Alaska, June 1995
By: William R. Cotton

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Landed at 12:20 am after a 50 min. delay, but otherwise uneventful flight. Baggage made it and I got a rental car. I was fortunate they sold out all regular cars so gave me a Ford Explorer (sport utility) for the same price.

After getting my voluminous luggage into the Ford, I headed out toward Denali in a light drizzle. Rate increased slightly but still not enough to put on continuous wipe.

At 3:00 am, I got tired and pulled into a deceased gas station lot, dropped the seat backs in the Explorer, got out my sleeping bag and pad and slept to 4:40 am. I awoke to the chorus of wolves (or was it sled dogs? -- hmm, probably more likely). At the time, I swore it was wolves, but 8 - 10 miles down the road there were numerous signs for sled dog rides, sled dog art, etc.

Anyway, during the 1-3 am drive, it wasn't totally dark but very close. At 4:40 am, it was as light as it ever got all day. The drizzle turned to steady rain also. It is about 220 miles from Ankorage to Denali Park entrance or, at that time of day/night, a 3 1/2 hr. drive. The road gets fairly straight as speed limits rise to 65 mph. About 30 miles out of Denali, I stopped for an eggs and hashbrown breakfast at a relatively new diner. Along the way, all facilities are pretty much mom and pop type operations. No McDonalds or 7-Elevens. It was an OK breakfast (how much can one ruin eggs and hashbrowns?), and I shaved and washed up. Starting my clothes conversion from Colorado tropics to Arctic dress.

I arrived at Denali Park at 8:00 am and it was already busy. I took the last available site at the Savage River standard campsite and scheduled (paid) for a site and bus ride for Wonder Lake site. That is a bus in and backpack type of site so I hope the weather improves. At 4:30 pm it is still raining steady.

I donned my full rain gear at about 11:00 am including my bright blue Gortex top and bottom, and my bright yellow and blue boating boots and walked by the river and then along the road to a restored early 1900's style log cabin ranger station and log dog houses. I returned to have lunch in the Ford and took an afternoon nap.

I'm thinking of introducing myself to the neighbors who have set up a tarp and seeing if I can join them to cook under it. It's a bit cramped in the Ford but still roomier than my tent and rain fly.

So far I haven't seen any wildlife bigger than mosquitos!

Woke to rain this morning but clouds are broken as opposed to solid overcast yesterday.

Took the bus to Wonder Lake. It was a school bus and the road is bumpy, mostly gravel road. It took from 9:00 am to 2:30 pm and I was glad it was over. Along the way, we saw a dozen or so caribou and 3 foxes (in separate encounters). Views of the Alaska range were impressive.

I set up camp at Wonder Lake. Fighting off the mosquitos, I decided to take a hike up a hillside behind the campsite. The climb was a mix of open tundra and brush. Not too bad. The views of the Alaska range were spectacular. If only Denali had shown its face. I decided to return straight down the hill the Wonder Lake. I heard the bus driver say there was a road around the lake. Well, it was a steep descent through willows. I crashed my way down. Along the way, I say fresh (steaming) bear scat piles a foot or more in diameter and 3-4 inches high. And the mosquitos! At one point I could hardly breath without inhaling them. They were worse than the bear sign, even when I thought I heard a bear groan. Guess what? No trail by the lake. Just bush whacking through moose dung and a rough trail.

Returned to camp, cooked sweet and sour shrimp and had wine which I shared with an English couple. It was great.

I attended a ranger talk about glaciers and took some pictures of some cotton flowers.

I awoke to generally clear skies. Denali is a big "tease". It occasionally peaks out partially so that I can see its summit. It is beautiful!

I got some photos of Denali in full view but with a blanket of cirrus as a background - it won't be very photogenic. Not enough contrast.

Broke camp and put my pack in the bear shed. Then I borrowed the campground hosts canoe and paddled around (part of) Wonder Lake. Finally, I found a mosquito-free place! Saw a Loon couple and enjoyed the views.

I grabbed my pack and caught the 11:00 am bus. The return was relatively boring, saw one fox, two caribou, a few Dall sheep at great distances on the mountain sides, and a few moose crashing through the bush. Got back to the car at 4:00pm and began a 4+ hour drive back to Anchorage. The views of the coastal range were great, with only a few showering Cb's blocking them. Even Denali peaked through a cloud layer to reveal its summit.

Around Palmer, it was full summer recreation time with jet skis, sailboats, power boats, etc. on the lakes. It could have been anywhere in the U.S.A. The mountains around Palmer were in full view and beautiful. I didn't know they existed in the clouds and the rain on the way to Denali.

Traffic on the four-lane approaching Anchorage was like Sunday night into Denver with cars pulling boats, carrying canoes, pulling campers, and with bicycle antlers. Four-to-six lanes were packed!

Ate at Skippers since it was a fast-food town and found my hotel. I could have lived in the room since it had a full kitchenet. Did some laundry and took a much needed shower. Washed away layers of dirt mixed with mosquito repellent.

