As Denali National Park shivers through a frigid May, businesses trying to thaw out for summer face freezing pipes and delayed openings as visitors start to arrive at the park.
“It’ll be a story to tell for the next 10 years,” said Dave McCarthy, owner of the Denali Park Salmon Bake in the canyon outside of the park entrance.
A slew of gift shops, hotels, outdoor tours businesses and restaurants outside of the park shutter their doors for the winter and reopen every spring as visitors flock north to see Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America.
But this winter won’t let go: Fresh snowfall over the weekend, followed by temperatures in the teens and mid-20s through the weekend culminated with a record low of 14 degrees Saturday morning. The chill disrupted local businesses trying to get their seasons started.
'True Alaska spirit'
McCarthy decided to go ahead with the planned opening of the Salmon Bake on May 17, despite stormy weather and problems with his water lines. “In true Alaska spirit, we don’t stop,” he said.
But first, the Salmon Bake had to solve a few water-supply issues. The first hurdle was getting water to its main storage tanks, located up a hill too slippery for water trucks to climb. So mechanics connected hoses to the trucks and pumped the water up the hill. Finally by Saturday, trucks were able to drive the hill again.
Second, the Salmon Bake had to protect its water pumps from freezing at night when temperatures dipped into the teens. So McCarthy came up with a plan. Mechanics are now removing the water pumps every night so they don’t get damaged and reattaching them in the morning. “We expect (to do) this for another two or three nights,” he said.
The Salmon Bake’s two maintenance workers have been working 12 to 16 hour shifts, McCarthy said. “We owe them a lot.”
The cabins at the Salmon Bake are still closed, however, and money has been refunded to early-season guests. The additional work has also cost the Salmon Bake, “but that’s what happens when you own a business in Denali,” McCarthy said.
Other businesses remain closed.
'Three weeks behind'
On Monday afternoon, Denali Air Flightseeing Tours was still struggling to clear its airstrip, 10 days after the company planes usually take to the skies.
“We’re probably three weeks behind where we should be,” owner R.D. Rosso said. The airstrip needs to be free of snow and completely dry before planes can take off, but Friday’s snowfall reversed the progress workers had made clearing the strip before the weekend.
Denali Air has canceled two dozen flights thus far. That’s about $30,000 in lost revenue, not including additional maintenance costs, Rosso estimated. He hopes to start flying planes by Wednesday.
His business is also dealing with frozen water lines and bursting hoses. “You name it, it’s a big hassle for everybody,” Rosso said.
Businesses on the boardwalk across from the larger hotels, including the Black Bear Coffee House, also lack water. Black Bear owner Becki Klauss estimates that she’ll lose a week of revenue by the time the business opens, perhaps $20,000. “It’s hard to make that feel OK,” she said.
With many of the businesses closed, visitors “are just walking around all over the place, looking kind of lost,” Klauss said.
Stu Hayes, manager of the Canyon Gift and Denali Outlet gift shops, has opened his stores, but they still lack water. Hayes said that thawing pipes typically cause troubles earlier in May, but "at this point it’s usually not a problem."
Businesses along the boardwalk have port-a-pottys out back, a usual occurrence at the beginning of the season. Hayes has never seen the portable toilets used so late in the season.
But folks seem to be in high spirits, Hayes said. “This is Alaska. They’ve got to know that coming in.”
'Grumpiest people are Alaskans'
Parks 229 restaurant is one of a handful of businesses in the canyon that stays open year-round, thus avoiding problems with frozen pipes. Still, “it’s a little overwhelming for everybody,” owner Laura Cole said. “Everyone is anxious for the weather to turn.”
At Denali National Park, crews were clearing the Kantishna air strip at the end of the park’s winding 92-mile road on Monday. The park got up and running over the weekend, with the visitor center open but employing portable toilets until water came online on Sunday. The restaurant didn't open until Monday.
Denali National Park is used to cold temperatures, spokesperson Kris Fister said, but this year it’s been different because of all the snow still on the ground.
The buses are up and running, she said, but “visitors going out to Toklat will see a far snowier landscape” than usual. But the last 60-plus miles to Wonder Lake are still closed.
Still, visitors are “taking it in stride,” Fister said. “The grumpiest people are Alaskans.”
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com