Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Alaska's Denali National Park

Over 100 years ago, Charles Sheldon and Harry Karstens spent a winter in a cabin near Alaska's Tolkat River and were so influenced by the experience that they embarked on a campaign to create the first national park designed to protect wildlife, and after a decade, in 1917, Mount McKinley National Park was established. Four years later, the legendary outdoorsman and dog musher, Harry Karstens, was named its first superintendent. In 1980 it was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve, and in 2015, North America's highest peak, Mt. McKinley was renamed Mt. Denali which is its local Athabaskan name meaning "the great one."

This immense park encompasses six million acres of land which is bisected by one 92 mile long unpaved road which visitors aren't allowed to drive on beyond mile 15. Only special permit vehicles can join the "green buses" which are loaded with visitors on the road. The bus drivers are also well versed in naturalism, local history, and Native culture, and give a running commentary on what you are observing during this all-day outing -- it's a 170 mile round-trip with stops along the way. I camped in the park three times during my eight weeks in Alaska in 2004 and I took this bus trip twice, and each time the driver spotted all of Denali's "big five" --  the mammals that the park is famous for -- namely bears (black and grizzly), Dall sheep, wolves, caribou, and moose.

Mt. Denali is the centerpiece of the national park being the highest mountain on the continent at 20,310 feet. Denali''s base-to-peak rise of 18,000+ feet is the greatest in the world. Captain George Vancouver documented the first sighting of the mountain in 1794, and the first recorded attempt to climb it was in 1903. The first summit of the peak was in 1913 by a four man team that included Harry Karstens, one of the two men who championed its preservation as a national park and the man who served as its first superintendent. In September of 2015, the U. S. Geological Society declared the mountain was "only" 20,310 feet tall, not 20,320 feet as measured in 1952 using photogrammetry. Below is an unobstructed photo of the mountain, something only 30% of visitors experience since the mountain creates its own weather and is often obscured by clouds.

After hiking to the top of Mt. Healy, elevation 3425 feet, near the park's entrance, we can see the gravel park road far below as it begins its lengthy traverse of the park and heads into the distance, just to the right of a winding river.

Below are two photos showing the sights seen from the green bus tour...

The coldest recorded temperature in Denali is -55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Denali provides a special opportunity to scientists -- the ability to study an immense, intact, naturally-functioning ecosystem at work.

The bus tour stops at one of the river crossings, though the river is seasonal and at its fullest during snowmelt time. These rivers are called "braided rivers" which are created by the high sediment load the water carries, sediment (gravel and rocks and sometimes boulders) from the melting glaciers. This forms various and shifting channels as seen by the water flow here. The river beds never fill up because the glaciers that carved the river beds were far larger than the snowmelt and rain storms can achieve. Annual snowfall varies from 13 inches to 174 inches throughout the park. The road bridge is seen in the background.

Wonder Lake at mile 85 is the end of the bus route before turning back. Visitors will find a spartan campground and some beautiful scenery, and that's all. The lake, created during the latest glacial advance, is too young to support abundant wildlife -- four species of fish, occasional migratory birds, and the rare caribou swimming across to escape summer insects.

As seen below, the underbrush is dense around Wonder Lake and throughout the park. The few existing trails are near the park entrance. The backcountry has NO trails, NO designated routes, and NO established backcountry campsites. The backcountry is the size of Vermont and is divided into 87 units, half of which have a limit on the number of hikers allowed per night. All the regulations and procedures are outlined here. Two weeks of my time in Alaska were with a Sierra Club outing and one of our backpacks was in Denali State Park across the highway from the national park because of the strict restrictions for backpacking in the national park. But of course, the terrain was very similar. Photos and info about that trip are here.

The following three photos show some of Denali's wildlife.   The Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska's state bird)...

The grizzlies predominate in the open tundra areas while the black bears prefer the forested areas of the park...


One bus stop is at Eielesen Visitor Center at mile 66 where I took this photo of antlers from moose and caribou. The caribou antler weights over 20 pounds! Caribou and moose antlers are not made of bone but keratin (the key structural material of human hair and nails) and the antlers are shed each year and re-grown the next year. Animals with horns keep them since they are bone and permanently part of the body. Caribou are a member of the deer family and the only species where males and females both can form antlers.

Two bull moose were fighting and one embedded a tine in the eye socket of the other, entangling them to the extent they couldn't separate, so they both died. A pack of wolves came upon the moose (whether alive or already dead isn't known) and had a bountiful meal of over a thousand pounds of meat!

Park Rangers still patrol the park throughout the long winter, despite below-zero temperatures, gale force winds, blinding snow, overflow ice, and long hours of darkness. Since this is designated wilderness, mechanized travel is not allowed so the rangers use dog sleds for winter travel and stay in log cabins like the Savage Cabin three photos below.

Dogs and dogsleds have been a mainstay at Denali since the park began and the tradition continues, both for tradition's sake and practicality since the dogs are still used to pull rangers and sleds all winter. About 30 dogs are kept in the Denali kennels to pull three working sled patrols at a time. The kennels are open to visitors and there's even a webpage for the dogs and kennels!

The Savage Cabin is one of the original cabins built by crews in 1924-1925, though its location was changed in 1940. Cabins that are near the road are manned all summer by rangers who patrol the road and backcountry, and some are used during winter patrols.

The park's eastern boundary is the Nenana River which I rafted while there, an 11 mile journey through Nenana Gorge and its class 3 and 4 rapids. The water is so cold we all wear dry suits, not wet suits, which fit tightly at the neck and wrists to keep water out, and which also have footies built into the suit. Helmets are also required since the Alaska Railway runs along the river and over the decades has had derailments, so metal from tracks and railcars are in the river at places, as well as huge rocks.

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