I arrived back at the car from after a couple of hours hiking around on Matanuska Glacier, and my clothes were still wet. Although the day on the glacier had been beauty-filled and grand, I had learned a steep lesson on glacier safety.
We reached Matanuska Glacier just as the sun was starting to come out again. During the drive up the Matanuska Valley the sun illuminated the mountains that rose high on each side, and the Matanuska river lay below us along the curvy, Glenn Highway. As we stood in the parking lot we could see a 4 mile-wide swath of ice at the front of the glacier called the terminal moraine. From there the glacier stretched back over 26 miles into the mountains! We walked down the safest path of firm glacial silt and ice, which was marked by orange cones. In a few more minutes we stepped onto the full glacier.
Hindsight is always 20/20, which is why I now realize that stepping away from the orange cones which marked the “safe trail” was more risky than I previously thought. In a quest for images I moved through the ice hills of the glacier looking for pools of water to shoot reflection shots from. I walked through ankle deep, sticky mud towards higher ground where the glacier had deposited a gravel pile. From there I stepped to the edge of some flowing water, stuck out my toe to test the depth of the water, and immediately slipped off the ice edge and into the water. I never hit bottom!! The flowing water had cut a deep, deep pool which I now found myself in up to my shoulders. During the fall I was fortunate to have turned myself around quickly, so I put my elbows up on the edge of the glacier and pulled myself back out. In the fall my camera and tripod fell into a pile of glacial silt, and fortunately not into water with me. The incident lasted only a few seconds before I was back on solid ground and moving quickly away from that deep pool. I stripped off my wet shirt for warmth, used it to begin cleaning my camera, and shook a bit as the adrenaline set in.
What is particularly annoying (to me) and perturbing about the situation, is that I was not doing any unnecessarily risky. In fact, when I slipped in I was testing the water before stepping in. So, I’m now asking you to learn from me – test unknown and murky pools with a long stick, rather than a short toe!
Aside from a scrape with death, our day at Matanuska Glacier was remarkable. The gallery and images below details the gigantic ice face as well as the tiny details of the glacier.
A small rivulet of water pours into a crevasse.
The glacier till in this picture is created by the glacier as it grinds the river valley down.
The blue ice of the peaks of the Matanuska Glacier lit up as the sun came out.
A valley of ice holds a small pond of water on the Matanuska Glacier.
Like a chick pecking its way out of a shell, one by one the patches of snow fell off the trees of the forest. As each ounce was shed from the trees, they raised up their still lifeless twigs up as if glorifying the sun, thanking it for removing the burden of many months. Throughout the forest cascades of snow starting from the tops of the highest branches tumbled and glinted like diamonds in the sun as the chunks were forced through the sifter of small branches by gravity. The warm rays of sun, an unknown entity through winter, warmed the dark branches. One by one they were free.
The first time you taste spring after the winter is a moment of true joy. The resilience to cold developed through the winter makes you bold enough to walk in the 30 degree temps in a flannel. Moist air on your lips from evaporating snow, the heat of the sun on your face, and a touch of warm breeze on your face may make you bound for joy. Literally bound. It’s a bound that brings a smile to your face, and if others saw you, they would smile too. The feeling of spring is infectious.
Watching the bonds of spring being softened and eventually broken is a great thing! As the sun warmed my face this week the world was a visual wonder. Snow fell from the trees in smatterings and piles, sliding off from its own weight or from external catalysis. Busy chickadees feeding around the well-stocked feeder at my house perched on twigs, gleaned through the branches, soaked up the heat, and ensured all of the snow was sloughed away from the imprisoned trees before taking flight again.
The first taste of spring is bittersweet. The knowledge that it ‘came too soon’ only pushes me to enjoy it more while I can. Winter certainly will try to take hold once again, and I will inwardly smile knowing that the next time it may be vanquished for good.
A few days ago the winter wonderland at the Sustainable Village was erased in an afternoon. I realized that the moment was happening so quickly that it could be captured on camera. Setting my up my camera I timelapsed the scene for the rest of the day. As you watch this video, focus on a spot and watch the change. I hope it gives you cheer and excitement for spring. Even if it is just a taste!
So, this is actually a post that has been a long time in the making. I’ve been back-logged a bit on posting this one. Did you know that’s why the call a blog a blog? Blog just stands for Back-logged. Anway, bad joke. So here’s the background on this post. A majority of the pictures and tales come from Kass’ and my journey up here in August. We visited the park then as part of a trip to the Anchorage region and is the part that I’ve meant to write about for some time. The other part of the descriptions and pictures come from a field trip I took to Denali the last weekend in September to observe moose rutting behavior. And then, to top it all there’s some events observed outside of the park that were cool and noteworthy, so there’s some pictures of that too. So, here we go!
