Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Road to Wander, Trip to Denali and Talkeetna

Well lucky little me, another adventure under my wing's or belt whichever you may prefer. .. I was very fortunate to be able to secure a couple of extra days off and head up to Denali National Park and visit my old haunts from summer 04. From Seward I hopped on the Park Connection Bus which for our staff is free a great benefit for sure. The trip is long, almost 8 hours with an intermediate stop in Anchorage to change to a different coach. In Anchorage they gave us a free pass to the Anchorage Museum which has a great Native Alaskan Exhibit which I thoroughly enjoyed. We had about an hour and a half in Anchorage so I was also able to grab a bite to 3:00 we all hopped back on the bus and continued to Denali with one more stop in Talkeetna which is a true Alaskan town. The town was the inspiration for the former television show, Northern Exposure where we only had a brief stop to drop some people off and pick up a couple others.. not to worry I would be spending one night here on the way back. The ride up was beautiful, although it really didn't show promising signs of any sunshine until we were almost to Denali. The lodge in Talkeetna has probably the best view of Mt. McKinley from it's deck on a clear day and this wasn't one of those days. As we neared Denali the sky began to brake and some blue was peering through. We arrived in Denali around 8:30 and I had to wait until 9:30 for my shuttle to the Denali Morning Hostel where I was going to be staying for the next two nights. The row of gift shops and Restaurants on what is affectionately called "Glitter Gulch" looked pretty much the same that I remembered from my summer season of working in the park in 2004. Some new markets had popped up and the Princess Hotel added a new section, other than that it was still pretty much a made up town that draws thousands of tourists every year. I stopped in the market to pick up a few goodies for the next couple of days and then the Shuttle arrived around 9:30. The hostel is 13 miles south of the park on the Nenana River, 6 miles south of where I used to work at McKinley Village. It was rather charming, with a large Octagon that housed the community kitchen, bathrooms and some private rooms upstairs. I was going to be staying in one of their walled tents so I could have my own private space. I felt as though I was in the movie Mash, old army type cots which big old sleeping bags, which I was thankful for to keep me warm as the nights were quite chilly. The setting was beautiful right on the river and I imagined a Big Moose hanging out on the river at night which did not happen. Despite how tired I was, I was not able to sleep at all that night... I managed to squeak in two hours or so of shut eye. Even with the lack of sleep, I awoke early so I could get the Hostel's first shuttle out so I could go out into the park. I decided on a 8:00 am. shuttle to Eielson where the Visitor Center out there has been completely revamped. Eielson has an amazing view of Denali on a clear day, and we were extremely lucky as the sky cleared that morning and we had the mountain out early on. I was the first one to spot it and we had a good view on many stops. Great start for a fabulous day. Our first animal viewing were 3 Bears fairly high up on a hillside. Even though they were high we could still see them with our naked eye. What was really amazing is that someone thought they had spotted another bear a little further over, and it turned out to be a Wolf. I was very excited about that.... It was a solitary Wolf and a beautiful light Gray in color. ... too far away for any kind of decent photo, yet I was able to observe the Wolf well with my binoculars. Mind you we were around mile 30 at that point, so the morning held lots of promise. A little further up we spotted several Dall Sheep Ewes pretty high up on the mountain, I attempted a photo which came out blurry, yet you can still tell what they were. We also saw a Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska's State Bird, Four Golden Eagles, A Pika a member of the Rabbit family hanging out on a lower cliff side, a Red Fox, a young Bull Moose, and then the most exciting was when we were past Polychrome a few miles and noticed a Bear very close to the road...another shuttle had also stopped, and we both just stayed quiet and still. The Bear which turned out to be a Mama and a yearling cub walked literally next to our bus, it was pretty awesome seeing her beautiful coat and face so close. The Grizzlies in Denali are known as Toklat Grizzlies and are very light in color. They are really quite blond and some only way 300-400 pounds. Considerably smaller than their more southerly Brown Bear cousins who are twice the size. The size difference is due largely to the difference in diets. The Denali grizzlies feed on roots, shrubs, ground squirrels and early on young moose and caribou calves. Although Caribous are usually too fast for them to catch up with. Their cousins due south of them feed on Salmon so this is why they are so much larger in size. The day was pretty spectacular as we saw all the biggies of the larger animals who inhabit the park. We also saw some of the smaller ones who are equally important to the health of the ecosystem in Denali. I was pretty tired by the end of the day with no sleep, however I had made plans with a friend who is working in the park this summer to connect,so I had a late in the day latte which helped me stay awake a bit longer. In any case it was awesome and a very lucky day, considering I was only going to be getting out in the park that one day. That night after a hearty soup dinner I zonked out and slept the entire night.

The next morning I awoke again early as I was going to be catching the noon train to Talkeetna and wanted to visit the new visitor center that was completed in 06 after I left the park. It worked out well, since the visitor center is located next to the train station. The new Visitor Center is great. It is constructed out of all recycled materials inside and out which I thought was pretty amazing. The movie they showed was breathtaking and it really brought tears to my eyes because it was so beautifully crafted. After spending time in the visitor center I grabbed breakfast and spent time looking around the Alaska Geographic Bookstore which had all kinds of cool things Fun way to pass the morning.

My train ride to Talkeetna was also fun. I had ridden the Alaska Railroad when I worked in the park summer 2004, yet only the portion between Fairbanks and Denali. The ride between Talkeetna and Denali had some beautiful scenery following the Nenana River and the Talkeetna Mountains. We also went over Hurricane Gulch which was a huge gorge that was carved out by glaciers with a massive river flowing downwards. It was spectacular. No view of the mountain though as it wasn't quite clear enough. The ride to Talkeetna took four hours so this trip I had my share of buses and trains. Alot of time traveling, yet it was a great way to see things. We arrived in Talkeetna just before five... the shuttle to the Alaskan Talkeetna Lodge was waiting when I arrived. The native corporation that owns the company I work for, also owns this lodge so I received a substantial discount. The lodge is barely 10 years old and really gorgeous.. On a clear day they have the best view of Mt.McKinley. I checked in and got my things settled in my room and then went up to catch the next shuttle into the downtown. Talkeetna was the inspiration for the television show Northern Exposure which was one of my favorite Television shows so I was excited to check it out. The town only has a couple of hundred year round residents, yet in the summer it booms with all sorts of activity vendors, from flight seeing and glacier landings, to river rafting and jet boating. They are are all over the town, along with numerous Moose sculptures, and quaint shops. I ate at a famous grill which has the worlds largest Hamburger for the biggest state.. what a hoot. the thing was piled high, and I hope the people who are them..shared them.. I spent quite a bit of time wandering around the town as it was really quite cute. I enjoyed it. After my little sojourn around I went back to the lodge, watched some television as i do not have one and passed out... lots of activity in a couple of short days... yet very fun days...

This morning I awoke and caught the Park Connection back to Anchorage and then home to Seward. I am beat to say the least, yet it was an action packed and great experience once again.

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