John Schandelmeier: Winter's still got hold of the Denali Highway

John Schandelmeier

The first of the trumpeters swans touched down on schedule. At 9 a.m. on the morning of April 6, two were sitting in the open water outlet of Round Tangle Lake. Normally I check the outlet of Paxson Lake first, but the last dog race on the highway system was happening along the eastern end of the Denali Highway this past weekend. Tangle Lakes are right on the route. April is the best month of the year for getting out in the backcountry. Migrants are arriving, the days are long and the snow conditions are unbeatable for travel.

Snow it did on the sixth and seventh! Six inches and better fell through Isabel Pass and along the Denali Highway. The base snow was excellent all along the southern slope of the Alaska Range on the eastern end of the Denali. Surprisingly, as I traveled along the base of the Amphitheater Mountains, I ran across few snowmobile tracks. Most of the machine traffic seems to be by Isabel Pass, where the Arctic Man snowmobile event is to be held this coming week. Normally Arctic Man signals the end for most snowmobilers other than a few diehards who hunt spring bears. However, this season it was a mistake to put away the machine so early. The snow had a good crust just under the surface, which means the afternoon sun won't soften it easily, thus making travel possible throughout most of the day rather than just in the morning. Also, the spring storm of the last few days put enough powder on top to soften the ride.

I was able to travel cross country to get ahead of the teams running the Denali Dog 140 sled dog race. My old Tundra felt smooth as one of the new hot rods as I cruised across the new surface. The dogs' race trail was also smooth, as there is a groomed snowmobile trail all along the Denali Highway. The Cantwell end of the Denali is not so good, with less snow and some patches of ice and gravel. The Paxson end is completely snow-covered. Road plowing usually begins on the Denali immediately after the big snowmobile weekend in Isabel Pass.

It takes several weeks to open the highway so those who wish to ride can get off of the highway from multiple points as road clearing progresses. Please don't park where you might interfere with the plows. Remember also that if you park your truck near the end of the plowed section you may have to ride the ditch to get back to your vehicle. The road crew may clear the road beyond where you parked earlier in the day.

The good spring snow allows for easy access to southern slopes of the Range from Summit Lake this April. Remember to use caution around the inlets and outlets of area lakes. They are beginning to thaw, which is why the swans arrived this early. The water is deep, especially at the inlets and is sometimes covered only by a thin snow shell. At best they can ruin your day and at worst they can ruin your day forever. Use caution.

Our household finds it hard to give up the recreation of winter. Dogs run best on snow. Snowmobiles allow better access to the winter world than ATVs. Skis are a better mode of travel than boots. However, spring is inevitable and welcome. I spotted a bunny while on the dog team this morning and he was beginning to turn brown. A small "V" of geese crossed overhead, probably on their way to the Clearwater. The signs of spring are all around us, but this recent snowstorm tells us we don't have to give up on the perks of winter just yet.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.


John Schandelmeier
Outdoors Alaska