Sunday, August 21, 2016

"You Never Really Leave a Place You Love.

You take a part of it with you... and leave a part of you behind." ~Anonymous

When I first stepped off of the train and into Denali National Park and Preserve, my heart hammered in my chest. I’d had a successful and easy traveling experience, but now a million questions raced through my head. What would my supervisor be like? Where was I staying and eating? What would my job be like? Would I make friends?

Three months later: it’s safe to say that my summer in Denali was one of the best experiences of my life.

John and I on my last hike into the park, near the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66
Yes, the first two weeks were difficult and had their challenges. But when is moving to a new place not challenging? I’m often impatient with the process of settling in, growing comfortable, and making friends. But this summer, more so even than last year, has taught me the value of putting yourself outside of your comfort zone and the rewards that can come from taking risks.

I have never been so sad to leave a place in my entire life. From the amazing wildlife and scenery, to the incredible new friendships and magical memories (shout out to you, John), my experiences in Denali have helped me to grow and have changed my life forever.

At the Murie Science and Learning Center, I helped convert over 20 science research articles from pdf’s into the more accessible Science Summary webpages, photographed multiple field trips and research adventures throughout the park, and designed an exhibit (that can now be found online!) connecting a quilt found in the MSLC to climate change in Denali. I truly feel that the work I have done for the MSLC this summer will make an impact on visitors today and in future years.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have one of my best friends from high school come to visit! Federica arrived on August 4th, and we spent her week here camping at Wonder Lake (when the mountain actually came out in full view!), hiking and exploring the frontcountry, and hanging out in the mountains. Thank you for coming to visit me, Federica! You mean the world to me and I look forward to future adventures around the world.

Denali stands clear and proud from Wonder Lake campground!
My first time viewing the mountain up close.

Just a few of the things I will miss about Denali:
  1. The endless expanses of untouched wilderness and intact ecosystems
  2. The families I became a part of, both in and outside of work
  3. Hiking near my house at 11 pm because the sun is still setting
  4. Weather cool enough for long sleeves and pants
  5. Lucor, the beautiful sled dog that I was lucky enough to walk with for the summer
  6. The beautiful silence of being settled in the mountains, miles away from another person
Thank you to everyone who has shown me support, sent me letters, or read my stories from afar. It means the world to me that you all care enough about me to follow my adventures, and I can’t wait to see a lot of you in person again soon.

Denali, I know that I will return someday to retrieve the piece of my heart that I’ve left behind. But for now, it’s on to other adventures. Senior year at Gustavus, here I come!

Until next time,


P.S. I was lucky enough to hold and play with Lucor's puppies at the kennels! Check them out live using the Denali Kennels Puppy Cam. Because who doesn't want to wrap up their final blog post with puppies?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The "Grand Slam" and Kenai Fjords: Tales of the Taylor Family Vacation

Caribou foraging on the tundra
Another two weeks gone! Two weeks ago, my family came to visit me in the park. Their first full day here, we took a shuttle out to Wonder Lake—a full 11 hour day of driving with a few half hour breaks along the way. Though the day started out cloudy, we ended up being extremely lucky, landing what the park calls a “grand slam” of wildlife viewing. This means that throughout the day we spotted at least one—though many times more—of the “big five” mammals of the park: bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves.

Bears are often seen from the park road in the Denali backcountry, but seeing them on a shuttle trip is not a given. We managed to see nine bears overall, and three or four of those were cubs. But though the bear is an exciting sight, seeing a wolf is even more so. Since 2010, the chances of a visitor seeing a wolf in the park has gone from 30% to 4%. The current park population is 49 wolves.

In the early days of the park, wolves were thought to be extremely harmful to the Dall sheep that are iconic to this area. Many people believed that the wolves would hunt them to extinction. Adolph Murie came to the park to study wolves in the 1930s. And what he found was groundbreaking: though the wolves did hunt the Dall sheep, they did it in a way that would not substantially hurt the population, going after the sick, injured, and young. I think it is incredible Murie saved the “wolves of Mt. McKinley” by studying them. If you’re interested in learning more about the challenges Denali wolves are facing today, drop me a note and I’ll forward you the paper I wrote in my ecology class this spring.

The rest of the week was filled with exploring the park and surrounding area. On Friday we drove down to Seward, AK, where we boarded a sightseeing cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park the next morning. After over a week of rain in Denali, the clouds in Seward cleared and we were given a brilliant sunny-with-blue-skies day.

