One last fling

I woke up before anyone else and waited for a while before taking a shower and getting ready for the day.  As soon as I was done, I made sure my bags and everything were in order before I headed out the door as my sister and Rusty headed off to work.  I was lucky to avoid paying for a rental car by borrowing one from Rusty’s parents.  They loaned us a Dodge Durango that they had available, so I hopped into that and headed down Seward Highway for Portage, AK.  The drive down was peaceful enough considering there had been a fatal accident on it the day before.  Clouds still loomed over the mountains and at one point a light mist covered the windshield.  The clouds made for some pretty dramatic shots.  I went past most of the turnoffs along the Turnagain Arm because I wanted to get to Portage, do my stuff and then be back in Anchorage to take my sister to lunch.  Soon I was turning down the road that leads to Portage and as I did, the clouds parted slightly and let the sun shine through.

Once in Portage, I visited the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center to get a map of the area and the see the available trails.  While I was there, one ranger was telling a family about an interesting trail while the other ranger told me about a fish watching platform where you could see salmon coming upstream.  After leaving the visitor center, I walked to Lake Portage and took some shots of the surroundings. For some reason I love this valley – it has a little bit of everything.    After viewing the lake, I decided to hike the Byron Glacial trail.

icepack I drove the short way to the trail head and parked.  While there I noticed two things – I was the only one there and would probably be the only person on the trail and there was a sign on a board by the start of the trail warning hikers that there were bears active in the area.  Now, I know that the chances of me running across a bear were minimal, it was still a risk.  But the weight of wanting to hike the trail and set foot on the icepack tilted the scales toward me going.  So, remembering what I had learned earlier in the trip – that the human voice was the best deterrent against a bear attack – I started singing out loud.  It’s safe to say that my singing probably chased pretty much anything away with its paws to its ears, but it worked for the hike out to the end of the trail.  I took some time to admire the view, explore around and take some pictures.  Once I was satisfied, I started to head back, using the same strategy I used coming out.  This worked well until I met a group of seven people on the trail.  They probably heard my bad singing but only said a polite hello as they passed by.  Once out of range, I continued to sing.  Toward the end of the trail I met a family of four who again said nothing about my singing but asked how much further until the end of the trail.  Once past, I continued until I come to the trailhead, signed out on the sheet that rangers could use to try and locate my body and went to the car.

salmonAfter looking at my cell phone I determined that I had enough time so I headed to the Williwaw Campground area to go to  the fish viewing platform.  At the fish viewing station, I was able to see a couple of salmon trying to make their way upstream.  They were under the platform and were trying to swim against the current.  They made a slow go of it but they progressed.  Other salmon were visible farther down the stream working their way up.  A couple who was watching the salmon spotted me taking pictures and offered that there were more upstream along the path.  Imflats thanked them and then headed down the Williwaw nature trail for a bit, peeking at the stream and taking pictures as I went.  I had the polarizing filter on my camera so I was able to peer through the water to get some good pictures.  Since I didn’t have time to go salmon fishing on this trip, I “caught” some salmon with my camera.  Once I satisfied my craving for photographing salmon, I headed to one of my favorite areas – Moose Flats.  Moose Flats contains a small lake that is bordered by trees both living and dead and has a spectacular view of the mountains behind.  This area is usually so peaceful, and it was again for me today.  The contrast of the living trees with the dead, preserved trees that were killed in the 1964 earthquake are reminders of the cycle of life.  The water is so still that it acts as an almost perfect mirror of the surrounding mountains.  This area just strikes me.

Once I decided to leave, I realized that this was the last of wild Alaska that I would experience during this trip.  I was now heading back to the big city of Anchorage to have lunch with my sister.  Once back in town, I had lunch with my sister, got the tour of where she works and met her boss.  I was also able to spring her for the rest of the day to help me grab some last minute items.  During my trip to her work, I realized that she has made a life for  herself up in Alaska and has worked hard in her job.  She has gained not only the respect of the people that she works with but also the love of Rusty’s folks.  We headed to some shops and then headed downtown.  After accomplishing my purchasing objectives, we headed to Glacier BrewHouse to have a drink.  She had a coke and I had their Imperial Blonde (aka Ice Axe Ale) – it had a little bit if a kick to it (9% alcohol), but it was smooth.  After that, we headed back to her place to grab my bags, head over to her in-laws house for a halibut dinner and conversation and then I was off to the airport.

