The easy winter of 2017 is almost over. It is unknown what 2018 will bring. Long-range forecasts indicate the unseasonable temperatures of November and December will begin to decline into a more normal pattern for the remainder of the winter.
So be it. I have absolutely enjoyed the above-zero December.
The warm weather has brought some of the best snow in years to most of the Interior. The Denali Highway has been especially fortunate. Several feet of snow with an uncharacteristic high moisture content is on the ground in the Paxson area. Heavy snow has covered much of the brush and all of the rocks. Snowmobiling is excellent on the east end of the Denali Highway and in Isabel Pass.
The area 10 miles north of Paxson, known locally as "The Monument," has a base usually not found until March. Snowmobilers, rejoice.
Ptarmigan hunters will find excellent traveling conditions off the highways, although hunters need to remember that ptarmigan season closed in Unit 13B on Nov. 30. The rest of the unit is open until the end of March.
Nelchina caribou hunters will still find caribou on the west end of the Denali. The snow depth from milepost 62 on to Cantwell is somewhat skimpier than that on the east end of the highway, so the caribou are able to move and dig for food.
Tangle Lakes is normally very windblown and therefore usually has a few caribou that hang out for most of the winter. This winter is an exception — there is good snow on all of the lakes and across the normally windswept 13-mile hill. The caribou are gone.
The caribou have moved on, but moose are in evidence and are reluctant to give up decent traveling of the road to jump into the soft and somewhat crusted snow in the brush. Be aware that some moose may challenge skiers, dog teams and even snowmobiles for rights to the trail.
There is a good snowmobile trail all of the way across the Denali from Paxson to Cantwell. Alpine Creek Lodge, located at milepost 68, is a full-service lodge open year-round, and the trail from Cantwell to Alpine is well-traveled on a daily basis. The east end is much quieter. The parking area at Paxson is plowed, but the trail is used several times a week at best.
Traffic will pick up after Maclaren River Lodge reopens in early January. If you opt to travel from the Paxson side, come prepared. No one lives at Paxson these days. Carry enough equipment to start your own vehicle without electricity if the temperature drops. Meiers Lake Roadhouse, 15 miles south of Paxson on the Richardson is open but has limited hours. The Paxson DOT maintenance facility is located a quarter-mile north of the Denali intersection.
Despite the remoteness, this area has tremendous recreational potential.
There are numerous lakes that are rarely fished. All of the lakes hold lake trout, and there is little ice. Fishermen need to use caution near inlets and outlets and will find only about a foot of ice elsewhere.
Dickey Lake at milepost 173 on the Richardson had 10 inches of ice, and none of the char I saw come up were smaller than that.
Early January is one of the best months for big lakers near the surface. There are spawning populations of lake whitefish in Paxson, Summit and Dickey lakes. The big trout that feed on them are active.
Thin ice with lots of heavy snow make for overflow conditions, so before blasting off across a lake on a snowmachine, check conditions first. Shovels are a handy tool in overflow situations.
The key to a fun and successful expedition in the Denali area is preparedness, especially if you bring family. School is out, so this may be a great chance to have a pleasant winter camping trip with the kids. The moderate temperature makes everything a bit more manageable for all.
Load up a decent tent, good sleeping bags, cots if you have them (spruce branches work if you don't), fishing poles, snowshoes and an ice chisel. Should fishing not be your thing, bring sleds for the kids. If tent camping doesn't seem appealing, Meiers Lake has rooms available. Break up your winter and get out of town. 2018 is on its way.
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 International Sled Dog Race.