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Along the Denali Highway, snow is a go but ice is dicey

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: November 22, 2019
  • Published November 22, 2019

The weather is on everyone’s mind. Where the heck is the snow? Where is winter? It is colder in Minnesota than in Southcentral Alaska. Mat-Su has no ice on the lakes to speak of. In Minnesota folks north of Duluth are sneaking out on lakes to ice fish. People around the Alaska road system are driving their trucks into the water, thinking there is ice.

There is no safe ice anywhere on the road system. Paxson Lake and Summit Lake froze around the first week in November. There were a few cold days right after freeze-up, followed by a dump of heavy snow that settled the ice. Overflow resulted, followed by more minor cold, and things were looking good. That has all gone south.

Now nothing is safe. You might think with a fast snowmachine you could cross most anything. Maybe. What about the tracks you leave? The next dude sees them and tries to follow ... a sinker. The ice is no good. That is fact.

However, the snow is great. The hills around Summit have plenty of snow to get into the mountains. There has been plenty of snowmobile traffic in the area.

The Denali Highway is wonderful. There is snow all of the way from Cantwell to Paxson. As of Friday, it was groomed as far as Alpine Lodge at Milepost 68. Alpine Creek is open and operating.

It was snowing hard on the Denali late in the week, but dog mushers were planning to put in a trail all the way to Paxson as soon as weather permitted. There is nothing at Maclaren for travelers, nor will there be until February when Alan and Susie reopen.

Travelers who wish to head out along the Denali from the Paxson end will encounter the same situation as the past several years. Paxson Lodge is closed permanently. Meiers Lake, 15 miles to the south, has fuel and some services, but has very limited hours. As always when traversing from the east end of the highway, be prepared to fend for yourself.

I would recommend an ax and good fire-starting materials for travel. A generator or a weed-burner to start your vehicle would be a benefit when you return. That would be the absolute minimum. In case of minor disasters, the DOT shop is open. The parking area near the entrance of the Denali is plowed and will be maintained.

There is fun to be had in the area. The Denali is one of the few areas that is holding snow. There are still caribou around. The snow in the highlands has brought the ptarmigan down to places where hunters are able to access them. They seem tame this year. Several days ago, I caught one in my hand when he was late to fly.

In spite of unsafe lakes, fishing should be fair. Just don’t drive your motorized machinery out on the ice. Use the ax I recommended and check out every step. No two lakes are the same. You can walk safely on a few inches of good black ice, but we don’t have that. This year the ice is honey-combed and milky. Use your ax.

The unseasonable weather above the ice has little effect on the lake trout 18 feet down under. Fishing should be good on all lakes. Trout seem to move and feed more aggressively during periods of changing barometric pressures. The target depth should be between 14 and 22 feet.

Those traveling the Denali should expect dog teams on the trail. The snow around Willow and Two Rivers is a bit weak for longer runs, so teams are coming to the mountains for snow. Trapping season is also ongoing, so be respectful of trapline trails.

The unseasonable temperatures along the Denali will continue through the weekend, although overnight temperatures could be in the single digits. We can only hope that winter will finally get a handle on things and get with it.

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