As much as I love Denali and Wrangell-St Elias National Parks, I think Gates of the Arctic is Alaska’s crown jewel within the national park system. It is the second largest of our national parks, and its entirety is located north of the Arctic Circle.
Due to the lack of any roads, and its remote location, Gates of the Arctic is the least visited of our national parks. All of that only adds to the appeal for me. In 2016, Gates of the Arctic received 10,047 visitors. In the same year, the Grand Canyon saw over 6 million.
The Park has six Wild and Scenic rivers: the Kobuk, John, Alatna, north fork of the Koyukuk, Tinayguk, and part of the famed Noatak. The Noatak is at the top of my list of rivers to float.
I have only been to the Gates of the Arctic once. A fly in camping trip. One evening, we watched a herd of caribou that probably numbered over 10,000. The entire valley below us was filled with these tundra travelers. It was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. The next morning, when we peaked over the ridge line, we were surprised to see that there was not one animal left in the valley. The entire herd had moved off, on their endless migration.
The village of Buckland, which is located in Northwest Alaska, started to see the water rise on May 12, due to an ice dam on the Buckland River. As one can see from the image, the village was quickly flooded out, with over five feet of water throughout the community, cutting the villagers off from the airstrip.
A disaster was declared by the governor on Monday, and water started to recede on Tuesday. The damage will be extensive, but details won’t be known until the water drops further.
Buckland, or Nunatchiaq in Iñupiaq, is an Inupiat village of approximately 416 people. Residents have lived at different points along the Buckland River over the centuries, but relocated to the current location in the 1920’s due to the villages reindeer herd. The community was incorporated in 1966.
It is mainly a subsistence lifestyle in Buckland, with residents relying on hunting, fishing and trade for survival. Caribou, beluga whale and seal are a major source of food. The reindeer herd of 2000 provides some jobs, where the payment is made in the form of meat. There are also some jobs through the school, city and health clinic.
Photos credit: The State of Alaska; additional source information courtesy of the Native Village of Buckland
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
We toured the University of Alaska’s Large Animal Research Station late this summer. LARS is located on the old 130 acre Yankovich homestead, which is basically adjacent to the Fairbanks campus. Originally homesteaded by Mike Yankovich in 1923, Yankovich donated the property to the University in 1963.
For much of the summer, tours had been cancelled due to Covid-19, but late in August, small groups were allowed to visit the research station. Our group of three, joined two groups of two, for a total of seven. Masks were required. Like most outdoor Alaska activities, social distance was not hard to maintain.
Muskoxen and reindeer are the most common animals at LARS, although at times other large animals, such as other bovines, are studied. Research is run by University scientists, but projects from all around the globe are supported here. This includes both wildlife, and veterinary studies.
Both the male and female muskoxen have horns, although the males are much larger. A male muskox can be 5 feet at the shoulder and weigh 600-800 pounds. A female usually runs a foot shorter, and can weigh between 400 and 500 pounds.
They have two types of hair: guard hair and qiviut. Qiviut is the very soft underwool nearest the body. It traps air, therefore acting as an insulator. The qiviut is shed every summer and can be spun into a fine yarn. In fact, LARS collects the quviut when the animals shed, and sells the yarn in their gift shop and online.
The guard hair is the long, coarse outer hair, that often hangs to the ground. It protects the qiviut. The insulation is so good, that snow on a muskox back will not melt from the animals body heat. It also allow them to live in the harsh Arctic climate without migrating or hibernating.
As the last ice age closed, muskoxen thrived across northern Europe & Asia, North America, and Greenland. By the mid 1800’s, muskoxen were gone from Europe and Asia, and by the 1920’s they had disappeared from Alaska.
In 1930, 34 animals were captured in Greenland, brought to Fairbanks and then transferred to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea. The population took off. By 1968, Nunivak had 750 muskoxen. Since then, Nunivak muskoxen have repopulated several areas in Alaska, and even in Russia. Today, Alaska has a muskox population of roughly 4300. Of the 143,000 global population, Canada has by far the most with a population of 121,000.
LARS also had a population of 42 reindeer when we visited. Considered domesticated caribou in North America, reindeer can also be found across the Arctic.
The caribou population can have major ups and downs across any given range, although they have never been threatened in Alaska. Currently, of the 4-1/2 million animals world-wide, Alaska has a population of 900,000.
Since I already have written a post on caribou, with the Alaska Big Five series, I won’t repeat all of that.
With the warming of the Arctic, research at LARS is in as high demand as ever.
I had picked up one of this summer’s Pandemic Road Lottery ticket into Denali National Park. In normal years, the road lottery would be taking place this weekend in Denali. This year, due to Corvid-19 and the lack of visitors, The Park had five additional lottery weekends.
