Ducks, geese, swans and cranes have all come back to the neighborhood. The back pond still has ice, although it’s looking more than a bit dodgy and should go out this weekend. The beaver is patrolling the edges, occasionally flushing a pair of mallards from the open water to the ice, where they stand patiently waiting for the open water to be beaver free. Even the gulls are back, swooping low over the pond’s edge looking for the perfect nesting spot.
On Monday morning, when I was getting things ready for the day’s job, I heard the first Sandhill Crane calls of the season. Their ancient, rattling bugle echoed across the valley floor, and I stopped immediately to search for the source. It was a pair of cranes, and they flew in low as they announced their return to the valley.
By Tuesday morning, the sounds of the sandhills could be heard from all directions in the valley.
The photo was taken last spring at Creamers Field Waterfowl Refuge before the birds spread out across the state and beyond.
National Park Week, Final Day; Today’s Park Theme: B.A.R.K. Ranger Day
I think it’s safe to say that I have visited Denali National Park more than any of the others. Of course, it’s only a two hour drive away. Denali is a gem of a Park, and its Mountain and namesake is the crown jewel. Discussions for the area to become a National Park started as early as 1906, and by 1915 there was a solid plan and momentum for the idea. The naming of the Park was contentious from the very beginning, and that should be the subject of a future blog post. Alaskans and Park proponents who had actually visited the area wanted to see the Park named Denali, which was the Athabaskan word for the Mountain. The powers in Washington DC, particularly Thomas Riggs of the Alaska Engineering Commission, disagreed. The new park would be named Mount McKinley National Park, a decision that Alaskans would fight for decades until it was finally officially renamed Denali National Park in 1980.
At first the new national park was accessed by the Alaska Railroad, which ran between Seward on the southern coast and Fairbanks. The Denali Highway was opened in 1957, giving road access to the Park from the Richardson Highway, which runs between Valdez on the coast and Fairbanks. It wasn’t until 1971 for Anchorage to have direct access to Denali with the building of the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Denali Park Road starts at the George Parks Highway, and travels west into the Park for 92 miles. The road ends at the historic mining community of Kantishna.
There are several trails for hiking in Denali NP, but like the Wrangell-St Elias, this is wilderness, and most hiking is off trail and across country. River crossings are common, and seeing wildlife is (practically) guaranteed. I have one friend who is so wildlife viewing challenged, that other than rabbits and ravens, nothing will show for him. I add the “practically” for those in that exclusive club with my friend in NY.
For the rest of us, wildlife viewing in Denali NP&P is a smorgasbord. I have never been in the Park without seeing caribou and moose, and always grizzly in the summer months. I once took my Dad to Denali and we rode the school bus to the end of the Park Road. While stretching our legs at a rest area, I spotted a wolf sauntering along a river bed, and pointed it out to my Dad and another gentleman who was on the bus with us, and they watched it through my binoculars until we had to board again. I ended up getting scolded by everyone else who was on the bus, because I didn’t hunt them all down and show them the wolf too. Beware of the bus etiquette.
Denali is a special place in the winter, and I’ve enjoyed snowshoeing the trails and even the roads with the crowds of summer a very distant memory. Dog mushing is a very common activity in the winter, either with your own team, or riding along with a guide. Cross country skiing, snowshoeing and winter camping are the most common wintertime activities. It is a very beautiful, and quiet, winter wonderland. I searched and searched for winter pictures, and I could not find where I stashed them so that I could easily find them again. I will have to go back to create some more.
Dog mushing teams have been a part of Denali Park since 1922. The Park still maintains and works a team of sled dogs. In non-Covid years, the kennels can be visited, and the rangers give some pretty cool demonstrations. Plus, these dogs are just a lot of fun to hang around; Alaskan sled dogs have developed their own unique personalities, and they love to show them off. Driving the Park Road, you will often see the dog handlers walking the sled dogs, so watch for the signs.
Denali National Park & Preserve covers 4,740,911 acres and received 594,660 visitors in 2018.
Images of the Denali Park Dog Team and Puppy Patrol courtesy of NPS/Denali Dog Ranger Division
National Park Week, Day VI: Everglades National Park
The Everglades may be the only National Park I’ve had to fast talk my way into. They were having wildfires when I drove down from Tampa one spring. I had seen the warning signs, but kept going until I came to a roadblock. Off to my left, I could see some smoldering, but as far as wildfires go, it looked pretty tame. The ranger hemmed and hawed at me, but I persisted. Eventually I said, “Look, I’m from Alaska, we deal with this all the time, and that doesn’t look like Armageddon out there.” The ranger said I could go forward, but I had to commit to staying at Flamingo for several days, and not even drive back to the roadblock. I made the deal, and released the clutch.
It was dry, and it was hot during the day, and the mosquitoes still gave Alaska a run for the money. It was hard not to be impressed by the little bloodsuckers tenacity. I was also impressed by the vultures. It isn’t every day you see a string of them with their wings fully extended drying in the sun, when you climb out of the tent in the morning.
Everglades National Park covers 1,508,976 acres, which is 20% of the size of Florida’s original Everglades. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and the largest wilderness of any type east of the Mississippi River, and the third largest National Park in the Lower 48.
The Everglades were a vast network of wetlands, interspersed with forests. Water flowed from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades and into Florida Bay. It was the first Park created to protect a fragile ecosystem.
I did a lot of hiking during my time in this incredibly unique Park. Many trails led me out to the Gulf Coast, with the final section through the dense mangrove forests.
