Today, length of visible light is more than 8 hours. It still gets dark by 5pm, but the sky is now beginning to brighten at 9am. Seeing the light earlier in the day is more exhilarating (for me personally), than having it stay light later. The morning light invigorates me to get my day started, which translates into getting a lot more done.
Each day brings an additional 6 1/2 minutes of light. That might not sound like much, but every ten days it translates into an additional hour. The longer days also allow for scenic drives, especially for people like me who have some difficulty with night driving, particularly in areas without street lights.
A BEAUTIFUL SCENIC DRIVE
On Saturday, my friend Amanda and I took a scenic drive down to Donnelly Dome, south of Delta. This hundred mile drive (one way) on the Richardson Hwy is always beautiful as it travels along the Tanana and Delta Rivers, and affords us beautiful views of the Alaska Range (weather permitting). We almost always see wildlife on this drive too, and Saturday’s roadtrip didn’t disappoint.
Although there was a band of low clouds, the sky near the horizon turned a beautiful orange as the sun came up. The snow sparkled in the light, and in some areas there was thick frost on everything, making it look like a scene out of a fairy tale. South of Salcha, the Tanana River runs right next to the road. We could see open water in places, and mist rising above - lit by the morning sun.
When we reached Delta, we decided to check out Clearwater Lake. Clearwater Lake is accessible either via boat launch, where we stopped, or by boat via the Clearwater and Tanana Rivers. This part of the state includes a wide expanse of boreal forests, braided river bottoms, high country tundra, and mountains. There are excellent fishing opportunities, a variety of wildlife - mostly caribou and moose, and breathtaking views all along the Richardson Hwy.
After Clearwater Lake, we drove to the Clearwater River campground. Although we’ve only camped here once - back when we first moved to AK - we do try to stop by to enjoy the clear running river or throw a line in when the salmon are in this part of the state. Someday I think I’d like to kayak the river, as it doesn’t seem too deep or fast moving.
Like the lake, the shoreline of the river had ice buildup. And on top of the ice there were the most amazing frost formations. Much of it had a feathery appearance. The scientific name for this type of frost is “hoar frost”. The Old English dictionary (c. 1290) defines hoarfrost as “expressing the resemblance of white feathers of frost to an old man’s beard.” When water vapor molecules contact a subfreezing surface, such as a blade of grass, they jump directly from the gas state to solid state, leading to a coating of tiny ice crystals. It’s really neat, and also beautiful!
We drove back to the Richardson Hwy and continued south, through the center of Delta Junction, and toward Fort Greely Fort Greely serves as an integral part of the Nation’s Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS). Its installation mission is mid-course missile defense. Fort Greely is also host to the military missions of the Cold Regions Test Center, and the Northern Warfare Training Center.
Near Fort Greely, there is a road that takes you to Bolio Lake, which is located within the Donnelly Training Area (military land). Bolio Lake is gorgeous in all seasons, and we decided to drive out to it for photos of the pretty frost and view of the mountains (which unfortunately were obscured by clouds).
All of the vegetation on the shoreline was covered in hoarfrost. As the sun rose behind the mountains, sunbeams spread out across the sky, illuminating the frost and making it sparkle like fairy dust. It’s difficult to capture the sparkles with a camera, unfortunately, but both Amanda and I were mesmerized by the rainbow colors reflected, which we were able to see with our eyes.
As we were readying to leave Bolio Lake and make our way back to the highway, an MP (Military Police) pulled up behind us. We figured he would ask us what we were doing on military land, and since we both have military ID cards, we figured all was well. Also, there weren’t any red flags flying - which indicate that training is in session. We’ve driven back to Bolio Lake countless times over the years and were never approached by MPs.
One officer asked us if we had a RAP (Recreational Access Pass) card. Ummmm…. no….. what is that? We told him we were military ID holders, which doesn’t matter. Fortunately, he was nice enough to hand us a brochure highlighting the procedure for obtaining a RAP card (you can do it online, via computer or phone). He also told us how to check in via phone too. When we got back out to the highway, Amanda signed us both up, took screenshots of our RAP cards, and checked us in - as we planned to drive up to Donnelly Dome (also part of the training area).
We saw a moose and her calf while driving up the road that goes to Donnelly Dome. I stopped my car to get a better look, which was a mistake. We were on a moderate, snow covered incline. My car is small and light. When I gave the car gas to continue on my way, the tires just spun where I was. I backed up a little ways and tried again. Same results. I finally backed up about 50 feet to where the road wasn’t as steep and gunned it. My car struggled a little bit, but I finally had enough speed and traction to make the climb. I am so glad our house isn’t in the hills, or I’d never leave the house in winter!
As we came around a bend, just as the road leveled out, we saw caribou running on the left. We swapped out our lenses, and Amanda put her camera on her tripod before inching the car forward for a closer look. We both managed to snap a few frames before the caribou spooked, and started off on a fairly quick run - crossing the road in front of us, and going over a hill, where they disappeared from view. There were at least a dozen in the group. I believe these caribou are part of the Macomb caribou herd.
The Macomb caribou herd ranges from the Delta River east to the Robertson River near Tok. Calving grounds are on the Macomb Plateau south of the Alaska Highway between Delta Junction and Tok. The herd’s winter range depends on snow cover, but the animals are commonly seen from August to May on Donnelly Flats - which is where we spotted them. This herd isn’t the far-ranging caribou herd that comes to mind when many people think of caribou. Travel from summer calving to winter-feeding grounds is generally less than 50 miles. Up to 100 animals commonly winter on the Donnelly Flats, and they feed almost exclusively on birch during the winter.
Caribou at Donnelly Dome
As we figured, we ran into our MP friends just as we were passing the place where the caribou crossed. We didn’t even wait for them to ask before Amanda volunteered “Do you want to see our RAP cards and check in?!” They laughed, but were glad we followed direction, as not obeying them would have resulted in a $500 fine - EACH!
The views of Donnelly Dome were beautiful from up on the access road. We followed it to the pipeline and continued on to Old Richardson Hwy. This intersection with the Old Rich goes in both directions. Last winter, Steve and I attempted to make a left and follow the road. It ended up turning into a snowmachine trail, which necessitated us having to back up a half mile or so before we could find a place to do a 10 point turn! But turning right is much better, as the road is wider, accessible to motor vehicles, and in this case, was also plowed. By following the road in this direction, it eventually links back up with the Richardson Hwy.