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DENALI NATIONAL PARK- Visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve often are awe-struck by North America's highest mountain, standing majestically in the Alaska interior. But the park's new visitor center sends a different message: Even a mountain as big as Mount McKinley does not stand alone.
"Denali's borders exist only on maps," one exhibit reads, while another counsels: "Denali depends on us." "The point of all this is that what people do outside the park can affect the park," said Carol Harding, the park's interpretive planner. Harding points to one display that mentions air pollution from Russia and mercury, DDT, and PCBs being found in the park's Wonder Lake. Another display mentions the problem of human-generated noise drowning out natural sounds.
Denali National Park expects about 400,000 visitors this year, with most of them arriving in June, July and August. Greeting them will be the new Denali Visitor Center, which opened for its first full season of visitors on May 15.
Inside the 14,000-square-foot building are a stunning 20-foot-high by 70-foot-long acrylic mural on a curved wall showing the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, a moose with a 62-inch antler spread carved out of epoxy resin and a 12-foot diameter model of the entire 6 million-acre park about 275 miles north of Anchorage.
Displays also include a representation of pioneer miner Fannie Quigley's cabin. Quigley and her husband moved into the Kantishna mining area in the early 1900s. She died alone in 1944 at age 74 after refusing to leave the park when her husband was injured in a mining accident and left Alaska.
The Quigley display includes Fannie's recipe for making blueberry pie - starting off with getting bear fat for the crust by killing a bear and hauling it back in pieces in a backpack. The pie also required a 125-mile trip to Nenana by dog sled for sugar.
Another exhibit, a "What use is a Moose" wooden puzzle, is popular with children. Pull off the antlers and learn they are good for making spoons. Pull off the nose and find out it is considered tasty either boiled or roasted. The moose's brain is useful for tanning hides. No matter what's displayed inside, park engineer and project manager Joe Durrenberger, said the visitor center had to be environmentally friendly, and the environmental concerns were evident from the beginning.
In spring 2002, a machine was brought in to peel off the top layer of trees and dirt from the 3-acre site. The material was then ground up and mixed to make 4,000 yards of topsoil, which was used to landscape the site.
The building's design incorporated renewable wood products and locally produced materials, such as Alaska white spruce logs and Alaska birch for the trim. Wall panels were made from wheatboard, a product derived from wheat hulls. Beams were made from scraps compressed and glued obtained from a plywood mill near Vancouver, British Columbia. Energy was a big issue, Durrenberger said.
"A big building like this tends to be a big energy hog," he said. The goal was to have solar panels and innovative heating and cooling systems that would make the center self-sufficient for energy. But budget constraints prevented solar panels from being installed on the roof.
The solar panels that were installed - about one-third the number originally planned for the building - are in the windows and generate about 5 percent of the building's energy needs, Durrenberger said. The 300 square feet of solar panels, which lend the windows an interesting geometric design, provide 3.5 kilowatts of power when operating at 100 percent capacity. Solar tubes from the roof direct sunlight down a mirrored tube that acts like a light fixture in the building's ceiling.
"You look up there and you see what looks like a fluorescent light but really is sunlight being reflected down from the roof," Durrenberger said.
Cool air is pulled from outside and four fans circulate the air during the summer months.
A huge concrete chimney acts as a thermal mass to stabilize the building's temperatures. In cooler months, heat from a propane fireplace rises through steel baffles that transfer the heat to the concrete. A vent at the top of the chimney and the paddle fans are used to pull the hot air toward the cooler air near the floor. A 280-seat theater incorporates natural light but also has compact fluorescent lights and LED lighting when needed.
"It doesn't take a lot of light to find your seat," Durrenberger said. Forty-degree water is piped through plastic tubing that is warmed 10 degrees in the chimney and then sent to the restrooms, which have low-water consumption fixtures. The same 40-degree water is used to cool the air supplied to the theater on a hot summer day.
The building was opened on a limited basis last summer, but this will be the first year in which it will be open all season long. It was built on the old park hotel site near the train depot for a reason. A trail leads from the depot to the center.
IF YOU GO
DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE: http://www.nps.gov/dena or (907) 683-2294.
IN THE PARK:
-Take a bus tour. The Tundra Wilderness Tour takes six to eight hours and the Denali Natural History Tour takes about five hours. Both provide informal interpretive programs, and come with a snack or box lunch and hot drinks. Wheelchair accessible buses are available. At http://www.nps.gov/dena, click on "Bus services."
-Take a day hike. The park has trails for those who want a leisurely and those who want to climb a mountain. Visitors can hike unaccompanied or take walks led by park rangers. At http://www.nps.gov/dena, click on "Activities," then "More," then "Day hiking."
-Visit the park's sled dogs and watch a dog team do its thing. Demonstrations are held several times a day. At http://www.nps.gov/dena, click on "Activities" and go to "Kennels visit."
NEAR THE PARK:
-Take a sightseeing flight of Mount McKinley and surrounding peaks. Options include landing on a glacier. Air Tour operators fly out of Anchorage, Talkeetna, Fairbanks and the Talkeetna area for flights into the park. At http://www.nps.gov/dena, click on "Aviation."
-Visit the quirky town of Talkeetna, and do some shopping, go fishing or take a jet-boat ride. Float trips also include rafts, kayaking or canoeing. Visit the art galleries. Eat at Cafe Michele's, where the menu hosts baked brie with roasted garlic, Alaska salmon and halibut and puff pastry tarts. For details, visit http://www.roadtripamerica.com/places/talkeetna.htm.