Wednesday, July 28 -– Talkeetna The bad weather we experienced in Anchorage has followed us to Talkeetna. This was the day we were to have taken the flightseeing tour of Mount McKinley. North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet, on a clear day Mount McKinley can be seen from Anchorage, nearly 250 miles away, as well as many viewpoints on the highway between Anchorage and Denali National Park.
The mountain has two names: the federally recognized name, and therefore the name that appears on maps, is Mount McKinley, named after a U.S. presidential nominee who had no connection whatsoever with Alaska. As soon as it was named, there was an uproar. In the State of Alaska, its official name is Denali. It’s been called Denali by the natives since time immemorial. The name Denali means “the High One.” What seems like the more appropriate name? There’s no question in our minds – the original name, Denali.
While we were aware that summer’s overcast or rainy weather frequently obscures the mountain, allowing only a 30-40 percent chance of seeing it, we had figured that we would be one of those to see it.
But it wasn’t to be. We went to the airstrip after we arrived in Talkeetna yesterday afternoon and all day today every couple of hours, only to be told each time that the planes were getting to around 12 to 14,000 feet and weren’t able to see the peak. Notwithstanding the viewing of mountains and lakes and glaciers on a flight, in our minds there was only one reason to pay the bucks to go flightseeing – and that was to see Denali.
When the weather is socked in, it seems like the whole town of Talkeetna just waits. It seems like nearly everyone there is there to go on a flight to see Denali. There are half a dozen charter companies, each one with a number of planes. And as soon as you hear airplanes buzzing overhead, the whole town comes alive again.
Between trips to the airstrip, we walked through the town and stumbled across a little farm that had a couple of reindeer in a pen beside the road. They would come right up and let you touch them – I’d never been up close to a reindeer before. We also visited a couple of museums and historical trappers’ cabins. I love going into these museums and seeing pictures and reading stories of people who pioneered a region or an activity within a region. Yesterday, it was stories of sled dogs and mushers and the Iditarod; today, it was the stories of bush pilots who landed on glaciers and made heroic rescues and the like.
It made for an easier day. Actually, it was kind of nice to have a bit of a break from the pace we’ve been keeping. The boys cleaned the inside of the trailer and did laundry, while I went and checked e-mail and uploaded the last batch of files to the website.
The weather improved towards the end of the day, but time ran out before the planes couldn’t fly any more. It was such a disappointment, but we resolved to check again in the morning.
For Talkeetna photos, click here.
Thursday, July 29 -– Talkeetna to Denali National Park The flightseeing companies send up planes on weather flights, to see where they can fly. It was no better than yesterday. So we decided to pack up and leave, hoping to see if flights left from around Denali National Park.
When we arrived, the first place we stopped at after unhooking the trailer was the flightseeing company. They were having the same weather. That sounds obvious, but it’s actually not. Whereas Talkeetna is on the southeast of Denali, the park is on the northeast and flights from the two locations approach the mountain differently, and the weather patterns and flightseeing experience is different. The weather seemed to be clearing a bit and looked the most promising it had yet. As the weather had improved towards the end of the day for the last three days, it was either now or never; we were leaving tomorrow. We bought tickets for the 8pm flight.
We went out to a dinner theatre show. The food was mediocre, but the show was a lot of fun. The waitstaff were all part of the show. In fact, they were the show. After they finished serving, the show started – a musical look at the life in turn-of-the-century Alaska. We were disappointed to have to leave early to catch our flight.
We went on a six-passenger twin-engine airplane. The pilot, the five of us, and one of the airline staff along for their first ride. The flight was about an hour long – Denali is about 90 miles away from the Park entrance, where all the visitor facilities are located. We flew under a cloud cover all the way there. The pilot was a retired U.S. Air Marshall who had flown in Alaska for 30 years. He knew his stuff and led two other planes as well as our own. As we got closer, there were some breaks in the clouds that were letting sunlight through. He said he was going to get a little closer and then see if we could get up above the layer of clouds.
