Saturday, October 14, 2017

Talkeetna 99776

When I first started planning our trip to Alaska, I wanted to rent a car and head north with no reservations, but the more I started to look at maps and hotel vacancies, the more I realized towns were few and far between and there weren't a lot of accommodations available.  It didn't really sink into my pea sized brain until I got up here that I was visiting the largest state in the nation, but the least populated.  Only 739,000 people live in a 663,268 square mile area.  To put this in perspective, Texas is 261,914 square miles with a population of  27.65 million.

Nope.  I better have reservations and a solid itinerary.

 So that's what I did, except for two days.  Two blissful go where the wind blows days.  Reservation-free.  I envisioned us finding some enchanted cabin in the woods for the night or . . .

okay . . . maybe the backseat of the car.

When we left Denali, we must have stopped a zillion times to take photographs of the scenery.  Suddenly it was 2 p.m. and we were in dire need of a shot of espresso to keep us going.  A slight detour would take us to the town of Talkeetna with a population 876.  Maybe we could find lodging there.  Maybe not.  Maybe we would keep going to Anchorage. 

But we found our coffee shop.  And so much more.  Cute stores.  An historical museum.  Log cabins.  A picturesque river with a possible view of that elusive mountain.  "It's supposed to clear up tomorrow," a local said.  "You might see Denali."

That clinched it.

We rented this cute little log cabin for the night and ended up have a wonderful time here.  And that is precisely why I love having a no-reservation itinerary.  Talkeetna ended up being one of our favorite places in Alaska.

  There was so much interesting history to take in that time flew by.  For one thing, the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places.  In the 20's and 30's, the town supplied miners and trappers with equipment and then later became a hub for bush pilots.  These fearless entrepreneurial men made a living flying people to  remote areas of Alaska and even on to glaciers.  Flightseeing continues to be popular today.  Tantalizing signs were everywhere:  The best way to see Denali is from the sky.

 The museum had an entire room devoted to Denali expeditions.  We were enthralled.  Evidently this town is like base camp for climbers.  They begin and end their journey right here.
Climbing route to Denali summit.

After the museum we continued our tour of the town and then bought a bottle of wine and gourmet sandwiches to take back to the cabin. 
The next morning we saw patches of blue sky so walked down to the river.

But Denali remained hidden.

That means, of course, only one thing:  We will have to return.   

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Savage River Loop Trail

Denali National Park, Alaska

Although I was nervous about the possibility of encountering a grizzly, I was not going to leave the park without taking one long hike.  Like we always do, we asked a ranger for suggestions and she told us the two-hour Savage River Loop Trail was her favorite.  We could take a free shuttle there or drive the 15 miles to the trail head.  It is as far as you can drive on your own.  Beyond the river, only buses are allowed. 

"And I hear there have been lots of moose sightings," she added.

Oh, yeah.  We were in.
Well, we didn't see hide nor hair of any moose (or bear, thank goodness)  but we did see lots of pikas, the cutest little creatures I have ever seen.  Veritable balls of fluff.  We even heard their sharp, staccato chirps as they jumped from rock to rock.  These small round mammals love the cold climate and rocky slopes of Alaska.  They are small enough to squeeze into rock crevices and escape the clutches of those big bad bears.

It was one of those crisp, breezy golden days, and I enjoyed every minute of this hike.  As I post these photos, I am trying to form into words what Denali National Park meant to me.  Its beauty is not conventional.  This place will not make my Most Beautiful Places on Earth list, and yet . . . I was so awed by it.

I remember thinking to myself as I walked along this trail that there is no place else I'd rather be.  This is why I travel.  This is what I live for.  But why?  Why did I feel this way in such a desolate, forbidding place?  My travel buddy walks at a faster clip so I soon found myself walking alone--  alone in a place so wild and vast that boundaries are immeasurable.  I felt put in my place.  I was a mere speck of dust in a galactic ocean of rock formed millions of years ago.  The snow-peaked mountains of the Alaska Range, hidden behind the clouds, were nevertheless, taunting me.  We were here long before you humans.  We will remain long after you are gone.

I suppose this is the reason for my awe.  Nature is eternal.  But far from static.  Millions of years from now, what is now Los Angeles might be jutting up against the Alaskan Peninsula and North and South America might be one giant continent.  Will human beings be around?  I doubt it.

But . . . I am here today, by George, and today I am writing about this wonderful little hike next to the Savage River in Denali National Park.  Today, I realize I am not just happy to be alive, I am in AWE of it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Eielson Visitor Center

Denali National Park, Alaska

This is the view from inside the Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park.  The only way to get here is by a shuttle or tour bus and that is exactly what we did.  The views were breathtakingly beautiful and on a clear day you can see the tallest mountain in North America:  Denali, which towers 3 l/2 vertical miles up at a whopping 20,310 feet.  Now that's a mountain.  Only today, we couldn't see it.

"Don't feel bad," a young ranger told us.  "It can only be seen about four days a month."

