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It’s still springtime on the Denali Highway

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: June 11, 2018
  • Published June 10, 2018

Maclaren Summit at Milepost 35 of Denali Highway on Thursday, June 7, 2018. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

The leaves have yet to turn green and there are lakes along the roadside that can still be walked on, yet it is definitely spring on the Denali Highway. I would not recommend bringing your snowmobile, but it is also a bit early for the ATV to be effective transport.

The normal green-up date for the Maclaren River Valley is somewhere between the June 1 and 7. This morning, the 8th, there was a touch of green in the dwarf birch on the south-facing slopes.

The upper mountainsides are more white than brown. The feathered migrants are late, and a few are no-shows. The golden plovers that nest on 13-mile Hill are absent, as are the long-tailed jaegers. Arctic terns, common along the sandbars of the Maclaren, have yet to show. The first of the mew gulls arrived Thursday morning.

The ducks and swans have no such inhibitions when it comes to dealing with the ice and snow of a late spring. Every pothole has an abundance of waterfowl.

Mallards, which until recently have been scarce along the Denali, have arrived in increasing numbers this season. The songbirds are on schedule, though the thrushes and flycatchers, normally bug-eaters, are making their living in the blueberry patches with last year's crop.

No mosquitoes may not be wonderful for the birds, but it is a boon for visitors. The grayling are in the creeks. Tangle Lakes are open, other than a bit of floating ice on Round Tangle Lake. The bad news for lower Tangle campers is that the boat ramp cove is still iced up. The ramp at Tangle River Inn is ice-free and the Lodge is open for business.

All of the Denali Highway Lodges are up and running for the season. Tangle Lakes Lodge, just down the road from Tangle River Inn is open. Maclaren River Lodge is in full-season swing, as is Alpine Creek Lodge. Gracious House, under new ownership the past several summers, is now called Clearwater Mountains Lodge and is also open for business.

Although gas can be in short supply on the Denali Highway, Tangle River and Maclaren both have pumps. The south end of the Denali is served by Meiers Lake Roadhouse, 15 miles south of the Denali
Highway intersection on the Richardson Highway. Maclaren Lodge, at milepost 42 of the Denali, has tire service, including repairs and replacement.

The Denali is in decent shape this spring. The pavement on the east end worsens as you head west. Dips and humps are the order of the day. Mile 18 has a launch-pad in the north lane that could be used
for astronaut training.

The gravel is better than the paving, though the trip down the Maclaren Summit into the valley requires some careful navigating around soft spots. Once past Maclaren, the potholes gradually worsen, but the country and wildlife are interesting enough to keep most at a slow pace.

The new moose calves are near the roadsides as the mothers wait for the snow to clear in the upper valleys. The lack of leaves make moose extremely visible. Grizzlies, usually tough to spot in this brushy
country, also are conspicuous. I have seen two separate sets of sows with twins this spring between Paxson and Maclaren.

Caribou have been notably absent thus far. The migrating herds crossed the Richardson Highway in a hurry a month or so ago, and their numbers seemed a little light. An excellent place to spot caribou is 13-mile Hill, although it is likely that heavy snow in this area forced the animals farther to the south.

Late ice should mean good things for sport fishermen. The fish should just be beginning to be active this week. Paxson Lake went out on schedule on June 4.

Lake trout will bite as soon as the first of the whitefish begin to surface. Trout will take spoons and spinners, trolled or cast. The lack of weeds in the spring means that retrieval of the lure can be slowed enough to allow the slow-following trout to hit.

Wet flies or wooly worms should work for grayling in the creeks. Grayling are spawning so can be a little picky the first couple weeks of June. Silver spinners will also catch fish; Panther Martins or small Mepps seem to be best.

Fishermen should not overlook lake whitefish. These fish put up a good fight early in the season and readily take lures fished near the surface. A cast where the fish rise will almost always yield a bite.

The average lake whitefish is two pounds but they commonly go upwards of four pounds in Paxson Lake. Copper or gold-colored spinners are effective.

Summit Lake, just north of Paxson, is still tight with ice. Glacier Lake near the Maclaren Summit looks like you can still walk on it.

Despite the ice and snow, the Denali country is a wonderful place for a spring getaway. No bugs and no crowds make this area an attractive alternative for those wishing a scenic drive.

For those who enjoy springtime in Alaska, this is great opportunity to experience spring a second time.

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

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