Monthly Archives: August 2019

2019 Trip 5: Alaska: August 31

Potter Marsh, Anchorage Alaska

Anchorage, Alaska. Saturday August 31

While people back in Minnesota are thronging to the State Fair in record numbers, we are still exploring Alaska. Our current adventure has us in Anchorage for an alternate date, avoiding the town of Cooper Landing since the wildfire would not have allowed us to do the hiking and touring we had planned. It does appear that last night’s rain may make travel to Cooper Landing Sunday and Homer on Monday much more feasible.

Potter Marsh just south of Anchorage

The day started at Potter Marsh, a well-known and highly touted wildlife marsh just minutes from downtown Anchorage. The boardwalk at Potter Marsh takes you on several paths into the marsh. The marsh is partially salty with tidal influence. The day was windy with overnight rain and a promise of more rain to come. The birds did not cooperate. We saw a few ducks of some type and a magpie or two but that was it. The boardwalk was popular with humans; none seemed to be having better luck at finding birds.

Leaving the marsh, we went in to Anchorage and spent four hours at the Anchorage Museum. The museum is the largest in Alaska and focuses on Alaskan art, cultures, history, and science. We took advantage of two docent led tours although the one focusing on art was less worthwhile. The art collection focuses on images of Alaska and, where feasible, on art by Alaskans. Sydney Lawrence, probably the best known Alaskan painter, is heavily represented.

Chris and I were extremely impressed by the areas of the museum that focus on the various native groups of indigenous Alaskans. I used to wonder why there appeared to be so many different names; weren’t they all Eskimos or some such? The docent covered it nicely; as did James Michener in his novel “Alaska”. When the last period of glaciation occurred in North America and Europe, sea levels dropped dramatically exposing Beringia.

In very basic terms, Beringia is the land exposed by that sea level drop; extending from the McKenzie River in Canada to the Lena River in Russia. The Chukchi and Bering Seas were not seas then, but grassy steppes. Peoples from Asia migrated at many different times; each group of migration tended to end up as a different indigenous people. The indigenous peoples stayed in Alaska, developing their own history and culture since the glaciers in America and Canada blocked further southward movement until the glaciers receded, Each group developed according to its own locale; vast differences occur between the Tlingit people down along the southeast coast of Alaska from the Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands, as an example.

Child’s snowshoe hare parka

Somewhat similar to the museums in Flagstaff and in Fairbanks, each indigenous group is highlighted. The items in the displays have been selected by the elders of each group from items in the possession of the Smithsonian Institute. The exhibits are enhanced by video monitors that describe each specific item in greater detail. One can go online to see this at: http://Alaska.si.edu. A snowshoe hare child’s parka might only be made every few years; the snowshoe hare population has peaks and troughs. The peak years would produce enough hares for a parka, other years, no.

An example that the docent highlighted included a winter parka made out of the intestinal guts of seal and a winter parka made out of ground squirrel hides. Each used the wealth of resources Alaska makes available to them in the area in which they live. Each peoples had sufficient free time to create works of art, either for pleasure or for ceremonial purposes.

Of course, the coming of Russian and American explorers and settlers negatively brought disease and high rates of death, forced labor, forced loss of cultural habits, etc. Positively, it brought new materials and habits that made their life easier. The resources of the state were a prize to be extracted and shipped back to the parent country, whether that was furs, salmon, or gold and copper. The profits from the resources were not spent on local improvements.

A separate exhibit highlighted the past and current media representations of Alaskan indigenous peoples. “Molly of Denali”, a new PBS kids show, was highlighted as an example of improved accuracy in media presentation. Another exhibit demonstrated the role and importance of salmon. Hopefully we will not foolishly waste away that important resource in favor of indiscriminate mineral extraction. It took time for humans to acknowledge their overfishing of salmon threatened it with extinction. Reasonable safeguards and regulations seem to be keeping the salmon fisheries at a sustainable level.

AAA rates the Anchorage Museum a “Gem”, the top honor. We would agree and encourage others to take time to explore it in depth.

The rest of the afternoon was housekeeping; laundry, church, and dinner. Tomorrow, Cooper Landing.

Varied photographs by Fred Marchetanz of Alaskan scenes in the Anchorage Museum

Ed and Chris, Saturday August 31. 9 PM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska: August 30

Icebergs in Portage Lake in Chugach National Forest

Indian, AK. Friday August 30

Indian is just 10 miles east of Girdwood. For one night, a mom and pop and children road side motel has replaced the B and B that was our planned lodging in Cooper Landing, AK. We will skip Saturday night in Cooper Landing also and stay at a hotel in Anchorage and then drive to Cooper Landing on Sunday. The road to Cooper Landing and then on to Homer is open although travel is not advised. Rain this weekend should dampen the fires enough to make travel a bit more normal. Our Homer air company said their current customers have made it to Homer without major incident, but with delays.

