Saturday, August 13, 2011

Denali National Park

The High One, Denali. That was our goal after leaving Anchorage. Rumor has is that you can see North America's highest mountain from Anchorage, we are skeptical. But, we will keep an open mind, since the weather has not cooperated. However, despite the claims of a former vice presidential candidate, you certainly cannot see Russia from Wasilla, or any other part of Alaska, for that matter.

Wasilla was a must see town for two reasons. We had to drive through it on our way to Denali and it is the political birthplace of Sarah Palin. The guide book was accurate in its description of Wasilla as a bedroom community for Anchorage as well as a commercial hub for South Central Alaska. The highway passes through the town just two blocks from the city hall. It could be anywhere, strip mall America filled with all the franchises one would expect. Unlike many Alaska towns, we didn't see any still functioning roadhouses from its earlier years. We stopped only long enough to take a picture of Mary Joan in front of the city hall.
From here to the Governor's office then VP candidate, Scary!
On the Parks Road, heading toward Denali, out first stop was at Willow. The campground was large, and was more like a parking lot than a campground. That was alright since it was raining hard and we were just going to spend the night. The next day we made our way to Talkeetna. It was described as a real old fashioned Alaska town. We pulled into RV Camper. The owner, Mark Wildermuth, gave us a warm greeting. Hanging on the wall of the office was an Iditarod number vest. We asked if it was Mark's. Yes, he ran the race in 1995 finishing in 22nd place, not bad for his first attempt. He no longer has a team, but has just acquired a Lapponian Herding Dog. Rika, the Lapponian Herder showed up a few minutes later with his wife Laura and his two children. Rika was high spirited and in the mouthing stage. Mark and his kids knew all the right things to do to train this new member of their family.

Sarah's goal this afternoon, was to find out where she could watch the third game in the series between the Red Sox and the Yankees. The good news was that the restaurant and bar next door, Latitude 62 would have the game on their television.

We walked through the town to the river in hopes of getting a view of Denali. This town is the jumping of place for climbers intent on summiting the mountain. Planes carry them and their gear to a landing strip at about 7,000 feet from where they begin the ascent. Climbing season is from late March until July. The climbers were gone, but the town was filled with tourists that had arrived by motor coach or the Alaska Railway. The scene was not unlike Camden, Maine in mid August. We were glad to be a half mile out of town and even happier when we dined at Latitude 62 with Lisa as our hostess/bartender. Lisa has a great sense of humor, when asked why she chose to live in Talkeetna, she replied 'it has five bars'.

After dinner, but before the 10th inning win by the Sox, Mark joined us. We talked about dogs, mushing, the Iditarod, and life in small town Alaska. He has some pretty strong feelings about the Iditarod and those associated with it. I won't try to relate them here because of my ignorance about this sport. Suffice to say that it involves money and personalities. So, what's new?
Our first view of the Alaska Range

The Mary Joan has reservations for four nights at the Teklaneeka Campground, 29 miles inside Denali National Park for Tuesday night through Friday night. So, we spent Monday night boondocking on a small stretch of the old Parks Highway just south of Cantwell. Boondocking is when you are not in an official campground, but rather, just camping off the main road. This was only our second boondockinng experience. The site was wonderful, adjacent to the river and protected from the main highway by a substantial stand of Apen and Poplar trees to shield us from the noise of the road. We were rewarded with wildlife viewing, as a flock of Dall Sheep were grazing on the mountains just across the river to our west.
Arriving at Denali National Park, we were a little overwhelmed at the rules, regulations, bus shuttles and the schedules. Private vehicles are allowed only on the first 15 miles of the park road. Beyond that, visitors needed to use the park or tour operator buses to gain access to the interior of the park. The exception was for those staying at RV campgrounds beyond the 15 mile point. However, the pass to the RV park was for one transit in and one transit out only. We were not allowed to use our vehicle on the park road once we reached our campground. We could, however, purchase a pass that would allow us to use the park bus service for the length of our stay. At first, this seemed a little controlling. But, the wisdom of this policy became evident on our first foray on the bus.

The park road traverses 91 miles from the visitor center to the former mining center of Kantishna, now a collection of wilderness lodges. It passes through some of the most magnificent scenery I have ever seen that is populated with bear, caribou, wolves, moose Dall sheep and lynx as well as beautiful and sensitive arctic flora. We boarded a bus at our campground at 9:30 AM and headed west. Traveling at less than 30mph we all watched for wildlife. The cry 'STOP' is all that is needed to get the driver, Mike Reilof, to stop the bus and ask where and what we should look for. Mike gave us ample time to watch and photograph whatever wildlife we had come upon. He is also knowledgeable about all the wildlife and how the ecosystem here works.
End of summer dusting

It is also possible to get on and off the bus nearly at will. When the bus took a spur road to Wonder Lake, we got off, picked blueberries and walked until the bus caught up with us where we rejoined the 'main' park road. We were let off the bus one mile from our campground just 10 hours after we boarded. It was an amazing day. We used this technique on our next day's voyage deeper into the park. We rode the bus about 30 miles then walked back 5-6 miles. While walking we got to see some of the smaller mammals and birds as well as a Gray Fox before flagging down a passing bus to return us to our campground.

It would not have been possible for us to make the entire trip on the bus without the help of the volunteer campground host, Beth. She offered to go to our trailer and take Scout out for a walk. She did this for us on two of our three days at the campground. Thanks Beth.
Sarah and Beth

The system of limiting personal vehicle usage increases the chances for wildlife viewing and greatly diminishes the impact on the environment and the cost of maintaining a road in this harsh environment. Impact on the environment and the wildlife is minimal. But, if you want to explore this area on foot, it's yours for the taking. There are no trails in this wilderness, you are free to hike and camp where ever you please. This is another example of a place where our government got it right.
The Park buses
The buses got us very close to the wildlife, a big Grizzly
Uncommon sighting, the lynx

We are in Fairbanks, Alaska and will upload more photos to the album when we get the chance. But, for now the sun shining and dinner awaits.

Stay tuned.

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