An honest to goodness thunderstorm is rather rare in Alaska. We get lightning by the bolt load, but nothing like a midwestern U.S. hill shaker. We just do not have the humidity to drive impressive, tornado birthing, cells. Still, what developed just across the northern bank of the Yukon River near Beaver, AK actually brought out the official Severe Thunderstorm Warning call from the Fairbanks office of the National Weather Service on Wednesday evening.
It was noted that it has been over two years since the NWS from Anchorage or Juneau has issued such a warning. Who knew such competition existed within the NWS?
Definitely not a normal occurrence.
On another note: Last night was the final night of the year for a post midnight sunset in Fairbanks. Summer is going by so fast.
We already knew that the King Salmon run for the Yukon River was going to be dismal, but now word is coming out that the chum run looks to be equally bleak. This is a real blow to subsistence users throughout the Yukon basin and all its tributaries.
At the end of June, only 31,000 chum salmon had passed the Pilot Station sonar. The historic average for that date is 500,000 chum salmon. The count is the lowest on record.
Not surprisingly, the Chinook and chum salmon fisheries have been closed throughout the Yukon River system due to the low returns.
The steamboat Yukon was the first paddlewheeler to venture up the Yukon River. It was July 5, 1869, shortly after the Alaska Territory was bought by the United States from Russia. In part, the trip was a reconnaissance mission, but it was also a supply mission for the Alaska Commercial Company, which took over the trade route from the Hudson Bay Company.
By 1885, when gold was discovered on the Fortymile River, there were three steamers working the river. With the discovery of gold in the Klondike, as many as 100 steamers entered the Yukon River at St Michael to make the trip to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.
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 sternwheeler White Horse was built in 1901, and ran the Yukon River for 54 years. She had a length of 167 feet, a beam of 34.5 feet, and a gross tonnage of 986.65 tons. She accommodated 64 people.
The White Horse had an interesting history. Declared a “plague ship” in 1902, due to a 2nd Class passenger being suspected of having small pox. The sternwheeler was quarantined for 16 days, and the disease did not appear, so she returned to service.
In 1935, the White Horse was sent to rescue the passengers of the STR Yukon, which had been severely damaged by ice on the infamous Lake Labarge. Aircraft from the British Yukon Navigation Company, guided the White Horse through the ice to the beached Yukon.
In 1916, the White Horse took her first venture into the pure tourist trade, by making one of many Midnight Sun runs to Fort Yukon. The trips were a huge hit at the time.
The once proud White Horse came to a fiery end. She was passed up for restoration in 1955 in favor of the STR Klondike, which can still be seen in Whitehorse, YT. She was sold in 1960 along with the STR Casca and two other ships to the Canadian Government, but no restoration was attempted, other than to put them behind a chain link fence.
On 20 June 1974, both the White Horse & Casca caught fire in dry dock, and burned down to the gravel bed. No cause of the fire has ever been officially stated.
Sources: Alaska State Library, University of Alaska, CBC.CA
Salmon is a vital resource in the state, so it should come as no surprise that Alaska has been studying salmon since before statehood. For over 60 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept detailed records of length, weight, age and escapement for four species of Pacific salmon that spawn here.
The salmon that return to Alaska from their time in the ocean, are now smaller than they have been historically. The reason: They are returning to spawn at a younger age.
The Chinook, Alaska’s state fish, has been the hardest hit. King salmon are, on average, coming in at 8% smaller than in the 1980’s. The coho, or silver salmon is 3.3% smaller, chum is at 2.4%, and the sockeye 2.1. The decrease in size has accelerated since 2010 for all four species.
At first glance, what is 8% really? Well, the ramifications are large and far reaching. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River system is the largest subsistence area in the entire country. It takes more fish to feed a family. Commercial fishermen also must catch more fish to make the same amount of money.
Environmentally, the entire ecosystem relies on the salmon returning to spawn. Just the reduction in chinook salmon size alone means a reduction of 16% in egg production, i.e. future salmon populations; and a 28% reduction in nutrients going back into the river systems. For the pocket book issues: the reduction in king salmon means a 26% reduction as a food source, and a 21% reduction in the value of the fishery.
There does not appear to be one smoking gun for the change in Alaska’s salmon population, but a series of events that effect each species differently. Warming ocean temperatures are partly to blame, but so is competition between wild and hatchery populations. Size-selective fishing seems to also be a part of the equation, especially with the mighty chinook.
Wild salmon can stay out in the ocean for up to 7 years, but now they are often returning to fresh water to spawn at 4 years.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game; Alaska Public Media; Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Believe it or not, Alaska has seven species of bat. The Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) is the most common. At only 3 to 4-1/2″ long, and a wingspan of 8-9″, the Little Brown Bat, lives up to its name.