The Begich-Boggs Visitor Center

Today was a slow, pleasant day along the Portage Glacier Road. This is a short stretch of road leading from the Seward Highway over to the infamous Whittier tunnel. It is part of the Chugach National Forest and numerous recreational opportunities line the roadway. The day started at the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center for the Chugach Forest. The center has extensive displays, a video, and information about the forest. It is named after two U.S. Congressional Representatives who died in a plane crash around here in 1972. The plane and bodies have never been found.

Hiking in Chugach Forest along Portage Glacier Road

We hiked along the lake and along the Trail of Blue Ice. This was calm and protective from the wind howling along the lake. The highlight of the morning was finding the creek with spawning salmon that the Forest Ranger on the cruise ship had mentioned. The Williwaw Creek hosts all of the salmon types and is clear. In contrast to the Valdez fish hatchery, here we could clearly observe salmon in their native habitat.

Salmon in Williwaw Creek in Chugach National Forest

Two types of salmon were present; red for sure and the second was either dog salmon or pink salmon. The natural processes were at work. The male salmon were right behind the females, waiting to fertilize the eggs and chasing away any competition. The salmon die after spawning and you could observe periodic dead salmon along the shore, waiting to be re-absorbed into nature. The creek was busy, there were plenty of salmon but not the masses that had been bunched together at the hatchery.

Lunch was brief, at a picnic table beside a pond along the Trail of Blue Ice. We finished up the day spending time at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. At first it felt weird to be here. It is almost a zoo and we have been spending our time seeing these animals out in the wild. On the positive side, the center cares for injured animals and has helped propagate the return of the Wood Bison to Alaska.

The Wood Bison are native to this area and are a distinct subspecies of the American bison. The Wood Bison were believed extinct after heavy hunting. In 1957 a herd was discovered in Alberta Canada and through conservation it has grown. In 2008 a group of 53 were transferred here to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The bison have been bred and are being re-introduced to a few areas under the control of native Alaskans.

Bears at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

The Conservation Center is home to wolves, foxes, musk ox, elk, caribou, bears, moose, reindeer, and wood bison. It is a popular stop along the Seward Highway-Portage Glacier road. We found the bears irresistible, as evidenced by the photos above. Okay, so the bears were not in the wild but still fun and entertaining to watch.

Slower and pleasant day.

Lunch time

Ed and Chris. Indian AK. August 30. 8:30 PM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska: August 29

Alaska

Girdwood, AK. Thursday August 29

A most interesting day. You will get your fill of animal and scenery pictures. Thursday was dedicated to one activity, a five hour boat cruise out of Whittier in Prince William Sound. But first, we had to get there. As noted yesterday, Whittier was not inviting as a lodging option. We are staying in Girdwood, about 45 minutes west of Whittier. The challenge in reaching Whittier is that if you are coming by car, you have to use the Whittier Tunnel. There is no other option.

The tunnel was constructed during WWII for railroad traffic and only much later converted to combined rail and auto traffic. And I mean combined. It is one lane wide with trains and autos using the same path. To enter Whittier from the west, you line up and wait for the tunnel to allow east bound traffic at 30 minutes after the hour. To leave Whittier, you line up and wait to enter the tunnel at the hour. If you miss your time, you wait an hour.

It should take 45 minutes to reach the tunnel from Girdwood. We allowed an hour. But, experienced travelers that we are, we missed the turn-off! We were zipping along when suddenly the road signs just seemed wrong. No cell service to check on Google maps. We decided we had to re-trace our steps. Going speeds I have not reached since the wide open spaces of west Texas, we reached the line at 10:35. Luckily at that time there were enough cars that the line was long and the tunnel was still open. Close call.

Logistics of the day: Boat, Lunch (plus a kale salad not in the photo), Seats (Top deck, front row, right by window) Chris at the far right front

Our cruise was with Phillips Cruises for a five hour journey on a new boat. They assign seats and since we had booked back in March, we had prime seats in front, by ourselves, looking forward, right next to windows in front and to our right. For the next five hours we took in magnificent scenery and a long list of sea animals. Once out on the Sound, the smoky haze was minimal. Whittier and this area of Alaska receive huge amounts of rain and snow but today was clear. Temps were in the high 50s, we did not need the extra gear we brought to stay warm on the water.

Glaciers

A U.S. Forest Service Ranger from the Chugach National Forest was on board providing narration. The Chugach is our second largest U.S. forest and includes huge swaths of water surface within its boundaries. He discussed glacier formation, the weather, the impact of climate change and the dramatic shrinking of the glaciers.

