The Denali National Park kennels come alive in winter. It starts with the first snowfall. In the winter, park rangers patrol the backcountry with dogsleds. This is what sled dogs live for. They can't wait to be hooked up behind a sled, trotting up the trails. As the sun comes back in January, memories of the cold and dark months of November and December fade. By mid-February, recreation in the bright spring sunlight is in full swing. Besides dog mushing, there is cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and even winter camping - under the northern lights.
Alaskan Caribou in Winter photo Kevin Hamel
Peculiar Things That Happen in the Cold
Noisy Rivers
Rivers get very noisy twice a year. First, when they are freezing up, they fill with little icebergs which make a din until the river freezes solid. Second, in the spring, during breakup, rivers groan and crash as they sweep the winter's huge, thick ice out of the way – sometimes high onto the banks, uprooting trees and flooding cabins, and whole villages.
Water Freezing in Mid–Air
Throw a pan of hot water into the air at 40 below and hear it pop and crack as it vaporizes in the air.
Northern Lights
Northern lights happen all year round – but they are easier to see in the dark of winter. They are caused by the sun, and have been widely studied at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks which, if you are interested in northern science and lifestyle, is a great place to go to college.
Animals That Aren't Active
Hibernation and dormancy are two of the great mysteries of animal survival. It is not widely understood just how an animal's basic system can go from fully functional to completely slowed down, remaining inactive for 7 or 8 months. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that bears don't hibernate – but go into "dormancy" where their "body temperatures, heart rate, and other metabolic rates are drastically reduced. While in the den they do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate."

Marmots, like woodchucks, are true hibernators. They live in a family den, which they plug up for the winter. All their body functions are reduced. Alaskan marmots spend over half the year in their dens.

Photo, Jimmy Tohill
© Old Sourdough Studio – Denali
Animals That Stay Awake
Winter is a difficult time for animals. Foxes, wolves and coyotes all have to find food all winter, as do their prey. Ptarmigan, mice, spruce grouse, and hares are smaller prey. Berries and seeds are food for smaller animals, while willows are a mainstay for hares and moose. Larger prey, like moose and caribou, are weakened by the winter. Deep snow is more of a danger to most animals than the cold. In deep snow winters, caribou and sheep have to dig deeper for food and moose bunch up in small valleys and riverbeds with willow, their favorite food. They can get trapped in the valleys and become vulnerable to both starvation and predators. Many animals that are awake have specialized feet that not only help them deal with the cold but also with the snow. As an example, both snowshoe hares and their predator, the lynx, have large feet for staying on top of the snow.
Photo, Jimmy Tohill
© Old Sourdough Studio – Denali
Denali Caribou
Along with several other animals, including bison and musk oxen, caribou have survived since the Ice Age. The modern caribou is smaller than its prehistoric cousin. Caribou have large, concave hooves, to support them on tundra and snow, and are known for their hollow hair, which traps air to keep them warm.
Photo, Kevin Hamel, Totem Inn - Healy
Alaskan Spring Events
Are you interested in visiting Alaska in the fantastic February and March "spring season"? You won't be disappointed. Here's a partial list of events.

Yukon Quest Dog Race – Mid-February, Fairbanks and Whitehorse
World Ice Art – Mid-February, Fairbanks
Denali Park Winterfest – End of February
Fur Rendezvous – End of February to beginning of March, Anchorage
Iditarod Sled Dog Race – First Saturday in March, Anchorage to Nome
Nenana Ice Classic – Early March, Nenana
North American Championship Sled Dog Races – March, Fairbanks
Arctic Man – Early April, Summit Lake
Spring Skiing and Snowmobiling – March and April, Thompson Pass, Girdwood, Cantwell, Paxson
Winter In Denali

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Winter In DenaliAlaska's National ParksPaint The Northern Lights

And a surprising spring.
Denali National Park Winter Kennel
This Winter's Events
Solstice, December 21st
Sunrise in Denali was at 10:44 am and sunset was at 3:03 pm, for a total day length of 4 hours and 19 minutes. (On June 21st there will be 20 hours and 52 minutes of daylight).
Winterfest, February 24th - 28th, 2016
The park and its nearby communities celebrate the bright "spring" weather with ice carving, free dog sled rides and campfires. For a complete list of events, see the NPS website.
Nenana Ice Classic, March 4th-6th, 2016
A weekend of events culminating with the raising of the ice classic tripod. Check the Ice Classic website for details.
Photo of Musher, EarthSong Lodge – Healy
Denali Musher photo EarthSong Lodge
Winter Alaskan Red Fox photo Jimmy Tohill
Alaskan Grizzly Bear in Fall photo Jimmy Tohill
Denali National Park Winter Kennel Rangers

Surviving the Winter
Every animal has to develop strategies for dealing with the winter season. It is no different with people. We may think that winter is a time for hunkering down. But people have to have cultural activities, to deal with the stress of the cold and dark. That is why bead, leather work and carving are traditional Alaskan winter activities, along with dancing, singing and fiddle playing. Getting outdoors is another important thing to do. A few hours of exercise not only improves your frame of mind, it makes even a drafty cabin seem warm.

When gold miners came to Alaska in the 1898, one of their bigger winter problems was scurvy, due to a lack of Vitamin C. Strangely, modern technology is what now gets the outdoorsman into trouble. Snowmobiles (or "snow machines") let people roam far from home and are fairly easy to get stuck either in snow or overflow. Be careful before you set out to have adequate gear to melt snow and to spend a night outdoors if you have to.
Being Comfortable Outdoors
Staying hydrated is very important when you are outdoors in the winter. Therefore, getting water in the winter (and fuel to melt snow) becomes one of the hardest and most important chores. It may not seem logical, but it is easy to get dehydrated in the winter. When you get dehydrated, you become easily confused, tired and vulnerable to hypothermia. Mountain climbers, mushers and other outdoorsmen have to be careful to stay hydrated and able to concentrate.

Clothing is important too. Pay particular attention to your hands, head and feet. Notice the typical winter clothing the rangers in the top photos have on: Wool hats, layered clothing, fleece jackets and gloves, coveralls, wrist protection, snow-gaiters and "bunny boots." These "bunny boots" are waterproof inside and out – so even if your boots get accidentally filled with water crossing a stream you can just dump them out.
Alaskan Black Spruce in Winter

Further Reading: There are many great books on Alaskan wildlife. Some are books of photographs. Others contain detailed information. For a general overview of more common animals, we often turn to the excellent descriptions provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in its "Wildlife Notebook Series"
at this link.
Fairbanks Alaska Northern Lights Tourists