When Kass and I got to Denali we were in for a big surprise: you cannot pass mile 15 of the park road with a personal vehicle. I had no idea a national park would restrict access like that! So, the only resaonable way to get in is on the tour buses and those trips had varying different lengths along the road. We decided to take the Wonder Lake bus tour which was 10 HOURS on the bus, but did bring us into the park almost as far as you can go. I will just say now that, although a 10 hour bus ride is long, and we didn’t get to stop at destinations long enough to truly appreciate them, we both agreed that we were happy we made it all the way into the park even as just ‘tourists’. I certainly have plans to return there with a bike and trek the entire park road. Hopefully whenever ‘summer’ comes here again, not likely until July.
So, without further ado, here’s a short natural history, based on my learning, of Denali National Park. I will be grouping the different aspects of the park visit in the blog rather detailing each mile.
Of course there is one really big reason to go to Denali national park, and that’s to see Mt. McKinley – also known as Denali. Denali is KoyukonAthabaskan for “The High One”. It is the largest peak in North America and rises up over 18,000 feet from the base to its summit. The rise of Denali is what makes it so extraordinary. However, not a large percentage of the visitors in the park each year actually see the peak as it hides behind clouds often. We actually found a day when the sun broke through the clouds and we could see it! For us it was a fortunate break, as the weather had been cloudy the days preceding our trip, was cloudy most of the day we were on the trip (except for the 1 break) and was cloudy after that. I guess we were meant to see it!
Of course there are other mountains within Denali National Park as well. One of the other noteable ranges were the polychrome mountains. The Polychrome mountains are a part of The Cantwell Volcanics and include basalt and rhyolite flows (Wikipedia),There were quite colorful. Although, I must say that the panorama could do them more justice. There are many, many good pictures of the colors of these mountains online. If you are interested be sure to check those out! Think rainbows + mountains. I guess you’ll have to see them for yourself!
Of course the look and feel mountains can change rapidly! Here are pictures from September 29th in the Savage river valley area while I was there for a field trip. Snow covered mountains were layered in fog and clouds. The reds in the front of the mountains was stunning. While we stood there snow started to fly and it continued throughout the night into Sunday morning. They closed the park for the season due to the snow on Sunday, so we were fortunate to get in when we did!
Denali national park is renowned for its wildlife. Part of that renown derives directly from the restrictions placed on tourist traffic- I should quit my griping about long bus rides, as it still beats the throngs of buffalo watchers at Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife in the region thrive due to intact ecosystems and no hunting pressure within the park. Many individuals leave the park boundaries, and can be pursued and harvested at that time. The park has ‘the big four’ of mega-fauna and at any time they may stick their head above a ridge, so observation is essential. Actually it was one of the entertaining parts of the bus ride because we were instructed to yell “STOP!” if we saw anything big. Imagine yelling out bingo because it some ways it was competitive like bingo (who could see it first) and was just as enjoyable. The caveat of the ‘stop’ theory is our bus driver was an older gentleman, named John, and he couldn’t hear well, especially over the diesel bus. So people in the back really had to let him know. Once we were stopped it was an inching game and John did his best to take directions from multiple, camera wielding bus riders looking to line up that ‘perfect’ shot. The rules of the game were to call out anything interesting, but most of the riders there wanted to see moose, dall sheep, caribou or bears. We were fortunate to get all of them. The first of the big four that we came upon was the mighty bull moose. Moose in the park are big due to their protection, and these guys pictured here are no exception! At this time of year the moose were gathering in the valleys for the rutting season.
Like I mentioned these moose were here with a purpose and that purpose was to meet other males and then either scare them off, or if that doesn’t work fight with them. I was fortunate enough to be back in the park during the rutting season and observing bull moose from a distance up and down the Savage River Valley. I got to observe several key and cool behaviors of moose including:
Territorial displays – male moose will stand face to face in an old west shoot-out style and sway their heads back and forth. If one backs down at this point there is no harm done. It’s the least aggressive way to win the cows for a harem
Rut pits – male moose dig pits with their front feet and then pee in them and rub other hormones into them. Did you ever wonder why male moose have the long beard in front under their chin? When they get into the rut pit they make sure to splash plenty of ‘unpleasants’ onto the beard and then will rub those acquired smells on the cows for their approval, effectively basting them. Cows will also sniff the rut pits and it is suspected that they can tell the maturity of a bull based on the hormones that it puts out
Harems- we saw two different bulls with harems. A harem is a group of cows that will breed with the bull that has won them. The bull may lose the harem to another bull at any time up until the cows are bred. Once a bull starts into the rut it will barely sleep or eat and may loose up to 600 pounds in some of the larger bulls. For instance, my professor talked about an instance where a bull was known to start at 1500 pounds and shrink to 900. WOW! 1-800-94-JENNY anyone?