Glacier calving: Breaking off top, splashing bottom

Waterfalls

Alaska water falls that seemed so puny before were dramatic in height as water from melting snow and glacial ice poured down tall mountain sides.

Stellar seal lions

I could discuss the habits of Stellar sea lions and the other animals; we picked up fact sheets on all of them. But I won’t except for a few brief comments here and there.

Sea otters at play

Sea otters in Prince William Sound

Sea otters were almost hunted to extinction. Their pelts are amazing in their ability to resist water and keep warmth. If you want to be disgusted, read a history of how they were hunted and natives here treated.

Dall’s porpoises

The porpoises were the highlight. They buzzed the ship. They dived and splashed. They went out and “played” with the humpbacks whales. There must have been at least ten of them. Porpoises are fast. It was hard to take a photo; by the time they jumped out of the water, they were gone again.

Harbor seals in Prince William Sound

Humpback whales

This is not the season for orcas, so humpbacks were the “only” whales we saw today.

We did not bother taking pictures of bald eagles. Kind of ho-hum for a couple from Minnesota.

This was the Alaska of our imagination. A great cruise. A lucky day weather wise. A wealth of wildlife to observe and glaciers to marvel at.

Oh, we have canceled our first night in Cooper Landing due to fire issues. Our river rafting excursion has been canceled also. Still debating the next two nights in Cooper Landing and our three days in Homer. A Homer cancellation will hurt; we had splurged on an air trip over Cook Inlet to Lake Clark or Katmai National Park. They are remote and only reached by air or boat.

Alaska

Ed and Chris August 30. 3:30 AM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska: August 28

A view along Turnagain Arm, between Anchorage and Whittier. Left side, south, shows evidence of smoke from the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula

Girdwood, Alaska. Wednesday August 28

Smoke and fire were major concerns today. We left Talkeetna to drive to Girdwood, east of Anchorage. We plan to stay here in Girdwood for two nights. The drive here continued on the Parks Highway, along a 20 mile stretch of road that has been plagued by wild fires. Over the past week, travelers were only allowed to go in one direction at a time, led by a pilot car, much as you might encounter in some construction zones. Emergency firefighting crews had first priority over the travel lanes. Delays of several hours had been common. The Alaska Railroad had canceled some of their runs since the fires were even closer to their tracks.

Fire view along Parks Highway between Talkeetna and Willow Alaska

Luckily the roadway just opened to full two lane traffic, although at reduced speeds. We past numerous stretches of burnt forest. Smoke stench was still prevalent. No structures that we could see had burnt, though. Many properties had signs thanking firefighters.

We spent an hour this evening listening to a local radio station live broadcast a community meeting in Cooper Landing, AK where we planned to spend Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. Our lodging host said “No problem, come on down.” This town on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage was likely to be the area in which we hiked the most. The topic of the community meeting was the Swan Lake Fire, a blaze that has been burning for 84 days north and west of Cooper Landing. It is the largest fire in the U.S. So far it has burnt 160,000 acres. (see this video from Accu Weather: https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/apocalyptic-footage-shows-cars-narrowly-avoiding-flames-from-massive-alaska-wildfire/70009192) For most of that time it had not been threatening more developed areas.

Recently, the Sterling Highway through Cooper Landing over to Homer has been closed off and on; when open, it usually has a pilot car leading traffic one-way for a 20 mile stretch from Cooper Landing west towards Soldotna and Homer. We have to decide if we seek alternate lodging and forego one, two, or three of the expeditions we have reserved. At the moment, we are leaning to making different arrangements. You will find out the end result as it happens.

The Turnagain Arm is a body of water off Cook Inlet. The British Captain James Cook-he of fame for being a major European explorer to visit and map much of the Pacific Ocean. During his voyage to Alaska looking for the Northwest Passage, he came up the now-named Cook Inlet and turned right. That right turn led to a dead end and so he had to turn again to reverse his travel. Thus this body of water was named. It is ringed by mountains, forests and glaciers. It was the site of several gold strikes in the early 1900s.

The Turnagain Arm drive is rated as one of the most scenic in the country. The Seward Highway as it is called, is the only road route to the Kenai Peninsula, home to hiking, glaciers, boat tours, and great fishing. It is difficult for us to comment on its scenic beauty; most of it, particularly the southern side across the water from the road, was obscured by smoke from the Swan Lake fire.

Beluga whale in Turnagain Arm

Smoke did not make the drive uneventful though. At Beluga Point, we pulled over and watched Beluga whales diving for food. Belugas hunt for other fish to eat in shallow waters where killer whales have difficulty maneuvering. We could see several belugas, their white color in sharp contrast to the gray water as they dove and re-surfaced over and over again. Our pictures show them although not really close up. We have been “out-camera’d“ throughout this trip by the visitors with huge spotting scopes and zoom SLR cameras.

