Monday, August 29, 2011

Good bye Denali

Nenana, Alaska – Monday, August 29, 2011

It’s time.  We’ve drug our feet and used up all our excuses.  We need to get going.  We’re dragging this morning because we were up until 3AM or so looking for the elusive Northern Lights.  As you read yesterday we had no luck seeing them.  So while we’re moving a little slower than normal, preparations are being made to leave.


Another stop by the sani-dump is in order as we never know where we’ll end up for the next few nights.  One must be prepared with empty waste tanks and a full water tank.  We spent almost an hour giving the black water tank a thorough cleaning.  When you sit in one spot too long things tend to pile up.  So sometimes, a little extra effort goes into making sure the tank is really empty.

Parked by the Camp Store, thus having internet access, EJ spends about an hour catching up with duties on the computer.  Frank takes a nap trying to catch up on some missing sleep.

Slightly refreshed we head over the the Visitor Campus and one last bowl of chili from Morino’s.  We pick up a cup of Mocha espresso and head back to the RV.  It really is time to leave.

Our sights are set on the town of Nenana.  It’s a small town that is fortunate to have highway access, railroad access, and river access navigable to the Bering Sea.  Nenana is important because it receives oil by barge for 6 or 7 months of the year when the river isn’t frozen over and it’s the way outlying areas get their supplies.

Thinking that it will be cold again tonight, we opt for a campground with electric.  The last few mornings have been a contest to see which one of us would give in and get out of a nice warm bed, race through the freezing hallway to the thermostat and turn on the heater and race back to bed hoping it hadn’t lost too much body heat.  That way we can use the mattress warmer tonight. 

We get checked in and head out to go exploring.  First stop is a series of shops run by some of the Athabascans (indigenous people).


Here’s what a cabbage looks like when it gets long hours of sun and can grow 6-7 months.


The Taku Chief, a representative tugboat that plies the waters around Nenana.  And more winter transportation.


A mural-in-process on the general store wall facing the main street. The Nenana Ice Classic is a BIG deal around here.  In 1917 a bunch of miners with nothing better to do in the winter, decided to bet on when the ice in the Tenana River would break up.  The pot that year was $800.  It has developed now to the point that a tripod is set on the frozen river during a 3 day festival in February. When the ice breaks, the tripod falls and that turns off the power to a clock thus recording the exact hour, minute, and second.  This year 22 people split the $338,062 pot.  EJ and I are placing our bets tomorrow.


The milepost guide had an advertisement in it for a restaurant near Nenana that supposedly has the “Best Burgers in Alaska”. (We’ve only seen about a half dozen other similar claims across the state).  We decide to check this one out.  You can see they’re real proud of the place ‘cause it doesn’t even have a name on the restaurant.  Just a big blank sign.  Right after we were seated a guy came running into the dining room claiming he had just seen a moose.  Several people went outside to see if they could see it too.  Afterwards the guy said it could have been a really big dog, he didn’t get that good a look at it.


Well now it’s critical that we get to Fairbanks.  You remember several days ago we showed a picture of all the black water tank lights lit up?  Well this is worse.  No more kitty litter!!



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Day # of Trip 90

Denali–Part II

Denali National Park, Alaska – Thursday thru Sunday, August 25 thru 28, 2011

We're pretty excited about today's trip.  We're going to go 66 miles deep into Denali National Park.  Very few private vehicles are allowed to go this far on the Park Road.  Instead there is a system of buses that can haul 48 people at a time to various locations as far as 92 miles into the Park.  We've opted for the 66 mile version because it is an 8 hour round trip versus a 12 hour round trip for the 92 mile version.

We didn't know quite what to expect.  How long will we be allowed to linger at each stop? What will the weather be like? (The forecasts have pretty much been wrong every day). Will we have an informative driver? And so on.

We arrive at the Wilderness Access Center at 7:30AM.  Pretty catchy name for a bus depot, huh?  Looks like the bus will only be about half full.  This is good news.  Everybody gets seated and we begin to wonder if the bus is going to tip over.  No one wants to sit on what will be the north side of the bus.  The side away from Mt. McKinley.

PICT0002Our driver’s name is Matt Payne and he assures us he has plenty of experience having just attended a 15 minute orientation session.  Good!  He tells jokes too.  This is our bus and it reminds us a lot of the old school buses we used to ride except that the seats are marginally more comfortable.


We begin to wonder if our luck has run out and we’re not going to be able to see Mt. McKinley again.  At least we’re no longer in the 70% group.  Honest, the mountain is buried somewhere in these clouds.


The views along the way are postcard perfect.


They call these braided rivers/streams.  It looks just like the name.


Our first wildlife of the day.  Yeah, those tiny little specs are Dall Sheep.