For better or for worse we saw many of these moose from far away – so much for wildlife photographer of the year awards on this trip! However, I did take this one set of a video of a distant, large, bull moose chasing after 2 cows in his harem. I think it gives pretty good perspective on how far away we were and also of some of the scenery. Of note in this video: NEVER TRY TO OUTRUN A MOOSE. I couldn’t believe how fast they were able to travel!!
The next in the list of the big four were caribou. We got some really great looks at these animals. I have actually learned some pretty interesting things about caribou. Did you know the females are one of the few (or only??) ungulates to grow antlers? Females actually use them to fend off other females from feeding grounds when calves are present. Lichen, their main source of food, can be a commodity. So it’s important to protect what you have! The caribou herds were just starting to travel for the wintering grounds when we were on our trip.
Another one of the big four in the park were the dall sheep. These sheep were actually hunted to near extinction in history past, so it’s great to see them back in large numbers! It’s important to look waaay up for these guys, as they are mountain extraordinaires and are renowned for their ability to cling to small ledges and make dareing dashes up near impossible slopes. They are always shock white and are known for their impressive horn curls. We didn’t get too close to these sheep, so use your imagination a bit on those white dots you see! At least one of them is the ram. Can you tell?
To round off the big four I would be reminisce if I didn’t talk about the bears! We got to observe bears two times while on the trip. The first time was very close, and you’ll see that below. It was a lone bear, probably a male, that was foraging on berries and anything else in the shrubs. He meandered up the draw before walking mere yards behind the bus. It’s really interesting being in the bus beause the wildlife has less tendency to ‘see’ you. They certainly see the bus, but that doesn’t really spook them. Bears are a little different though, I don’t think they give a d*** either way. You know what I mean? :p. The second bear sighting was at a distance, but a mother and two cubs were running around and playing with each other on a hillside.
In regards to bears a brown bear is the same as a grizzly bear and both of those are actually the same as a Kodiak Brown Bear. Kodiak’s are renowned for their large size (males in the range of 1500 pounds) but their size is entirely driven by the rich fish diet they get in the Kodiak Island region. If those same bears were transplanted to Denali they would shrink to Denali size- about 700 pounds in big males.
Not all of the mammals in Denali are huge. We did come across this fox who was actively hunting along the road. I think he was using the bus to scare up birds, crafty fox! I didn’t see him snag any, but he came awfully close a couple of times. His behavior was to pad along in front of the bus and as birds came out of the bushes to pursue him. He then jumped into a draw which is where he was photographed here, ears perked and still fully on the hunt.
One of the predominant birds in Alaska are the grouse and the ptarmigan. They all can be a bit hard to tell apart. Once you get the grouse vs the ptarmigan you still need to figure out which of the ptarmigan you are looking at, which can be nearly impossible. I’ve found this resource from the AK fish and game. Use it to help me compare the pictures below, and we’ll see if you think I got them right. (http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/hunting/smallgamehunting/pdfs/alaska_grouse_ptarmigan.pdf) I won’t put any captions on the photos other than numbers and you can look up the answers below.
So here’s the answers as far as I can tell. # 1 is a willow ptarmigan. It’s characterized by red breat and those big ptarmigan feet (which you can’t see). She’s all ruffled up here. I know she’s a she because she was surrounded by her chicks, who were about half grown. Willow ptarmigan are VERY hard to discern from rock ptarmigan. In this case I’m going sheerly on the habitat that she was found in, and I’m not sure if that’s valid or not. #2 is a spruce grouse, not a ptarmigan at all! . Did you guess correctly on #3? If you got # 2 then you should get # 3! Spruce grouse! I threw you a little double there 🙂
Another one of the birds in the park is the magpie. They are one of my favorite birds for their curious nature and natural intelligence. When I jumped out of the car this one and several others came pretty close looking for handouts. I wasn’t too impressed by that! But was it was nice to have him close for the pictures. They really are a colorful bird, in the right light that tail lights up green as a ‘go light’!
The last bird I wanted to highlight was the white fronted goose. This bird was actually a ‘lifer’ ( I hadn’t seen one before) so it was pretty special! These geese had managed to raise a family on this lake for the summer. I bet they didn’t hang around too much longer after we left the park. Those lakes would have been frozen soon!
Denali was one of my first exposures tundra plants. I actually don’t have to much to say about these plants because I really don’t know too much about their ecology. Maybe the pictures will tell enough! The best I can give is the name, if you are ready and know some ecology fill me in!
