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.
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 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.
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.
Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary is a 564 acre fresh water marsh, located at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.
The marsh was created in 1917 when the embankment for the Alaska Railroad was built up, effectively separating the fresh water from the Chugach Mountains, and the salt water from Turnagain Arm.
Potter Marsh is often called the most accessible wildlife viewing location in Alaska. The marsh is easily reached by the Seward Highway, and it contains a 1550 foot long boardwalk to keep your feet dry.
This wetland maze sees roughly 130 species of migratory and nesting birds calling it home, for at least part of the year. Moose, beavers, muskrats, eagles and hawks all can be viewed at Potter Marsh. Spawning salmon are often seen swimming up Rabbit Creek from Turnagain Arm in season.
Both brown bear and black bear use the marsh, but they are very rarely seen here. Consider yourself very lucky if you spot a bruin moving through the wetland.
March is one of my favorite months here in the Interior. The temps (usually) are at least above zero during the day, there are (usually) outdoor activities galore throughout the area, and the length of daylight is jumping at clips of around 7 minutes a day.
Currently, the length of day is at 10 hours, 49 minutes, with visible light hanging around for 12 hours and 26 minutes. By the last day of March we will be seeing the length of day at 13 hours and 33 minutes.
Warmer than normal temperatures are forecast for the remainder of the month for much of Alaska. Fairbanks is right in the normal to above normal range. Much of the Lower 48 looks to be trending below normal in temps for next couple of weeks. Only time will tell how close the forecasters hit the target.
Judging from how active and vocal the birds are around my cabin, I think they are looking forward to spring.
I was invited earlier in the week to attend an online screening of the new documentary Frozen Obsession. For 18 days, a research crew ventured into the Northwest Passage on board the Swedish ice breaker, Oden.
The ramifications of the opening of the Northwest Passage for those of us in the Arctic are large. The documentary explores some of that, along with the drastic changes we are seeing, and some of the history of what truly has been an obsession at times, regarding the famed passage.
The expedition was clearly geared towards education, with 28 undergrad and graduate students on board the vessel, conducting research. It’s extremely rare to see undergrads involved in research at this level. This included two Inuits from Nunavut. The team also did 40 live Q&A sessions via satellite, to museums and education facilities back on the mainland, including institutions in Alaska.
One of the frightening takeaways was the amount of plastic that was found frozen in the sea ice. Researchers could not contain their surprise at the amount that was discovered in the core samples. In an area that is still considered pristine by many, plastics and micro-plastics have made their way to the far northern waters.
The documentary is an hour long, and well worth the time if it becomes available to your community or streaming service. The excitement of the young researchers alone is rewarding to see.