Heading back to Anchorage

train2 After the fun day in Denali, it was time to head back to Anchorage; I have only a couple days left with my sister in Alaska now.  Fittingly, the day started with drizzle and overcast clouds, the only bad day we’ve experienced during my trip.  None of us minded though since this was a down day that included the long train ride back to Anchorage.  After a filling breakfast, we checked out and headed over to the Denali National Park Visitor’s Center.  We looked at the interpretive displays and did some people watching too – people from all over the world were there.  We then took the short hike over to the Science Center and then over to the bookstore.  Once I purchased my final souvenirs for the trip, we walked down to the train station to await our train.  After a while the train came and although it was late, we got rolling down the tracks soon.  I was tempted to just sit down and close my eyes to doze but I couldn’t let my time here be passed by sleeping.  Instead I found myself taking pictures, moving around the train car and standing in the exposed area between the individual cars to get better pictures.  I thought the overcast skies gave a dramatic look to the landscape and I tried to capture it.  I also wanted to get pictures of things I missed on the ride up.  There is so much to see in Alaska since it is so big, untamed and wild.

One of the animals that I didn’t see in Denali was a moose.  Not surprising since in three trips up, I’ve only seen a moose in the wild once (the cow moose and the twoHurricane Gultch calves in Homer).  I was bound a determined to get a picture if I saw one.  Well, I failed on the picture taking but I did see two bull moose as we rode down the rails.  One moose was startled by the train and was running alongside a lake front.  By the time I could get my camera into play, it wasn’t visible from my position.  Then my sister was joking with me that there was a moose in the meadow out her window (she was having some fun with me) but her boyfriend actually spotted the rack of a bull moose.  Sure enough, there was a moose out her window.  So I did see two bull moose, but alas, no pictures.  I also wanted to get a picture off of the Hurricane Gulch bridge.  This 900+ foot bridge covers a span that is almost 300 feet deep.  I was able to get a few shots of this breath-taking view.  As we rolled along, the railroad employees told us about some of the things that were passing by outside.  I think that the team on the Denali-Anchorage trip did a better job than the Anchorage-Denali crew did.   Because of this narration I was able to see a beaver dam that was over 75 years old, got some history on how the railroad was built and I now understand how to list out the types of Alaskan salmon.

There were other things I was trying to capture with my camera.  One was the amount of ferns along the way, but those are hard to photograph as you’re moving at speed down the rails.  We passed fields of ferns that lined each side of the track.  When you think of Alaska, you think of cold and snow, but the southern part of Alaska is actually a temperate rain forest.  The ferns grow there naturally and in abundance.  Another thing that caught my attention was the amount of erractics that I saw, particularly in the rivers.  An erratic is a large boulder that a glacier just dropped.  Also along the way we saw beaver dams, lots of fireweed and just some simply beautiful settings with the sky and mountains.

mountain2As we moved south, the skies started to clear but they didn’t clear fully.  This allowed me to take some more dramatic photos as we neared Anchorage.  The clouds were still low in the sky and brushed over the tops of the mountains outside of Anchorage.  Slowly we worked our way into the city, past Elmendorf Air Force Base and into the Alaska Railroad depot.  It was nice to get out of the train and stretch but it was also a little sad since I had so much fun and valued the experiences I had with my sister in Denali.  After being denied a pizza at a popular restaurant in town (it was still packed with people waiting to get in at 8:30) we went back to my sister’s place and had sandwiches and chips for dinner.

As we ate, I thought about how I needed to pack, because my flight back home left the next day.  I needed to make sure I could fit all the souvenirs I picked up for my wife and kids in my bag since I was at my limit.  Shortly, the day ended with my sister and her boyfriend heading to sleep since they had to work the next day.  I have one last adventure planned before I leave Alaska and I soon hit the hay myself so I had enough energy for that as well as the long flight home.

Runnin’ wild!