Here we go, another group decided to be a little more cooperative so we could get some good pictures.


A view of Polychrome Valley and mountains.


Then Mt. McKinley decides to make an appearance and everyone got out to look and take pictures. WOW!




A caribou shows up.


A grizzly appears.  (This is when you wish you had a better zoom)


Right after noon we arrive at the Eielson Visitor Center, the turn around point for our adventure.  This particular visitor center is entirely self sufficient.  Its’ water comes from a nearby creek and it’s power is generated by solar cells and a small hydroelectric plant.  Eielson will close for the winter around the middle of September.


Hanging inside the center are these quilted pictures.  EJ calls it quilt-art.


Ranger Dave took us for a hike and wove a story about “Little Stoney” the grizzly cub, as we walked along.  He would stop and tell part of the story, leave us hanging, and we would hike for another 5 minutes or so.  Then he would repeat the process.  Finally just before the hike ended, he finished the story.  It was a sad story as “Little Stoney” was a good bear, but ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time once too often.  Careless humans leaving food lying about provided temptation “Little Stoney” could not resist.  In the end, in the process of trying to save him, he ended up dying.


We only had 40 minutes from the time the bus arrived until it left for the return trip.  Well, that wasn’t going to cut it.  We needed more time.  So we found out we could take one of the later buses back, space permitting.  After a lunch and the Ranger Dave hike we were ready to return.  So we put our name on the standby list.  The first bus was already full, but the second bus had room for us.  We were a little worried because there was a pretty big crowd standing around trying to catch a ride back to the Wilderness Access Center.  But we made it.

What a Rack!  On the moose, silly!



This is what happens when your zoom is too slow.  It’s a red fox.


Coyote going after an Arctic Ground Squirrel.  We have achieved what our driver calls the “Grand Slam”.  This means you got to see caribou, moose, Dall Sheep, Mt. McKinley, and a grizzly all in the same day.  Had we seen a wolf, we would have had a “Denali Finale”.  But since there are only 76 wolves in a 6,000,000 acre park, our chance of seeing one was pretty slim.  We tried to convince the driver that a fox and a coyote equaled a wolf, but he wouldn’t go for it.


These are called “Kettle ponds”.  This area was once covered by a glacier.  As the glacier receded, huge pieces would break off, and over a hundred years or so melt away.  The weight of these pieces would depress the ground and form these ponds.


At last we returned to the beginning point.  Fortunately, the wildlife sightings on the return trip provided some relief.  But all in all, the return trip was about an hour too long according to that part of the anatomy we sit upon.

Friday was another “taking care of business” day.  Laundry, the sani-dump and other stuff.  Since we hadn’t a chance to access the internet for the last several days, we checked email and facebook while we did laundry.  We had both computers going and had to grab an outlet and hang on to it while others were looking for places to plug in their electronic devices.  Everywhere you looked there were I-Pads, I-Pods, and I-Phones plugged in.  As all the campsites had no hookups, electric outlets at the camp store were at a premium.

Saturday was spent catching up on paperwork and the blog.  We knocked off in the late afternoon and had a real late lunch at Morinos at the visitor center.  Then along towards 9:30PM we went chasing the sunset.  Unlike the evening before, this one was not as spectacular.  We returned back to Big Guy and called it a day.

Sunday Frank did some maintenance on Big Guy and Elemente while EJ worked on the blog some more.  Declaring that we had worked long and hard, it was time for a break.  So off on another hike we go.  This time to Horseshoe lake.  Nice trail, but you can tell fall is already here.



We saw evidence of beavers and found their home.


Afterwards, we decided to visit “downtown” Denali one last time and catch some supper. We found a fish and chips restaurant and had halibut and fries with a salad on the side.  Then we discovered there were a couple of stores we hadn’t browsed yet so we hurried off to take care of that.

We’ve heard rumors that the aurora borealis (northern lights) have put on a performance the last two nights and tonight is predicted to be clear.  So we stayed up to 1:30AM in hopes of seeing them.  We couldn’t see much horizon from camp because of all the trees and peaks, so we took off in the car in search of a clearer viewing area. All was to no avail, but we were amazed  how much traffic there is at 2-3 in the morning. Tomorrow we are headed north toward Fairbanks so hopefully our luck will change. Cross your fingers for us!


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Day # of Trip 86 - 89

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Denali – Part 1

Denali National Park, AK – Sunday, August 21 thru Wednesday, August, 24, 2011


At last we have arrived in Denali. This is both exciting and a little sad. It's home to Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, and home to wildlife such as Dall sheep, caribou, moose, fox, coyote, wolf, arctic ground squirrel and more. The park itself is larger than Rhode Island, and is the third largest National Park in the United States.

