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Outdoors/Adventure

It’s still winter in the Alaska Range, which is both good and bad

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: May 13, 2018
  • Published May 13, 2018

Crews work to clear the Denali Highway of snow earlier this month. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

It is spring in Anchorage. The leaves are green. The first dandelions, soon to be in bloom, are poking up along fence lines. Fairbanks and the Interior are not far behind.

However, a trip to the Denali Highway will put you in an entirely different world. Should you elect to drive to Paxson, bring your snowmobile or skis, because winter still has a hold on the Alaska Range.

Recent years have spoiled us. The past decade has provided progressively earlier spring weather. And so what seems to be a cold spring is actually close to what used to be the norm, at least for the Denali Highway.

Back in the day, when Paxson still had a viable population, there were Memorial Day softball games on the ice of Paxson Lake. There were times when we needed to bring a plank to bridge the open water along the shoreline to get on the ice. I have frequently snowmobiled from the Maclaren to Seven-Mile Lake (also known as Boulder Lake) in the last week of May and even into early June.

This season appears to be a throwback. There is more than six feet of snow in places along the Denali Highway. Tuesday's scheduled opening is projected to be delayed until the end of the month.

Sportsmen should rejoice in that.

There are plenty of places in the lowlands where lakes are opening up along the edges. Fishing will be picking up soon on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Valley.

The snow in the high country gives outdoorsmen another option. Don't mothball that snowmobile just yet. The snow pack along the Denali is soft and slushy by afternoon, almost impossible to travel across. However, if you get going by 3 a.m., a 10-mile trip is a matter of a mere 20 minutes. Think of the hard-to-access lakes that can now be fished.

Plan your trip with care. Spring travel by snowmobile needs to be completed before noon. The overnight crust will not hold past midday.

Take a tent and plan on an overnight run to an unfamiliar lake. Dickey Lake, Swede, Seven-Mile, Fish Lake, and Petrokov Lake are all within a short snowmachine jaunt from the Denali Highway.

Skiers will also have an easy time of it. A small pulk can easily carry a lot of gear, and there will be minimal drag on the slick, frozen surface.

Skiers have the advantage of being able to travel later in the day. A person on skis can frequently still move for several hours after the last of the snowmobilers are shut down.

Bear hunters can also benefit from a good May snow pack. The denning areas in the Alphabet Hills and the Upper Susitna are now easily accessible, and the bears have been out and moving for a month. Look for them on south-facing, snow-free slopes in the afternoons.

Migrating birds and animals are not as fortunate as hunters and anglers.

The birds are hungry. Snow-free blueberry patches are at a minimum this spring, and waterfowl are not finding open water at the outlets of lakes. Robins are congregating in snow-free roadsides in search of food.

The Nelchina caribou are just now beginning to cross the Richardson Highway north of Sourdough en route to the spring calving grounds in the Talkeetna Mountains. Deep snow and swollen river crossings could present problems for newborn calves. The temperatures over the next several weeks will dictate the success or failure of the breeding season for much of our wildlife.

Why don't the animals and birds just drop slightly further south into snow-free areas and avoid the marginal conditions in the mountains?

Some, like ducks, do just that. Trumpeter swans do not seem quite as flexible, and pairs may skip breeding during years when there is late ice, or hatch late and hope for a delayed fall so the young of the season have time to learn to fly.

Songbirds are quite adaptable in their choice of food sources and appear able to hold off breeding until conditions warrant. The super abundant insects in tundra areas during June and July leave plenty of time for a successful brood.

Caribou are programmed to return to traditional calving areas. Should the snow hang in there, cows could then drop calves along the migration route, compromising their survival rate. Fortunately, the Nelchina herd is healthy and probably could withstand a poor recruitment year.

Late snow. Good and bad. Not so good for breeding wildlife, but high water tables and wet tundra provide excellent feeding opportunities. Quite good for the sportsman who enjoys late-winter activities, but bad for businesses that depend on spring tourists.

Either way, those who appreciate getting outdoors can find a way to make the most of what nature sends our way.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. 

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