An opening presented itself and the plane worked its way higher. We came out on top of the layer of clouds, the plane banked and straightened out, and there, ten miles in front of us, was Denali, visible right to the top with the sun shining behind it. What an incredible sight it was. There were some clouds along one side and in front of it. The pilot couldn’t tell if they were laying right against the mountain or whether we could fly behind them, so we just kept heading straight for the mountain, and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. We did get behind the clouds and then flew alongside the mountain, less than a mile away from it. After passing it by, we circled around and came back for another pass. After this pass, we turned to go back home, flying right over top of some of the lower surrounding peaks, still some of the highest in North America. What an amazing experience!
We came home, elated that our desire to fly to the highest peak in North America had been fulfilled.
For Denali photos, click here.
Friday, July 30 -– Denali National Park After breakfast, we left for the Climb Denali show, still basking in our own experience of Denali. The Climb Denali show was an hour long talk and narrated slide show. The person giving the talk was a New Zealander who had climbed in New Zealand and the Himalayas before coming to Alaska. He’s a mountain guide here and has climbed Denali nine times, reaching the summit eight times. He brought along samples of climbing gear and three pairs of boots, dating from 50 years ago til modern high-tech.
He answered questions that people had, like how experienced was the average climber. The Parks Service has requirements that climbers must meet in terms of experience. Each climber must go through a briefing, pay a $300 fee, and demonstrate their adherence to other requirements. Like waste, for example. Nothing gets left behind. That includes human waste, so it must be packed out in special containers.
This kind of climbing is rated on a scale of 6, with 6 being the most technically difficult. Because the West Buttress route of Denali is rated as a 2, many people take a week long climbing course in the lower 48, do one climb on a glaciated mountain such as Mount Rainier, hire a guide and then head for Denali. Most climbs are done in May and June, with the highest success rate being in June. A climb takes nearly three weeks, starting with a fly-in from Talkeetna landing on a glacier at about 8,000 feet.
The slide show was superb, the kind of quality you would expect from a National Geographic documentary. Although it was entirely stills, the photography was spectacular. The narrative and sound clip interviews talked about acclimatization and mental preparation. A Denali climb does not use oxygen; one segment of the sound track was the author climbing the final 300 yards to the summit. He would take six or seven laboured breaths before taking just one step, setting himself, and then repeating the sequence. The talk and show really gave an insight into the climber that I had not had an appreciation of before.
After lunch, we went to the park’s Visitor Center. We went on a 3-mile hike to Horseshoe Lake. Interpreted by a Park Ranger, it was very interesting learning about the difference between taiga and tundra, the animals and vegetation, etc.
Following the hike, we went to the park’s Sled Dog demonstration. As Denali doesn’t allow any mechanical transportation within most of its boundaries, the Parks Service itself follows these rules and has 30 sled dogs. These are broken into 3 teams of 10 dogs. They harnessed up half a team to pull a wheeled dog sled. Talk about excited – these dogs were raring to go. A musher doesn’t say, “Mush” but rather “Let’s go” and they really take off. The lead dogs follow directional commands like “Gi” (go right) or “Hah” (go left) or “Whoa”. “Whoa” doesn’t seem to be all that effective; you can understand the mushers’ golden rule – never let go of your sled. Sometimes the musher has to turn the sled over in the snow to get the dogs to stop.
Swing dogs are next in line after the lead dogs. They are trained to take turns wider than the lead dogs. If it weren’t for the swing dogs, the sled would follow the turn of the lead dog in a straight line and perhaps plow into an obstacle. The dogs right in front of the sled are called wheel dogs – they are the strongest dogs that get the sled going.
My question about why the dogs were leaner and smaller than what I had expected got answered. Alaskan Huskies are not a breed, like Malamutes or Siberian Huskies. Malamutes are the giants, Siberian Huskies are the chunkier looking dog, while Alaskan Huskies are bred for specific traits – long legs, compact paws, strength, endurance, friendly disposition, high spirit, etc. – rather than for the look of a breed.
It was a great day. Rather than hitting the road for Fairbanks tonight, we decided to stay another day here and take a shuttle bus on an 8-hour wilderness and wildlife viewing trip into the park tomorrow.
For Denali Sled Dog photos, click here.
Saturday, July 31 -– Denali National Park to Fairbanks Today’s trip was nothing short of spectacular. Denali National Park is a 6-million acre wildlife and wilderness preserve. From 1917 until 1980, it was known as Mount McKinley National Park, named for former Senator – later President – William McKinley. In 1980, the park was enlarged by 4 million acres and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. It remains largely unspoiled.