I had two teenagers in Alaska for the first time, and we ventured deep into the park one Sunday. We covered the gamut in wildlife viewing, but the most memorable took place on our way out.
It was late in the day, and few others were still out on the Park Road. And no rangers nearby either! The grizzly meandered around the field in the photo, slowly getting closer and closer to the bull caribou. After a while, the bear would back off, and increase the distance between the two rivals, only to shorten the distance a few moments later.
We watched the dance between bear & caribou for about 45 minutes. The boys were looking for a fight, but I knew that the caribou did not get those large antlers by not being able to judge distance.
The grizzly broke the caribou’s comfort zone, and the bull was immediately on its feet. The game was up, but the bear refused to acknowledge that fact. After another ten minutes, the bear tried once again to close the gap, but the caribou had tired of the game, and he trotted off with his head held high.
The fourth day of the drive back to Alaska took me to McLeod Lake on the famed Fraser River of British Columbia.
I was starting to see more wildlife now, and that always adds to the drive for me. I was woefully unprepared for wildlife photography however, with a cell phone and the 120 shooter, a Kodak 66. I made do, as best I could.
The first real sighting in BC was a moose. I did not stop for a moose, nor did I later stop for a caribou. I see them all the time, as it is.
One of many black bear
I do not normally see a lot of black bear in Alaska, so I stopped to take pictures of a couple of them. In all, black bear ruled the animal sighting roost: I spotted 17 along the road, all eating the lush grass, like the one in the picture.
This picture came about, mainly because I had spotted a lynx, which is an incredibly rare sighting along a road. I hit reverse, but by the time I came to where I had seen the wary cat, it had made its way to the tree line. Just 100 yards further on, was this black bear. I hadn’t even made it out of second gear yet, so it didn’t take a lot of effort on my part to slow for it.
Further on down the road, I came across a pair of bison. I would go on to spot several on this day. They really are magnificent beasts.
I did not see my first grizzly until the final day of my drive, after crossing into Alaska. It was a sow and her cub. The cub was absolutely adorable, as it stood on its hind legs in order to get a better look at me, or maybe my car. I did slow down in order to attempt to get a picture, but that action seemed to intrigue the mother a tad too much. She started to trot right over to my car, leaving her cub standing on the opposite shoulder. Since I was in a car that sat lower than she stood, and I had an open window for a clear view, I decided the picture wasn’t that important and released the clutch to move forward. The sow continued to trot, and I proceeded to engage second gear.
Caribou are the only members of the deer family where both sexes grow antlers. The bulls’ antlers are massive, but the cows’ are shorter and slight. The hooves of caribou are large, concave and they spread out wide to support the animals on snow and tundra. The hooves also act as paddles when swimming.
There are 32 herds of caribou in Alaska, with each herd occupying a distinct calving ground. Calves are born in late May in Alaska’s Interior, and in early June in northern and southwestern Alaska. The vast majority of calves are born as singles, but twins do happen, although rarely. They weigh, on average, 13 pounds at birth, and grow quickly. By 10-15 days after birth, the weight of a calf doubles. A calf is running alongside its mother within hours of birth.
Bull caribou will reach a weight of 350-400 pounds as an adult, although they can get as large as 700 pounds. An adult cow caribou averages 175-225 pounds. An average male lives to 7-8 years, while the females can live to 10 years.
Caribou can migrate huge distances between their summer and winter range. The larger herds may migrate 400 miles between their two ranges, where a small herd may barely migrate at all.
The caribou population in Alaska is currently estimated at 750,000. Their population can be cyclic, and can fluctuate widely in a rather short period of time. The declines and increases in numbers can be extremely difficult to predict. Predation, climate, weather, disease, population density and hunting can all have an effect on the caribou population.
Driving out to the border, the wildlife viewing was excellent as usual. I spotted several moose, flocks of grouse, and quite a few caribou. I stopped for these three caribou to cross in front of me, and watched them make their way down the roadway slope to a frozen creek below.
One solo caribou earlier in the day, had a harder time of it. The snow was over belly deep, and I watched the animal from a long distance, as it determinably struggled to reach the road. Once it did, it saw me coming, and I could feel its deflation, and hear its sigh of disgust.
The caribou went across the road, considered hopping into the snow there, but then turned to clop down the frozen pavement. I slowed down to a crawl, but still caught up with it. The caribou looked me over as I came to a stop, then resigned to its fate, it crossed back to the side of the road it came from, and went back into the snow. This caribou was stressed enough, so I didn’t take its picture, I just drove on, with the caribou buried well past its haunches in powder.
In my rear view mirror, I could see another truck coming up, and so did the caribou. I think it planned on coming back out onto the road once I left, but now it snowplowed its way back to the treeline where it came from when I first saw it.
No doubt, there are too many people in Alaska for that caribou’s liking. Can’t say that I entirely blame it either.