Outdoors/Adventure

The rain has been constant and the hunting is scant, but the Denali Highway is still the place to be

The news tells us the summer has been considerably warmer than normal virtually everywhere. Come to my house. Alaska gets snow every month of the year ... somewhere. The Denali Highway rarely gets snow in August. June and July, yes, but not in my memories of August.

Three times this August I have been spat on; twice on the Richardson and once on the Maclaren Summit. We have seen 60 degrees maybe once this month and the 40s quite a lot. While it is undeniable that the growing seasons are lengthening in this section of the Alaska Range, also irrefutable is the observation that the average temperature over the past decade — during the summer — has dropped in this particular location.

There is no knowing the why. It may be caused by man, or it could be a slight shifting of the poles. The North Slope used to be a grassland populated by mammoths. There have also been glaciers covering the area many of us hunt along the Denali.

Opting for the return of the grassland might not be a bad idea. Maybe we will still be around. Possibly, all of this August rain and snow will create a micro-clime that will at least support some grass-eaters. Because at the moment there are zeroes for caribou on the east end of this road. “Haven’t seen no caribou, haven’t seen no caribou tracks!” That is what the old-timers say — guess that would be me.

The moose are as scarce as the hunters, which also means close to zero. Should you come looking for ptarmigan, bring rain gear, walking boots and an excellent dog. That will not guarantee success, but will give you a shot at a bird or two. Ducks did well. However, there is so much water everywhere that it might be tough to find any concentrations. Again, a dog is almost a necessity.

[Fall is arriving soon, but where’s the wildlife? When it comes to management, local knowledge is vital]

The bright spot, for those of you who have no bird dog, are blueberries. It happens the nice spring, coupled with the frigid, rainy August, is just what blueberry bushes like best. Bring your berry picker and check out the south sides of the hills. Look for the best berries on the top third of the hill.

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One needs to be a serious picker because it will likely be raining. Good rain pants and knee boots would be the suggested attire.

Twenty years ago grayling were gone from the tributaries by mid-August. They no longer do that. Tangle Lakes used to be the only show on the Paxson end. Now grayling stick around until early September before dropping down into the main-stem rivers.

Lakes are cold from all of the rain. This brings the lake trout near the surface

Trolling within 10 feet of the surface will yield good results on smaller fish. The big guys, eight pounds or better might be a little deeper. Gold spoons have been working for small trout; change to silver when going deeper. By Sept. 15, swap to fluorescent orange or chartreuse. Lake trout go into spawning mode then and will strike at brighter colors.

Hunting may be a bust for most this season, unless the caribou group up and begin to move with an early snow, but the Denali Highway is still the place to be. The fall colors are always spectacular. The reds and yellows are already coloring the high ridges. The panorama with its backdrop of snowy peaks is awe-inspiring.

Big flocks of trumpeter swans gather on 50-mile Lake, Tangle Lakes and the upper Maclaren. A hard freeze will send them on their October migration. It is worth the drive — just for the sake of the drive.

However, if you are a hunter, pure and simple, the Taylor Highway portion of the Fortymile caribou herd, though scattered, is beginning to drift east toward Chicken Ridge. Folks who have got off road in that area are having fair success. Be aware that effective Aug. 27 that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has implemented no-hunting zone on the Taylor between mileposts 75 and 117 within 100 feet of the highway.

The rain has ceased, at least for the moment, in the Maclaren valley. It is a balmy 38 degrees this Friday morning. Snow is threatening once more. The glaciers in this area of the Alaska Range did not recede this season. Wetter weather means more snow. What if, instead of global warming in these micro-climes, we have the return of the Ice Age?

John Schandelmeier

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

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