscape.
If you are coming through Anchorage this summer, be sure to check out the Anchorage Museum exhibit Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation. The exhibit features historical artifacts, video footage and photographs telling compelling stories of survival, adventure and ingenuity. Demonstrating in 100 years, how airplanes have evolved from frivolous spectacle to crucial part of the Alaska way of life.
For more information visit www.anchoragemusuem.org.
*Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920’s where stunt pilots would perform tricks with airplanes, either individually or in groups called a flying circus.
** A pioneer aviator, Carl Ben Eielsen attained international recognition for several polar expeditions. After he was killed in a crash in 1929, the U.S. Congress changed the name of Copper Mountain to Mount Eielson to honor his memory. Eielson Visitor Center, at mile 66 on the Denali Park Road, is also named after him.
***Excerpt from Women Pilots of Alaska: 37 Interviews and Profiles by Sandi Sumner.
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.
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.