Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Tundra Isn't Always Frozen


        The Wilderness Tour Companion booklet that guides hand out calls Denali National Park and Preserve “A Living Tapestry.” The majesty and color of this richly-woven fabric, with its alpine tundra, wild moose and grizzly bears, more than made up for the clouds obscuring our view of the High One.
      In September, I had the pleasure of visiting Denali on a National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) pre-conference tour hosted by Alaska Professional Communicators. About 50 NFPW members and their companions watched through the bus windows as bears foraged for soapberries and the ungainly-looking caribou nibbled exposed lichens. 

Grazing caribou
Originally dubbed Mt. McKinley National Park when established by Congress in 1917, It was renamed in 1908 and expanded more than three-fold. At six million acres, it is now larger than the state of New Hampshire. The tour bus system limits the amount of traffic in the park, which helps preserve its delicate ecosystem.

The vast taiga, or northern boreal forest, cloaks the lower elevations, including the first dozen or so miles through which the 91-mile park road meanders. Its acidic soil allows only a few plant species to grow. White spruce reach a timid 50 feet tall, about 150 feet shy of their Alaskan coastal brothers. Pockets of aspen, paper birch and balsam poplar grow alongside these modest evergreens. 

Where the ground is soggy, black spruce dominate the taiga. Many are stunted, no taller than six or seven feet. Some “drunken” trees lean at crazy angles, struggling against the wind and cold to attain their modest heights.

By contrast, in the tundra small plants and lichens hug the ground. During the 100-day growing season, pink fireweed, purple lupine and yellow cinquefoil color the landscape like a Monet painting. Alpines grow at some higher tundra elevations.

Dall sheep
Wildlife in the park includes many species of animals, such bear, caribou, moose, Dall sheep and wolves. We saw the first two roaming the taiga, and spotted several clusters of Dall sheep on wind-blown ridges. Some of them mooned us, as if to say, “Take a picture of THIS, you camera-laden intruders.” A wolf sighting, we were told, is quite rare, but the rarest sighting of all is the wolverine. Some folks at the front of the bus did see a lynx at the side of the road, though.

Sounds are important in the park, especially to predators listening for their prey. So we strained our ears, but never heard a wolf howl or the purring sound baby bears sometimes make while suckling their mothers.

Visitors who plan to hike through the park or to camp there are given an orientation that includes what to do if they encounter a bear. The first rule of thumb is to stay several hundred feet away from them. But if the encounter gets too close for comfort, you’re supposed to make a lot of noise. A bear standing up doesn’t mean it’s about to attack, either. She’s probably sniffing the air to determine whether you smell familiar. Your scent and your verbal qualities tell her you aren’t something she ordinarily eats. It was comforting to know that the park has had but one human fatality involving a bear.

As I mentioned, we didn’t get to see The High One, as the Athabascan Indians call Denali, due to a cloud cover. But the rock-studded, snow-streaked mountains we saw reminded me of rocky-road fudge drizzled in marshmallow cream. I must have been hungry that day.

Our guide pointed out two types of valleys among the hills, the V-shaped that were formed by shifting mountains, and the glacier-carved U-shaped valleys. For the life of me, I couldn’t differentiate between the two, but it didn’t matter. Both types made even National Geographic pictures pale in comparison. 

       My tundra experience was somewhat surreal. It was as if I were in a foreign country. But Denali, like Alaska, belongs to the USA, and I wish everyone here could fly up for a visit.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Lost & (Sometimes) Found

        I have a bad habit of misplacing stuff. I’ll have something in my hand, walk into another room, turn around, and poof, like the rabbit in a magic show, it disappears. Sometimes, it will turn up in an unexpected place. Other times, it’s gone for good.

Take my black slip, for example. I gathered some items from upstairs, including the slip, came downstairs, and lost the slip. Somewhere between my second and first floors, it disappeared. My staircase has but 13 treads. Ahh, you’re thinking, therein lies the problem. The cursed No. 13.

After a few weeks, I gave up the search and bought another slip. Several months later, while preparing for a summer beach trip, I pulled out one of my beach bags and there it was. Apparently I had used that bag to carry stuff down the stairs, but forgot about the slip when I placed the bag in my closet. 