After unofficially celebrating International Beer Day on Aug 5 with an Alaskan Summer Ale, we prepared for our adventure into Denali.  We were scheduled to leave the McKinley Chalet resort at 7:10 for a seven hour bus ride into the majestic park.  I was really looking forward to this since I was hoping to see a lot of wildlife.  I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. Ptarmigan

The day started out a little cloudy but  all three of us were filled with excitement and energy to start the day.  We lined up in front of the resort to get on the bus and shortly it arrived.  We all  piled on and took our seats.  This was a full bus with only one seat available, one that the three of us could bounce around to.  Our bus driver/naturalist was very personable and knowledgeable about the park and its inhabitants.  We started through the taiga, the forested area, of the park.  This is the area that is below the tree line and is home to moose and the merlin, a small bird of prey.  The taiga is a heavily forested area of the world that is continuous across the northern continents.  Trees located in Denali are related to those taiga forest trees in Russia, Sweden and Canada.  The first animal that we saw , the willow ptarmigan, was in the taiga.  The willow ptarmigan lives in Denali year round and its feathers change to match the seasons, brownish in spring, summer and fall, white in winter.  Not only does its plumage help to disguise it, but feathers around its feet help to act as show shoes during winter.  As we approached the first rest stop, someone noticed something moving on the river bed below.  It was quickly identified as a porcupine.  This guy looked pretty big from the distance we were at but he was moving with some speed.  As we were looking around, I noticed another form in the distance and my sister confirmed what I was seeing, a grizzly.  The bus driver moved ahead into the rest stop so we could all pile out and take a look at the bear on the river flats below.  Luckily, this rest stop has the only man-made deck in the park.  We were lucky to not only see the bear, most likely a solitary male, from the rest stop deck but also as we drove away on the bus.  As we were leaving the taiga portion of the park we met the cute Arctic ground squirrel.  This little guy was as hyper as you’d expect, and he had his cheeks full with forage that he was storing for winter.

Caribou Once out of the trees, we are now in tundra.  This area is treeless and is home to many of the larger animals of Denali – grizzly bears, caribou and dall sheep.  The tundra contains small bushes, many of them berry bushes, and grasses.  These give sustenance to the animals that dwell there.  It was here in the tundra that we saw most of the wildlife that we would see during the day.  The first animal that we saw on the tundra was a caribou on the hills above.  This sighting was followed by a flock of dall sheep high up on the slopes.  The bus driver had to use maximum magnification on her video camera in order for us to see these sheep, otherwise they were just white dots on the green mountainside.  Shortly after the dall sheep spotting, we saw a sow grizzly with two larger cubs.  These bears were foraging for berries that were now in season.  The grizzlies in Denali are more vegetarian than their Alaskan coastal cousins, who have access to salmon.  This does not mean that Denali grizzlies won’t attack or eat meat, but it’s more likely that their diet will consist of mainly grasses and berries.  After spending some time watching the bear family, we continued on to witness nature in action.  Someone spotted a caribou on the river flats below us.  As we watched this caribou it took off in a short sprint; it looked spooked.  One of the eagle eyed riders we had on the bus noticed something else that moved, a wolf.  As the driver used her video camera, we saw that there were multiple wolves and that they were stalking the caribou.  We watched this fascinating display for a while until the caribou moved off and the wolves gave up the pursuit.  As we moved on, we also saw a pair of merlin flying around close to the road.  This small bird of prey hunts in the tundra and must have caught a meal close by since they didn’t want to leave the area as the bus rolled through.

Soon, after some tight turns and narrow passages, we came to the spot where the bus was going to turn around and head back to the entrance of the park.  The roadGrizzly we traveled on is 92 miles long but we only traveled about 60 of those miles.  We turned around at the Toklat River, a glacially formed river that is known as a braided river.  Since this was the mid-way point of our excursion, we also got out and had the ability to hit the restrooms, stretch our legs and see the sights.  During this time, each of us noticed that it was getting hazier in the park – smoke from forest fires to the west and north of the park were filtering in.  The three of us went down to the river and looked at it and the surroundings; we even dipped our hands into the slitly water.  We visited the small visitor’s center that is there and then we boarded the bus to head back.  By now, the three of us were excited by what we had seen so far – but we hoped to see more.  Other riders took the opportunity to doze off – I guess they thought we wouldn’t see anything new.  Well, were they wrong.  We stopped at a small overlook that had a few trails that allowed everyone to admire the view and to take pictures.  This overlook showcased two glacial valleys merging together.  After re-boarding the bus, we looked out for a red fox that someone had spotted, and instead of finding it below the road bed, it was above us on the slope.  We watched this fox dig, burrow and then climb on the rocks.  This fox was much bigger than any of the foxes I’ve seen in the Midwest.  As we drove on, we came across the sow grizzly and her cubs again.  This sighting was interesting because a caribou suddenly darted across the road and into the hills on the other side of the road.  One of the cubs playfully chased after it.  We watched this bear family for a while since most people had hoped to see bears in the park.  We were lucky so far with three separate bear sightings.  The grizzlies were much lower than before, allowing us to get some good pictures of the mother and the cubs.  We were all fascinated not only to see the bears as close as they were but to also see the interaction between them, with one cub staying close to the mother, the other cub being more adventurous.  After visiting this bear family for a while, we continued on, taking in the scenery and looking for more wildlife.