Bats are not well studied in Alaska. Even the lifespan of the Little Brown Bat in the state is unknown, although they seem to average 10 years or so in the Yukon. One elderly Yukon Little Brown Bat was known to live 34 years.
They range from the Yukon River south throughout Alaska. The total population is not known, although it is not thought to be large, considering the territory. I have seen bats sweep overhead at the darkest time of our summer days, but I can not say that it is a common experience. We certainly have the mosquitos to keep them well fed, however.
Bats usually hibernate from September until May, although it is not a continual hibernation. They seem to wake up on warmer days to hunt, then return to hibernation. They will roost in caves, but these are not common in Alaska’s Interior. Natural weather-protected areas will offer a place to roost, as will attics and out buildings. So the scratching one hears from the attic isn’t always a red squirrel in Alaska, but might be a Little Brown Bat.
The Yukon; finally I was in the Yukon Territory. I have nothing against B.C., but now Alaska is in the sights.
The AlCan is not fully paved
Don’t let anyone fool you, the Alaska Highway is not completely paved. It’s close, but it’s not complete. The Yukon always has sections that are gravel, and the sections go on for miles. It can be a bit dusty, especially when a semi truck is in front of you.
I admit the gravel travel is worth it once you come across Muncho Lake. The jade colored waters light up even on a dreary day. “Muncho” in the Kaska language translates to “big water”, and it is that,
Kluane Lake is the largest lake within the Yukon, that lies entirely within its borders. It’s a huge lake, and in normal years there is a visitor’s center that is worth a stop. This year, due to Covid-19, it was closed.
Another river to cross, but we’re getting closer
There were many businesses and sights closed to the public along the entire route. Places that I have historically stopped at for food or gas, were closed. Laird Hotsprings, a very popular natural swimming hole and gathering place, was completely shut down. For much of the route through northern British Columbia and across the Yukon, there were signs out on the road frontage thanking truckers. After a while, it made total sense. There is no one else driving these roads; just the truck drivers. One place I stopped at, near the Alaska border, there was a sign out front, and I did ask the owner about it. He told me that the truckers were the only reason he was open and able to stay afloat. No tourists, and only a few Alaskans like me, trying to get home.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the people of Canada wanted to honor the slain president. In November 1964, the Canadian government, following the suggestion of famed mountaineer, photographer and cartographer, Bradford Washburn, elected to name an unclimbed peak in the St Elias Mountain Range, Mount Kennedy.
RFK on Mount Kennedy
The mountain lies 145 miles from Whitehorse, YT, within Kluane National Park, and less than 10 miles from the Alaska panhandle. Mount Kennedy forms a triangle with Mount Alverstone and Mount Hubbard. At the time of the dedication, the mountain was the tallest (13,944 ft) unclimbed peak in the St Elias range.
National Geographic put together a team to make the first ascent of Mount Kennedy in 1965. The team was led by Jim Whittaker, who had been the first American to climb Mount Everest, and was made up of mostly experienced mountaineers. Also making the climb: Bobby Kennedy, to honor his fallen brother.
Jim Whittaker & Robert Kennedy on the summit
On 24 March 1965, the climbers made for the summit. This was Kennedy’s first taste of mountaineering. To add to the tension, RFK was no fan of heights. The other climbers insisted that politics was far more dangerous than climbing mountains, which would prove prophetic.
Crossing the Cathedral Glacier, Kennedy fell into a crevasse. Luckily, it was a narrow one, and he only went in to the waist, and quickly scrambled out. The final run to the summit is the most risky, as the climber has to traverse a narrow ledge with a sheer one thousand foot drop.
Photos credit: Whitehorse Star
Jim Whittaker and Bobby Kennedy would become good friends on the climb, a friendship that would last until Kennedy’s death. Whittaker would name one of his sons after the U.S. Senator.
50 Years Later:
The Whittaker Brothers
Fifty years after the original ascent of Mount Kennedy, the two sons of Jim Whittaker wanted to honor their father and his friend Robert Kennedy. They decided to climb the mountain themselves.
Leif Whittaker is an experienced climber like his father, but Bobby Whittaker had more experience in Seattle’s Grunge Scene than summiting mountains. Christopher Kennedy, the son of RFK, would join the Whittakers on the expedition.
Return to Mount Kennedy is the documentary about the two ascents. The footage from the original climb is pretty impressive to see.
I saw a screening of the documentary prior to the Coronavirus outbreak. It was put on by REI, the outdoors store, which had Jim Whittaker as its early CEO.
The documentary is available on several streaming platforms. The original National Geographic story can be found in the July 1965 edition of the magazine.