Part II of my Alaskan adventure begins today. At 5:00 am, it is bright and sunny. The airport is busy with long lines. I itch a bit from the mossies.

Flight to Fairbanks was directly over the Alaska range and right over Denali. It was pristine, clear; great views -- darn, why not one day sooner.

Flight to Barrow was over clouds most of the way. Barrow as clouds down on the deck (ceilings approx. 200'), winds about 20 kts and T approx. 40 degrees F -- not comfortable. The airport and town resembles a slum or dump -- not pretty.

The flight to Deadhorse was over cloud part way, then it broke and was clear with some Cu at Deadhorse. The land looked like the Florida Everglades with a mix of lakes and hummocks, except the lakes were all or partially frozen. Some of the ice appeared green since it was ice that had frozen to the bottom and had not melted yet. The intervening water gave it the green color.

Prudoe Bay has a much more modern airport and a trailer-village-type hotel. The surroundings look like a typical industrial area amidst ponds and causeways. At least it was warm; in the low 60's.

Helmerick showed about 2:30 and we waited for the 5:30 flight for a tether-sound winch to arrive. It was a no-show! Dave Whiteman had a winch foul up and lost his balloon and package. He need a replacement winch to operate.

The flight to Colville took about 30 minutes at a height of 1000 ft. MSL (AGL). Near Colville, ceilings lowered and we were down to 200' feet before we landed. Along the way, we passed several large (25-50) herds of caribou. Any one of which being larger than what I saw at Denali.

Colville is a collection of buildings and equipment on the delta next to a lake. Boots are needed when not walking on a boardwalk.

The bird life is interesting but otherwise, it ain't the Virgin Islands. (See more on Colville at back.)

It appears the replacement balloon winch will be in early this afternoon. Today the sky is a combination of transient streak of fog, altostratus, and cirrus. Winds are NE at 12-17 kts. The NE winds are typical here.

Dave Whiteman and I took a canoe paddle part way across the river. The depth here is mainly about 1 foot with a few deeper stretches. Aside from a few sea gulls, I didn't see any other bird life. River temperatures were about 43F.

Dave took sounding released at 1431 local and ascended to 175 mb. Clouds were broken fog/low-level cu, an altostratus layer covering the entire area. Flew over sea ice which is open out to 25-30 miles. Where the river overflows the ice, it is very dirty. I saw no sign of leads, just solid ice with cracks in it.

The sounding showed no Td structure. I'm suspicious of it. I can't tell where the altostratus layer base is.

Light drizzle at Colville, but clear at Deadhorse.

1606 -- the replacement winch is here! Wind are NE at 10-15 kts.

0640 -- Took photos of what I have thought of as typical summertime Arctic stratus. Photos began on North porch, then to east, south and west, ending with bird feeder shop. Stratus is light drizzling with a base approx. 200 ft. Will call for a sounding as soon as Dave gets up.

We had light drizzle to rain most of yesterday as also. Temperature is 32 degrees F, winds are northerly 8-10 kts.

NOTE: ARCO takes soundings at Prudoe Bay -- I'll contact Jim's brother to see if I can get a copy. ARCO Alaska Inc. -- 659-2821 Prudhoe/Lisborne Field -- 659-3106

0740 -- Took sounding including lots of photos. Clouds are multi-layered and thinner to the north -- low-level fog with mid-level stratus. Lots of low stuff over ice to east.

According to Jim Helmerick, low-level stratus, clear above, it most prevalent in middle July, August, and September and only occasionally in May. What we have is more altostratus.

1417 -- 2nd tethersonde -- Cloud conditions - low-level fractocu; altostratus layer covering almost solid except for blue sky to north.

1533 -- First flight of the radiometer. Sky - altocu/cirrus cover clearing to the north. No data, had problem in setup of computer/data logger.

0739 -- I got up at 1:00 am and shot some pictures showing how bright it was. The sun was to the north at an angle of 15-18 degrees above the horizon. I couldn't photograph the sun directly as it was too bright.

This morning the sky is obscured with low-level scud/cu and altostratus or cirrus. Winds are brisk 15-18 kts out the ENE and the temp is 38 degrees F! Doesn't look very nice.

Trigger, the Siamese, is on my lap making it hard to write.

According to Jim Helmerick, winds are typically brisk along the coastal zone. Annual average wind speeds are 11 kts. Only 25-30 miles onto the pack ice winds are generally quite light.

0849 -- Getting ready to launch airsonde -- clouds are a mix of low scud/cu and stratus -- winds ENE at 15-18 kts; T approx. 40 degrees F.

Sonde went thru cloud at 450m, winds from east up to that level.

0930 -- Light snow coming down!

NOTE: It is not uncommon to experience 20-25 mph winds out of the NE for two weeks at a time in June

NOTE: The Airsonde is useless for RH (moisture) measurements. It is a wet bulb which freezes shortly after launch and gives Td > T.

1430 -- Airsonde release. Cloud base 197m - solid stratus coverage.

