Thursday, June 30, 2011

Savage River and Horseshoe Lake Hikes

There are several short trails in the vicinity of Riley Creek near the entrance to the Park.  We wanted to do several of these short trails and as it happened a Ranger led hike to Horseshoe Lake worked into our schedule well.  We had gotten several recommendations for the Savage River hike, as well.

Savage River trail is at mile 15--the point on the park road where private vehicles cannot go beyond.  On the south side of the bridge there is a large parking lot and the trail begins here.  It’s an easy hike along the river bank for one mile.  There is a footbridge for hikers to cross the river for the mile return hike along the opposite bank.

We made plans to do this hike on Tuesday.  As it turned out it was raining, but we are mighty hikers and went anyway.  By the time we got back to the car, we were mighty wet.  Tony and Diana went with us so instead of being discouraged by the rain and low-hanging clouds, we concentrated on the river and wildflowers at our feet and had a great time.  Of course, we took so much time with the flowers we turned an hour hike into two.

Making a clothing adjustment
This is a beautiful place to hike.  For the more courageous souls, one could continue on along the river bank on an unmaintained trail for another mile and a half to another footbridge over the river.  We’ll save that for another time, if we’re ever here again.

Footbridge across the river
Wednesday, Tony, Diana, Gene, and I joined a Ranger for a hike to Horseshoe Lake.  Ranger led hikes are generally very slow paced, stopping often to investigate or explore flowers, trees, wildlife, natural history, or whatever.  The hike to Horseshoe Lake is a popular one and there were nearly 40 folks gathered on the porch at the Visitor Center.  The Ranger felt like that was too many for one group so he recruited another Ranger and split us up into two smaller groups.  We went with Ranger Stephanie.

Each Ranger makes their hike unique to their own interests.  Stephanie is really into wildflowers and somewhat of an expert.  Holy cow, was it a great hike.  In order not to be constantly in the way or waiting on the other group, she took us along the Taiga Trail for the first portion of our hike.  This trail was also on our list so we were glad to get to do it with a ranger.

We were fortunate to be at Horseshoe Lake at the same time a moose was having lunch.  She didn’t seem to mind us being there and because she wasn’t bothered, Stephanie let us make our photos from the bank which was a whole lot closer than the 25 yards people are supposed to stay from these animals.  Of course, Stephanie kept a very close eye on the moose and as the moose started to come closer to the bank where we were, she made us leave.  All the animals have right of way here.

After lunch, we attended a presentation on wolves at the Visitor Center.  Very informative and also presented by Stephanie.

With the hike and the presentation we were just worn out and nothing could perk us up but ice cream.  Lucky for us they sell ice cream at the snack bar.

We’ve spent today mostly relaxing and getting ready to leave tomorrow morning.  There is still more Alaska to see, so we need to move on along.

Gene is looking for a fleece vest as his souvenir from Alaska.  He hasn’t been able to find what he wants in the gift shops in the Park so this afternoon we drove over to “glitter gulch” to the touristy gift shops there.  They had plenty of T-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs, and stuffed moose, but no fleece vest.  At least, none in his size and the color he wants.  The search will continue down the road.

For one last look at this beautiful park, we drove out the park road.  It’s been very cloudy with periods of rain all day today, so there were no last views of the mountain.  The wildlife seemed to be tucked away some place dry as well.  We saw one moose and a caribou willing to get wet.

We stopped by Savage Cabin on our way.  This small cabin was built as a cook cabin for the road crew during the 1930s.  There are several of these cabins along the road and they are still used today.  This particular cabin is open to the public during summer months with an interpreter on hand to answer questions.  The other cabins are used by law enforcement rangers who patrol the park.  One of our bus drivers mentioned that one of the cabins is used by an artist in residence.  During winter months the park is patrolled by rangers on dog sled.  These cabins are used then as shelter for the ranger and his dog team.

Well, how ‘bout that--I’m all caught up.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for tagging along.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Riley Creek Campground

After our five days at Teklanika Campground we left the backcountry and moved to Riley Creek Campground near the entrance to the park.  This is a large campground with nearly 200 sites which can accommodate the largest of rigs.  This is still the National Park so there are no hook-ups, but we do have a cell signal and with that phone service and internet.