Another incredible way to see the Everglades would be the Canoe & Kayak Trails through the Park. There are numerous water trails for either a canoe or kayak, and trips can be fully guided or self-guided. Many campsites are on raised platforms. Any return trip to the Everglades for me, would have to include some of the water trails.
For wildlife, I mostly saw all sorts of birds, from great blue herons and white ibis, to osprey and brown pelicans. Over 360 species of birds have been seen in the Everglades. I was surprised to learn that the black vulture was a bit of a vandal. It seems that greeting people when they climb out of their tent in the morning was not their official duty in the Park. It turns out that they enjoy tearing the rubber off of vehicles. I’m not totally unfamiliar with the habit, as I’ve seen ravens steal wiper blade rubber, but the vultures seemed to be particularly vengeful. To the point, that people were actually renting blue tarps and bungee cords to deter the vultures. I chose not to wrap the car with a blue tarp, and honestly had no trouble. They did eyeball the Nissan from a distance, which I could live with.
The Everglades has two distinct seasons: The Dry Season, which is roughly November to March, and the Wet Season which runs April to November. I was told that the Wet Season can be buggy, and I was there before the Wet Season began, and I can tell you that it was quite buggy once the sun started to set.
Each year brings over one million visitors to Everglades National Park.
National Park Week, Day IV; Today’s Park Theme: Transformation Tuesday
Kenai Fjords: Where Mountains, Ice and Ocean meet.
Kenai Fjords was first designated a National Monument in 1978. With the passage of ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, Kenai Fjords officially became a National Park.
Kenai Fjords encompasses 669,984 acres, which includes the massive Harding Icefield, which is the source of at least 38 glaciers.
Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield can be reached from the community of Seward. It’s a short drive from town to the visitor center and trail head. The short and relatively easy trail takes one to the foot of the glacier. Exit is retreating at a pretty good clip, and is now losing ice during all seasons.
The Harding Icefield covers over 700 square miles, and that does NOT include the 38-40 glaciers that spawn from it. The hike past Exit Glacier to the icefield can be described as strenuous, but the view, when clear, is absolutely amazing.
Harding Icefield is one of four remaining in the United States, and the largest that is contained completely within the country. It receives, on average, 400 inches of snow each year.
Much of the Park is only accessible by water, and sea kayaking is a very popular activity. There are many tidewater glaciers that can be reached from Seward.
Two glaciers that I have visited from Seward are: Bear, which is the longest glacier in the Park, and Aialik Glacier, which is a bit more impressive from the water. Bear has receded to the point, that a lake now exists between the ocean and the glacier. The lake is often filled with small icebergs, which makes kayaking interesting. Aialik is a giant ice wall from the water’s surface.
Kenai Fjords National Park received 321,596 visitors in 2018. It is the fourth most visited Park in Alaska, and the closest to the city of Anchorage.
National Park Week Day II; Today’s Park Theme: Volunteer Sunday
Wrangell-St Elias may very well be my favorite road accessible park in Alaska. Denali is closer, and I visit it the most, but Wrangell-St Elias is a trip of its own. First off, it is the largest National Park at 13.2 million acres. It starts at sea level and rises all the way up to 18,008 feet with the summit of Mount St Elias, which is the second highest peak in the United States.
Within Wrangell-St Elias is four mountain ranges: The Chugach, Wrangell, St Elias, and the eastern part of the Alaska Range. Mount Wrangell is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America, and nine of the sixteen tallest peaks in the U.S. are within the boundaries of Wrangell-St Elias.
If you prefer glaciers, Wrangell-St Elias has you covered with 60% of Alaska’s glacier ice within this park. It has the state’s longest tidewater glacier, North America’s largest piedmont glacier, and the world’s longest valley glacier.
The park offers an endless list of things to do. The hiking here is phenomenal, although established trails are few. The beating heart of this park is wilderness. I have seen the gamut of Alaska wildlife with Wrangell-St Elias.
The Edgerton Highway runs along the Copper River Valley to Chitina, where the McCarthy Road follows the old CR&NW Railway grade to the Kennicott River. For years, you had to stop there to take a tram across the river to the town of McCarthy and the mines of Kennecott. Today, the tram sits unused, and a walking bridge spans the river.
The Kennecott Mine and company town were named after the Kennicott Glacier, but they missed the spelling by a letter. It gets confusing trying to keep it straight. Copper ore was discovered here in 1900, and a rush soon started. Eventually, Kennecott would have five mines operating, but by 1938 operations had shut down. During that time span, the mines produced over 4.6 million tons of copper ore, and gross revenues of $200 million. I’m not sure what that dollar amount would add up to today. The Kennecott Mines are now a National Historic Landmark District.
The population of McCarthy in 1920 was 127. By 2010 it had dropped to 28.
Some of the mines like Jumbo can be hiked to, and the green of copper ore can still be seen in the rocks around the area.
Fishing the Copper and Chitina Rivers is an Alaskan tradition, going back millenniums. Dipnetting for salmon is restricted to Alaska residents, but I can tell you that it is an adventure like no other.
If you want a park that you can disappear into, Wrangell-St Elias may just be the place for you. 2018 saw only 79,450 to the nation’s largest park. Like Alaska in general, that’s a lot of elbow room.
We were in the calm between the storms when I took this photo. It gives a good look at life on Alaska’s tundra. The airstrip for the village is in the background, with the hanger, housing the grader/snowplow, on the horizon. A plane had not been able to land for several days, and it would be several more before one came in. People were going about their business: walking or riding a four wheeler or snowmachine. Dogs roamed about, on their own personal business, as well. “Bear”, my seemingly constant canine companion, was sitting in the snow at my side, taking in all the action with me.