Snow. It is inevitable — and coming soon.
It is almost a certainty that the Alaska Range will get snow this weekend along the Denali Highway. It has been a warm fall thus far, but “normal” is about to strike.
I can recall many years with snow earlier than mid-September. The earliest snow that stayed, on the Maclaren, was in 1992. There were only a couple of inches until about Sept. 10, but it was cold. The Maclaren was running ice every morning, enough so you couldn’t run a jet boat on the river until afternoon. By mid-month there was enough snow to run air boats in the parking lot at Maclaren Lodge. One hit lodge owner Red Cooney’s pickup.
For those who would rather not see snow quite yet, this early snow isn’t likely to stick.
The forecast says “rain and snow.” Daytime temperatures should remain in the high 30s or low 40s. The high temperature on Thursday was 38 degrees at Maclaren Lodge. Not yet winter, but close.
A little snow will move caribou, but with only the federal subsistence hunt open, that won’t affect many.
Moose season will close Monday. The few brave souls who have stuck out the season may get one decent day of visibility to spot moose. Moose hunting in the upper parts of Unit 13 has been dismal this season. The few moose that have been spotted have been mostly cows, with a few sub-legal bulls. There have been some legal moose harvested, and some not-so-legal.
Wildlife troopers have been a no-show along the highway this fall — a lack of hunters led to a dearth of enforcement. Fortunately most folks are conscientious hunters and do their best to stay within the regulations.
The quiet hunting season will lead into an even quieter late-September. Traffic normally drops considerably after the Sept. 20 close of moose season.
Normally there will be a scattering of bear hunters and a few guys chasing birds as long as the Denali stays open. Snow will bring out the dog mushers.
The highway is maintained until the end of September, but if there is snow that amounts to anything on the ground, a good wind will shut things down quickly at Milepost 7 and along 13-Mile Hill.
I stuck a truck in the middle of the road at Mile 31 not many years ago. I was pushing snow as high as my headlights. Luck was with me — it was Sept. 29. A DOT road grader released me just after noon. There have been other winters when you could drive to Maclaren in December.
Should you choose to travel the Denali, remember that services are extremely limited.
Alpine Creek at Mile 68 will be open, and Maclaren will be open until mid-October. There are a few occupied spots on the west end of the highway.
The eastern side, the snowiest end, is pretty blank. Paxson Lodge does not exist. Meiers Lake, 15 miles south of the eastern terminus of the Denali on the Richardson, has limited hours. There is a DOT facility just north of the old Paxson Lodge that can possibly provide emergency help.
Come prepared to care for yourself. A lot of folks are opting for Inreach satellite communications these days, and they are a good idea and cheap insurance should a breakdown occur. But don’t let these new electronics trump preparedness. You should not expect to have someone else bail you out of a situation you could have prevented with a bit of forethought.
Don’t let the snowy, damp weather catch you by surprise. If you’re traveling out of Anchorage or the Mat-Su, look up at the mountains. See that termination dust? That is what will be on the ground as you travel into the high country along the Alaska Range.
In the early 1970s, I stuck a truck in the road near Tangle Lakes trying to drive a 2-wheel drive Ford to Maclaren. It was there until May. Don’t let that be you.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.