Within walking distance along the various walkways within the campground is Riley Creek Merchantile.  This small camp store has a limited supply of grocery items, a few souvenir items, camping supplies, and firewood.  There is also a laundry and showers.  They have a nice covered porch and there are electrical outlets to recharge electronic equipment and there is free WiFi.  A dump station and fresh water is nearby.

There is an extensive network of shuttle buses running from the campground to the Denali Visitor Center, Bookstore, Snack Bar, Wilderness Access Center, Post Office, Railroad Depot, and various trailheads. So if you don’t have a car, you can still get around easily.

The campground has nightly Ranger Programs and there are Ranger led hikes from the Denali Visitor Center.  There are also films shown at both the Wilderness Access Center and the Denali Visitor Center. There is plenty to do right here at the entrance to the park.

We moved in and got settled in our site late Sunday morning.  While Gene was backing into our site, he noticed a familiar face walking along the road.  He jumped out of the motor home and asked the lady if she was Cool Judy.  Yes, indeed she was.  We have never met, but he recognized her face from her photo on the Escapees forum. We made our introductions and later we joined her and her husband, Luke, along with Frank and Gloria, and Tom and Paula for a little socializing.  It was fun to get to know these SKPs.

Sunday was more or less a day to get organized.  I had loads and loads of laundry to do and we went out scouting for a market for a few grocery items.  A word to the wise--buy everything you need before leaving Fairbanks or Anchorage and coming to Denali.  There are a couple markets, but everything is incredibly expensive and there is very little selection.

Monday, our friends, Tony and Diana, whom we had last seen in Bushnell, Florida, pulled into Riley Creek Campground.  We have been looking forward to meeting up with them in Alaska.  As we were planning for this trip, we knew our paths would cross somewhere around Denali, Anchorage, or Homer.  We’re glad it happened sooner rather than later.  Now we will have more opportunities to bump into each other as we each do our own trip around the Kenai Peninsula.  

Since their arrival on Monday, we have shared our meals together, attended Ranger Programs, perused the gift shops, and gone on hikes to Horseshoe Lake and Savage River.  We’ve laughed, told tall tales, and eaten every chocolate chip cookie in both rigs.  Diana and I do our little power walk together around the campground each morning.  It’s been nice having good friends close to share this wonderful place.

Tomorrow, I’ll fill you in on those two hikes we’ve been on and then I think I’ll actually be caught up to real time on the blog.  So much is happening so fast, I can’t keep up.

That’s all for today.  Thanks for tagging along.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hiking in Denali National Park

On Friday, we took another bus ride to Eielson Visitor Center--this time for a hike.  We are not ones to hike in grizzly country, so this took considerable talking, planning, and brainwashing to convince ourselves it would be all right.

The most we've seen of Denali since we got here

Hiking in Denali is a little different than at other National Parks we’ve visited.  At most parks there are maintained trails with maps and signs and designated parking areas.  Not so in Denali.  There are a few maintained trails, especially in the front country around the Riley Creek area.

There are a few other trails scattered here and there in this 6 million acre park, but generally, the hiking here is off trail.  If the area appeals to you, it’s fine to just walk out onto the tundra and go wherever your mind, body, and soul want to wander.  There are maps of the park available and if you’re good with a topographical map, you can create for yourself a very satisfying wilderness hiking experience.

Hiking is our passion and to be in a park of this magnitude and not hike is almost torture.  However, that cute little bundle of fur called grizzly can be deadly and we have a serious respect for that creature.  Being at Eielson Center with the multitudes has eased our phobia a bit and we got the idea it would be okay to hike there, on maintained trails, within sight of hundreds of other tourists.

We got up and caught an early bus on Friday morning.  We had a two hour ride to Eielson where we got off the bus, put on our packs, and headed to the trailhead.

Our trail

There are several trails around the Center which were options for us.  There is a paved nature walk just below the “porch” and with a short connector we could make a nice loop which would get us away from the building, but still within our comfort zone.  There is also a 45 minute Ranger led hike in this area.  On the other side of the road there is a mile long hike on a maintained dirt path from the visitor center parking lot to the top of the peak.

