2000: Alaska

Denali

September 3 - 5

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Fireweed turning to cotton.

Even after eleven hours' sleep, I donít feel refreshed. My cold has settled in with a vengeance and the ground is still rocking severely. After a "breakfast buffet" at the Anchorage hotel, we hit the road for Denali in our Dodge Durango about 9 a.m.

The first hour or so out of Anchorage brings puzzling sights -- acres of car dealers, RV dealers, taxidermists, and junkyards. Who buys all these vehicles in Alaska? One of my favorite sights is a junk shop with all manner of things hanging outside, alongside a propane tank painted with the name of the place: "Wal-Mikeís".

The roadside is awash in fireweed, a summer plant which sprouts fiery red blossoms that gradually turn white as fall approaches. "When the fireweed turns to cotton, summer is forgotten." Looks like we're going to be around for the forgetting this year.

A roadside lake.

We pass thru Wasilla, home to headquarters for the Iditarod; the town looks much like any suburb of our northern California, complete with Burger King and Pizza Hut. Later we whiz by a tiny town named Houston, notable for having in one place four of the largest fireworks stands Iíve ever seen.

We make a potty stop at the visitor center in the Mat-Su valley, a fishing and hunting area. Mike buys a bumper sticker emblazoned, "If youíre not the lead dog, the scenery never changes." Embossed, appropriately, with a picture of a dogís behind.

The drive from Anchorage crosses tree-lined, unremarkable country, with tiny settlements and individual shacks scattered along the way. After three hours of driving, the countryside changes and we start to see brilliant reds and yellows as the aspens, alder, and cottonwoods don their fall colors. We stop to take photos of a scenic lake underneath a mountain range. I wish our cruise friends could see it as well.

Leaves turning yellow.

We reach Denali in the expected five hours, generally a pleasant drive. As we get within 15 miles of the park, we strain to spot our reserved lodging - the McKinley Creekside Cabins - from the road. Suddenly we have passed it. Our one quick glance was not encouraging; it looks more like it should be named Roadside Outhouses. Although our travel agent has told us this was the only available lodging, Mike is always game to explore and he forges ahead toward the park despite my whining.

Up the road we find the McKinley Village Resort, a well-furnished, quiet lodge, and they have rooms. I learn another evil truth about using the AAA travel agent: they only book with AAA-approved hotels!

Mike must see ALL the choices, so we continue up the road to the McKinley Chalet, where we pick up tickets for tomorrowís activities. The Chalet is noisy, crowded, and sprawling. Marian and I both vote thumbs down and we head back to the Village Resort for the night.

Road winding thru Denali.

The next day, we awake to a low-hanging fog outside, where everything is dripping with heavy dew. I'm in my own low-hanging fog from the sniffles. Mike decides to use the coffeemaker in our room to heat water for tea. Of course, Mike doesn't drink coffee; so he has never used a coffeemaker.  He fills the pot and sets it on the burner to heat.  Eventually I discover the tepid water and educate him about where the water goes in coffeemakers.

We have another "breakfast buffet" of dubious quality. This resort seems as ready to close as the hotel in Anchorage. Obviously we have hit the tail-end of the season and the locals are anxious to migrate.

Iím in bad shape with my cold but we find some Actifed in the gift shop. Fortified with that and a generous dose of aspirin, I'm able to head for the park about 9 a.m.

Big moose!

About a mile into the park, we stop at the Denali Visitor Center.  We pick up some maps and ask a few questions, then set off. Visitors are only allowed to drive their own cars on the first 13 miles of the park, so we explore as far as we can go. We're new to this, so we're not sure how to go about wildlife-spotting. Mostly we just drive along and enjoy the scenery, taking occasional snapshots.

The park road is fairly deserted at this hour. We reach a bridge which is the 13-mile turnaround point, and head back toward the park entrance. As I'm watching the scenery pass by, I spot something strange on a hillside; it looks like a letter "Y" standing up in a field.

Eventually my drug-dulled, phlegm-plugged brain engages, and I realize I'm looking at a moose with a big rack reflecting the sunlight! I screech at Mike to stop the car and we jump out to look through the binoculars. I drag out the big-lens camera for a long-distance shot. Marian never does find the moose even with the binocs.

Can you tell I was sick?

We have booked an afternoon guided bus tour of the park. Mostly it will cover the same territory we drove, plus a couple of miles beyond the turnaround. Other, longer tours are available, but they take 6-8 hours to complete; this tour is only three hours.

