Winter lives on

denail higway

Denali Highway/Alaska DOT photo

Little could Carlos Lozano know that the uncomfortable process of getting an artificial knee this April might save him a big, snowy headache.

Lozano is the heart and soul of the Alaska Endurance Association, which organizes a variety of bike races in Alaska. One of those races – The Alaska Grinder, formerly the Denali Classic Gravel Grinder – was scheduled to start across the Denali Highway in Central Alaska on May 26.

The problem of the moment is a shortage of gravel; it’s still buried beneath feet of snow.

Lozano’s knee issues, unfortunately or fortunately, forced him to cancel the 2018 competition. That turned out to be a good thing. He considers himself lucky.

It’s hard to run a trendy gravel race on a road closed due to snow.  The Denali, a seasonally maintained gravel road, isn’t expected to be open until June 1, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation, which has been busy bulldozing snow out of the way.

Welcome to Alaska, the land of climate change moving generally toward global warming, but not always so.

Twenty miles north of Cantwell at the western end of the Denali Highway,  the National Weather Service is predicting rain changing to snow around the headquarters of Denali National Park and Preserve for the weekend and temperatures down below freezing early next week.

But despite the snowier than normal weather, life goes on in the north. Some of the hotels outside the entrance are already open with others scrambling to follow. The bears are emerging from their dens everywhere.

Migrating ‘bou

And just south of the east end of the Denali Highway at Paxson, the 45,000 caribou of the Nelchina herd are on the march south and west from winter range on the windswept northern edge of the Wrangell  Mountains.

Luckily, Mother Nature appears to have cut them a break, said Frank Robbins, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Glennallen.

The heaviest of the snow fell to the north and west of their migratory route, he said Thursday. As a result, the caribou are enjoying a pretty normal journey toward calving grounds in the Alphabet Hills and Nelchina Basin.

“I think they’ve been able to skirt most of the snow,” Robbins said. “I saw evidence they’re coming through pretty heavy in the Sourdough area,” which jived with what the few residents of the area told him they observed.

Robbins worries more about what the winter might have done to the region’s moose. The DOT reported 88 inches – or more than 7 feet – of snow at Paxson. Moose can burn up a lot of energy wallowing around in that kind of snow. That, combined with the fact moose spend the winter slowly starving on a diet of willow browse, can lead to significant numbers of over winter deaths.

We did have fairly deep snow,” Rollins said. That compounds the difficulty of survival for moose.

Even in a normal winter, a 2002 study of moose on the Tanana River Flats near Fairbanks in Central Alaska found the animals lose almost a quarter of their fall weight before the landscape greens up. 

Animals that enter the winter underweight – predominately calves or bulls that have  been too preoccupied with breeding – are especially vulnerable to losing so much weight they starve or become easy prey for winter wolves or spring bears.

So far, Robbins said, he’s hopeful about winter’s outcome. He had a few moose wearing collars in the Alphabet Hills.

Data point

“It’s a small sample size,” he said, “but the mortality wasn’t significant.”

And while flying a browse survey in April, he added, it was encouraging to see a significant numbers of calves still alive and following theirs mothers through the snow.

“I think we’ve lost some moose,” he said, “but I’m optimistic it’s not as bad as it could have been.”

Obvious signs of spring only encourage that optimism, he added.

“Here locally,” Robbins said, “it really started melting over the last week.”

It is spring in Alaska finally, although as the late crooner Johnny Horton once observed “when its springtime in Alaska, it’s 40 below.”

Robbins is hoping that doesn’t actually come to pass. Lozano is happy he doesn’t have to worry about it. And the wildlife is doing what wildlife does in Alaska: trying to hang on for those bountiful summers in the land of the midnight sun.






4 replies »

  1. Kind of amazing that the article in CyclingTips you linked in ‘trendy gravel races’ does not contain the words fat bike. It discusses how more people are hanging up their road bikes and turning instead to mountain bikes and cyclocross. Funny, but when I got my fat bike I hung up my mountain bike and haven’t looked back. The same holds true for many of my friends here in AK. Maybe it’s still a northern latitudes trend that hasn’t reached the lower 48 yet? I don’t spend any time down there so I don’t really know. But I do know I have one bike I can ride year round in almost any terrain. What’s not to love?

    • The L48 is not Alaska. Way more gravel riding down south. Think Tour Divide. Way more technical riding. Think CTR. Single tracks and forest service and BLM roads everywhere. Fat bikes great for snowmobile trails. Too slow and heavy for gravel. Yeah, you can put skinny wheels on a fatty. But it’s just lipstick on a pig compared to a true gravel ride.

      • I suppose if you want to go as fast as possible on all surfaces, you’ll need a lot of different machines. But if you reach the point in life where you want to go as far as possible on a single machine, I’m pretty sure you’ll choose a fattie. Happy riding!

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