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There’s plenty to see and do along the Denali Highway as the end of summer looms. Just bring bug dope.

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: August 15, 2020
  • Published August 15, 2020

In the jungle, the no-see-um lurks. And the Denali is indeed a jungle this year.

There are plenty of white sox and mosquitoes in addition to the no-see-ums. Bring your bug dope. Load the hip boots. Don’t forget knee boots. It is wet and buggy.

Plenty of rain along with cool weather and the perfect mix of sunshine have created optimum growing conditions along the south slopes of the Alaska Range.

The winter brought plenty of heavy snow with high water content. Willows have been growing tall over the past decade. The snow broke them down and spread them along the ground, and they grew like crazy this summer. That makes for tough going for the bushwhacker.

Moose seem to be scarce. Few moose winter north of the Alphabet Hills, and it is likely the tough winter caused some loss among the animals that normally migrate back into the high country. Hunters will have to work for what they get.

Caribou are no-shows on the eastern end of the Denali Highway. The west side has a few animals moving. Hunters need to look up, because the animals are mostly in the higher country. The bugs will keep the caribou high until there is a heavy frost or snow.

There will be plenty of competition for the few caribou accessible from the highway. There are 9,000 caribou permits out there. Also, don’t forget: Alaska hunters who are not considered “rural” by the feds cannot hunt on federal lands. On the Denali Highway, that means the lands between miles 9 and 12, other than a couple of short sections.

Those “postage stamp” sections won’t have much impact, but the federal corridor along the Delta Wild and Scenic River will. Tangle Lakes is utilized by all hunters, and the inability of the state and federal governments to come to an agreement on subsistence continues to have an effect on Alaska hunters.

I spent a recent morning glassing for moose in several of the hot spots and saw a couple of cows. On a normal August morning, I should count 15 or 20. A check on several moose trails that commonly have heavy traffic found few tracks.

Lots of water, lots of ducks? Not so. The ice went off the Denali ponds quite late, and many ducks take eight or 10 weeks to fledge. A hen may lay a clutch of 10 eggs over a two-week span, and it may take another 24 to 26 days for the eggs to hatch. You can see that the birds need to be on the nest by early June. Also, high water is not so great for puddle ducks who depend on the shallow ponds along the Denali for their best feed.

Despite the rain, ptarmigan seem to have done well. I am seeing fair-size broods along the highway. The chicks are tiny and they will still be peeping with the season now under way.

Grayling fishing should be fair. High water stirs up a lot of extra feed in the creeks. That means wet flies or spinners will have the best production.

The lack of tourists at Tangle Lakes should mean more available fish. This also holds true for Rock Creek, Clearwater Creek and Brushkana Creek. Anglers should not overlook smaller trickles crossing the Denali and area ponds — all hold grayling and many have smaller lake trout.

The blueberries are better than last season’s poor crop, although they are still not the normal Denali bumper crop. There are some decent areas, but they are spotty. Berry pickers will have to work as hard as the caribou hunters to get enough berries to take home.

However, it never is doom and gloom on the Denali Highway. Hunting and blueberries are not requirements, they are just perks. The drive across from Paxson to Cantwell is worth the trip at any time, and this fall the drive will be more pleasant than usual. The east end of the highway has been chip-sealed from milepost 22 all the way to mile 60. It gets bumpy from there to mile 80, and the rest of the way to Cantwell is normal Denali. Not too bad.

Come prepared as always. Flat tires can be a way of life in this country. Gas is available along the highway in several locations, and Maclaren and Alpine Creek Lodges are open as usual.

There are few, if any, out-of-state tourists to speak of. Travelers will find a welcome respite from the conditions that prevail in the cities. Getting outdoors with family and friends is a great way to finish the summer.

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

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