View of Eielson Visitor Center from about half way up
This 1000 foot climb in a mile, which is pretty steep, was more appealing to us than the loop below the Visitor Center.  We were loaded down with our lunch, water, and cameras so it was easy to maintain a very slow pace.  That slow pace allowed us to enjoy the view and what a view it was.

For scale, notice the hiker in the center of the photo

There were the myriad of wildflowers, of course, but the view of the landscape was phenomenal.   The trail switch-backed up the slope, higher and higher and Eielson Center became smaller and smaller.  It was pretty windy on top, but we were able to find a nook on the back side of the peak which was sheltered from the wind--a good place for a lunch break.

The largest wild creatures we saw along the trail were the dozens of arctic ground squirrels.  There were birds in the air, mostly ravens; however, someone told us there was also a golden eagle about.  We never saw that.  We also saw a tiny pica.  These members of the rabbit family live in cold climates, especially on rocky mountain slopes. They’re always scurrying about gathering food for winter since they don’t hibernate like many of the animals of the cold climates.

View of Eielson Visitor Center from the top

Perhaps the best view of the day was Denali itself.  The native Alaskans call the tallest mountain in North America Denali--the high one.  In the 1890s the name of the mountain was changed to McKinley.  About 1975, the Alaska Geologic Board changed the name back to Denali, but that change was never adopted by the National Geologic Board.  I guess the official park name for the mountain is still McKinley even though the park itself has been renamed Denali.  But, for the most part, the mountain is known by both and more and more it is being called by its original name--Denali.

Denali rises 20,320 feet into the sky and is more often than not hidden behind cloud cover.  It is large enough to make its own weather patterns so while it may be partly cloudy or even clear in other parts of the park the mountain can still be shrouded in clouds. On this particular day, the clouds parted a little and we got a glimpse of “the high one”.

Our bus ride offered several wildlife sightings.  We saw several caribou as usual.  There was an exciting moment when we came around a curve and noticed Dall sheep not so far up the mountain.  Usually the sheep are only tiny white specks far, far up the mountain slope.  Although my photos are not very good, it was exciting to see these animals close enough to recognize them as living things.

We also saw a couple grizzly bears rooting around for their dinner.  These were also fairly close.  The several other grizzlies we’d seen were so far away the only way we could tell they were bears instead of rocks was their movement.

We enjoyed the hike.  It was good to get out and stretch those legs and give our lungs and heart muscle a workout, but it was also good to get out there in an environment we’d previously been reluctant to embrace.  We’ve now added a few other hikes to our “to do” list while we’re here.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for tagging along.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wildflower Extravaganza

Our long bus ride and late return to camp led us to take it easy Thursday.  Overdoing it and getting too tired is what causes my back to be unhappy, so I didn’t want to take any chances with that happening again.  We did a couple household chores this morning, but mainly sat around sipping coffee, reading, and engaging our feeble minds with sudoku.

Rose Avens

Arctic Cotton grass

This afternoon, we walked up the road about a mile and a half and back again, looking for and photographing the wildflowers.  This seems to be peak season for the early flowers and they are in abundance everywhere.

Pink Plumes

Bear flower

We try to learn the flowers and are pretty good with the most common eastern flowers, but we’re pretty pitiful with everything else.  We don’t have the proper wildflower guide book for this region, but Gene has searched in the western flower book we have to find some of what we are seeing here.  I’ve labeled the photo, if we have anywhere near a clue as to what the flower is.

Arctic sandwort
This evening (Thursday), we went to the amphitheater for another Ranger program.  This time we learned all about the dogs and the cats in the park.  The wolf was the primary focus in the dog category and the lynx held the cat position.  Different Ranger this time and he did okay.  He was a very young man and this was the first night he tried to do his presentation without notes.  He was very knowledgeable and the topic is fascinating to many people, so I think when he feels more comfortable with his presentation it’ll be a good one.  There wasn’t a skit, so we didn’t get to dazzle everyone with our inability to act.  We learned that a lynx has been spotted within the past couple days along the road where we went for our walk.