Mountain goats in Chugach State Park along the Seward Highway

Still at Beluga Point, we simply turned around and up on the mountains a group of about 25 mountain goats were walking single file along a narrow path. There was less smoke on the northern mountains. The goats stood out clearly with their white against the dark rocks.

McHugh Falls, another stop along the Seward Highway

The Chugach State Forest and Chugach State Park cover a large swath of land from Anchorage over east to past Valdez and south as far as Seward. We will be making numerous stops in these two during the remaining two weeks in Alaska. Beluga Point was just one of several stops today. We had lunch at the Turnagain Armpit Bar B-Q in Indian, AK. Great food.

A view of Alyeska Resort

Our lodging tonight is at Alyeska Resort, one of our splurges. It is a resort close to Anchorage with winter skiing and summer mountain hiking and biking. We chose it since it is very close to Whittier, home to one of our boat rides, and the lodging in Whittier appeared to be the pits.

Views from Alyeska Resort, non-smoke obscured

We rode the tram up the mountain and obtained great views of the smoke on the other side of the water. Our host at Armpit Bar BQ indicated today was a good day, the wind was keeping the smoke on the south side. Our planned hike was cut short by swarms of “no-see umm”. The small gnats were so irritating we headed back down again.

Thursday we drive to Whittier. Several aspects of that day should be interesting and fire free.

Smoke obscuring the view of Turnagain Arm as seen from top of tram ride at Alyeska Resort in GIrdwood

Ed and Chris. Thursday August 29 4:30 AM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska: August 27

Looking north toward the Alaska Range south of Denali along the Parks Highway.

Talkeetna, Alaska. Tuesday August 27

Today was originally planned as a sort of “what if” day. So much is written about how difficult it is to see Denali that we plugged in this day in Talkeetna as a back-up. Denali State Park is nearby and supposedly would have great views of the mountain. Talkeetna is one of those cutesy towns that the tour buses and Alaska Railroad trains stop at for everyone to do some shopping.

Views along the Parks Highway

We left Healy in rain and clouds. The rain continued sporadically until we had left the influence of Denali, then the sun was out and the temperatures were in the mid-60s. Beautiful day. Our first stop along the Parks Highway south of Denali gave us a brief glimpse of the mountain but more of clouds. If we did not know where and what to look for, we would have missed it. Numerous rest areas and waysides were touted as good view points; none fulfilled the hype. Not that the scenery was to be sneezed at.

Views along the Parks Highway between Denali National Park and Talkeetna

Snow capped peaks had left us but the mountains remained. Now the Alaska Range is on our right side, or west. The Talkeetna Mountains which we first encountered over by Palmer ten days ago, have returned to be on our left side, or east. Boreal forest and tundra alternated on hillsides and valleys. Kettle lakes, blue and not gray since they are fed by rain and groundwater, filled depressions caused by glaciers. The Nenana River gave way to the Chulitna River flowing south alongside the highway. Here in Talkeetna, the Chulitna meets and feeds into the Susitna River which will meet Cook Inlet west of Anchorage.

Hiking around Byers Lake

In Denali State Park, we stopped at Byers Lake to take a hike. I am sure a month ago mosquitoes would have made mincemeat of us in this environment. Today it was bug free. The vegetation however was high and the path was overgrown and less than friendly. We cut the walk short and continued our drive to Talkeetna.

Views of downtown Talkeetna

Talkeetna has a population of under 900. The town was a native fishing/hunting region until the early 1900s when a gold rush in the area was followed by the building of the Alaska Railroad. The Spanish flu, the completion of the railroad, and the limited amount of gold emptied out the town. Nowadays the town seems to be mainly tourist stores. We pretended to be tourists who might actually spend money but other than postcards and lunch at an authentic Alaska roadhouse, the Talkeetna Roadhouse, our money stayed in our pockets.

A variation on the tourist theme is the abundance of flight seeing companies who will take you up on a flight to see Denali and the Alaska Range. By air, Talkeetna is closer to Denali than is the main park entrance. Talkeetna is currently the main jumping off point for Denali mountain climbers. They take off from Talkeetna airport and land on a glacier at 7,000 feet. Early climbers made a much longer trek from lower elevations. Today from the base camp at 7,000 feet, they ascend the mountain from what is called the West Buttress, taking two to three weeks to make the climb. Talkeetna has a National Park Service Ranger Station in Talkeetna devoted to Denali climbing.

Some of the flags flown at Denali by successful climbers; from the walls of the Talkeetna Ranger Station

Climbers pay the park service a fee of $375, have to register in advance, list their team members and be approved prior to being allowed to undertake the ascent. Team stop every few days to make camp and adjust to the oxygen level at the new elevation. In 2019, 1226 climbers were approved to attempt to reach the summit. 65% were successful, higher than the average of about 50%. The number allowed is limited and the time period is from mid-April to early July, when the weather is most favorable.

