January 14, 2013
While skiing, snowshoeing, and dog mushing in Denali National Park, caribou tracks often crisscross our human paths. Every now and again the caribou tracks are interrupted by a hole dug to the ground with the snow flung nearby. These holes can be 2-12 inches deep and 1-6 feet in diameter. Woe to the fast moving human snow traveler who encounters a large “crater” in their path.
Caribou dig through snow to find food, a process that leaves behind craters of various sizes and to the human observer in seemingly random locations, including on well-packed ski and dog mushing trails. The name caribou comes, through French, from Mi’kmaq qalipu, meaning, "snow shoveler". The caribou in Denali National Park are recognized as Rangifer tarandus by modern day scientists.
The Mi’kmaq, First Nations people of the Canadian Maritime Provinces, watched caribou move large quantities of snow. They shovel the snow with their hooves usually to ground level to find lichens, dried willow and birch leaves, sedges, grasses and lingonberries. In the winter up to 70% of their diet can be lichens but not just any old lichen will do; mostly they feed on a particular genus of lichen often referred to as reindeer moss, Cladonia sp. In areas of shallow or patchy snow, it may take only a few minutes to expose enough food for the day. On the other hand, cratering may occur for more than two hours each day as caribou labor to break ice crusts or move heavy, deep snow. They are using their nose to smell the correct lichens and thus choose a place to crater.
The caribou nose was recently discovered to have a remarkable role, not in olfaction, but in thermoregulation. Caribou have specialized noses featuring nasal turbinate bones (shaped like a spinning top) that dramatically increase the surface area within the nostrils. Incoming cold air is forced over the extensive mucosa covering the turbinates and thus warmed by the animal's body heat before entering the lungs, and water is condensed from the expired air and captured before the breath is exhaled. Thus the nose helps keep caribou warm and hydrated. The newly discovered role is that the same increased surface area is used to keep caribou cool. When running from a predator or in hot weather caribou need to dissipate heat. The first defense is to pant but when the brain temperature is about to go over 102 degrees F, the blood to the brain is re-routed over those turbinate bones. The increased surface area allows the hot blood to cool before it causes brain damage. *
The amazing caribou uses its nose to stay warm during frigid winter days while creating craters for unwary snow travelers to stumble over. And it uses its nose to stay cool in the summer when fleeing from a wolf. Of course, Rudolf, that legendary reindeer used his nose for an entirely different purpose.
*Knight, Kathryn, Rudolph’s Cooling Strategy Revealed, J Exp Biol 2011 214:i. doi: 10.1242/jeb.066621
Thanks to Matthew Iverson for the sketch.
December 13, 2012
I’m outside at 35 below zero, following the darting, winding trail of a snowshoe hare through the alders and spruce. I’m no glutton for pain, that’s not why I’m out here. I only left the house for the purpose of plugging in my car’s block heater. But the light was so alluring, so enigmatic, I couldn’t sprint back inside just yet, so I wandered down the hillside from my cabin to survey the scene a bit.
And so, here I am twenty minutes later, ice quickly forming on my mustache, beard, eyelashes, and all the tiny hairs on my upper cheeks (the ones I didn’t even know I had until they started freezing). My head is down close to the ground, and I’m staring at hare tracks. They appear fresher than the others I’ve seen lately; the hoarfrost, so fast to coat every available surface in its lacy filigree, is barely noticeable at the bottom of the print. Softball-sized lynx tracks bound across the hillside in leaps of eight to ten feet, and intersect with the hare trail right where I’m standing. They too appear fresh—though, realistically, “fresh” could be twelve hours or three days ago. Of course, it’s much more exciting to imagine that I just missed the action. So I trudge on, following the chase, sure that around the next bend I will catch up to them.
Meanwhile, the associative part of my mind jumps from hare tracks to a new book I have just read, Why Geography Matters: More Than Ever, by Harm de Blij. He suggests that time spent reading a map should be the equivalent of reading a whole page of text. But I wonder, if we spend that much time on a map, then how much time should we spend in consideration of landscapes themselves?
After all, landscapes are the ultimate inspiration for maps, the basso profundo intoning the primeval song of geography. It was curiosity in the landscape that urged the early Greek scholar Eratosthenes to measure the Earth’s circumference; it was deep interest in the land that drove Alexander von Humboldt on his revelatory 19th-century explorations across Europe, Russia, and the Americas.