Large flowered wintergreen

I haven’t mentioned Mt McKinley--”the mountain”.  It is, after all, a prominent feature of this park.  I haven’t mentioned it because we haven’t yet seen it.  It has kept itself hidden behind cloud cover since we’ve been here.  We’re hopeful we’ll get to see it before we leave.


Enjoy the wildflower photos.  I’ll name the ones I can.

Mountain avens

NOTE:  Since writing this we have purchased a wildflower book for this region.  Hopefully, those flowers named are correct.

Thanks for tagging along.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Denali Park Buses

As I mentioned in the previous post, the easiest way a visitor can travel past mile 15 is on one of the park buses.  As with anything, there are exceptions allowing private vehicles.  I’m not sure what all of them are, but the primary one seems to be for professional photographers.  Of course, if you want to walk or ride your bike, that’s allowed.

Anyway, for commoners like us, it’s the bus.  There are three different bus categories.  The green ones and the tan ones are park buses.  The green buses are shuttle buses.  They leave the Wilderness Access Center at many different times of the day and travel as far out in the park as Wonderland Lake.  Tickets vary in price depending on how far out the visitor wants to go.  Usually, visitors will remain on the same bus for the whole roundtrip, but that’s not necessary.  If you purchase a ticket to Eielson Center, for example, and decide to do a hike while there, you can get on any green bus for your return trip.  However, you no longer have a reserved seat, so you may have to wait for a bus with space available.

The tan buses are “tour” buses and have a Park Ranger or Naturalist to provide a narrated tour.  There are three “tours”--Tundra Wilderness, Natural History, and Kantishna Historic Gold Mining tour.  These tickets are also dependent on the length of the tour.  The shortest is the Natural History tour and it lasts about 5 hours.  The longest is the Kantishna tour and it is 12 hours.  The tours also include a lunch or snack and beverages.

Way back at the end of the road is Kantishna Lodge.  It is a private inholding surrounded by the park.  The Lodge has its buses to transport their guests in and out of the park.

All these buses, by the way, are “school buses”.  They’re not the most comfortable ride in the world.

Eielson Visitor Center

All buses stop for wildlife.  Any person on the bus who spots an animal can holler “stop” and the driver stops, everyone makes a picture of said animal, and then the trip resumes. No one is allowed off the bus when an animal is around. The drivers make these trips into the park day after day.  They’re pretty good at knowing where to spot certain animals.  Drivers are also happy to answer questions and point out other features of the park as well.  Some drivers are real chatty and are just full of trivia about the park.  Our driver Wednesday pointed out glaciers and explained a few geologic features.  He did seem a little put out after backing up the bus so everyone could get a good view of a bear that turned out to be a rock.

When we made our reservations for the Teklanika Campground, we also made a reservation for a green bus ride to Wonderland Lake.  Our tickets were $31 each instead of the regular $43 because we were starting at mile 29 instead of mile 0.  Our pick-up was at the campground entrance at 11:25 AM.  (This bus left the Wilderness Access Center at 10:15)

We arrived at Wonderland Lake about 5 PM after many stops for animal sightings, rest breaks, a viewpoint, and a long stop at Eielson Center.  The drive back wasn’t any shorter but it didn’t take as long, because we didn’t make nearly as many stops.

CRITTER COUNT:  And what did we see.  Several caribou.  In fact, there were so many caribou stops, I think people quit yelling “stop” for caribou.  We saw one mother moose with her calf.  She was pretty far away, farther than my camera could reach.  But we could see the calf romping around the mom.  It was so cute.  We saw dots high on the mountain side which were Dall Sheep.  They were way far out of my camera range.  We saw numerous arctic ground squirrels and one snowshoe hare.

For me, the most exciting was the grizzly bear family--a mom and two cubs.  They were pretty close to the road; not just dots on the horizons.  Mom was stretched out on the ground napping and the young ones were grazing.  They had their heads down and their backs turned almost the entire time we were there.

