In early May avalanches had become a danger in the mountains, so in an attempt to salvage the last of winter, I drove about 200 miles north while gaining two degrees of latitude.
Recent snowfalls in the Alaska Range had blanketed the mountains and lowlands near the Denali Highway in pure white satin. On May 7th skies were mostly clear and there was hardly a breath of wind. But at mid-day, the temperature was in the high 40s. Was this winter?
I put on my long snowshoes and headed south off highway, about 10 miles east of Cantwell. As predicted, I immediately sank about 12 inches into the soft snow. No wonder there were neither snow machine folks nor skiers around.
“But without these snowshoes, I’d be sinking almost to my thighs,” I thought. With that rationalization, I forged ahead–pleasantly surprised when occasionally, I only sank a few inches.
But with every minute it was becoming more apparent that despite the fact the land looked like winter, it was really spring.
About 2,000 feet above, a formation of Sandhill Cranes winged their way north, squawking loudly. The ragged formation quickly turned into a neat “V” comprised of at least 35 birds. “Way better than slogging through deep snow,” I thought.
Hiking was slow, but progress could be made. And with the sun high, the day was young. I found the faint outline of a snow machine trail and was delighted to stay on top of the snow. But the trail was headed east and probably curving back to the highway, so I turned south to again wage war with the soft snow.
The sun had melted out bowls beneath the spruce trees and one of them provided a good spot for lunch. Facing south in the sun it felt like 50 degrees. Snow was dripping from the trees’ limbs.
Was this winter?
The taiga stretched south at least two miles before reaching the treeless foothills of the mountains. With the soft snow, I had no intention of venturing that far; which I did several years ago, but at a much earlier time of the year.
After lunch I turned back north, having only ventured about 1-1/2 miles from the Denali Highway. On the return I spotted something I don’t see often: fresh wolf tracks. The tracks went southwest toward one of the area’s snow-covered lakes. I scanned the wide, open country with binoculars, but didn’t spot anything.
Back on the road, a single set of caribou tracks continued for about a mile as I hiked back to my car. Parts of the road were muddy.
This certainly wasn’t winter.
With the day still young, I drove east on the Denali Highway another 20 miles and came upon the sign “Paxson, 100 miles.” It was tempting, but I figured at this time of the year the road wasn’t open all the way. A telephone call to the McClaren River Lodge later confirmed that the road isn’t generally open all the way until May 15.
There is something powerful and deeply evocative about the vast, open country on the George Parks Highway from Broad Pass north to Cantwell and then east on the Denali Highway. This is really Alaska on a grand scale, and it truly enhances one’s perception of our state’s beauty and immensity.
The driving distance from Cantwell to the Denali National Park entrance is only 28 miles, which again, puts one into a vast wilderness that can take the breath away from the most seasoned, lifetime Alaskan.
Every year on at least a couple of occasions–summer, winter, spring or fall– I am pulled northward. I am pressed to find the words to describe the land’s hold over me. Again, I’m compelled to evoke the words of poet Robert W. Service:
“…There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.”
Spell of the Yukon
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.