Thursday, September 23, 2010

Denali National Park

On the bus once again, this time to Denali National Park .

Denali National Park was founded in 1917 and was then known as Mt. McKinley National Park , although the name was never official. It originally covered about two million acres and only part of the mountain itself. The park was expanded in 1980 to include six million acres and all of Mt McKinley within it's boundary. The park now covers the range and breeding grounds of the large herds of caribou, brown bear and Dall sheep.

This is not a park like many of those we are use to. Six million acres is a lot of land. To see just a part of it is a lot of bus riding on bumpy, dusty gravel roads with the bus driver rounding many serious hair-pin mountain curves while shouting "Dall Sheep, high on the left". Most of us were paying more attention to the five hundred foot drop on the right! The buses are actually old school buses and out naturalist/driver had eighteen years experience driving a school bus full of kids so we felt comfortable in her hands.

We were met by a park ranger at the Savage River Ranger Station for our ranger talk about not walking on the grass and no souvenir hunting. We took a small hike with a nature guide looking at various trees, creeks and things. Just as we began, not 50 feet from the paved road someone yelled "Moose!". Sure enough just behind us was a mother and her teenager. She stood just looking at us while all the while our guide was scared out of her boots! She kept telling us not to stare, be very quite and move on. Of course we stood and took more pictures!

Our bus trip deep into the park was to be sixty eight miles to a location where we just might see the mountain. At this point we would still be some thirty five miles from the actual mountain. Denali , the mountain, is so big it creates it's own weather system. Most of the time it is covered with clouds, it is a rare site to see it unobstructed. I reckon that we saw about three fourths of the mountain but the top was rising into the clouds.

Watching for wildlife requires a sharp eye and one that knows what to look for. Unfortunately, I have neither. With the help of a few eagle eyed folk on the bus we did see brown bear, Dall sheep and one lone wolf. We also saw the Alaska state bird, a ptarmigan, special park squirrels and bear scat filled with 'unprocessed' berries. At one time we saw a sow (momma bear) and her two cubs eating berries. Another sow and her two babies were ambling through with the same thought in mind when they spied the first trio. I'm sure there were more than a few growls and grumbles that made the interloper and family hightail it to the mountain! The Dall Sheep were on the edge of extension in the early 1900s and they were the reason for the initial thoughts of a national park - to protect the sheep. Now there are sheep everywhere.

The bus driver has a high powered video camera that can zoom in and we could view the animals close up on the drop down video screens in the bus. The screens were a neat invention to help you see the animals and also a neat way to separate you from fifty bucks when they sell you the video of your trip.

It was a good trip, but If I had it to do again I would ride the green park buses into the park. The park buses are for your more adventurous soles , which I surely am not, who may be hiking or backpacking . They are also far less expensive and they don't have the running commentary. The bus will drop you off and pick you up at will, but they do take you to mile 97, which is the end of the park road. But for now our tour bus turns around and we bump back to "Glitter Gulch". Glitter Gulch, what I have since learned, is the term for the collection of lodges , restaurants and shops just outside the park entrance.

Tomorrow , it's on to Fairbanks.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On to Denali

Woke up to a clear day and boarded the bus. At this point we’re beginning to feel a little rushed. It might have been smart to do the land portion of the tour first and have the opportunity to relax on the cruise going south from Steward.
At Mile 147 of the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks is the Alaska Veterans Memorial that is beautifully designed to complement its setting in the spruce and hemlock. For travelers, the memorial provides both a refreshing stop along the highway. The word "Denali" means "the high one" in the native language and refers to the mountain itself. For years we have known this mountain as Mt. McKinley but this is not accepted by the native population. They prefer the name Denali. Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America with an elevation of 20,320 feet. On a clear day the Veterans’s Memorial is a wonderful place to view Denali. Unfortunately on our visit it was not a clear day. The park rangers could only point to an area on the horizon and say “It should be right there”.
The Park headquarters are located at Denali, Alaska, not an incorporated city but, in all but the winter months, it looks like one. Restaurants, hotels and police, it looks like a small town. After the middle of September everyone, yes everyone, leaves, vamooses, abandons ship, and are gone. The city is empty. But while the city is open, the Prospector is a great place to eat, lots of local color and fun people. Two stop lights and lots of shuttle buses, this place is a lot like Six Flags. We stayed at the McKinley Village Lodge. The lodge was a wonderful place, right on the river looking out over the mountain range. In the evening, when it became cool outside, the fireplaces were roaring inside. We shared a bottle of wine by the river and prepared for our trip into the park the next day.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A B Mountain