Another exciting encounter was the red fox.  Red fox are everywhere so that wasn’t so exciting, but this one was trotting along the road next to the bus.  What made it special was the squirrel he had hanging out of his mouth.  We saw a fox, probably the same one, on our trip out and then again on our way back.  Both times, he had something hanging out of his mouth.

The weather was good--partly sunny and temps in the mid-sixties.  There were enough clouds, however, to hide the mountain all day.  We were unable to get that prize winning shot of Denali reflected in Wonderland Lake as the sun slowly sets in the west.  The only time it rained during the entire trip was when we pulled up at the lake.

It was incredibly difficult for me to pick out pictures.  The morning started out a mostly cloudy so those shots are darker with less blue sky.  The return trip was late enough to get some nice sun and long shadows.  The brighter photos were taken on the return trip.  Almost all shots were through the bus window at about 25 miles per hour.  The windows got dirty as the day progressed.  Even though they washed the windows at Eielson, they left huge streaks.

It was a good day.  This is a beautiful place.

Thanks for tagging along.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Teklanika Campground

Tuesday we made our way to Teklanika Campground.  A little explanation about the campground is in order.

Denali has only one road and unlike many National Parks, that road doesn’t go all the way through the park.  Also, unlike many National Parks, private vehicles are not allowed past the first 15 miles of the road.

At Denali, visitors can drive back and forth along the first 15 miles of the 95-mile road as often as they want.  The only way past mile 15 is on a sightseeing bus.  The buses leave from the Wilderness Access Center and go all the way to the end of the road.

There are four campgrounds past the 15 mile mark--Teklanika is the only one which allows RVs and private vehicles.  The others are tent only campgrounds and there are no cars allowed.  Teklanika is at mile 29.  There are lots of restrictions on what can be here.  We could bring our RV, but not the car.  If you’re towing a 5th wheel or travel trailer, of course, you would have your vehicle.  There are also tent campers here who have come in their vehicles.  Once we select a site in the campground, we cannot move the RV until we are ready to leave.  The only way we can move about the park is either on foot, bicycle, or sightseeing bus.

Along with the campground reservations we got a bus pass.  This pass is good for any bus, any time of the day, as often as we want for the length of our stay at Teklanika.  However, we cannot use the bus pass to go back toward the park entrance.  We have to stay beyond mile 29.

It’s pretty restrictive, but it’s what we wanted.  I’m sure it’s not a place everyone would want to be.

I suspect most of the people here have plans similar to ours--ride the bus as often as possible.  The grizzles, wolves, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou are out here in the park.  We’re all hoping to see all five.  The way to do that for us, since we’re not going to be hiking with the grizzles, is to ride the bus.

We got here about noon and picked out a campsite.  Even though we have a reservation, sites are not assigned.  Just pick out a site and put your check-in slip on the post.  Most sites are large enough for our rig, so that wasn’t a problem.  There are a few class A motor homes and a big Montana 5th wheel.  I can imagine those guys might have had a problem getting a site long enough and wide enough for their slides.  Our site is long enough, but not too long and it is very wide.  Of course, like most national park campgrounds, we are almost surrounded by trees--white spruce mostly.

So we got set up and went out for a short walk about.  The campground has two loops with the Teklanika River running long the back border.  We walked around both loops and out by the river.

We spent some time this afternoon going through all the handouts and brochures we picked up at the Wilderness Access Center.  We don’t want to go around without a plan at all.  We need to make every day count while we’re here.

This evening we went to the Ranger Program at the amphitheater.  Tonight’s program was about ecosystems and we were surprised to learn that some of the birds which nest in Denali during the summer, migrate to Australia and Africa during the winter.  The arctic tern flies from here to Antarctica for the winter.  It was a good program and I got to play lichen in the little skit.  Gene was fungus.  I could probably make up a sentence with the words old and moldy, but I won’t.

Since I’m posting this several days later, I have the luxury of being able to comment on the other Ranger Programs we attended.  We went to four during the time we were here.  All were very good.

