John Schandelmeier: Denali Highway region slowly awakens

John Schandelmeier

Snow. It isn't gone yet. There may be green leaves in the lowland, but the high country still is locked in snow. The Denali Highway is open between Paxson and Cantwell. But, if you decide to travel this way, bring your rubber boots. The roadside still has plenty of snow, especially on the eastern end. The creeks are open but the Maclaren and the Sue still have fast ice in the channels. Green grass is in the "hoping" stage. I did see one lonely fireweed starter, about an inch tall, on the banks of the Maclaren.

Mew gulls were sitting on the ice near Tangle Lakes waiting for the ice to go. My best guess is about three more weeks.

The Denali is a quiet place in late May. Traffic is almost nonexistent. It is a little early for out-of-state tourists, and most Alaskans opt to travel in places where spring has already arrived. However, many of the winged migrants from down south have arrived. Trumpeter swans, gulls and many of the ducks are in melt ponds, impatiently waiting for bigger water to open up. Parki squirrels are beginning to roust themselves along the summits.

These squirrels (Richardson's ground squirrels) have been out on the north end of Isabel Pass for weeks, as have the hoary marmots. Yet along the higher reaches of the Alaska Range they are still mostly in hibernation. Looking north from the highway, the range is almost pure white. The squirrels and marmots in the upper areas will not be out for another three or four weeks.

The length of some marmots' hibernation amazes me. Many of them are only awake for little more than three months. You think your kids can sleep?

The pika aren't out on top of the snow, but they are active in the talus slopes where they live. Pika don't hibernate. They remain active in their rock slide homes throughout the winter, surviving on dried grass they cached during the previous summer. If you are lucky, you may see them out soaking up sun around exposed rocks. Milepost 34 is a good place to stop and listen. Pika make a tell-tale squeak that sounds similar to a dog toy. Where the Denali turns to parallel the Susitna River, the snow is mostly gone. That is another good location for seeing pikas.

"Where can I see bears?" That is the most common question I hear in the spring along the highway. My answer is usually Anchorage. There aren't a lot of bears along the eastern end of the Denali in the spring. The snow is soft and stays late. Most of the grizzlies that hibernate in this area get up and move south, out of the snow, to find new growth. There's a little more bear activity along the west end of the Denali, especially near the Sue.

As spring progresses the snow becomes easier to travel through and the south-facing slopes become snow-free. Bears that frequent the slopes of the Alaska Range begin to move back out of the timber into more open country. Moose also follow the melting snow north, working their way to higher elevations as soon as feed becomes available. Late May to early June is a great time to spot new calves by the roadside.

The Nelchina caribou herd has already begun to move across the Richardson Highway on the way to calving areas in the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains. The relatively mild weather and normal snowmelt should not present the problems the caribou encountered during last season's late spring. The first of the herd should be visible in scattered groups along the Denali Highway soon.

The larger area lakes had relatively thin ice this past winter. Summit and Paxson Lakes had about 3 feet of ice. Snowpack was moderate over most of the area. The gradual thaw we are experiencing should mean a near normal ice-out in early June.

Fishermen don't need to wait until the lakes thaw to catch fish. Grayling are already in the creeks and lake inlets on the west end of the highway and will be moving into the streams on the eastern side before the end of May. Richardson Highway creeks should have their first fish by the end of the week. Lake trout are more active about a week after the ice goes, though I have had good success fishing along shorelines as soon as there is room to cast. The Big Lake whitefish bite well in the spring also.

My wife cries when the snow is gone; it isn't the same running dogs on the ATV. I understand that, but I do like to fish open water. I enjoy seeing the world around me awaken and stretch. However, like the marmots, three months of summer is enough for me. Besides, if one is on the Maclaren, there is no need to cry 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