By Cody Burns, NSP-Subaru Ambassador
Life as a patroller during the summer months in Alaska is as unique as the wildlife, weather, and daylight. In the land of the midnight sun, there is a seemingly endless amount of time for fun and recreational activities. We started our summer program here at Alyeska Resort eight years ago in 2011, which was the summer that I moved to Girdwood, Alaska. I remember checking into the Alyeska patrol Aid Room on my first day in Girdwood to look for a job. The patrollers were busy closing a bike trail on the mountain because a bear had killed a moose in the trail. I was immediately intrigued about life as a patroller in Alaska and realized that there are some stark differences between patrolling here and in the lower 48 (what Alaskans call the rest of the USA).
As the snow melts and seasons transition from winter to summer, the color comes to life, changing from a white and black static environment to a green and vibrant world that was frozen underneath all the snow. Gentle wildflowers bloom in the most spectacular, rugged terrain. Crisp waterfalls tumble down the sides of mountains, cascading into the streams and rivers of the valleys below. As the tide of the Turnagain arm rolls inwards and outwards, the mountains breathe fog in and out of the valley. It is amazing to see the terrain that we ski on during the winter months and how much snow it takes to fill in the subtle valleys and complex topography.
Summer operations are fairly new to most resorts, but are becoming more common as mountain bikes develop and people are looking for more ways to get outside and recreate. At Alyeska Resort, we normally open for mountain bike operations the first week of June and we stay open till mid-September. We run three chairlifts for mountain biking and an Aerial Tram for foot traffic and hikers. There are numerous festivals and events throughout the summer that keep us busy. In October our season drastically changes as the days become darker and colder and the transition towards winter begins.
While increased daylight and a changing landscape play a factor in Alaska’s summer, wildlife also contributes an ever changing variable that affects our daily operations. Alaska is home to bears, moose, salmon, mountain goats, porcupines, wolverines, eagles, ptarmigan, lynx, hares and many other critters. There are salmon that fill the streams each summer from July to October, and the berries explode all over the mountain from mid-July through the end of September. One of my favorite things as a patroller in the summer are the trail snacks you can find along the hiking and biking trails. Strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are abound, lining the corridor of trails.
During the early spring, the bears come out of hibernation and the moose start to become more active on the hill, searching our mountain for budding plants. As the salmon migrate up the streams, the animals move from the mountains to the valleys below. As the salmon die off, we see the wildlife make its return to the mountain just before fall.
Whenever wildlife is reported on the mountain, it is our job to go to the last reported location to monitor their behavior and path of travel. Bear spray is standard issue for any patroller working during the summer months. It’s optional to carry an air horn, but we have them in each vehicle and use them to encourage the wildlife to move into the areas where they won’t interfere with our operations. Most patrollers are familiar with educating guests about closures and terrain, but not so familiar with educating wildlife. Our Jeep Rubicon 4×4 and ATVs are certainly the most effective forms of responding, but we often encounter the wildlife while on foot or bike.
As summer recreation has become more popular, so are the places that people travel. All of our trails are seeing increased traffic each year. As people become more comfortable with established trails, they start to venture into our side-country where the terrain is more rugged and the trails are less established.
Our ridgeline has become a popular place where people like to adventure just within our boundary. The famous Discrete Cirque trail run is a new popular event that we host annually. The race takes people up a knife edge ridge to our summit, then back down Max’s mountain, a steep and often times slippery descent. In all it covers about 4,000 feet of vertical (up and down) in approximately 6 miles. We have developed a remarkable rescue plan over the past couple seasons to evacuate guests off the ridge in-case of emergency. The established plan consists of lowering a litter and rescuer on a 1200’ guideline towards a more accessible location below. Over the past 3 years, we have placed 2 new rescue caches on the ridge for specific summertime use.
This summer has been our hottest ever recorded in Alaska, as it appears temperatures are increasing world-wide. While Girdwood is considered the northernmost temperate rainforest, this year has been exceptionally dry. It is extremely unusual for us to have this kind of heat coupled with such minimal rain. In an average year, it rains nearly every day or at least every couple days, and our temperature usually hovers around 70 degrees. This unusually hot, dry summer may have an effect on how few animals we are seeing on the mountain. My best guess is that they are seeking the cooler temperatures in the shade.
Each summer varies drastically on what types of situations we deal with. For example, last summer we dealt with a call for wildlife nearly every single day during bike operations. This summer the wildfires have been rampant and create a greenhouse-like effect in the atmosphere. During the Alaskaman Extreme Triathalon, athletes endured a 2.6 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 27 mile run in the extreme heat and smoke. Temperatures were in the mid 80’s the whole day and we were inundated with smoke from a fire 60 miles to the south west. In all, it was a successful race, with the event starting at 5:00am and the last racer finishing just before midnight (while it was still light out!).
As the seasons change and our climate warms, our terrain on the mountain is also changing. Over the past few years, our permanentice field, Glacier Bowl, has been melting drastically. As the ice melts, ice caves and arches have been forming and cool water flows below as it melts out. We had a guessing contest for when the most prominent ice cave would collapse, and as I was writing this article, another patroller reported that it had collapsed sometime between yesterday and today. The rapid changes and ever changing variables will always keep us on our toes waiting for what may happen next. Luckily we have a great team of dedicated patrollers that have incredible talent, and we will always be prepared for whatever comes our way.