He pointed out the top of the mountain, hidden behind clouds.  I marked it on the photo above.  We were looking at its base.  We knew it was there.  And it was awesome.
Because the mountain is so high, it creates its own weather.  Storms originating in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea collide with its massive walls of granite.  Blizzard conditions with whipping winds, intense cold and heavy snowfall can happen any time of year.  Because of this, it is very difficult to climb.  Even my travel buddy (who has lofty ambitions of climbing the world's highest peaks) conceded that Denali is a mountain he will never attempt to summit.

It is hidden.  It is elusive.  It is awesome.

We enjoyed our time at Eielson.  This would be our final stop into the interior of Denali before going back to the entrance.  The trip takes eight hours, which was perfect.  The shuttles go all the way to Kantishna, but you are adding 3 or 4 hours to an already long day. 

We had a picnic lunch out on the patio and soaked in the beautiful fall colors.  It was cold and felt like winter.  Indeed, snow was in the forecast for the following week.

Denali is a harsh, raw, rugged environment.  You can't help but feel small and insignificant in such a vast never-ending landscape.  This is a world that belongs to wildlife; not to man, and for this I am eternally grateful.  Our national park system is the guardian of such beautiful places.  I looked up at the American flag and realized for the first time since November, I felt a twinge of pride for my country.

And yet . . . I fear for the future.  The current administration is reviewing all national monuments to determine if their status was met with "adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders."  Stakeholders meaning timber, mining, oil and gas industries.

   During the long road trip back, I vowed to be more pro-active.  I have just finished reading Hillary Clinton's intelligent and inspiring book, What Happened.  She urges each of us to pick an area of concern and get involved.  Mine is the continued stewardship of our national parks and monuments.

Monday, October 9, 2017

On the Little Green Shuttle Bus

Denali National Park, Alaska

When we registered at our hotel in Healy, Alaska, we had quite a fright.  "What tour did you sign up for?" the woman asked in an attempt to strike up a friendly conversation.

We shrugged.  "Don't know.  Haven't decided yet.  We'll just wait until we get to the visitor's center tomorrow."

She adjusted her glasses and gave us a sad, sheepish look.  "You do know this is the last week the park's open, right?  And that all the tours are booked?"

My heart stopped.  I was well aware that private vehicles were restricted, but I was under the impression that buses were plentiful.

"If I were you, I would drive back to the park and get whatever is available.  Even if you can't get on a tour, you better reserve a spot on the shuttle."  She looked at the clock behind her.  "You've got an hour."

Exhausted, jet lagged, hungry, thirsty and now furious at ourselves for lack of planning, we raced back to the car and hightailed it back to the Wilderness Access Center.  Sure enough, all the tours were booked, but we did get a spot on the little green shuttle.  In two days time.

And me, a seasoned traveler.  Yeah, right.

Turns out we probably would have opted for this mode of transportation anyway.  It's much cheaper and although there is no running commentary by an onboard naturalist, the bus pulled over at several scenic rest areas and whenever someone spotted wildlife.   
  We had a National Geographic moment when the bus stopped for us to watch a mama grizzly and her two cubs digging in the dirt.  After ten minutes, she pulled out a ground squirrel and dragged it away.

"She's not sharing," someone said in disbelief.

Our bus driver chimed in.  "Don't worry.  There's plenty more where that came from.  Ground squirrels are like Cheetos to these guys."
  And so it went. . .  a delightful eight hours of gawking at bears, Dall sheep and moose.  But truthfully, it was the scenery that stole my heart.  It was vast.  Raw.  Endless.  This was what Alaska was all about.  Tundra.  Mountains.  Rivers and lakes.  Millions and millions of acres of wilderness, much of it untrampled by man.

Frankly, we were glad to be inside a bus under the care of an experienced, capable driver.  If you have acrophobia, you may not want to go any further than the Savage Creek parking lot.  That's as far as cars are allowed and now I understand why.  The road becomes windy, steep and unpaved.  There are hairpin curves and no barriers to prevent a thousand foot plunge if wheels are to spin out on the wet gravel.

The bus stopped every one or two hours, giving us a chance to stretch our legs.  We brought sandwiches and water since no food is available to purchase along the way.  And unbelievably, we even fell asleep on the trip back.

Even though we berated ourselves for not planning ahead and reserving our tickets online, all's well that ends well. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

A Giant Igloo

Roadside Double Takes

We brake for wildlife, but when we drove by this giant igloo in Alaska, I shouted for my travel buddy to stop.  "What?  A  moose?  A bear?" he demanded to know while pulling onto the shoulder.   Then he saw what I was pointing at. "What the hell?"

We were looking at the oddest, most eerie abandoned building we had ever seen. A giant igloo sitting in a field of mud, obviously neglected for years and defaced with graffiti.

Turns out this kitschy building has been sitting here for nearly 50 years.  Meant as a hotel, it was never completed because of code violations and structural issues, although a few wolves and bears have been its guests.  It's a shame really.  I mean . . . who wouldn't want to spend a night in this place?  Too weird, for words.

Located on Highway 3, the George Parks Highway
22 miles south of Cantwell, Alaska
In the middle of Nowhere