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.
It is National Park Week, so we will revisit a few of the National Parks that I have been to. We are extremely lucky to have such a system in the United States: from Battlefields to Memorials, and Monuments to Parks and everything in-between, the National Park Service has it covered.
One of the best sites on WordPress, without exception, covering the National Parks, and all public lands is:
The Day One Theme for National Park Week is Rx Day: Where being outdoors improves your mental and physical health. Anyone who has followed this blog for anytime would not be surprised to hear that I support that conclusion. As a dweller of the Far North, I find myself intrigued by the desert, and I have to admit that Joshua Tree is one of my favorite parks. Full Disclosure: I may say this all week long.
There is a simplicity to the desert that I find fascinating. Rarely have I found a crowd when I visit the desert, which suits me just fine. I have been to Joshua Tree several times: Once on the Beetle Roadtrip, at least once during a Land Rover Roadtrip, and once when I was on an Amtrak Railpass crisscrossing the country. Each time, I found my visit to Joshua Tree to be soul cleansing, and I do not use that term lightly. Even though, I may not have known I needed it, that is exactly what I found as I hiked the trails of this magnificent National Park.
Joshua Tree was declared a National Monument in 1936, and it wasn’t reclassified as a National Park until 1994. Today, the Park encompasses 790,636 acres, including parts of two deserts: The Mohave and the Colorado. In the open areas of the Mohave Desert thrives the Yucca brevifolia, also know as the Joshua Tree, from which the park gets its name.
I spent much of my time hiking Joshua Tree, and I do not remember ever coming across another hiker on the trails. I met people at other areas, like lookouts, etc, but on the serious trails I was alone with my thoughts and the wilderness. I was certainly helped out at times by a friend who was a park ranger, who could point me in the right direction, but I imagine that much was simply luck of the draw.
In the spring of the year, I found the park relatively green, but I still carried plenty of water, as temps did rise above what I am used to by noon. Still, I found the desert refreshing in a way that only someone who lives in a completely opposite environment can. I have found myself coming back to this park often.
A popular hike is out to Lost Palms Oasis, which is approximately 7-1/2 miles roundtrip. Most of the hike was through hilly terrain with a drop down into a palm-filled canyon at the end. It was a beautiful hike, with what really is an oasis at the end. Well worth the effort, although this is hardly the only hike in the park worth sweating over.
The park has a rich history of mining and ranching, and a good example of both is Keys Ranch. I took the tour on one of my visits, and as an end-of-the-roader myself, I really enjoyed it. The family had a rich history in the area, and had carved a unique, yet wonderful homestead out of the desert. If in the area, I really do recommend a stop at the ranch.
Any resident of Interior Alaska would sympathize with the ranch life out here. The ranger giving the tour took us through their “hardware store” of used parts sitting out in the dry air, ready to be put back into action. There is even a sawmill run by a FordAll tractor. A dam was built to collect what little water flowed from a creek, which allowed the family to prosper.
I should not perpetuate this story, as it will annoy my ranger friend, but how does one talk of Joshua Tree without mentioning Gram Parsons? I did my pilgrimage out to the Gram Parsons Rock, in spite of the annoyance it gave to others. Parsons, who was a singer and musician in bands such as The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and others, was a huge fan of Joshua Tree back in the 1960’s and ’70’s, when it was still a National Monument. The cliff notes version of the story, is when Parsons overdosed in 1973, his friends knowing that Parsons wanted to be cremated within Joshua Tree NM, stole his body from the Los Angeles International Airport in a “borrowed hearse”. They then brought his body and casket to Cap Rock and attempted an unofficial cremation with five gallons of gasoline. Police arrived, and the friends escaped, only to be caught later. Since it wasn’t exactly a crime at the time to steal a dead body, they were charged with stealing the coffin and fined $750. Cap Rock, or what is now mostly known as Gram Parsons Rock, still brings mourners and fans of the influential singer/songwriter. I should note that it is the site of my very first selfie. One of a total of three. I should also note that Park Rangers are not overly fond of giving directions to the rock, even if you have known them since they first arrived in Alaska, back when they were a young Cheechako. Just saying.
I have met many rock climbers within Joshua Tree, and have offered a few beers to some after their climb, after finding out they were camping near me. This park, along with Yosemite and Zion seems to be a magnet for climbers.
My favorite individual who I shared a camp with was an Argentinian. I had just traveled from Prudhoe Bay to Belize and back to Southern California, obsessed with driving to the tip of South America. My new friend from Argentina had beat me to it, and was driving north to Alaska from Tierra del Fuego in a mid-80’s Land Cruiser. He had spotted my old Land Rover first, as one does, when I was out hiking, and stopped by with a bottle of Argentinian Fernet. The next night, I went down to his campsite with a bottle of Scotch. We had a lot to discuss.
One never knows who you will meet when you are out & about in our public lands.
There were 2,399,542 visitors to Joshua Tree NP in 2020.
Muldrow Glacier in Denali National Park is surging:
In early March, pilot Chris Palm, who took the photo above, noticed something very different about Denali Park’s famed Muldrow Glacier. The normally smooth surface of the glacier was broken up by crevasses stretching across the width of Muldrow.
