January 26, 2016

Welcoming The Sun Back

Filed under: Aurora,Everyday Life,Family,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 10:39 pm

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.


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.

Orange Sunrise and Open Water on the Tanana RiverAlthough 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!

Clearwater Lake, Delta AK Clearwater Lake Frost, Delta AK Clearwater Lake Frost, Delta AK
Clearwater River, Delta AK Clearwater River and Amanda, Delta AK Clearwater River Pano, Delta AK
Clearwater River, Delta AK Clearwater River and Sunlit Trees, Delta AK

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.

Frost and sunshine near Bolio Lake, AK

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

Caribou and Donnelly Dome

Caribou near 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.

View from Donnelly Dome access road. Donnelly Dome area, Alaska Donnelly Dome and frosted spruce. Frosted Branches, Old Richardson Hwy, Alaska
Donnelly Dome from Old Richardson Hwy, Alaska Donnelly Dome from Old Richardson Hwy, pano Donnelly Dome from Old Richardson Hwy, Alaska


October 8, 2015

Chris and Kimmie – August 6-13th

Filed under: Calendar,Family,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 5:33 pm

In mid August, my son Chris visited, along with his fiancee Kimberley (Kimmie). Unfortunately, due to work schedules, they could only get a week away from their jobs, so with a day of travel on the front end, and another on the back end, we only had about 5 days together.

We almost always visit Valdez in August, so that Steve can fish the silver salmon there. We had no choice but to use two vehicles for the trip, rather than cut Steve’s visit to Valdez short.

Chris and Kimmie arrived late on Thursday evening, August 6th. Steve and I spent that entire day loading up the camper so he could leave early on Friday with Raven. This way, Chris and Kimmie could sleep in and get a start on battling jet lag.

Their flight got in a little earlier than expected, which was nice. We brought them home, chatted for a little while, and then we all went to bed. They had a very long day of travel and were exhausted, and after our very busy day packing the camper, we were too.

The next morning, Steve was on the road before 8am. I let Chris and Kimmie sleep in a few more hours and we followed at 10am. We had beautiful driving weather, and the temperature was just right for three people who tend to be “hot blooded”. Chris and Kimmie were quite thrilled about the idea of cooler temps, as Madison WI (where they are from) was quite warm when they left.

(c)Gary Larson - The Far SideWe made our usual stop at Sunrise Bagel for breakfast. Sunrise Bagel is a franchise here in interior AK, and I start just about all of my roadtrips with some of their breakfast fare. As we waited in line at the drive-through coffee shack, a yellow jacket flew into the car and landed on my thigh. Of course I freaked out! I was screaming at Chris to “Get it off me! Get it off me!!!” What was he going to do? Whack it with a magazine or something? That would make it sting me. He wasn’t about to swat it with his hand and risk getting stung himself. It was a comedy of errors as I screamed, he freaked, and the car veered out of line when I threw my hands up in panic. I can certainly understand how insects can cause vehicle accidents – especially stinging insects. The entire scenario reminded me of an old Gary Larson cartoon. (Remember him and “The Far Side”?)

The day was beautiful, and we made regular stops along the way to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery. This is Kimmie and Chris in front of Gulkana Glacier.

Chris and Kimmie at Gulkana Glacier


September 22, 2015

Denali Road Lottery – 2015 – A Snowy Event!

Filed under: Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 11:25 am

(Although I haven’t had time to blog about our summer adventures with my son Chris and his fiancee Kimmie, and Steve’s daughter Kayla, I wanted to write about this past weekend and the annual Denali Road Lottery. It was quite the experience! I’ll write about the summer as soon as I can, but for now… enjoy Denali National Park’s amazing scenery and wildlife. Many thanks to all of you who continue to follow my blog, despite the longer breaks between writing!)


DENALI ROAD LOTTERY 2015 – Sept 17-21

For those who are new to my blog, let me explain what the Denali Road Lottery is. Each year, during the month of May, people from all over Alaska, the country (and the world) can apply for a coveted road lottery pass. The cost to apply is $10/pp. You can find information about the application process at the Denali National Park website. You can apply for as many people as you want, but each application must have its own email account for notification. Most people apply for themselves, their children, family members, etc. to improve their odds of winning a pass.

In June, the park announces the winners, and notifications are sent out. Winners are then assessed a $25.00 park permit fee, which automatically goes on the credit or debit card used when the application was made. Information is sent via email, explaining what you need to do if you are a winner.