So that was our first day at Teklanika. Oh, the campground fee is $16 per night with a $5 reservation fee.  No hook-ups, of course.  There is also the bus pass which was $31. If you don’t plan to ride the bus at all then no pass is necessary. There is also the park entrance fee which is $10 per person or $20 a car.  We didn’t have to pay the park entrance fee because we have the National Park Annual Pass.

GAS REPORT:  Gene filled up the motor home this morning at McKinley RV and Campground.  They have a big sign out front which lists regular gasoline for $4.41.  There aren’t many choices for fuel around so he wanted to fill up so we’d have plenty of gas for the generator these next 10 days.  When he pulled up to the pumps, he discovered that there was no regular gasoline.  They weren’t sold out; they didn’t offer it at all.  So what gives with the sign.  He had to pay $4.51 for plus.  Their diesel was $4.67.  The other gas station didn’t even have it’s prices posted.

CRITTER COUNT:  Inside Denali Park--1 snowshoe hare and 1 caribou.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for tagging along.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Denali National Park

Well, I feel like I’ve arrived at my destination now.  On our previous trip we spent two or three days in Denali and wished we’d had time to stay longer.  Just hanging out here has been a dream ever since.

Our plan for this visit is twofold.  For our first 5 days we’ll be at Teklanika Campground 29 miles from the entrance of the park.  Our next 5 days we’ll move up to the front country and camp at Riley Creek right at the entrance.  We’re excited about both parts of this visit, but I think we’re looking forward to the backcountry Teklanika experience most of all.

We had a somewhat exciting night last night.  We went to bed and were sound asleep until the mosquitoes woke me up about midnight.  The temperature was a little on the warm side yesterday so we had left our vent open in the bedroom to help circulate the air.  The buzzing woke me up.  There were maybe 3 dozen mosquitoes trying to find a way through the vent screen.

Awake as I was, I went to the kitchen to get a glass of water.  I noticed the sun setting and watched that for a while.  I didn’t want to open a window or door to make a picture because I didn’t want to let the mosquitoes in.  About 12:30 AM I went back to bed.

Gene was the next to wake up.  About 3:30 the mosquitoes woke him up, but it was the sunrise that got his attention and he woke me up.  It was gorgeous.  This time I had to go outside to get a shot.  The sunrise was at our back window, but there were mountains out the front.  Since the granite often takes on the glow of the sun, I pulled back the curtain to see if that was the case this morning.  Not only were the mountains a  rosy glow, there was a fabulous sundog rising above the ridge.  What a glorious sight.

By the time we finally got up for the morning, the clouds had rolled in and it was pouring down rain when we pulled out of our overnight parking spot.  I was a little discouraged by the rain; I was hoping to see Denali on our drive in, but no such luck today.  Often here, rain will set in and last for days, but by noon the skies had cleared and it turned into a beautiful afternoon.  We’re at a little higher elevation here and the temperatures are cool with a slight breeze.  My jacket felt good this afternoon.

We’re parked tonight at McKinley RV and Campground.  It is located in the small community of Healy about 10 miles north of Denali.  We had no particular reason for choosing this campground, but we won’t come here again, nor will we recommend it.  It was very difficult to get into.  First, having approached from the north, we were not heading in the direction we needed to be to get into the campground.  We had to go back out on the highway and come in from the south side.  Second, there was the steep hill to get down to the lower level.  Finally, once we got down to the campground, they seem to be one road short.  We had to approach our site from the wrong direction. Either that or back up the row and then back into the site.  After juggling around as much as possible, we finally just moved the picnic table two sites down and drove over the grass into the next site, pulled forward into the driveway and then backed into our site.   The interior roads need some work.  There are several large pot holes and they are very bumpy.  When I asked Gene what he thought of the campground, he can’t even finish his sentences.

There is one good thing--the WiFi is great.  And we have a good view out our front window.  And, because we’re down below street level, we don’t hear any of the traffic on  very busy Alaska Route 3.  So I guess there are some good things about McKinley RV and Campground.

The cost is in line with the other campgrounds in the area--with tax $34.24.  No so bad for a big tourist area.  We had made a reservation.  Gene always does that when we’re in a popular area.  I don’t know if it would have been necessary or not.  They are almost full as I’m writing this.