It felt like we were spotting wildlife at nearly every new cove, island, or fjord. We watched humpback and fin whales glide near the surface of the ocean, spouting water in greeting as they passed. Puffins dove over the boat and skimmed the water with fish-filled bellies. Sea otters drifted in the waves, and stellar sea lions lounged in the sunshine on large rocks.

The turnaround point of the cruise was the Northwestern Glacier in the Northwestern Fjord, a destination few tour cruises visit. For nearly half an hour our boat drifted in the glacier’s bay, allowing us plenty of time to gaze at the sky-blue ice. Fun fact: the glacier was actually named after Northwestern University in 1909 (shout-out to you, Dr. Lin J ).

A photo of me holding glacial ice!

Tune in again soon!


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Rocky Ridges and Tundra Tentsites

A week of field trips! By a few strokes of luck, I was able to get out of the office this week and experience science in many different forms both in and outside of the park.

A couple weeks ago I was contacted by a science communications team that was visiting the park from NASA Earth Expeditions. They were working on a few promotional projects in the park and invited me to join them for a day! I spent time with science writers and a videographer as they interviewed first a park scientist about her research in the park and later the head of resources and acting deputy superintendent. Seeing science communication happening in such a real way was an incredibly valuable experience.

On Tuesday I went on a field trip to a nearby permafrost observatory site as well as a National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) climate monitoring station. I learned about the local research concerning permafrost, which is soil that stays frozen year-round. As permafrost melts, methane is released from underground and is added to the other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is one of the major areas of climate research happening in Alaska, and over the next few decades we are projected to lose the majority of underground permafrost in the park.

3:30am alarm on Thursday! I traveled into the park with two of the park avian biologists. Their mission: to capture a fox sparrow. We drove out to mile 17 of the park road (also known as Primrose) and descended into the willow thickets, mist nets and poles in hand. The morning was clear, and as the sun began to rise over the mountains behind us, the great Denali was illuminated in front of us. After listening to the calls of the birds for a few minutes, I helped the biologists set up the mist net in a small clearing. An iPod with a speaker was hung to one side of it, producing a bird call that would hopefully cause the fox sparrows to become territorial and fly around in search of the intruder. Sure enough, a bird landed in the net less than five minutes after we had seated ourselves on the tundra to wait.

After his measurements were taken for data collection purposes, he was fitted with a small backpack. If recaptured next year, the small chip would hopefully tell the researchers everywhere he's been in the last year. I was even given the chance to hold and release him, and he was surprisingly calm!

The week ended with one of the most amazing adventures of my summer so far. My friend John and I decided to take a quick backpacking trip for a night in the park.

We were dropped off about a mile past the Polychrome Overlook, staring into a wall of willow shrubs as the bus rumbled away. After climbing through, we popped up over a small ridge and found the pond that the backcountry office recommended as a starting point. After eating lunch on a slope overlooking the pond and the park road, we decided to explore the ridge parallel to the road and started climbing up. It offered spectacular views, and even though dark clouds lurked over parts of the mountain range, the blue sky was also straining to come out.

View from our cooksite!

Eventually we hit a point along the ridge that was too steep and rocky to climb up. We backtracked and climbed down the valley, bouncing along on the squishy tundra, fighting through willow shrubs, and hopping across a stream. We continued up again through more willow bushes, these slightly easier to navigate, throwing out a "Hey, bear!" every couple of minutes to alert any nearby grizzly bears that we were stomping through the brush. We took a break on a tundra ridge next to a gorge as we planned out the rest of our route and scoped out campsites. Because we were above the treeline, we were able to plan out our general route for the rest of the day from where we were standing.

It's the backcountry of Denali, and we were hiking in trail-less terrain. Sometimes the planning became a game of which shade of green means which kind of plant. We eventually learned the dark green color that signified knee high dwarf birch shrubs and the minty green that meant overhead willow shrubs.

We continued through the small plain until we were able to find a way down into the stream valley. On our not-so-graceful climb down to the gravel, we slide past a patch of early ripe blueberries! They distracted us for awhile as we piled them into my bandana for the next day's oatmeal. The creek at the bottom provided its own kind of delay. After John leaped across while I wasn't looking, it took me awhile to find a place I felt comfortable crossing. I finally made him turn his back while I jumped across and crashed into the gravel on the other side in one fell swoop. (The important thing is that I didn't get wet). We also found this awesome pair of moose antlers in the gravel! They were inCREDIBly heavy, but I think it was well worth the photo.

