Alaska may have only two seasons: Winter and Wildfire
This week is Wildfire Prevention Week in Alaska. We have already seen some burn bans in the Interior, although not around Fairbanks yet. Amazing how quickly the ember turns up here, as we still seem to be slogging through breakup.
As of Monday, Alaska has had 60 fires start up this fire season within the state. Of those, 55 have been human-caused. Only two fires were determined to be caused by lightning, and there have been three fires where a cause has not been determined, as of this writing.
Thunderstorms have returned to the Interior, and we did get almost 40 strikes on Saturday. Also last week, the first coal seam fire of the season was detected down by Healy, which is just north of Denali National Park. The coal seam fire was extinguished by water drop. It is the site of several coal seam fires in recent years.
After going through a long winter, nothing gets Alaskans crankier than a smoke filled summer. Mother Nature does not need help in the area of wildfire ignition, so let’s not add to the burned acreage with laziness and thoughtless behavior.
Green Up was officially declared on Sunday here in Fairbanks. A quirk maybe of Interior Alaska, our tree buds explode with green all at once, due to the wonderfully long days we have this time of year. We literally go from brown tree limbs to vibrant green forests, as if a switch is being flipped.
This is our official declaration of summer. Cheers!
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
In 1963, a young, male bowhead whale was harvested by Native Whalers in Utqiaġvik. The skeleton of the 43′ whale was eventually offered to the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, and it has been in the collection of the Museum of the North ever since. Only the skull has been put on display.
That is about to change, as the Museum is currently putting together the entire skeleton, and will display it from the lobby ceiling once it is complete.
The above video from the UAF Museum of the North, details some repair that had to be done to the ribs of the bowhead whale.
After the 14+ inches of snow dumped on us last week, there is only one year since recording began, that snow depth this late in the season was deeper. That was the infamous Winter of 1990-91. We have a whole lot of snow on the ground… and on the rooftops.
We have also set some cold records so far in April. On more than one morning, we have tied the record low temp in Fairbanks. On Friday, we tied the record low of -16F, and shattered the record low high when we climbed to a paltry +3F.
Saturday night saw a return visit to the deep freeze, with the temps dropping to -29F officially at the airport. It dropped to -35 at the cabin. The record low for the month of April is -32F, which we have left intact. Not to be outdone: Old Crow, YT dropped to -40.2C. Way to go Yukon!
Temperatures for this coming week have us seeing +40F for the first time since October. That is also a new record.