We are staying at a B and B in the hills above Talkeetna. Our room has a deck and a view of Denali which varies with the cloud cover. It is amazing to sit here and just look at it.

View of Denali from the deck of our B and B in Talkeetna, Alaska

Ed and Chris. August 27 9 PM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska: August 26

Getting ready to board our raft for the float down the Nenana River

Healy, Alaska. Monday August 26

Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on……. For any of you who know Chris, you can understand that she is telling me, over and over and over again, to hold on to the onboard safety ropes attached to our raft going down the Nanena River early this morning. Not because I am foolish. Not because I could not hear her. Not because maybe I did not remember the guide’s instructions before we left the shore. But just because that is Chris and part and parcel of who she is and who I love.

This easy float rafting trip was offered out of Denali Park Village; a 13 mile trip with Class II rapids on the Nenana River alongside Denali Park. We showed up at 7:30 AM and were fitted into our toe to chin wet suits. We waddled over to the bus to be driven to the drop-in point. The Nenana flows south to north joining the Yukon River on its journey to the Bering Sea. The Nenana is glacially fed; it is cold, dirty with glacial sand, and lacking fish. Thus, one does not see animals drinking or feeding here. The journey is for the view and the experience.

Floating down the Nenana River, photo courtesy of our guide

There were only four of us signed up for the early morning trip. The temperature was 40 degrees and we were bundled up to stay warm. One guide goes solo in front of our raft to catch anyone who flips out and to scout out rocks and obstructions. Our guide does all of the heavy work paddling/steering the boat on its journey downriver. This was his second year working in Denali, last year he was a waiter. He said waiting paid better but who could pass up the opportunity to be trained and certified as a rafter. He was born in Macedonia but lives in Albania and is just months away from receiving his veterinary degree.

Floating on the Nenana River, photo courtesy of second couple on the trip

The raft holds up to eight people and is one of those heavy, rubber rafts. With our wet suits and personal flotation devices we looked like an astronaut and waddled like a penguin. The combination of rubber and latex and neoprene will not be the next big scent in fancy perfumes. The 13 mile journey floats through wilderness canyons. Other than rushing water, you hear very little. The guide relays information as we go along; some historical, some tall tales.

Floating on the Nenana River, photo courtesy of second couple on the trip.

The trip was really enjoyable. A little chilly to be sure but better I believe than being sunburned or attacked by mosquitoes. There was no stopping for lunch, just a trip to watch the mountains and trees slip by. The wet suits are beneficial, you are splashed by very cold water. The rapids were enough to bounce you around. Nobody on our boat fell in nor did the boat flip over. Both actions do happen on this river and on the same type of journey.

Trip finished, we strip off the wet suits and return to the White Moose Lodge for a quick lunch on the patio. The afternoon was spent in a truly exciting way; doing laundry and finishing yesterday’s blog.

Cabaret show

Dinner tonight was a cabaret show. Salmon and barbecue ribs served family style with the waiters doubling as singers and musicians to entertain us while we ate. Food was good as was the entertainment. After dinner was a 30 minute show with Alaska tales, stories, and songs with the usual audience participation. Luckily I was not one of the attendees called upon to join in the festivities.

Ed working on the blog in the cold and rain showers while Chris does the laundry.

Ed and Chris. Tuesday August 27th. 4:30 AM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska,Aug.24-25, #2

Denali

Healy, AK Sunday August 25

Fog along the Parks Highway south of Fairbanks.

Heavy fog in the valley below the Parks Highway.

We left Fairbanks Saturday morning driving down the Parks Highway. The Parks Highway is named after George Parks, an Alaskan Territorial Governor, not for Denali National Park. It runs from Fairbanks to Palmer, just north of Anchorage. Fog covered the highway early, lifting as we moved south and into higher elevations. We arrived in Healy around noon and stopped at our small, mom and pop motel, the White Moose Lodge. We were able to check in and obtain our room keys but not gain access to the room. Fine with us, we had only wanted to let them know we were in town since travel up from Anchorage is still delayed due to wildfires.

Our plan was to arrive in Denali National Park and Preserve early enough to scope out the park, take a hike or two, and verify our reservations for the Sunday morning 6:30 AM bus ride 66 miles into Denali. All of the above were accomplished along with attending church with 32 other souls. One would have thought that a Mass with only 32 people would have been brief but this priest liked to hear himself preach so we had a full hour.