One last steep slope to climb and we found a perfect campsite nestled in between all of the mountains. We took all of our food and hiked 100 yards away from our tent to cook dinner, also making sure to brush our teeth at the cook spot. Everything scented—including food, toothpaste, bug spray, and sunscreen—went into our bear canister, which was then put 100 yards away from both our tent and cooksite, creating a large triangle.

Around midnight, we heard galloping outside, and we cautiously stepped outside of our tent to see what was there. Though the sun had long since gone behind the mountains, a soft light still filled the valley. There below us on the ridge, around 30 yards away, was a moose cow, running through the brush and pausing occasionally to graze, just a dark silhouette against the mountains.

Since we were leaving the next morning, we cooked breakfast by our tent, pouring our fresh (but maybe slightly squished) berries into our oatmeal. The wind was picking up but the skies were fairly clear, or at least not angry with rain clouds yet. Once we were packed up, we decided to start up a shrub-covered slope in order to see the creek drainage (and possible impassible gorge) on the other side. We reached the top of the ridge and quickly realized that the fastest way back to the road would continue to be up over the rocky ridge instead of diving deep into the vegetated river valley. So up we climbed, up slopes that I wouldn’t have imagined were scalable when viewed from below. Slow steps and steady balance were the key, and the more we climbed, the more fun we had.

The weather was beautiful, and before long we made it to the highest point along the ridge. It’s impossible not to feel alive, joyful, and inspired when surrounded by views like these.

We continued along the ridge on a path that animals and other hikers must frequent. Eventually we had to scramble down the rock scree slope that we were afraid to try hiking up earlier. But we made it down without too much difficulty, ending our journey bushwhacking through willow thickets and more “Hey, bear!” exclamations every few minutes. A green shuttle bus arrived within minutes of us climbing up to the gravel park road.

This was the highest mountain that we climbed,
with the rest of the ridge ahead of us
There are few times in my life when I have felt as connected to nature, and as lost in its vast wildness and wonder. I hope I am fortunate enough to be able to get out into Denali more before the summer is over.

“Perhaps then, wilderness will become something as humane as it is natural, as much within us as it is around us.” –Kim Heacox, Visions of a Wild America: Pioneers of Preservation, 1996.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Into the Wild: Hiking in Denali's Backcountry

Sunday July 3rd, 2016

A summer milestone--I finally completed my first off-trail backcountry hike. While intimidating at first, hiking off trail in Denali is an incredibly freeing experience full of wonder and problem solving. There's no "correct" path to take up the hill or cross the river, and every piece of terrain I crossed made me feel as though I was the first human to set foot there. The feeling is unlike any other.

I woke to the sound of constant rain on my roof. The morning started out with an early breakfast after packing my day pack full of warm layers, water, and food. John and I walked down to the Wilderness Access Center through the rain and boarded a Discovery hike bus with around 20 other hikers. Once we were settled in, we began to make our way into the park.

Discovery Hikes are an excellent way for visitors to hike off-trail in the backcountry if they aren't comfortable enough to do it on their own. Two hikes a day are led by National Park Service interpretive rangers. Due to the nature of the backcountry, signups must happen in person at the visitor center two days in advance to ensure that all hikers are prepared to be out in the park.

The first Discovery Hike group left the bus at mile 29, and the seven of us who remained continued on into the park. Because our hike began near mile 61 of the park road, we had a three hour bus ride before we reached our destination. Eventually our ranger began to signal to the driver that we were near our dropoff point, but as we crested the hill we approached two other buses already pulled alongside the road. After a quick scan around the area, we spotted the reason--a grizzly bear was strolling along the opposite shoulder of the road munching on plants. It was the closest I have ever been to a grizzly bear and it is the closest I ever hope to get. While they are beautiful, incredible creatures, it always best to keep our distance in their home.

Our ranger changed the route of our hike so that we were starting more than 300 yards from the bear. A few steps off the stairs of the bus, a strained groan as it pulled away, and suddenly we were immersed in the Denali wilderness.

Though the day at first seemed gloomy and clouds were low, I think it gives this place a magical feeling. The rain saturates the colors of the tundra and the mountains kiss the clouds in the sky. We started the hike with a trek across rain-soaked tundra, which can only be described as walking on a spongy water bed where your feet sink 6 inches into the ground with every step. Knee-high willow shrubs whipped at our shins and grabbed our feet as we started to make our way around a mountain known as Stony Hill.