IT’S NO WONDER IT’S CALLED WONDER!
We finally reached wonder lake at mile 84 (I think, or was it 87?) Anway, it was incredible! The lake stretched out before us and was very calm. Kass set about picking berries and I spent my time hunting for birds and pictures to take. I’m looking forward to getting back to Wonder Lake on my own accord and spending some time there. Hopefully the days can all be be like this one was! This will conclude the Denali section. But a few extra pictures are below from different destinations and species. Thanks for reading everyone!!
So the rest of this blog is just dedicated to some nice Alaskan scenery that is found between Denali and Anchorage but that don’t really fit into a blog entry. I will include a little commentary here and there:
This weekend was my first weekend to get out and enjoy the beautiful fall weather of Alaska. It had been a pretty rainy, dreary week. But at 11AM on Saturday morn the sun broke through the clouds and has been shining ever since! I headed up to Murphy Dome (http://goo.gl/X9dL3k) for some grouse and ptarmigan hunting. I was blown away by the mixture of spruce and fiery birch that were EVERYWHERE. Up here we have the ‘alaskan paper birch’, which is very similar to the white paper birch of the mid-west.
One of the unusual things about this fall in Fairbanks has been the amount of rain we received. Of course, I can’t say ‘unusual’ from my experience here, rather just based on what others have said. Because of the amount of rain that we received the fall fungi have been very common! I love how their dark reds, browns and yellows offset the golden carpet of birch leaves around them. I think they are very beautiful, however, don’t eat these ones! I’m not sure of the exact species, I think it could be amanita muscaria, but I know others in this family will kill you. It’s been described to me as such : “yup, you’ll trip balls, then you’ll die”. So, please, re-frame from any licks or bites. Interested in a bit more information about these shrooms? Check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria
Once I got past the fall colors (and it truly is more of a physical barrier than a metaphorical one!) I headed up to Ester Dome region and started to walk around looking for grouse and ptarmigan. As I headed up a powerline cut I was immediately astounded by the volume of blueberries and low bush cranberries. They were EVERYwhere. I had never seen blueberries like that in my life. During my walk I foraged until my stomach told me “no more!”; I imagine I was at the 1/2 gallon point of blueberries and cranberries in my stomach. However, my blueberry findings only got better. After a time I started to walk down this steep draw to a river bed. The trickling stream I found at the bottom was filled with blueberry plants that were almost waist high and could have been bowing to the ground by the numbers of blueberries on them. I knew that I had to do some picking here soon ( that’s called foreshadowing… 🙂 ) and would be back. However, with no grouse in sight I headed back up the draw and found out that walking up moss covered hill sides is absolutely grueling! The best analogy I can think of is walking on a thermopedic mattress that’s 8 inches deep and doesn’t have a box spring to stop you at the bottom. Its like quick sand. The moss and lichen absorbed each step, much like I was wearing moon boots. Coupled with a 15 – 20 % grade and a 3/4 mile straight-up ascent I was beat when hit the ridge again. However, I was rewarded soon after with 2 spruce grouse, my first ever!
After this I met up with a guy named Ross and we headed up to the top of Murphy Dome looking for Ptarmigan. Murphy dome was the highest point for miles around, and the view were truly incredible. We never did see any ptarmigan, but the hike and the day were incredible!
The next day I went back for the blueberries. In a nutshell I was able to pick about 18 pints of blueberries in 1.75 hours! I have never, never,never seen wild blueberry picking like it was in this place. The berries were ready to fall off the bushes, so all you had to do was get your box under and shake the branches. The disadvantage of this technique was the sticks and leaves that fell into the box as well, however, by placing the blueberries in water when I got home they separated out perfectly as the blueberries sank and the sticks/leaves floated! I am looking forward to going back for more berries as this patch. Of course one of the challenges of this location is carrying 20lbs of blueberries in a box up thermopedic mattress hill. Challenge accepted!
I’m truly looking forward to blueberry pie when winter sets in! I’m also thinking of doing some bartering for some moose or caribou. Also, I just thought I’d throw out there that if you ever get a chance to ‘spruce’ up your stir-fry. Try spruce grouse stirfry! Pretty tasty. Pictured here are broccoli, carrots, tomato, green pepper, and mushroom stirfry with spruce grouse 🙂
So readers, that’s a little bit about fall here in AK over the weekend! We have consistent frost at this time, and the ground is frozen in many of the low places. Currently it is dark at about 8:30 and light about 7:30, however we are losing an average of 7 minutes of light PER DAY, so ~50 minutes per week. It will not be long before our days are short and cold. Winter will be setting in soon! I hope to keep you updated as I continue to explore and learn about my region and AK in general!