I must digress for a moment. Friends of mine, travelling on Holland America’s Amsterdam three days behind our cruise, did a climb of A B Mountain in Skagway. This is quite a historic climb and is also associated with the most photographed building in Alaska.
The building, built in 1899 as headquarters for arctic brotherhood Camp Skagway No. 1. The brotherhood was established September 26, 1899 for the purposes of fraternal enjoyment and mutual aid. As you can see we should not be lighting a match around this building. Several years back all of the wood was taken off the building, refinished and then reapplied.
Skagway was the starting point for the White Pass Trail which led, over 500 hazardous miles, to the Yukon Goldfields at Dawson City. But those first miles of the White Pass Trail (it was usually snow-covered) were almost straight up; a real test of endurance and courage. It was a steep, tortuous path most difficult to climb and everyone needed to carry to the summit over one ton of supplies; enough for a year’s survival in the Yukon. Once on the other side of the pass it was a relative easy canoe trip on to Dawson City
It is this mountain our friends would climb. A B Mountain is a mountain summit in Skagway-Hoonah-Angoon County in Alaska. A B Mountain climbs to 4,806 feet above sea level. Anyone attempting to climb A B Mountain and reach the summit should look for detailed information on the A B Mountain area in the topographic map and the Skagway C-1 USGS quad.
I am providing a few pictures from their climb to give you an idea of Alaskan beauty and nature.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Steward to Northern Exposure

Every Alaskan tourist needs to take a train ride. Our three hour ride was
from Seward to Girdwood and the Alyeska Lodge. A gourmet dinner was served
on the deck below. The fresh made bread (really baked on board) was
delicious with soft butter. When we asked for more bread our served told us
that would be an additional $1.00! That should have been our first clue
that food in Alaska costs way more than the lower 48. Dinner was very good,
but the icing on the cake was a warm 5 berry pie with whipped cream and ice
cream. Of my gosh, that was the best pie, other than homemade, any of had
ever eaten.

Arriving in Alyeska we hopped our tour bus to be transported to the Alyeska
Lodge. A stunning world class ski lodge, beautiful gardens & flowers
everywhere. White tents dotted the extensive lawns for the Fungus Festival
the next day. We rode the gondola to the top of the mountain for a quick
view as the clouds closed in after we had been there for 15 minutes. Down
the mountain to our waiting bus & entertaining tour guide and driver -
Dannie & Bill.

We passed through Wasilla but didn’t see Sara. I think she was having tea
in the lower 48.

Now let’s forget beauty and go someplace interesting and it doesn’t get much
more interesting than Talkeetna, Alaska. Talkeetna has world-class salmon
fishing and is near Mt. McKinley. Tourists travel to Talkeetna each summer
to fish, raft and just do the tourist thing. A 37-year history of the
Moose Dropping Festival, a two-day celebration held each July, came to an
end at least for this year with the announcement on Aug. 21, 2009 by the
Talkeetna Historical Society that the festival has been canceled. I never
found out why, it seems a shame to abandon such a classy event. The event was
where participants bet on numbered, varnished pieces of "moose droppings"
dropped from a helicopter onto a target. Talkeetna is home to Whole
Wheat Radio with locally hosted shows and NPR programming.
The town of Cicely from the television series Northern Exposure is widely
thought to be patterned after Talkeetna. "The Denali Overland Transportation Co."
(see photo) was ready to take us into the park but it was raining so my
sweetheart dodged into Nagley’s store for a beer. I being more of a
tenderfoot passed that up and went to the Talkeetna Roadhouse for a glass of
wine at the Wildflower Café. The light rain had me worrying about melting
in the rain but the overall atmosphere plunged me into the northern
experience. Of course the girls continued shopping, rain or no rain.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hubbard Glacier and Seward, Alaska

After leaving Skagway we sailed overnight northward in the Gulf of Alaska. Our next destination is the Hubbard Glacier. Hubbard Glacier is a tidewater glacier in Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada. It was overcast and foggy the next morning. Chances of seeing the glacier were not good. We got up to the observation deck early and got a good seat to see the fog. As we slowly entered Disenchantment Bay the fog began to lift and about five miles away we began to see the glacier. As we got closer the sun began to shine on Hubbard’s 300 foot face wall. We closed to about 1500 feet and were able to spend about one hour at the glacier before sailing out of the bay and heading for Seward. Our onboard naturalist said we got closer than any other ship this season, can’t believe the beautiful blues of the ice. We are indeed blessed, what a site!
Seward is the northern most year round ice free port- city in Alaska and is located on the Kenai Pennisula . According to the sign as you enter the city the population is 3,016.
It was named after William Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. In 1867, he fought for the U.S. purchase of Alaska which he finally negotiated to acquire from Russia. The negotiations concluded on March 30, 1867 with the purchase price set at $7,200,000.00 or about 2.3¢ per acre for the 586,412 square miles.
Before taking a cruise of Resurrection Bay we visited The Alaska SeaLife Center, Alaska’s only public ocean wildlife rescue center and is located on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward. The Sealife Center was founded after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 to take care of distressed sea life. After the Sealife Center we loaded in a boat to see Resurrection Bay. Resurrection Bay is a bay on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, United States. Its main settlement is Seward, located at the head of the bay. It received its name from a Russian ship, which was forced to retreat into the bay during a bad storm on Easter Sunday . The bay offers spectacular views on the way to the fjords, we encounter sea-lions, seals, whales, and saw cliffs polluted with the droppings of all kinds of magnificent birds. The Puffins were amazing. Puffin are predominantly black or black and white plumage, a stocky build, and large beaks. They shed the colorful outer parts of their bills after the breeding season, leaving a smaller and duller beak. Their short wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique under water. In the air, they beat their wings rapidly.