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Death Valley National Park

National Park Week, Day VIII; Today’s Park Theme: Junior Ranger Day

Entering Death Valley

The “Hottest, Driest and Lowest”:

I have been lucky enough to visit Death Valley a few times. I did skip this Park when I was traveling in the air-cooled VW, but the Land Rover has been here a couple of times, and I once tortured a rental car during a visit to Death Valley in August. I drove the rental here from Las Vegas after a wedding just to see how hot it would get. I watched the car thermometer hit +123F. So my personal variance is -63F to +123F degrees.

The Devil’s Golf Course

It was not over 100 when I drove the Rover through. In fact, I remember it being quite nice, weather-wise. Very cool at night, and above 80F during the day. At one campground, it absolutely poured rain. Gullies filled quickly, but I had the rooftop tent. I could see the rain coming across the desert from my site, and quickly popped open the tent, threw what I needed up into it, then set up a chair under the canopy to eat dinner. The rain came down in buckets, and the wind picked up, so I moved my chair into the back of the Rover, and watched the proceedings. Across the campground, I could see two poor souls battling a ground tent. They should have just waited out the rain, but they stuck to their guns, and kept on with the tent. It took forever, to the point that I was suffering just watching the show. The tent had to be as soaked inside as they were standing out in that downpour.

Somewhere along Artist’s Drive

Death Valley was first established as a National Monument in 1933, becoming a National Park in 1994. The Park encompasses 3,373,063 acres across the states of California and Nevada. Badwater Basin, which I have done some hiking in, is the second lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282′ below sea level. Telescope Peak is the Park’s highest point at 11,049 feet above sea level.

Walking out in Eureka Sand Dunes

The Valley is a hot and dry place to explore, so bring plenty of water. Hot weather tip: Any water jug left in your vehicle will quickly reach the temperature of the vehicle’s interior. So, if you don’t want to brew a cup of tea after a day out hiking, try to keep that jug outside and in the shade.

The highest temperature ever recorded on Earth happened at Furnace Creek in Death Valley in 1913: 134F. That is a scorcher. The record low for Death Valley is 15F. Practically balmy when you think about it. Badwater gets on average 1.5 inches of rain a year.

Scotty’s Castle

I did stop by Scotty’s Castle on one visit. It was named after a local gold prospector, Walter Scott, who neither lived in, nor built, the residence. Construction began in 1922, and the building costs were somewhere between $1.5 – 2.5 million. The history here is intriguing, and involves investments in nonproductive mines, as well as mistakenly building on government property. The stock market crash of 1929 also played a part. When the owners passed away with no heirs, the National Park Service bought the “castle”. It can be toured, during non-covid years, and I thought the tour was well worth the fee.

The castle’s water source was a nearby natural spring, which also powered a Pelton wheel which powered the house as well. Death Valley Scotty may not have lived in the castle bearing his name, but he is buried on a hillside overlooking the home. The family’s pet dog is buried next to him.

The Pelton Wheel

There is so much to see at Death Valley. The famed Racetrack is one location, but I did not witness any racing rocks, still it’s a phenomenon that is cool to document. The Eagle Borax Works, or more commonly known as the Twenty Mule Team of Borax fame has some ruins out in the Park, and there are several CCC works still being used. There are trails, and wildflowers galore when it rains, natural springs and arches, and petroglyphs out at Mesquite Springs.

Death Valley saw 1,678,660 visitors in 2018.

Go Find Your Park!

Earth Day 2021


National Park Week, Day VI: Everglades National Park

The view from Flamingo; Camera: Widelux, 35mm

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.

Looking out across the river of grass

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.

Map of the Everglades: Before and after

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.

A hike out to the Gulf to see the Mangroves

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.

Three alligators lounging on the waters edge.

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.

Happy Earth Day! Go find your Park!

Burning Increase

Graphic credit: IARC

It may seem like an odd time to think of the fire season here in Alaska. After all, we officially had 29 inches of snowpack at the end of March, and have been adding to that steadily during this first week of April.

In a state that boasts some of the finest summers on this planet, one thing that can ruin a summer in a hurry is a bad wildfire year. Alaska has been trending upward in acres burned over the past 60 years. From 1.6% of the state seeing wildfires during the decade of 1961-1970, to 3.1% of the state going up in smoke in the most recent decade.

2004 was the worst year on record with 6.6 million acres burned. It was a nasty summer here in the Interior. I had hiked the Chilkoot Trail at the end of June, and had made it back to Skagway in time for July 4th, only to find out the embers had really hit the fan. Wildfires were everywhere between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in the Yukon. In Skagway, I called my Dad to tell him not to visit in a few days, because the smoke was so bad, but he came up anyway. We sat on my deck one evening and watched lightning start a fire a couple of valleys over. The next morning air tankers were dumping water over the fresh fire. We climbed to the ridge top in the evening to see a wall of flame across the valley floor.

I couldn’t count the number of dry thunderstorms we saw that summer. I remember standing out on my deck at 2am one morning, lightning was flashing down on the hills all around me, but all I could see was an eerie glow in the thick smoke, followed by the thunder crashing down, rolling across the land. If a fire had started close by, I would never know until the flames were roaring upon the cabin. The smoke was so thick that visibility was down to mere feet.


After the Ice: Our Story

Part III: “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of food.”

This is the third part of the After the Ice series. The video is less than 6 minutes long. Part III delves a bit into the Arctic Report Card, which is an annual assessment, and how our local Arctic population is finally getting a seat at the climate table.