Denali’s layout is a little unique. There is a separate bus depot that handles the ticketing and dispatching for the multiple bus options to tour Denali as well as transport campers, hikers, short day users, etc. About a mile away is the visitor center, parking, gift store and cafe, theater, and train depot. Taking the train to Denali for an overnight from Anchorage, particularly for cruise ship passengers, is a big deal. The train had been canceled for a day or two due to the wildfires right along the tracks. People were transferred to buses for the ride instead.

Two views from original Denali visitor lodging area. Top is view that would on a clear day show Denali.

Two views from the Savage River hike in Denali National Park and Preserve

Chris and I went on several short hikes. We walked around the Savage River location where the first visitors stayed in tent cabins in the 1920s. One of the exhibits told us where to look to see Denali. Clouds blocked the view and we saw nothing. Visiting the sled dogs is another popular option but having fed, harnessed, and driven the sleds in winter in Ely, MN several years ago made any visit here a pale comparison. Instead we saw the video, walked to the bus depot, picked up our tickets, and went for another hike along the Savage River at the point where private cars can go no farther. Dinner was at the 49th State Brewery in Healy, a busy, bustling bistro.

Sunday was up early. We were third in line for the bus, one of many school bus style vehicles in the park. Our style of riding was basically without a lot of narration; much less expensive than the narrated trip. The driver gives sufficient information to inform you of what you are seeing and answers questions in depth. Shorter and longer destinations are possible, and one could get off, go hiking, and flag down a later bus to return. This option normally takes 6-8 hours. We thought that was more than enough time to be sitting on a cramped bus.

Buses lined up at one of the overlooks

It turned out that the bus actually had reasonable leg room with overhead storage to hold our backpack and extra jackets. This 6:30 AM bus was the first one of the day to our destination and was full. We thought the early departure time would provide for a greater likelihood to see animals. We lucked out, we saw tons of animals and great views of Denali. Supposedly only 20-30% of visitors see Denali due to cloud cover. Saturday night we did not view it; by Sunday afternoon clouds were moving in with brief drizzles. Sunday evening it rained. Our timing was quite fortunate. We had chosen to stay three nights in Healy and one more night in Talkeetna to improve our chances to have good weather for viewing.

Views of Denali began early with some cloud cover and improved after that. By the time we reached Eielson Visitor Center, there were only wisps of clouds flowing across the mountain. Eielson is still 30 miles from Denali, it is one massive mountain. In Athabascan, Denali means “high one”. It is North America’s tallest mountain at 20,310 feet,

In the bus looking down

Park Road begins in the valley going through boreal forest with conifers and brush. This is favorite moose habitat. After Savage River, the road is only open to permitted buses and begins climbing on a dirt, narrow road. Buses have to slow down or stop and maneuver around each other. The drop-off on the cliff side is frequently steep. It was a pleasure to leave the driving to others. The views change to a grassy, tundra vegetation with the mountains of the Alaska Range showing their peaks, sometimes snow-capped. As a side comment, yes, there are sufficient rest stops on the bus tours and we have not been bothered by mosquitoes anywhere in Alaska yet.

Melting permafrost has vegetation giving way and sliding down towards the road.

Permafrost failures (where the warming temperature has melted the “permanent” frost in the ground) along the road are visible frequently. This is a great concern, both for the changing vegetation but also for the road which will become more susceptible to mudslides and pavement failures.

Between the driver and the passengers, there are plenty of eyes looking for animals. It does take the passengers about 20 minutes to remember to yell “Stop” as a sign that they have seen animals. Most yell “over there”, “bear”, “is that one”, etc. at first. The driver is good and backs up when necessary and feasible given road conditions. People on the side of the animal take pictures first and then give way to the people on the other side. We do not get out, the animals come first and the Park does not want them to get acclimated to humans.

Another view of Denali

Denali

We are giddy about the possibility of seeing Denali. The sun is out and clouds are rare. Our first glimpse comes from way out but we get several other good shots before we reach Eielson Visitor Center where the bus stops for 30 minutes. Here the viewing is great and we take numerous photos.

Alaska Range in Denali

One can, if desired, stay here for a while and take a later bus back as long as they have room. We are one of the ones who take this bus back. Luckily for campers on another bus, many of our bus companions stayed longer. The campers’ bus broke down and we pick up 23 campers and their packs about 1/3 of the way back to the main bus depot.

The return trip takes longer since we had to load up the campers. My legs start to cramp up and am happy to finally get back to the bus depot at 3 PM. We returned to White Moose and had a picnic out on their deck. The rest of the day was checking out where we were to pick up the raft, getting out the blog of just photos, gassing up the car and then crashing. In bed by 8 PM and asleep shortly thereafter.