The long awaited surge had begun.
The 39 mile long, Muldrow Glacier last surged in 1957, so scientists were thrilled to study a natural phenomenon that has not occurred here in 64 years.
Surge-type glaciers are relatively rare, with approximately 1% of the glaciers world-wide being surge glaciers. Denali National Park has several, most of which get their start from the face of North America’s tallest peak.
As snow and ice builds up at the higher elevations of a glacier, meltwater is also building up underneath the glacier. This meltwater acts as a lubricant when the weight from above passes equilibrium. The glacier then surges downward at a rate of up to 100 times faster than normal. At some point, the meltwater trapped under the glacier will be released in an outburst flood. Once the water is reduced significantly, the glacier’s surge will slow and it will go back to a state of quiescent (non-surge) once again. Over time, the process repeats itself. Muldrow Glacier has a history of surging roughly every 50 years.
There are two GPS stations on the glacier to monitor its movement. There are also four time-lapse cameras facing different areas of the glacier, including one at the terminus to monitor the glacier’s “bulldozing action”. Another is looking over the McKinley River in order to capture images of the outburst flood. The Alaska Earthquake Center also has a seismic monitoring station, and a sound station has also been installed in an attempt to capture the grinding sound of the surging glacier.
In 1957, most accounts have the surge starting in May, 1956 on Traleika Glacier, which is the main tributary of Muldrow. Muldrow Glacier would advance over 4 miles before the surge ended in September of 1957. Approximately 3.3 cubic kilometers of ice was redistributed from the upper reaches of the glacier to its toe. At the upper levels, the ice thickness had dropped as much as 170 meters, but the toe rose to a 200 foot tall ice wall.
Currently, the Muldrow Glacier is moving between 10 to 20 meters per day, and is only 800 meters short of the 1957 terminus. At the current rate of surge, Muldrow will reach the 1957 distance in June.
All images, photos and maps are courtesy of the NPS; Sources include: NPS – Denali NP&P, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, University of Alaska – Fairbanks
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.
Southeast Alaska has a new carnivore on the block. Or, I should say that a new one was identified recently. A new species of ermine was identified on Prince of Wales Island, and some were also found in British Columbia. The new species has been labeled the Haida Ermine.
There are three known species: one in Eurasia, one in North America, and now Southeast Alaska. The Haida Ermine was thought to be isolated around 375,000 years ago, due to a glacial period. Over time, it has developed different characteristics and has become its own species.
I am confident that the one living in my wood pile is just the common North American species, but it never sits still long enough for me to say that with 100% certainty.
The Potter Section House State Historical Site is now home to the Chugach State Park visitor center. The building was built in 1929, and was used to house section workers for this part of the Alaska Railroad. Originally, there were four section houses along the Anchorage section of the railroad. Their use was discontinued in 1978, and the Potter House is the last remaining of the four. It was listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
A rotary snowplow that once cleared the tracks along Turnagain Arm is also on display at Potter House. The railroad car behind the snowplow, is home to the Kenai Visitor Center. Both visitor centers have been closed due to the pandemic, and remain closed.
The section along Turnagain Arm is notorious for avalanche, although today the avalanches are planned events. Back in the day, the rotary plow revolutionized track clearing. The plow’s steel teeth cut through even the most packed snow, as well as debris from an avalanche, and the occasional frozen moose. The snow was launched from the chute hundreds of feet off the track. Two steam engines pushed the plow, with a crew of seven.
This particular rotary plow was retired in 1985, in favor of track mounted bulldozers. The Alaska Railroad still maintains one rotary snowplow in reserve.
Chugach State Park, just outside of Anchorage, covers 495,204 acres. It is the third largest state park in the United States, and the second largest in Alaska. It is truly, one of Alaska’s many gems.
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.
The numbers are in, although I think most of us in Alaska knew the gist of things: The salmon runs in 2020 fit the overall theme of the year. They were bleak.
King salmon returns were in the bottom five for harvests since the 1960’s. Sockeye returns were the second lowest since 1962. Coho and pinks were better than the other two species, but they were still down. The numbers coming back for the coho, or silver salmon, ranked 48th, pinks ranked 53rd since 1962.
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game is predicting a better return for pink salmon for 2021. Pinks are the only salmon species that Fish & Game forecasts the upcoming return. They are hopeful that Alaska will see an increase in all five species of salmon that return to our waters.
From a personal experience level: For several years now, I have seen a noticeable increase in our group’s salmon harvest in odd years, and a downturn in even years. 2020 fit in with that nonscientific trend, but it was certainly the hardest we worked to fill the freezer in 2020. Luckily, we made up for it with halibut and lingcod.
King salmon are now known to be returning to Alaska waters at a younger age. This means that they are coming back smaller. The factors causing this are still unknown, although increased predation and water temperature are high on the list of suspects. Salmon sharks and orcas certainly take a bite out of the salmon population, and it would be expected that they may gravitate towards the larger salmon, but these predators are hardly new to the Gulf of Alaska and beyond.
I admit that I am hoping for a rebound in the salmon return for 2021.