Little did she realize as she excitedly headed into her first Denali mountaineering season, Ranger Michelle Dalpes' first -- and possibly only -- rigging 'patient' of the 2020 season would be a giant rubber marine buoy. Only three weeks later, the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic would shut down the 2020 Denali / Foraker mountaineering season. For Michelle (known as Mik to her friends and co-workers), at least she managed to squeeze in some potentially life-saving 'visitor protection', albeit of the feathered variety.
My first technical rigging project as a Denali climbing ranger included protecting some of the park’s Golden Eagles. When I was tasked with this project, I was curious as to how rigging skills were applicable to the survival of large raptors. Luckily, the park wildlife biologist Carol McIntyre, who has been studying the golden eagles of Denali since 1987, had the answer.
A slowly moving landslide is causing the Denali Park Road at Polychrome Pass to slide downhill. As the park works to strategically plan for the future of the road, maintenance crews unload dump trucks full of gravel to fill in the slump. This work will continue through the Golden Eagle nesting season and there are two nests perched in the cliffs above this section of road. This is where scientists and climbing rangers can work together.
Carol had built some deterrents for the nests. If we were able to place them in the nests, they would deter the eagles from choosing these nests this year. If the eagles did choose these nests, the noise and commotion of the road work may cause them to abandon them and have an unsuccessful breeding season. The deterrents were basically large buoys painted camouflage with 22 pounds of weight attached with a section of chain.
It is March 5 and the thermometer on the truck reads -35 for most of the trip to Polychrome. On the drive out I expressed my concern to Carol that the birds would not have a home to come to if we placed these deterrents. She assured me that they have plenty of nest options in the area and that it would be best if they did not choose these nests this year. It was a balmy -20 when we reached our destination. Luckily, it was sunny with barely a breath of wind. Long time Ranger Joe Reichert and I strapped the deterrents to our backpacks and started up the mountain.
Carol lined us out on the exact location of the nests from her lookout on the road below. There was no snow on the ridge above the first nest, but we were able to find two large rocks to use as anchors. Joe encouraged me to rappel to the first nest. Getting the heavy and awkward buoy down to the nest was a challenge, not unlike dragging a giant puppy on a leash -- the kind of stubborn puppy that won’t budge, but then suddenly decides to try and jump off the cliff.
Joe lowered it to me once I was halfway down and I rappelled with it the rest of the way. I found the giant nest to be full of ice, snow, and small fluffy feathers. Carol says this nest was used last year by a pair of eagles. After shoveling the snow away, I placed the buoy on top of the ice and climbed back up the rope to “high five” with Joe on the ridge. One down, one to go.
It was getting late, and it was still cold, so we decided to save the second nest for the next day. March 6 was quite a bit warmer, but with some clouds and a little wind it felt colder to us on the ridge. We were psyched to find a nice big pile of snow to build our anchor this day. Joe disappeared over the ridge and popped back up 20 minutes later without the buoy; success!
The three of us were very pleased that this project was successful. It was a perfect example of the two districts of the park working together towards our common mission of protecting park resources.
I think I may ask a Golden Eagle to help me do some house hunting in Talkeetna because these birds really know how to pick a home with a view!
(NPS Photos / Carol McIntyre)
For more information on Denali's longstanding golden eagle research, start here: