Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Alaska: Part III.

Zach's tagging in for this next Alaskan installment. He's interested in getting in on this blog game, and we're trying to figure out what that all means. That's enough boring talk for now - onto Alaska!  - xxoo S

Alaskan adventure continues…

Click the links to read and to see Part I and Part II.

Day five was the start of our 4.5 hour trek drive to Denali.  We took a leisurely pace as our cabin had a wide window of check-in time and we were now Alaska veterans and assumed we would be stopping many times for scenic overlooks. 

Our first fuel stop on the trip was in Wasilla. Some of you may associate Wasilla with seeing Russia from a certain vice-presidential candidates house. 

We did too.

In fairness, Wasilla was a good fuel stop and provided the landscape and mountain views that we had so far come to love (and expect!) from Alaska. 

Driving resumed with fun filled games of “spot the moose” and delicious, leftover Moose’s Tooth pizza for lunch. 

Even though we live in a neighborhood where a dozen or so deer frequent our yard, we were incredibly amused by the moose signs warning of high moose traffic areas near the highway. 

Our next pit stop was Talkeetna. Talkeetna was not initially in our plans, but after seeing a sign for the Denali Brewing Company I pulled a fast U-turn in the Chevy Sonic and veered us 10 miles or so off course. Talkeetna is a small town with recreational activities that include camping, fishing, rafting, flight-seeing planes, and drinking. It was also full of touristy shops and many stores selling local artists’ wares. We picked up some unique kitchen utensils, handmade from Alaskan birch, and popped in Twister Creek Restaurant for a quick tasting of Denali Brewing Company beer before we were back on the road.

The scenic overlooks ramped up in excitement as we continued the drive to Denali. Each new turn-off promised a glimpse of the mountain ranges of Denali National Park, including, gasp, Mt. McKinley aka Denal aka “The High One.”  After some initial peak identity chart reading confusion we celebrated thinking we were part of the 30% club of visitors that get to actually see the 20,237-foot-high peak. Instead, we were quickly put in place by a nearby overzealous tourist. 

Back to the Sonic!

True to form, we arrived at our cabin with minutes to spare. The views from our cabin were spectacular. We spent the evening grilling overpriced hot dogs and smores before taking a 3 mile walk to a nearby lake. While on the 10 PM walk (it looked like it was 3 PM so we felt obligated to continue) we passed many cool sights as well as a little golf course and putt-putt (ideas for next time). 

This was the sky at 9 PM. 

Day six was arguably our favorite day of the trip and featured our bus ride and subsequent hiking in Denali National Park. 

The bus rides in Denali feature tourists being packed onto buses that would be more recognizable in a movie from the 1960’s. 

The buses then travel along the 92 miles of dirt on the Denali Park Road. We met a few people that had taken this ride before and they were less than thrilled about the park, complaining that it was just bouncing on a bus for a day and seeing some microscopic dall sheep. This made us a little nervous, but we didn’t just travel to Denali National Park to take a picture next to the sign. 

The warnings we were given quickly flashed in our minds as we boarded the 7:00 AM bus and were met with a long orientation by a very intense bus driver. The intensity was more of the defacto caffeine for our day though as we found many of the rules refreshing when compared with other national parks. Denali is serious about it wilderness and keeping the animals wild, making the experience almost like a reverse zoo. The bus rules include:

-speak softly enough to be able to hear the driver
-if you see an animal, yell “STOP” and call out the direction based on hands of a clock
-once we stop for an animal, stop talking, quickly roll down the windows, and quietly take pictures while being sure to let other members of the bus get theirs as well
-never put hands, cameras, or anything, outside of the windows

The importance of all this is to not desensitize the animals to human contact. They should view the buses as another part of the park, not a vehicle containing people. 

We ended up loving our bus driver, because she kept everyone in check and was a fantastic animal spotter if you followed her rules.  Some of the animals we saw through the trip included - 

Pika-The California couple next to us sarcastically called out this little guy 15 minutes into the trip. “Don’t look now but there’s some wildlife right behind us.”

Moose-Walking across a hillside. 

Grizzlies-Mostly sleeping, but some walking with cubs.

Caribou-Walking and also approaching the bus. Silence, stillness, and all appendages inside the bus played a huge role in getting this guy to approach. 

Golden Eagle-A token to the spotting skills of our driver

Porcupine-diving out of sight

Dall Sheep-Somehow chilling on crazy-steep, incredibly high ledges

We joined the Mt. Denali 30% club and saw the peak! After several hours of riding and great sightseeing, Sam and I decided to try our luck at our own hike. Our driver really played up the intensity and excitement of “watching the bus drive away,” leaving you alone with wilderness. We were eager to try, but at the same time a tad nervous because we had just gotten off of a bus where we were watched other hikers, grizzlies, moose, everything all moving around in the same area. 

Despite this, we set off on a trek towards a riverbed that we spotted that seemed to be about a mile away through some very low brush. 

After getting yelled at by a prairie-dog like animal, we quickly realized that the river bed was much….muuuuchh further than a mile and the “brush” was also more of a jungle. We continued on a little further being sure to sing songs to alert any bears to our presence, but quickly turned around after hearing a rustling in the brush and Sam seeing something that was not us. 

We made it back to a nearby ranger station unscathed except for pumping adrenaline and hopped on a bus to the next destination called Wonder Lake. Wonder Lake turned out to be a mosquito breeding pool lake, so not as exciting as expected. We were lucky to get back on a bus with our original driver and saw this great moose on our trip back. 

On the bus ride back towards the entrance of Denali, we decided to try our luck once more on a hike. This time we picked the Toklat river, giving us a solid view in all directions of any impending bears. It was a surreal experience as we walked along the river finding very fresh animal footprints. 

It was also surreal because we returned to the bus stop to find the ranger station closed and no one there. Even after reading the schedule, we were convinced we missed the last bus. On one hand, it was very peaceful, on the other we were concocting survival scenarios of spending the night locked in a bathroom at the stop. After waiting about 40 minutes or so, a bus pulled up and played a cruel joke with a “Bus Full” sign. 

At this point we were tired and ready to face the drive back. Its a good thing too, because our new driver was more concerned with pointing out such exotic sights as:
-hikers walking
-hikers running
-a pond that usually has “this one duck”
-a neck pain creating stop to see the SQUIRREL
-and a ptarmigan (which made it worth while)

All in all, Denali was incredible. It was a day of fantastic sights and experiences during which we had to keep pinching ourselves to remember that it was real. 

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