Denali Park As we moved on, we noticed a caribou on the slope above us, facing away from us.  It was dead still but then moved.  Our driver noted that at this time of year, caribou are perplexed by flies that swarm and bite them.  She said that sometimes caribou can be found on the road since it is cooler and the flies don’t travel there as much.  Sure enough, the caribou made a dash away from us and onto the road.  It ran away and then back at us on the road.  We could hear the clatter of its splayed hooves on the road surface.  This guy actually made a circle around the bus, giving everyone a great view.  We all felt bad that he was being annoyed by the insects but we were grateful for the up-close experience.    After making sure the caribou was safely out of the way, the bus continued on.  We saw more ptarmigan and caribou but nothing spectacular like the grizzlies or the caribou.  As we came back down into the taiga again, our bus driver noticed a form in a dry river bed.  Thinking it was a moose, she slowly backed up so we could all have a look.  Instead of a moose, it was a large dark grizzly. This was our fourth bear sighting!  That pretty much concluded our day as far as wildlife viewing went.

The park itself is beautiful and wild.  This protected environment showcases everything that the wild should be, life uninterrupted and untouched by the hand of man.  Although my experience in the park was great, the true splendor of the surroundings wasn’t evident due to the amount of smoky haze in the air.  My trip might have been a once in a lifetime excursion; it might not have been.  If it was, I will remember it for the rest of my life.  This trip isn’t for everyone, but for the people who want to do it, it’s an adventure that you will never regret.

30% Club

Denali I’m an official member of the 30% club – I just need my membership card and a ceremonial pin.  You’re probably scratching your head and wondering what I’m talking about.  Well, I saw Denali in all of its splendor as we were on the train north.  Since you’re likely to have only a 30% chance of seeing the mountain, I got lucky on my first try.  Let me tell you a little about this day.

We started out from Anchorage about 8:15 in the morning.  As the day dawned, we hoped for the best but didn’t expect too much.  There are fires burning to the west and north of Denali and smoke has been in and out of the area.  Besides being bad to breathe, smoke can also obscure vision, and each one of us wanted to see “The Great One” – Denali.  The best viewing of Denali is from the Talkeetna area since the mountain is toward the southern portion of the park.  So as we were going up, we all looked from time to time.  Once I looked out, there was nothing and then before you knew it, someone was calling out, “There it is!”  Sure enough, Denali (or Mt. McKinley) was visible, gleaming white in the brilliance of the sun.  I was lucky and persistent enough to be positioned well to get some pretty good shots of the mountain.  This is my first time (and may be my only time) to come to Denali and I was lucky enough to see the mountain.  Others have come numerous times and have not been able to see it.  We were extremely lucky that day!

Alaska Railroad The trip to Denali was completed by train on the Alaska Railroad.  This train takes about 7 hours to travel from Anchorage to Denali.  You can travel the route faster by car, but you don’t get to see and focus on the same sights.  You’d be worn out from about 5 hours of driving instead of having the luxury to read, converse, sight-see or just sleep as you travel.  Knowing me, I was sight-seeing all the way, baby!  The train trip was great and relaxing, allowing us to see a part of Alaska that’s not available from the road.  The rail cars have assigned seating but you are able to travel to other cars that have observation seats in them.  There are also open areas between the cars that make for excellent picture taking. The train also has a sit down dining car as well as a snack or bistro car.  Since we left shortly after 8 AM, we had breakfast at my sister’s place, but had lunch on the train – pretty good buffalo chili.  As interesting as the trip is, it can get a bit monotonous, so we all dozed off at least once.  I found myself standing for much of the trip in between the cars.  Here, you have the entrance to the car when it is stationary, but when the train is moving this gap creates a partial opening that allows you to see what is going on outside and allows you to take a look up and down the length of the train.  I found this to be exciting as well as a great way to enjoy the warm sun on my face.  I would recommend the method of travel to others who are thinking about heading to Denali.

So the comfortable train service and the clear skies that allowed me to see Denali made this a day to remember.  I hope to someday be able to make this trip again with my family but if not, I know that I have see the Great One and have stared upon its rocky face.