Two side comments. We have not been bothered by mosquitoes anywhere in Alaska. I believe their season has come and gone. Second, we observed in Fairbanks an item we have not observed for forty years. Electric car heaters and plug-ins were common in Minnesota. When we moved to Pennsylvania in the mid-70s, they they had no idea what we were talking about. By the time we moved back to Minnesota in 2003, they were uncommon there also. In Fairbanks, it seemed most vehicles had them and the Museum of the North had plug-ins all over the parking lot.

Electric car heater and outdoor plug-in

Ed and Chris. Monday August 26 3 PM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska: Aug. 24-25 #1 Photos

Denali

Sunday August 25,Healy AK

Okay, here are just photos of Denali National Park and Preserve today. The only way to get more than 15 miles into Denali is by one of several types of park bus rides. We chose the Eielson option; 66 miles one-way and 8.5 hours round trip. A second post will follow with more description and additional photos.

The Alaska Range near Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali from a distance

Along Park Road

Denali

Caribou

Caribou

Bears

Ptarmigan

Moose

Along the Park Road

Ed and Chris Sunday 7:30 PM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska: August 23

Creamer’s Field Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks AK

Fairbanks, Alaska Friday August 23

We must be getting old. A full day of travel has us tired out by dinner time. The day was good, we enjoyed it quite a bit, we are just bushed. Maybe we got out of travel shape and will find our bounce during the next few days.

Sandhill Cranes at Creamer’s Field Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks AK

The day began at the state-owned Creamer’s Field Wildlife Refuge. Just two miles from downtown Fairbanks, the refuge is the site of a former dairy farm which always had hosted migratory birds even when it was an operating dairy. When it closed up shop in the 1960s, the community stepped in, bought the property, and converted it into the refuge. This weekend, the predominant birds were Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese. Both were resting and feeding in preparation for continuing their journey southward. We walked around the property, enjoying the walking, the observing, and the listening. A very nice way to start off our day. (We also met and talked to a woman who had been born in International Falls MN.)

Blooming flowers at the Botanical Gardens of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks

Down the road a mile or two sits the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The Museum of the North is located on the campus and it was our primary destination. A minor sidelight had appeared in our planning, the Botanical Garden run by the University. The Garden seemed worth a look-see, being just a few minutes from the Museum. What a pleasant surprise! Although not large in acreage, flowers were blooming delightfully.

dahlias at the Botanical Garden, University of Alaska

Several types of research were highlighted. For instance, Alaska is in a unique position for growing peonies. Alaskan peonies bloom in late summer, after all others around the world. They grow fast and large. The climate discourages insects and moose don’t like the taste. The U of A has worked with growers throughout the state and peonies are now an export market for Alaska.

Museum of the North

Finally it was time for our primary target for the day. The Museum of the North is housed in a dramatic building with a focus on Alaskan art and anthropology. The first floor galleries have a primary exhibit area that highlights each region of the state. In each region, history, culture and natural history are combined. We found it fascinating, informative, and overwhelming. On display were a Woolly Mammoth tusk and skull we can discuss when we are back at the Bell Museum.

I found the section about the Japanese invasion and conquest of two Alaskan islands in the Aleutians fascinating. The military build-up in Alaska can be traced partially to this successful Japanese invasion and follow-up re-taking by the U.S. Even less known is the impact on the islanders who lived in the Aleutians. Towns were bombed; villages on many islands evacuated with some villages permanently barred from being re-settled after the war; homes were looted by soldiers from both sides and from civilians; and no effort made by the U.S. to re-establish the communities. We did vastly more for Western Europe than we did our own citizens.

Behind the scenes at Museum of the North, University of Alaska Fairbanks

To break up the experience, we took in a 30 minute video presentation about the aurora borealis. If we are not likely to see it, we might as well learn a little more about the phenomena. After the video we took an hour long tour that showed us the inner workings of the museum. The guide, from the mammal department, started with the freezers used to kill any pests that might be on any incoming specimens. The new specimens go in the deep freeze, 40 degrees below zero for three days.

The Museum and University have over 1,000,000 specimens and we passed row upon row of rolling file cabinets that house items in boxes, on shelves, and in locked cabinets. Chris got to hold a grizzly skull. We watched a person preparing a bird specimen for storage and two people working on digitizing records of insects. Several people discussed their work and answered our questions patiently. It was time well spent and very informative.

Arctic Research Institute

After the tour, we hustled over to the Arctic research center to look at some displays about climate change. This University plays a pivotal role in research about climate change, given its location and faculty expertise. It even has its own rocket range for sending up rockets for weather observation. You may have read about the massive budget cuts proposed by the Governor of Alaska which would decimate the research efforts. Hopefully that won’t happen. If faculty are cut, the research knowledge and expertise may take a long time to get re-established, if ever.