Wet & Green

The ridge line above Blueberry Lake

This summer, Fairbanks has seen its 7th wettest since 1925. With 12.6″ of rain recorded as of last Friday, climatologists tell us that we are on a new trend. The typical summer rainfall is now 30% higher than in the 1920’s-1930’s. Juneau also saw its 6th wettest summer in 96 years. That’s saying something about our very wet capital city.

Fairbanks also had 19 days with thunder, which tied a record. We were 3.6 degrees warmer than average, which puts 2020 in the Top Ten, since recording began. Much of the change came in the rise of nightly low temperatures, due to the rain and cloud cover.

Officially, Fairbanks had a growing season of 130 days in 2020. That ties us for the 7th longest. Since 1950, the growing season in Fairbanks has increased by 16 days.

Wildfires burned a total of 181,000 acres in Alaska for the season so far. That is the lowest total since 2002. For one season, at least, wildfire crews did not have to worry about hotshotting into the Alaskan Bush. They have more than enough on their plate, as it is, in 2020.


A Pandemic Roadtrip

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Rolling hills of NE Wyoming, after the thunderstorm

Recently, I found myself in the Lower 48, with a car and no where to park it.  The smart move was to sell the car in Minnesota, but the lure, and frankly, the need for a road trip was too strong to resist.

The rumor was that Canada would allow Alaskans to cross the border to return back home to Alaska.  There were also several reports, that the final judgement was up to the individual border patrol agent at the port of entry.  I decided to roll the dice, pack up the little 300zx, and drive the car back to Alaska.

This would be the twelfth time I have driven the AlCan, or the Alaska Highway, as it is more commonly known.  I knew it would be a different sort of trip, but I didn’t know what to expect in these anxious times, so it was hard to predict how different it would be.

I drove I-90 across South Dakota.  I have not driven the interstate for ages, as I try to avoid them, when I can.  This trip, it seemed like the smart move.  The interstate made it a lot easier to avoid people, plus I wasn’t sure if the small towns in South Dakota,  Wyoming and Montana would care to see a car zip through with Alaska plates.

Day one’s goal was to get to the Black Hills National Forest, just past Rapid City and into Wyoming.  The weather was hot & sticky, and the air conditioner in the car had recently stopped blowing cold air.  An attempt was made to fix that, but with working windows and a T-Top, I wasn’t overly put out by the heat.  The 90 degree weather did force me to take the top off before I made it out of Minnesota.

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Aladdin General Store

I veered off I-90 and took SoDak Hwy 34 near Spearfish.  The hot & humid weather had been building dark storm clouds on my horizon for a while, so I stopped to put the tops back on the roof of the car.  Immediately after, the wind picked up, the sky darkened even more, and the sound of hail hit the recently replaced glass tops.  The cell phone gave me an automated message that I had never seen before: Tornado Warning in your vicinity until 7pm. Then the rain came down in absolute torrents.  I was impressed, but I pressed on.  There was no place to stop anyway.  I followed a truck’s set of taillights as best I could, and continued on.

I eventually drove through the storm, and it was beautiful weather on the west side of the Black Hills.  I stopped briefly in the community of Aladdin, Wyoming: Population 15, Cell Coverage: zero, wonderful country: as far as the eye could see.

Not long after Aladdin was the campground I was looking for in the national forest.  Within minutes, I had started some charcoal, and was setting up camp among the tall pines of the Black Hills.


Alaskan Alert

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My favorite image of the Alaskan week, so far.  It is early.


Eighty

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Alaska saw its first 80F degree day on Saturday, as Ketchikan hit the mark.  Juneau hit 76F degrees, which was a record high for the date, and Fairbanks saw 70F degrees for the first time on Saturday.

The warm air mass brought 80F degrees into Alaska’s Interior on Sunday, which made for the years’s first 80 degree day for Fairbanks.  This is four weeks earlier than the average first 80 degree day.  It is the second earliest on record.

Sitka and Yakutat also saw high temps on Mother’s Day.

90F degrees is not in the forecast for Monday.

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Utqiagvik Sea Ice Cam

The sun rose over the village of Utqiagvik at 2:46 am ADT on Sunday, it will set in 85 days.  The village also set a record high temp of 36F.


Finally Forty

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There is a creek somewhere under all of that snow.

The high temp in Fairbanks was 46F on Saturday.  It was the first time we had hit 40 degrees since October 28.

 

 


Flying PenAir

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PenAir’s Saab2000

I flew out to King Salmon on PenAir, also known as Peninsula Airways.  I’ve always liked PenAir and their Saab 2000’s, although the airline is now under the Ravn banner.  The twin engine turboprop usually offers a smooth ride out to some of Alaska’s more remote locations.

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The Alaska Airlines & PenAir terminal at King Salmon, Alaska

We landed in King Salmon, and drove over to Naknek.  This is fishing country, both commercial & sport.  Salmon is king here.  Anti Pebble Mine signs were everywhere.  No surprise that the fishing communities did not want to see the world’s largest open pit mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

We located our accommodations for our stay, only to find out that there was no heat in the building.  Only in Alaska would the proprietor think that heat was an option.  After scouring Naknek, we ended up back in King Salmon for our room & board.

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Inside the Saab2000

Sitting in the emergency row on the Saab2000 does not really offer much of an advantage.  It definitely cuts down on the view.