And it is my need to know what’s going on in my backyard that has me out this afternoon, wind chilling my fingers as if I’d plunged them into ice water. Ten feet past where the lynx intercepted the trail, the snowshoe prints dart left, then right, through an alder thicket, under a low-hanging spruce bough, then it spins wildly around the tree trunk to head straight uphill—but only for one step, then darts right again, in evasive maneuvers worthy of “Top Gun.” Meanwhile, the lynx gave up the chase a while back, only twenty feet after it began. No meal was had today.
Examining its tracks, I’m amazed at the ingenuity of the hare’s escape route. In the one instant available to make a decision, and given the slope of the hill and layout of plants, it chose what looks like the optimum path, the route that would cause most trouble for the lynx and provide that half-second of breathing room needed to make a break for it. But surely it didn’t have that escape in mind the whole time it was hopping along.
Or did it? We don’t know what goes on in the mind of a snowshoe hare. How does it see the landscape? What does it know about the land that we don’t? We have no answer for such questions. Of course, we can study and learn its habitat needs, the food it eats. And we can make guesses, perhaps very good ones, about its forage and survival strategies.
In the end, though, we may never look inside its head, never be able to ask, in a language it will understand, “When you look at this hillside, what do you see? What do you think about a clump of grass, a fallen log? Will you show me your mental map?” Such knowledge is the wisdom of the hares. All we can do is watch, wonder, and follow the trail, wherever it may lead.
November 16, 2012
2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first successful summit of the highest peak in North America, Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley. That expedition was lead by Harry Karstens and Hudson Stuck and took roughly four months. I’ve recently been thinking about another Denali climb- the fated 1954 South Buttress Expedition.
Four friends, organized by experienced climber Elton Thayer, were the first party to climb via the South Buttress route and to traverse the mountain from south to north. Morton “Woody” Wood, one of the founders of Camp Denali, was on the expedition, as well as Les Viereck and George Argus, both on leave from the Army. They set off with snowshoes from Curry, Alaska (near Talkeetna) on the south side of the Alaska Range on April 17th. Their gear was mostly homemade, including two tents that Thayer’s wife, Bea, sewed for them and a menu she prepared that included the same three meals daily to minimize weight and maximize nutrition. Dinner began with a first course of hot jello, still a mountain favorite!
Once they reached the Ruth Gorge, a giant glacier set between large walls of rock at around 7,000 ft, Ginny Wood, Woody’s wife and co-founder of Camp Denali, flew over them and dropped supplies…amounting to 400 lbs! The climbers then carried gear in stages to their high camp at 17,200 ft, sometimes having to cut steps out of the icy compacted snow. They summited on May 15th. Les, looking out towards Anchorage and the military base at Ft. Richardson, remarked “I’m sorry to say this guys, but I need to be back there in two days!” much to everyone’s amusement. Though they were behind schedule, spirits were high. Woody recalled they were the most cohesive group he had ever climbed with. But reaching the top of the mountain is only half of any expedition.
On the descent, they headed down via Karsten’s Ridge, the route used by the first successful summit in 1913. All four men were belayed together on the same rope for safety, but at one point Elton lost his footing, perhaps due to a loose crampon, and the entire team whet cascading down a precipitous ridge. They landed on an ice shelf about 1,000 feet below the ridge. Elton was killed instantly, and George suffered serious injuries. Woody and Les, with comparatively minor bodily harm, packaged George and collected as many supplies as they could find strewn about. They belayed him down to the top of the Muldrow Glacier at around 9,000ft. From there Woody and Les then had to leave George to get help in Kantishna. The party was already several weeks overdue. A rescue party reached George one week later. For that week, staying in a tent on the upper Muldrow, he was perhaps the most isolated man in North America.
Mountain expeditions to isolated, remote, and cold northern latitudes always present challenges, and a very great deal of risk. The 1954 climb, so well orchestrated and successful on so many fronts…camaraderie, supplies, and even the accomplishment of the goal, still was beset by tragedy. These days the gear is lighter, the routes are generally pioneered, and access is more straightforward by ski plane landings on glaciers. But the sense of wonder and exploration lives on. This Feb/March I’m planning a trip, of a much smaller scale, to ski and camp my way from Anchorage to McGrath, a total trip of 250 miles skiing along the Iditarod Trail. Luckily my gear won’t total more than 70 pounds, and my only companion is my 60 pound sleddog, who will help pull some of the weight. The challenges will try our skills and stamina for that month of winter travel and camping. Hopefully we will be steeled by the resolve and strength of those who have gone before us, on expeditions near and far, in winter and in summer, and push us ever onward.
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.