Tuesday, June 30, 2009

23-09 Denali to Anchorage Alaska

Denali, Alaska
Mount McKinley
Anchorage Alaska

Campground: Black Spruce Travel Camp. Ft Richardson AK. First night, $13 elect only. 6 nights @ $16 a night Water and Elec. They also have full hookups but none were available for me at the time I got here. Available to Military, Retired Military and DoD Civilians.

Lots of additional photo's at: My Denali Pictures

I left my recent home of Fairbanks this morning. Rising along Route 3, leaving the flat valley that Fairbanks and the Chena River reside in. At one point, the views out over the mountain ranges give me the feeling of truly being on top of the world, as the landscape appears to be curved on the horizon. Everything is covered in heavy vegetation, surprising considering the very short growing season up here.

I pass by Skinny Dick’s, deciding not to stop in, after all it’s only 9:00 in the morning. I’m just about to cross over the Yukon River, when the Alaskan Train catches my eye. I’m able to pull over and get a few shots of the tour train as it passes by. It travels between Fairbanks to Denali to Anchorage. I was sorry to see the train cars almost completely empty, though the train conductor tooted his horn and waved at me along with a couple passengers out on the small deck between cars. Even the sky cars had no passengers in them.

Now I’m not expecting to see Mount McKinley while here. Even one of the workers at the visitors center said I have a 30% chance of seeing it. He hadn’t seen it yet and he‘s been here for over a month. The Native Athabascan’s call it Denali “the High One“, so I’ll refer to this awesome 20,320 ft mountain as Denali and not Mt McKinley. It continues to grow at one meter per year.

You will be able to see a new show on Denali as a part of a new PBS special series this fall called America’s Best Idea. Look for it in Sept. Denali was the first park specifically created to preserve wildlife. Not a bad idea, since my last report indicated that the Musk Oxen were eliminated in Alaska due to over killing and we all know about the fate of the vast bison herds. Creating Denali has helped to preserve the Dall Sheep. I’d say 6 million acres should do the trick.

On my second day in Denali, I took the 8 hour shuttle bus tour. It’s a lot cheaper than the commercial tour buses and the shuttle bus driver doesn’t have to give a continuing tour speech. Most of the ride is over dirt roads leading to my destination of the Eielson Visitor Center. There’s only one more drop off about another hours drive to the end of the road in the park. I like 70% of the visitors was not able to see Denali Mt itself, as it was a very overcast day, with occasional short showers. But talk about seeing wildlife. The bus driver/guide, wasn’t overly optimistic that we would see all that much. The first couple of hours on the ride, we were able to see Caribou far off in the distance as well as a brief glimpse of the Dall Sheep high up on a grassy mountain side. Then we stopped and saw a most awesome sight. We saw a couple of white wolves chasing a single caribou along the slopes of a lower mountain range. The caribou easily running ahead. The wolves low to the ground, chasing after the caribou, occasionally weaving back and forth. To see all this live action played out in front of us was just amazing. A Short while later, the mother wolf, as stark white as can be, herded her four dark brown cubs along for the chase. They were all too slow for the fast moving caribou, who finally stopped far ahead of them up on the green hillside. The caribou continued to graze now that it was far enough away for safety, as the wolves gradually went back down towards their den near the rivers edge.

About 4 hours into the trip, someone shouted stop, bear at 3 o’clock. That’s how we know which direction to look. Wow! Not more than about 40 yards away were two blond grizzly bears. The whole bus was beyond excitement. Loud chatter, opening of windows and clicking of cameras one after the other. The bears oblivious to all of our excitement as they chomped on berries and foraged on new growth brush in the area. I’m sure I took at least 50 shots myself. (later when I downloaded my shots for the day, I had taken 380 pictures)

After reaching the visitor center deep in the heart of Denali we got out and searched in earnest through the dark clouds and little downpour for a glimpse of Mt McKinley. But it was not to be. Still, the immensity of the park, mountains that seemed to go on forever, glaciers, deep valleys between each mountain range and wildlife easily made up for not seeing the Big One. I was mesmerized by the colors on the sides of the mountains, many different shades of green, copper, rust and golden coloring of the liken, mosses, grasses and small micro organisms that cover this high tundra region.

On our long drive back, with windows and bus covered in tan speckled mud and dust we saw everything from golden eagles, many more caribou as well as high on a mountain range covered in various shades of green were dozens of pure white Dall Sheep. Even our two blond grizzlies were still in the same area we had left them on our way in. Seeing caribou cooling off on snow packs as well as a way to get away from the mosquitoes was a real treat. Caribou really show up easily when standing or lying down on a snow pack. Our bus driver even pointed out all the willow trees stripped bare by a huge population of hares. Rabbits gone wild. As he pointed out, this cycle of high hare population also means that all their predators will increase in size, wolves, coyotes, even eagles. So exciting to see raw nature in a this untamed wilderness habitat. Even the chipper ground squirrels popping up between their underground dens on the sides of the roadway watching us as much as we were watching them.

Heading out the following morning down hwy 3 toward Anchorage (they basically have Hwy’s 1,2,3, and 4) , I can’t help but stop at almost every scenic pull-out. The sky is turning blue and the enormous mountain ranges are looming around every turn of the road. I’m following the eastern side of Denali for over 175 miles. Listening to Patsy Cline singing “ I’m Movin Along” on my MP3 player, as the weather continued to clear up, I start to see glimpses of what I think is Denali. Finally after stopping at a couple of Denali viewing stops, there it is! I was able to see the Big One on my last day in the area. It’s easily 75 miles from the closest viewing area along hwy 3, but it still appears magnificent from this vantage point. Gives me goose bumps at having viewed Denali. You can’t get much closer to viewing God’s spender than this.

Notes: While on the tour bus through Denali, a family was visiting from Anchorage. The husband mentioned while eating an orange, that during the recent Volcano eruption that they had to suspend all air traffic in and out of Anchorage where his family lived. Apparently this went on for a couple of weeks as ash from the volcano descended throughout the region. Looking at his orange, he told us how they really missed all the fresh fruit and vegetables during that time, as all perishable arrived in Alaska via FedEx.

Here in Anchorage I stopped in a local restaurant called The Lucky Wishbone. It’s been in operation since the 50’s specializing in pan fried chicken. I happened to sit at a U shaped counter with about 6 seats. Within minutes the rest of the seats were filled with members of an extended family that I later learned was 65 members strong. Had a most wonderful chat with the members of this family, the two seated opposite me were in fact the owners of Lucky’s. The Husband now probably in his 70’s was doting over his wife who was now very close to being an invalid, as he helped her gently with her drink and food. Becky sat next to me and introduce everyone including her soon to be 13 year daughter. As I left, Becky came running after me and caught me in the parking lot to see if I had anyone in the area to check up on me. I said no and she told me where she worked and if I needed anything to stop on by. She works in the local hospital. She said she felt so bad I was on my own and would have invited me over to a barbeque but unfortunately they were going out of town for the week. Now that’s true Alaskan hospitality for you.

US 1, the Glenn Highway dumps right into the heart of Anchorage forcing all the traffic in and around the area to descend on the city.

Fort Richardson where I’m staying is 6 miles outside of Anchorage. A military man doing laundry the same time as I was, told me there are 6 black bear that live on base. Imagine. This is wilderness living next to us. He also gave some great advice as to what to see in the area. There is so much, I don’t know what I’ll be able to take in, but I’ll try.

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