We returned to the Museum and visited the rest of the galleries. A complete visit would take longer or several visits but we spent the day at the Museum and left knowledgeable and hungering for more. The Museum of the North comes highly recommended by us.

Chris and Ed safely getting close to bears

Ed and Chris. Fairbanks AK. August 24 6 AM

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2019 Trip 5: Alaska: August 22

Part of the Alaska Range along Richardson Highway

Fairbanks Alaska Thursday August 22

The Richardson Highway stretches from Valdez to Fairbanks and was Alaska’s first major road. Today we drove the 250 mile stretch from Copper Center to Fairbanks. For a major road, we were surprised by light traffic, sections of road with narrow lanes and no shoulders, and portions of road with dips, bumps, gravel, and just plain rough road. We guessed the dips are caused by permafrost problems; slowing down was smart to avoid being tossed into the air. We passed a patching crew on a hill in the section of road with no shoulders and had to stop and wait for them to signal it was safe to pass.

Driving the Richardson Highway

Our scenery started in the hilly areas with black spruce forests around us. We drove along portions of the Copper, Delta and Tanana rivers. The TransAlaska pipeline crossed from left to right and back again. No caribou, moose, bear, etc. made an appearance. Portions of the route were treeless with only scrubby brush. We drove through two military reservations. The show stopper for scenery was the Alaska Range with peaks, glaciers, lakes, and colored rock formations.

Along the Richardson Highway

The route contains only small towns, some where roadhouses used to exist. Despite looking, we missed the remnants supposedly by the side of the road. Fortunately, pull-offs are common, so we could take pictures of the pipeline, the colored talus slopes of Rainbow Ridge, the creek flowing out of Summit Lake where other travelers were looking for fish that normally inhabit the creek, the early fall colors . Unfortunately, seeing the sun was rare; the photos would have been fantastic with a bright blue sky behind the mountains for contrast.

Two vignettes for you. We stopped at Sullivan Roadhouse Historical Museum in Delta Junction. Alaska Roadhouses were an important historical landmark in the early 1900s, particularly on the Richardson Highway. Roadhouses provided food and lodging for people and horses. Given the difficulty of Alaskan life then, the costs were high. For instance, at Sullivans a meal cost $2 when a fancy meal in Seattle cost 15 cents. Roadhouses began a decline around 1917 when car travel became possible on the road.

Interior of Sullivan Roadhouse

But the story at Sullivan’s has multiple angles, two of which we will relate. First comes the beginning of the story. The owners came separately to Alaska in the mid-1890s seeking their fortune in the gold fields. Separately they both traveled during the winter of 1899-1900 from Dawson City to Nome. She hired two men to pull her sleds of goods while she walked in front through the snow and broke the trail. It was only after several years in Alaska that they met in Nome and married in 1900. They built the Roadhouse in Delta Junction in 1905. It was well-known and well-regarded having surmounted all of the hassles involved in running such an establishment in Alaska in the early 1900s.

The Sullivan Roadhouse in Delta Junction AK

The second angle of the story relates to the building itself. The vast majority of Alaskan roadhouses burned, were abandoned and fell apart,etc. The Sullivan Roadhouse survives intact. Why? Well, the Sullivans had to move from the original site when the road moved. When moving, they installed a metal roof, rare at the time, to replace the sod roof. This contributed to the building’s permanence.

But in 1921 the trail was abandoned and the Sullivans did the same with the building. It sat empty even through WWII when it became attached to a new Army base used as a bombing range. Wildfires came close but the building survived. In the 1970s the artifacts in the building were unofficially squirreled away to a private site. Finally a federal program to save historic buildings on Army land, as its last job before budget cuts killed it, moved the roadhouse to its current site by taking each individual log by helicopter to the site it occupies today.

We heard this story while viewing the museum and talking to the guide, a man who still has family land around Portage WI. And, of course, the next people in the museum were from southern MN visiting a son/sibling stationed at the military base nearby.

The second vignette relates to Pennsylvania, our home for almost 30 years. We had a late lunch/early dinner at North Pole, Alaska at Little Richards Family Diner. In chatting with the wait staff, we learned she has been with the diner for nine years, since it was established. The owners, who work the breakfast shift, used to own a similar diner in Camp Hill PA, close to where Chris worked. Chris remembered eating breakfasts and lunches there. Another small world incident.

Inside the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center

We finished the day at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center in downtown Fairbanks. It is very well done and has a wealth of information available through displays, materials, and volunteers. The exhibits display history on native cultures and life even today. There are 11 distinct Athabascan groups, each with its own characteristics, language, and territory. Also, only 11 of 42 Athabascan villages in interior Alaska are connected to the outside world by roads.

TransAlaska Pipeline

Ed and Chris Fairbanks AK Friday Aug. 23 6 AM

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