The Denali Road Lottery is held the third weekend of September. Four days are set aside for winners, and one other day is set aside for those serving in the military (passes are provided to various military units for distribution to service members). This year, Saturday was set aside as Military Appreciation Day, with Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday being days for lottery winners.

Although I was not a winner this year, I was gifted a Sunday pass from a friend who lives in Kenai, who couldn’t make the drive that day. Needless to say, I was SUPER EXCITED!

I invited my friend Amanda to go with me for company, and of course she was also excited. Because I wanted to get an early start, I booked a room in Healy – about 15 miles north of the park – for Saturday night. Rooms were scarce at such a late date, and I had to call several hotels before I found an available room at the Totem Inn. This was my first time staying at the Totem Inn. The winter rate is $90/night (single occupancy). The room was a little dated and worn, but it was clean and comfortable. The bed was comfortable as well, with a memory foam mattress. The room had a small refrigerator, microwave, flat-screen TV and a fan (a MUST when I travel). There is a restaurant and lounge on the premises, but the restaurant was closed due to lack of staff. There is also a complimentary hot breakfast buffet each morning in the lobby. (Scrambled eggs, sausage, waffles, toast, etc).

We drove into the park to mile 15 – as far as you can go without a permit. We saw some blue peeking through the clouds, but by the time we reached Savage River, it was snowing. The bright white flakes were plentiful and swirled over and around us, a virtual snow globe.

Snow at Savage River

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in,
where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” – John Muir

I had a hard time sleeping (excitement?) and found myself wide awake at 3:33am. We had the alarm set for 6am, so we could have breakfast before heading to the park. I couldn’t go back to sleep. It was going to be a long day of driving, but I couldn’t wait!

The park had snow just about every day during lottery weekend, and it was snowing when we left the hotel on Sunday morning. The park service was able to keep ahead of the accumulation by having the plows at the ready.

A few miles into the park, we started seeing blue skies peeking through between the cottony clouds above. This was a great sign! Soon, the bright light of the sun filtered through, illuminating the snow-dusted mountains. Maybe we’d luck out and have a gorgeous blue-sky day in the park. Friends who had done the drive on days prior had very snowy and cloudy photos, and while we were prepared for anything, we also hoped the weather would break for us.

When we reached the gate at Savage River, the Park Ranger checking us in let us know that Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66 on the park road) had 8-10″ of snow fall overnight and it was still coming down. The road was closed at the Toklat rest stop (mile 53). Crews were working to clear the road, but there were no guarantees that they’d get the road open. We were disappointed, but just being able to get past mile 30 (which is as far as you can go during the shoulder season), was a good thing.

Between mile 15 and mile 30, the sky changed from sunshine and thick puffy clouds to overcast and foggy. It was very muddy too. I was glad to be wearing my lightweight snow boots.

When we neared mile 25 or so, I could see far ahead on the park road, as it skirted the base of the mountains. Cars were stopped, and people were on the road. That could only mean wildlife was spotted. I sped up a little to get down there. As we made our way, I caught a large flash of white in the thick willow bushes halfway up the side of a hill. Bull moose antlers!!!

By the time we reached the others, there were more vehicles stopped. We watched the huge bull come down the hill, heading toward the road. It looked as if he wanted to cross. If he did, we were in a good position for photos. And then the occupants of several vehicles moved closer to him, making him hesitate for a minute or so. Obviously they were too close, and very much ‘in his space’. Not smart!

The bull moose looked to be assessing the situation, before turning and heading back up the hill to the ridge. Due to the selfish idiocy of several, we all were missing out on seeing this magnificent creature out in the open, where we all could have enjoyed his majesty and made beautiful images.

We watched as he walked the ridge toward us. He was about a hundred yards above us, making his way through willow and birch bushes. The tall bushes only allowed us to see bits and pieces of him as he walked, but we could clearly see his large antler rack, the paddles filled with fresh snow. Fresh snow also dusted his back. He was such a handsome fellow!

As he climbed even higher on the hill, he eventually was silhouetted against the winter white sky. Amanda and I walked below, watching. And then he turned toward us, perfectly posed so that we could see his face and his antlers. We saw several other bull moose in the first 30 miles, but they were off in the distance. Seeing this guy was a real treat! This is my favorite image from that series of photos (shot at a 400mm zoom):

Bull Moose in Denali Park