Our bus driver and guide is informative and witty; she offers many tidbits about the history of the park and the wildlife. Unfortunately I don't absorb much of it due to my cold.

The tour bus stops whenever there is a hint of wildlife, which is usually indicated by other vehicles crowding the roadside -- a condition known as a "bear jam".

River where we saw a bear. Look out, Mom!

We actually do see a brown bear, caribou, and some Dall sheep all in one spot. Our bus guide points out what a rarity this is! Of course, everything is far away, flea-sized to the naked eye, and requires binoculars to even recognize.

I have neglected to bring the big lens, thinking it would be too much trouble. We take some landscape shots in lieu of reachable wildlife.

Considering that Denali covers over 6 million acres and there are only a few hundred brown bears in the park, we feel lucky that we saw one at all!

The weather is pretty good but a consistent cloud layer hovers at 10,000 feet, so no views of Mt. McKinley.

Denali road. Big rock. Stormy clouds, snowy peaks. Shutterbug at work.
Cloud art. Rocky peaks. Bullwinkle checks us out... ...and goes on his way Stark as a moonscape.
Magical stream. Distant train trestle. Colorful landscape.
Rosie tickles the ivories. Cabin Nite Alaska review..

The bus tour drops us back at the McKinley Chalet, where we are booked for the 5 p.m. seating at the Cabin Nite Dinner Theater. We browse the gift shop for a while to kill time. I'm fascinated by the wildlife photos on display; how do people GET these shots?

At the Dinner Theater, we are served a hearty old-fashioned supper of ribs, salmon, corn, beans, and blackberry cobbler.yes">  Rosie at the piano plays and sings every possible state-related song "Yellow Rose of Texas", etc.) and does requests.< I'm sitting right next to Rosie and I sing along with most of her selections. Mike says, "Are there any songs you DONíT know?"

After dinner, our waiters also become performers and treat us to a fabulous Alaska-flavored show, both raucous and poignant. My favorite number is a lovely song about the wonders and beauty of the state.

We exit the show around 8 p.m. to find the clouds have completely cleared. We decide to race into the park to see if we can get a view of Mt. McKinley; on the way we spot another bull moose (or perhaps the same one again) and veer crazily around trying to snap him with the 35mm.

We never do see Mt. McKinley. Every time we ask where it can be seen (if it's clear) we get a different story from the locals. I begin to believe that it is a myth and doesn't really exist.

As darkness falls, we reluctantly leave the park and head for our lodge. We are all exhausted and fall into bed by 9:30 p.m.

We have a long travel day today. First, we drive two hours from Denali to the Fairbanks airport, where we drop off the rental car and wait for our flight.  The airport is mid-sized and (surprise, surprise) under construction. They have some incredible bear specimens, including the largest (on record) polar bear ever taken by a hunter; he stands 12 feet tall in his glass case. I stare sadly at him and wish I could see this fellow alive, albeit at a safe distance.

We board our flight from Fairbanks around noon. After takeoff we crane in vain out the portholes for a glimpse of Mt. McKinley, which our stewardess assures us is unlikely. I ask a steward if there are flights to Fairbanks all year round, and he says yes. Fairbanks is the home of a GM plant which makes airplane engines, and the 50-below weather is ideal for testing engines on the ground at the same temperatures they will experience at 35,000 feet!

Marian recovers.

After a one-hour flight and a 45-minute layover in Anchorage, we are on our way again for three hours to Seattle, where we then change planes for another two-hour flight to San Jose. The flights blur together and seem endless; we are all tired to the bone. After thirteen hours of traveling and one lost hour due to the time change, we stumble through our front door in San Jose at 11 p.m.

We had the time of our lives on this trip.  These words of Robert W. Service were written about another time and another place, but they also describe the magic of Alaska, which we experienced well and fully in ten glorious days.

"The Spell of the Yukon" 
(excerpt) by Robert W. Service

I wanted the gold, and I got it --
Came out with a fortune last fall, --
Yet somehow life's not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn't all.

No! There's the land. (Have you seen it?)
It's the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.

The summer - no sweeter was ever;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness -
O God! How I'm stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.

The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I've bade 'em goodbye -- but I can't.

There's a land where the mountains are nameless,
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There's a land -- oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back -- and I will.