A few months ago, I was taking off my earrings after church, when I realized I was wearing only one. “Oh, no,” I thought. “It must have come off when I took off my sweater during Sunday School.” I searched under my bedroom furniture with a flashlight anyway, and spotted something shiny among the dust bunnies. I went for my broom. What I swept out was my lost earring. It had the back on it, which means it never actually made it through my ear lobe, but fell from my hand after I raised it to my ear and put on the back. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, why no one at church had noticed that I was wearing only one earring.

Another lost-and-found was an expensive electronic dog collar. My two dogs each wear one, keeping them inside the boundaries of my underground fence. When I returned from a short trip one day, Maggie wasn’t wearing hers. Figuring she had snagged it on a fallen tree branch, I searched the woods immediately around the house as best I could. With all the forest debris, however, it was like searching for pirate’s gold buried in the sand. I borrowed a friend’s metal detector, thinking it would pick up the metal in the battery case. No luck. About a year later, my tenant found the lost one when he was walking through the woods behind my house and got off the trail to the barn.

Usually, when something goes missing, it’s because I set it down in a place that it didn’t belong. I wear glasses around the house, but take them off frequently to read or work at the computer. A few days ago, they skipped town. I searched all the logical places: my bedside table, the end table next to my sofa, the window ledge in the bathroom next to my commode, my computer desk. Remembering the “Most things turn up eventually” axiom, I gave up the search. Next day, I opened a desk drawer, and there they were!

I misplaced my drill battery once, but found it a day or so later on top of my hot water heater. Doesn’t everyone keep her drill battery there?

Unfortunately, some things defy the law of “most things turn up.” I haven’t seen my spare car keys or good binoculars in several years.

I often think I’ve lost my mind. It could be anywhere. If you happen to find it, please send it home. It comes in handy when I’m trying to find things.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Denali and the Name Game


       When President Obama changed Mount Mckinley’s name to Denali, my first thoughts were, “What gives him that right?” Then I heard the background story from some Alaskan friends, and I changed my tune. Now, I’m singing, “Right on. It’s about time!”
        In truth, it wasn’t really Obama who changed it anyway. It was Sally Jewel, Secretary of the Interior. She did it under authority of federal law, one that permits the head of the Department of the Interior to name geographic features if the U.S. Board of Geographic Names does not act within a reasonable period of time. I agree with Jewel: 40 years is more than reasonable.

That’s how long the name of the highest mountain in North America (20,320 feet) has been a subject of dispute. It was in 1975 that the Alaska legislature asked the U.S. federal government to officially change the name from Mount McKinley to Denali. It had been unofficially named in 1896 by a gold prospector who liked the Democratic presidential candidate, William McKinley, because he favored a gold standard for the U.S. currency. The name became official in 1917, in honor of the president who was assassinated in 1901.

Denali, which means, “the high one” in the tongue of Alaska’s Koyukon Athabaskans, is the English spelling of the native name for the peak. Part of the Alaskan Range, it was always commonly referred to as Denali by mountaineers and natives of our 49th state. But every time the state would petition the federal government for the name to change back to Denali officially, the Ohio delegation in the U.S Congress would block the petition, because McKinley was born and raised in Ohio. Never mind that he never set foot in Alaska, or that Ohio has no business trying to tell Alaska what to name their mountains.

In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali, and at the governor’s behest, the state’s legislature officially requested that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names (BGN), the federal governmental body responsible for naming geographic features, change the name. Under BGN policy, the Board cannot consider any name-change proposal if congressional legislation relating to that name is pending. So every time the idea surfaced, an Ohio Congressman would either introduce language into Interior Department appropriation bills, or introduce a stand-alone bill, that directed that the name should not be changed. This effectively killed each Denali name-change proposal.

After a January 2015 bill submitted by an Alaskan senator re-proposed the name change, Secretary of the Interior Jewel took matters into her own hands. On August 30, she announced the name change, citing the board’s failure to act on the state’s four-decade-old request. President Obama sealed the deal during his trip to Alaska in September.

Surely most states can identify with Alaska on this subject. After all, “home rule” is a sore topic in each state, and no one wants  the federal government, much less someone in another state, telling them what to do.

Regardless of its name, Denali’s beauty is beyond belief. Next week, I’ll write about my trip through the national park and preserve last month and show you more photos.