After following a rushing creek for awhile, we began to climb the slope of Stony Hill, passing tundra flowers of all colors, including bluebells, yellow cinquefoil, and saxifrage. With burning muscles in our legs we eventually reached the top of the small ridge beside the mountain, with an expansive valley to our left and Stony to our right. Below and directly ahead of us, a herd of caribou was grazing on another hillside. The farther our eyes scanned left and right, the more we saw. Their heads turned and tails perked up as they noticed us, and slowly the entire herd of more than 35 began to move towards where we had come from. The movement was graceful and magical and it was nearly impossible to look away.

We settled on the ridge to eat our lunch with the caribou still roaming throughout the slopes around us. The rain let up and we were able to escape the wind by tucking ourselves into the hillside. Ground squirrels creaked from shrubs, and a rock ptarmigan with her three fluffy chicks scurried over the sharp-edged stones.

Our hike ended with a climb down a slippery tundra slope to the creekbed below. We sloshed through marsh that was waterlogged from the three days' rain, then fought through thickets of knee-high and overhead willows as we made our way back up to the park road. After about 40 minutes, we flagged down a green shuttle bus and began the journey home.

Hiking on trail-less terrain is like an exciting, strategic game. You never know what will be over the next ridge, what slope you'll need to slide down or what river you'll need to cross to get where you want to go. Being so deep in the wild used to intimidate me, but this hike was a major turning point in the way I view wilderness. Nature must be understood and respected, but there is no reason to fear it. Every new corner or bend made me feel like I was the first person to walk there, and that's the magic of Denali. I can't wait to get back out there again soon.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Celebrating Wilderness in the Midnight Sun

Is it really already my fifth week of work?

A few weekends ago I completed my first official hike up the Mt. Healy Overlook Trail. Most of the park is trail-less, backcountry hiking, but in the frontcountry (near the Denali Visitor Center and park headquarters) there are around 25 miles of maintained trails. This particular trail led to the top of Mt. Healy, a rocky, forested mountain that I can see from my bedroom window. About 3 miles round trip from the trailhead, this dirt path climbs over 1700 feet to the overlook, with an opportunity to continue climbing along the mountain’s ridge even higher (and on 10 miles to the town of Healy if you're ambitious). After eating lunch and climbing awhile up the ridge, we decided to turn around—my legs were beginning to shake with the strain of a continuous uphill climb.

Two weekends ago was the Solstice Festival, a celebration of the midnight sun. Though the solstice was actually June 21st, it was celebrated with a long weekend previous to the real date. Even now, it's still light here throughout the night. The 49th State Brewery (which also showcases the abandoned bus prop featured in Into the Wild) put on a festival of live music, drinks, and dancing. It was definitely by far the longest I have stayed up in years. 

Last week I tagged along with students attending Discovery Camp, which is put on every year by the Murie Science and Learning Center and the Denali Education Center. My main responsibility was to photograph the students, rangers, and instructors on the hike for an end-of-camp slideshow (as much as possible when it wasn't raining, at least). On Monday I was fortunate enough to go on a 4 mile hike with an extremely intelligent group of seventh and eighth graders, my supervisor Ellen, and National Geographic freelance writer and photographer, Kim Heacox, and his wife. He recently finished writing a book titled The National Parks: An Illustrated History. I also attended his presentation this past Sunday, which was beyond inspiring! He autographed another book of his that I'd bought a few days before.

On one of the hikes we were lucky enough to see a moose in nearby Horseshoe Lake! Kim gave me photography advice while we watched it from barely 50 feet away. Here are just a few of the shots I was able to get.

Erin, Sarah, me, and John
This past weekend, my biology partner-in-crime Sarah Swanson came to visit me from Fairbanks along with her fellow intern, Erin, and we went on a 9 mile hike here known as Triple Lakes Trail. The path started out along the rushing Riley Creek, crossing a suspension bridge built of materials hauled in by sled dog teams. It then took us farther up until we were climbing along the mountain ridge by three lakes settled in the valley. What an amazing day!

It's been a crazy couple of weeks but I hope to have another post about what I'm up to at work soon, so stay tuned!

 “Our vision of a wild America has become rooted in a vision of ourselves. Our National Parks, preserves,
monuments, forests, and wildlife refuges speak of
gratitude and hope, renewal and redemption.”

—Kim Heacox,
Visions of a Wild America:
Pioneers of Preservation, 1996

I also volunteered at the Moose Scat Scoot, a half marathon/
5K/fun run that took place in the park.
Photo credit to John Gibbons