After we got settled and had lunch, we drove into the park to pick up what we needed for our Teklanika stay.  We got all checked in.  They even checked us in to Riley campground, so we won’t have to go back for that.  While at the Wilderness Access Center, we watched the film.  You know how we like to do that.

We’re not allowed to take our car to Teklanika, so after the film we drove over to the main visitor center to find the parking lot where we’re to leave the car.  That was right next to the bookstore and ice cream shop.  We browsed around the bookstore a while, but it was only a slight diversion.  The real goal was ice cream.  The bookstore also had other stuff and I think I’ve found a sweater that needs a new home.  I resisted today, but that resistance is beginning to crumble already.

So tomorrow morning we head out to Teklanika.  We asked the ranger about cell service out there.  She didn’t actually laugh out loud.  In a sweet little voice and with a smile she said no way.  I guess this will be the last you hear from me until we’re settled in at Riley Creek on the 26th.

CRITTER COUNT:  I didn’t think I was going to see anything today.  Nothing on the Parks Highway, nothing driving into Denali that little bit.  Then, on the way home, I just happened to look down at a pond and there was a mother moose with two little darlings following along behind wading right through the middle of that pond.  Precious!

That’s all for now.  I’ll be back in a few days.  Thanks for tagging along.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nenana, Alaska

We’ve been wandering down the George Parks Highway at a very slow pace.  Our reservation for Denali does not start until Tuesday.  We wanted 10 days in a row, so Tuesday was the best they could do for us.  The result was a couple extra easy days.  All right by me.

The Parks Highway is the 300 plus mile route between Fairbanks and Anchorage.  It’s a very good paved highway.  Generally, it’s two lane, but there are passing lanes on the long hills.  The route goes up over mountains and descends to the rivers.  Our views, consequently, alternate between looking up at the mountains and down at the valleys.

We made a stop this morning at the little village of Nenana at the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana Rivers about halfway between Fairbanks and Denali.  Although small, Nenana, being situated on a major highway, on two rivers, and having a rail connection, plays a major role in supplying the small interior villages which have few other options other than river traffic.

Nenana is probably most famous for the annual Ice Classic celebration.  This tradition started in 1917 with the locals trying to guess when the ice would break up on the Tanana River.  Each February, a 26-foot tall black and white tripod is placed on the ice in the River and attached to a clock on shore.  When the tripod moves about 100 feet, the cable trips the mechanism to stop the clock.

Thousands of people enter their best guess as to when the ice will break up.  The tickets are now $2.50 and all you have to do is write down the month, day, hour, and minute you think will be the magic moment on the ice.  The jackpots are not too shabby, either.  Last year the eleven winners split nearly $400,000.  One year recently, there was just a single winner taking home over $300,000.  It’s apparently a lot of fun and the event officially brings in the arrival of spring.

We also toured the Nenana Cultural Center.  It was okay; mostly photographs and papers.  The gift shop, however, had some very nice locally made Athabascan crafts.

The old Nenana Depot is still standing and is now the Alaska Railroad Museum.  I think this is a work is progress.  There were some railroad artifacts and memorabilia, but there were also a lot of household items and agricultural tools all from varying decades.  The Alaska Railroad doesn’t stop at this depot any longer, but while we were there a train passed through town.  The Alaska Railroad engines were pulling Alaska railroad passenger cars, Holland America Tour cars, and Princess Cruise Lines cars.  The Cruise ships have to get their tourists to the interior somehow.

We stopped briefly at St. Mark’s Mission Episcopal Church.  This mission was established in 1905 and continues to meet in the original building.  We didn’t stay long as it was almost time for their service.  Very small, but very nice inside.  The sun was in a bad place for a photograph outside, but it was streaming through the stained glass above the alter, making the inside glow.

We are spending the night at a turnout about 30 miles north of Denali National Park.  We have out our front window a view of the mountains.  Tomorrow, we’ll be driving down to Healy, the small gateway community outside Denali, for an overnight to get everything recharged for a 10-day stay inside the park.

That’s all for today.  Hope all you Fathers had a special day.  Thanks for tagging along.