The focal point of the Park, and probably the most impressive feature of Alaskan landscape, is Denali. Measured from the 2,000-foot lowlands near its base to its 20,320 foot summit, the mountain’s vertical relief of over 18,000 feet is greater than that of Mount Everest.
The Park operates a fleet of about 30 shuttle buses – just like school buses – for transportation and wildlife viewing. The Park Road stretches 90 miles into the Park. Visitors can get off anywhere along the road and re-board buses hours or days later. We picked up people with backpacks who had been out for a few days hike.
We paid $44.50 for the five of us to take an 8-hour bus tour to the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles into the Park. The trip was narrated by an older schoolteacher from Texas who had been living in the Park and doing these bus tours every summer since 1989. He was an outdoor enthusiast himself, and so his narration was both informative and interesting, filled as it was with personal anecdotes.
The first 15 miles of the road are paved, the rest well-maintained gravel (access past the 15 mile point is by dog sled after the end of September, when snow is on the ground.) The driver talked pretty much constantly, driving the whole time. He gave us some simple instructions – the most important one was to yell “Stop!” when we saw some wildlife. And stop we did – innumerable times. David kept track of what we saw: 4 moose, 16 caribou, 1 golden eagle, 1 wolf, 84 dall sheep, and 9 grizzly bears.
The Park is very concerned about the animals acclimatizing to the sound of humans, so voices are quiet whenever the bus stopped to see an animal. The bus was full – 45 people – and it was incredible to see a fellowship developing among people after just a few animal stops. People were all grins and were sharing binoculars and trading seats so others could get a good view.
Because the buses don’t have any communications equipment on board, the drivers have developed a system of hand signals signifying different animals to let drivers coming the other way what wildlife they can expect to see. Ask the boys for a demonstration!
Three of the moose we saw when we were driving into the main Visitor Center parking lot before the tour even began. We were on one side of the two-lane road; the cow moose and two calves were just off the other side of the road maybe 15 feet away.
The first caribou we saw was in full gallop. At first we thought he was being chased, but we couldn’t see any wolves. One of the tours on the day before yesterday saw wolves chasing down a caribou.
The wolf was spotted alongside the road as we neared the Eielson Visitor Center, our turnaround point. We could tell it was female, because of how it sprayed its scent, and that it was the alpha female, because it was collared. The Parks Service collars the alpha female and male to monitor their range. She was out hunting for her pups. At one point she tried to catch a ground squirrel, but missed and kept on going. She came right up onto the road just in front of the bus and stayed on the road ahead of us. It was amazing to see how much ground she covered – probably 2-3 miles in the few minutes she was with us – with a steady trot on her long legs.
Although we’d seen some grizzly bears on the way out, they were quite a ways off; there was a sow with two cubs only just visible with the naked eye. Twice on the way back, though, we saw a grizzly within a hundred feet of the bus.
At the Eielson Visitor Center, I talked with one of the Rangers who was visibly frustrated. When we first got there, the bus was unloaded and people had to go directly into the Visitor Center – it was a lock down. A short while earlier, a grizzly had been within 30 yards of the Center. Considering a grizzly bear can run 30mph, if you do the math, you’ll realize that at 30 yards away, it can reach you within about two seconds. Even at 300 yards away, it will only take about 20 seconds. His dilemma: how can you tell 50 people that they are in danger, that they should get inside immediately and have them respond quickly enough. The Ranger was frustrated because the grizzly bears were so close and people would not follow instructions. As soon as he left the building to look up the gully where the bear had gone, people streamed out of the building after him, cutting off his path of escape, totally oblivious to the danger they had put him and themselves in.
The trip ended with us wanting more. We realized that on our whole trip, we were just hitting the high points of each of our stops along the way, barely even scratching the surface. Denali would be worth a whole trip in itself.
Back at the Park entrance, we got in the car and drove for 2-1/2 hours to Fairbanks.
For Denali National Park photos, click here.
Anchorage to Fairbanks
For Anchorage to Fairbanks. Scroll down to read our Journal.
For Talkeetna photos, click here.
For Denali photos, click here.
For Denali Sled Dog photos, click here.
For Denali National Park photos, click here.