Posts Tagged ‘boreal’


Greenup is that brief period of time, sometime in May, that all the trees turn green (commonly called spring in the lower 48). This time varies, usually starting in early May in south Alaska and getting a little later as you move north. Literally overnight, we go from the brown world of mud, limb, and dirty snow bank, post breakup, to the lush yellow-green of a newly reawakened boreal forest. In Fairbanks, this can happen in a matter of days, you can see changes in the hillside colors from morning to night. Recent years have seen a change in schedule, with greenup appearing to come earlier and earlier each year. (You guess the reason, I’m sure it isn’t human caused.)

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Every spring and sometimes fall, on the fringes of the tourist season, the National Park Service opens the road into Denali Park as far as Teklanika Campground, some thirty miles into the park. During the tourist season one can only drive fifteen miles in, if you want to go further you have to make a reservation to ride one of the buses that cruise the road from late May to early September each summer. Each spring and fall you will find Alaskans populating the open section of road, sometimes bicycling, always watching for wildlife.

So last May when Jane was out of town for a weekend, the two girls and I opted to take advantage of a beautiful spring day to drive down to Denali Park, some 120 miles south-southwest of Fairbanks. Here in Fairbanks it was a sunny day, few clouds in the sky, warm and in the process of what Alaskans call green-up (the 3-4 day period when the birch trees go from brown to green).

We had just gotten on the Parks Highway, headed for Ester, when we arrived along a stretch of road that recently had a swath of trees hydro-axed along one side of the roads. For those unfamiliar with it, a hydro-axe is a huge grinder that attaches to the front of a tractor, and grinds, rather chews up, anything it comes in contact with including trees. It was clear from the width of the swath that the clearing was likely making way for a wider road and bike path- both things needed for this section of road.

Typically, I would accept this wanton destruction of our boreal forest as sad but necessary, but the recent development of Fanchorage on Fairbank’s east side has left me with little tolerance for this practice. This new development resulted in a section of the Steese Expressway, once pleasantly lined by spruce trees on both sides, naked and barren. Now, we have poorly designed vinyl sided (toxic by nature if not appearance) duplexes on the east, poorly designed or not designed at all office buildings and box stores to the west, and very few spruce trees. A consequence that could have been avoided with careful and considerate planning and construction practices.

All of which put me into a funk as we headed out of town. I’ve always enjoyed that section of the Parks Highway, immediately outside of town, that delineated the separation between Fairbanks and Ester. Ester has always felt like a wide spot in the road, a small outpost down the road, rural and inviting. I fear that it may start taking on a suburban feel, connected to Fairbanks by a major road with possibly, god forbid, future development along it. I fear you’ll have to drive for 15 minutes outside west Fairbanks before you feel like you’ve left town, that Ester will become like North Pole to Fairbanks east.

As we got closer to the park, hitting the customary frost heaves in the highway just north of Healy, the weather began to go from sunny to grey.  This isn’t uncommon; as the Alaska Range rises up from the Tanana Valley it quite often seems to conceal itself in the grey underbelly of the sky. This day was no different.

As we moved up into the mountains, the sky came down, until we were almost within reach of the lowered ceiling. The landscape took on a mystical quality, mists moving about the peaks and rocky crags, revealing them one second only to hide them an instant later. Not the best day to see wildlife, but priceless none the less.

Once we got into the park, Jolie almost immediately spotted a moose, one of several she would spot that day. At eight years old, she is developing her eyesight and skill at picking out wildlife, particularly moose. She is a joy to have along, keeping her head up and eyes open, hoping to see something before Dad. Ali still has trouble seeing, but given how she models herself after her big sister, will be out dueling me soon as well.

Ptarmigan were out on the road in mass, likely picking up gravel for their gizzards. They are a striking bird, with their white winter plumage and red headdress. And like all birds, they can be more than a little quirky. At one point, a rooster sat in the road by the front of the car and produced his mating call. He would run ahead a little ways, and then call again. We would follow, allowing Ali to get a good look out of the car window while trying to get by the rooster to continue on our drive.

Denali ptarmigan

All of a sudden, a SUV cruised by doing 40 to 50 mph. Fortunately, the rooster had moved in front of our car and avoided being road kill, so much for being protected in a national park. The funk with modern society I had been feeling earlier in the day briefly resurfaced, once again I drove it down with the beauty and freshness of the park, the optimism and joy of the girls.

Around that time it started to snow, great big wet clumps that quickly turned any exposed ground white, stuck to our windshield and hands when we hung them out the windows, that reasserted winter’s supremacy in these mountains.

We drove perhaps another 5 miles, and then turned around at Teklanika, 30 miles into the park and the end of the open road. By the time we returned to where we had watched the rooster, there were a couple inches of new snow on the ground.

Not much further down the road, we spotted a herd of caribou gathered upon the ice of the Teklanika River. We sat, parked along the edge of the road, watching the caribou circle around. It was hard to tell what they were up too, but it was pleasant watching them mill about. Our day in the park was rapidly coming to an end, the girls were tired and the snow was coming down at such a rate that I wanted to get going. Still, we sat, watching them through the falling snow, attempting to show Ali each one, catching a last breath of snow filtered air before dashing back to Fairbanks and the sun.

Denali caribou

On our way out it was quiet. The kids were napping or resting quietly in their seats. The quiet has allowed the gloom to resurface, and I had finally succumbed to spending some time with it, unchallenged by the children in the back seat, when we came upon the section of the road with Denali Park that was paved, the first 15 miles near the entrance.

The road was in marginal condition, the winter had clearly taken a toll on the pavement. The edges were crumbling, beaten back by the tag team of frost and vegetation.  Next to crumbling mountains the blacktop was nothing, and would be gone in blink of an eye without the continual maintenance of the Park Service.

Suddenly, I was comforted by the power and timelessness of nature. We would kill, destroy habitat and life, but nature would persevere. We may not recognize it in today’s form when it returns, we may lose countless beautiful and meaningful species and places, but nature will remain. Nature doesn’t need mankind, despite our arrogance otherwise.

As we continued on towards Fairbanks, the frost heaves north of Healy took on new meaning, each bump clearing any vestige of funk that was left from earlier that day. Every pothole, willow bush, and crack in the pavement a document of our insignificance, a salve to my fears of consequences poorly planned and equally misunderstood.

As we emerged into the sun on our way north, I knew I was returning home with a better perception of my place in the world, of humanity’s, and more optimism about what the future might bring.

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