2000 -- About to take a sounding. T approx. 39 degrees F; winds northerly at 16-20 kts; clouds completely overcast - nearly a fog - no horizon visible to north, east, barely visible to west. Cloud base 126 m.

2208 -- Begin tethersounding. In fog - visual range approx. 1/2 mile; T approx. 39 degrees F; winds NE at 8-12 kts. It looks like the best case for LES since I've been here!!

0640 -- Awoke to low stratus cover horizon to horizon. Winds are light out of the NE. Temp is 36 degrees F. Another great day!

Dave is taking the tethersonde obs's today so it should be another useful case. Bases are about 600 to 700 ft. AGL.

There is a Vareze sitting on the ramp here with a nose boom and some other equipment. I saw the plane flying 100 ft or so above the tundra when I rode over to Deadhorse with Jim on Tuesday. The locals think it is set up for met. research and operated by NOAA since some of their stickers are on the equipment.

Return Home

I awoke to low stratus with a temperature of 36F and winds light out of the northeast. Flew with Jim Helmerick to Deadhorse where I got an Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage via Fairbanks.

1236 -- Taking off from Deadhorse, we rapidly climbed thru the shallow stratus layer. There are patches of middle level stratus above the low-level stratus deck. Finished roll of film shooting stratus over north slope.

Finally I saw the Brooks range. Very barron-looking mountains that are snow-capped but not near as much as the Colorado Rockies right now. Finally in the valleys of the foothills of the eastern slopes of the Brooks range I see some trees. I think the nearest tree from Deadhorse must be over 300 miles to the south!

Fairbanks was cloudy and in the 50's with light drizzle. I am impressed with the number of float planes on a water channel to the east of the main Fairbanks runway.

Landed in Anchorage about 3PM and made it to the hotel. I then took a bus to downtown. From the hotel near the airport to downtown it must take 40 minutes by bus. Downtown is a mix of relatively modern state, city, and Federal office buildings(2-10 stories), and old brick buildings filled at low levels with tourist shops and restaurants. The tourist shops are mostly not my style, specializing in furs, stuffed animal carcasses, pseudo-Indian jewelry, toys, etc. I ate at an outdoor salmon bake place with a plastic cover in 50s temperature and steady rain. Fortunately, they had a gas heater going to take the chill off. Food was good but not great.

On the 6:20Am flight to denver via seattle I sat next to a fellow who used to work here at ATS in the satellite group. He had just completed climbing Denali. Definitely not a Longs Peak type of day hike, even on the so-called easy route. It took him and his team 3 weeks. He was there when they brought out the Taiwanese party(one dead one dies later) that got caught in bad whether and were not prepared for it. he said temperatures got down to -20F but the winds were fierce and wind chill was -120F! At one point he was leading in the lee of a roch face and when he tried to go over was blown backwards 10 or 15 feet.

The final assault climb was over 4500 feet and I believe it took him 19 hours.

He had also climbed the highest peak in the western hemisphere in Argentina which peaked at over 23,000ft. He said it was a day hike compared to Denali but still had to climb in ice and snow the last 4000 feet. They also encountered a party that bivouaced for 18 days because of the weather and had to quit because they ran out of food. Sounds like fun?



Colville is not a village but a family collection of houses and sheds, hangars, and lots of junk. Jim and Tina Helmerick and their 3 sons (a 4th is in college) live here. Jim's stepfather, Bud, also has a house here which he and his wife, Martha, visit occasionally during the summer. I believe Jim's brothers also have, or use, one of the houses.

Jim and Tina are avid birders and grow some exotic birds as well as feed the locals. They and the kids do egg counts for the state to determine bird populations. I gather they sometimes get paid for it.

Their house is a two-story weathered structure which is the second house they have lived in here. They live only on the first floor now. Jim was busy installing and sealing windows upstairs while we were here. Powered by a 5 kwatt generator, the house has continuous electricity (except for oil changes) with TV, microwave, electric heaters (for load on generator). Gas is used for stove, hotwater heater. The bath room is equipped with hot and cold water, a shower and sink, and a toilet with a honey bucket. With the permafrost, below ground plumbing is not feasible so a honey bucket must be used.

Water is pumped from a neighboring lake (freshwater) into a cistern. A homemade antenna picks up satellite TV which, incidentally, mainly has Denver channels - they are pirates.

The boys have a computer to help them with home schooling. In the living room, a gun cabinet with 11 guns is prominent with bookcases surrounding the room.

Outside, the yard is covered with odds and ends (junk). It includes snowmobiles (6 or more) - some trashed, some operational - barrels everywhere, boats, canoes, a crane, etc.

In the generator shed is a late model half-track used to go to and from Prudoe Bay in the winter. Also a side-by-side, 2-seater Ski-Doo.

Besides the Cessna 206 which brought us up here, in the hangar is a Piper Supercub with gigantic tires for landing on the tundra. The boys have been building a 3/4 scale cub kit but I doubt if it will ever be completed.

Walking thru the tundra, one encounters birds nests with eggs and some very aggressive birds.