The park is a real feast of sensations. There are snow covered mountains, high mountain deserts, the multi colored Polychrome mountains, and valleys filled with braided rivers. Every where you look it is a treat for the eyes.

Another plus is that since we left "coastal" Alaska and traveled north of the Alaska Range mountains, the weather has been beautiful. The mountains block most of the moisture to the park. In fact, annual precipitation is only 15 inches.

The reason it's sad, is that Denali marks the point where our journey begins an eastward trend and beginning the long trip home. Don't get me wrong, there is still lots to do and see, but we can feel the end of our Alaska experience approaching.

We can also see signs that we are starting to run out of time. Already we are experiencing morning temperatures in the upper 30's. Another seasonal indicator they use here is the fireweed. It's normally brilliant red, but at the end of summer turns white then brown. We're seeing more and more fireweed turning white.

With the exception of Talkeetna and Seward, Denali has been one of the busiest places we've been to in Alaska. Tour buses roll in and out of here all the time. Passenger trains come from Anchorage and Fairbanks twice a day. There is no such thing as a lonely hike here. Everywhere you go, you've got company. We're glad to see such a wonderful resource being so well utilized, but we had not anticipated being surrounded by so many people here in the "wilderness".

On our way here we got a glimpse of the “other side of the mountain”. No more glaciers and snow cover instead there are beautiful hillsides, trees and valleys.


Before checking in at Riley Campground, we took advantage of the dump/fill station. It is one of the nicest ones so far. Three stations and extra places with potable water. We wanted to take care of business because this was the first time we have encountered the following and didn’t want to chance it.


After getting checked in and settled into a really nice space, we went to explore the Visitors Center and Wilderness Access Center to find out about bus tours and hiking. Believe it or not we have phone service and wifi at the camp store.


After seeing how much there is to see and do and how beautiful this place is, we extended our 4 day reservation to 7 days. Went back to the RV and cooked out steaks and fresh veggies. We enjoyed our food, wine and evening.

Monday we drove into the park to Savage River which is as far as private vehicles are allowed. Beautiful drive and we found out we made it in time for the fall foliage.


We hiked the Savage River Loop Trail and enjoyed a beautiful day and more great scenery.


Along the trail we encountered lots of Arctic ground squirrels. They are really curious fellows and so much fun to watch. We also saw a ptarmigan crossing the trail, but too quick for a picture.



The trail followed along the river and over a bridge for the return. We took an unmaintained trail up to the top of one of the mountains for a different view.

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We couldn’t resist checking out some of the features.


On the way back to camp we stopped at Savage Cabin interpretive trail. There was a docent at the cabin who was waiting for the next tour bus. He took time to explain a few things about the cabin and how it is still used today by the rangers in winter when they patrol the park. Frank asked why there were nail on the shutters with the pointed ends sticking out. He told us it was to keep bears out, because if they smelled your food they would try to get in. The other picture is of an outhouse roof. Great insulation.


Tuesday we decided to go to the Dog Kennels Demo. Our original intention was to take the bus there and then hike back. We waited in line with lots of people and only one bus going back and forth and decided on plan B. We drove over and got there before the rest of the crowd. I don’t think they expected this many people. They only have a few seats and some standing room, but today it overflowed.


The ranger explained that these are working dogs. The park is patrolled in the winter by these sled dogs. They are huskies, but not a specific breed. They are any working dog that can pull the weight, stand the cold and have a good personality to work with rangers and other dogs. They really do love their work. When they went to hook up the sled for the demo, all of the dogs in the kennel began barking and pulling, saying “pick me, I’m ready to go”.



After the demo we hung around while all the others had to board the buses back. Driving actually turned out to be a good plan, plus it looked like rain so our hike would have been more interesting.



We decided to drive into “town” which is just outside the park. Lots of lodges and shops, tourist city. This is what we saw on our way out of the park, as it began to rain.


Wednesday we went in search of Denali (aka Mt McKinley). The sky was clear with fewer clouds than the days before. They say you only have a 25-30 percent chance of actually seeing Denali because it has its own weather system and is very illusive. Frank’s hunch was correct, we saw both north and south peaks for a brief time. The pictures don’t do it justice. You have to look between the darker mountains and into the clouds to see the peaks (about 70 miles away). It felt really good to be a member of the 30% club!


We went to do some more exploring and drove up to the Grand Denali Lodge for a higher view over the park. We drove by these two guys and have no idea what they were doing or where they were going. There was all kinds of gear on the ground and only one pack horse.


We also got to watch as several groups prepared to take off on rafting adventures. They slide the rafts down the steep sides and load up at the bottom.



Tomorrow we take an 8:00 am bus tour into the park to the Eielson Visitors Center. It’s an 8 hour ride round trip. Should be great.


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Day # of Trip 82 - 85