Denali, The Great One
As we rounded the bend into Talkeetna on our train ride from Anchorage, we saw this, putting us in the rare 30% of travelers who come to see Denali and actually do. Why is it so unusual to see the mountain? Denali, at 20,320 feet above sea level, is a cloud magnet. Like a boulder in a stream, the air currents and moisture swirl and dance around the mountain creating its own personal weather system. The local Athabascan tribe did not call it The Great One for nothing.
Denali or Mount McKinley? It is Denali, once again. President Obama officially restored its original Athabascan name on a visit here in 2015. Seems only right. About 10,000 years after the Athabascans named it, an American gold miner started calling it Mount McKinley in order to get the attention of presidential candidate William McKinley whose political campaign endorsed the gold standard as the basis of our economy. Even though he won the election, McKinley had no claim to the highest peak in North America. The Athabascans, who had revered it for millennia, did. Welcome back, Denali!
We had beautiful weather for our trip from Anchorage to Talkeetna aboard the Alaska Railroad. The Railroad has an interesting history. In 1912, the US government was looking for a reliable, all-weather mode of transportation from the port of Seward to Fairbanks, in Alaska’s interior–a replacement for the arduous dog-sled routes. Today’s 500 miles of track was pieced together from earlier, independent railroad ventures that were financially unsuccessful.
In 1985, the state of Alaska bought the railroad from the US government, making substantial improvements and updates to a tired network. The Alaska Railroad is unique in the US in that it carries both passengers and freight. It connects to the Lower 48 and Canada not by land but by rail barge, from Whittier on the south coast to either Seattle or Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
eagle on the prowl
In addition to the usual crew aboard the train, the Railroad provides a tour guide who points out interesting sights and facts along the way and is always on the lookout for wildlife. Great trip!
trumpeter swans summering in Alaska
view of Anchorage from Flattop Mountain
Great views of Anchorage and the Knik Arm from Flattop Mountain today. Okay, the weather wasn’t the best, but it was typical for Alaska. I would gladly take a bad-weather day today in trade for the gorgeous day we had on our bike ride two days ago. You can’t pick the weather, but you can check the forecast and plan accordingly!
Flattop Mountain, on the right–a strenuous hike with elevation gains we weren’t prepared to make
I’ve developed a fondness for the Iditarod Trail since learning more about it in Seward. Prior to coming to Alaska, I thought the Iditarod was a sled dog race invented in the 1970s as a way to combat cabin fever. It’s just the kind of extreme winter sport an Alaskan would dream up. I find the history of the trail fascinating, especially its beginning as a discontinuous series of trails used by native tribes for everyday hunting and passage through the mountains, reminding me that Alaska’s 150-year-old American history pales in comparison to the history of its indigenous people which spans tens of thousands of years. These tribal trails were stitched together in the early 20th century by mushers who needed a continuous path to carry mail by sled from the ice-free harbor in Seward to the frozen gold mine camps of central Alaska.
You may have heard of Balto, the legendary sled dog who led the final leg of a critical run from Nenana to Nome. A deadly diphtheria epidemic had broken out in Nome in January 1925. The vaccine was transported by train from Seattle to Nenana, but the only way to get it to Nome was by sled. It took more than 20 mushers running relay almost 700 miles in a blizzard to deliver the goods. Balto kept the sled moving in near whiteout conditions. His handler, Gunnar Kaasen, said that at times he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.
Today we were in Eagle River hiking part of the Crow Pass Trail, the section of the Iditarod Trail that runs through the Chugach Forest roughly from Mount Alyeska (Girdwood area) northward past Anchorage. I could imagine mushers making their way on the very trail we walked.
Crow Pass Trail, part of the Historic Iditarod Trail
There are so many varieties of mushrooms in this part of the Chugach Forest. We couldn’t get over the different colors, shapes, and sizes.
The nature trail we came here intending to hike has been closed for several weeks to allow the bears in the area to feast on salmon in the river. Salmon have been running in rivers and streams everywhere we’ve traveled in the last month, but they won’t be around much longer. Bears, although mostly herbivorous, need this opportunity to eat their fill of the food that will sustain them through their winter semi-hibernation.
But do they really need half the park to themselves? It makes me wonder what they are really up to and why we aren’t allowed to join them. I’m thinking they’re having one last wingding for the summer. Bearfest? I don’t know, but I was tempted to crash it. I think I heard live music.
the distinguished Captain James Cook
It was nice to see that the city of Anchorage has honored one of history’s most intelligent, courageous, and accomplished explorers. The first European to explore Alaska (searching for the elusive Northwest Passage between Europe and Asia), Cook not only accurately defined the coastline of Alaska, but cleaned up the map of the entire Pacific Ocean. And he found a cure for scurvy, saving the lives of countless sailors. He was a hero in his own time and was granted diplomatic immunity on the seas during wartime by all three adversaries: England, France, and the brand new United States of America.
I have read that Cook had only one failing, and that was his short temper. In February 1779, on his third and final voyage to the Pacific, he lost his temper and fired into a crowd of angry natives on the Island of Hawaii. Natives clubbed him and held him under the surf until he drowned. He was only 51 years old and, no doubt, had much more to contribute to the world.
To commemorate one of the world’s greatest navigators, the 150-mile stretch of water from Anchorage to the Pacific Ocean was named for him–Cook Inlet.
riding the Coastal Trail on a bicycle built for two
We’re back in Anchorage after our three-week explore of the Kenai Peninsula. It was tempting to take a day off our first, full day here–we had a busy week in Girdwood–but I checked the weather forecast, and our first day was going to be the best weather-day of the week. So we hit the trail, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a brilliant 11-mile trail along the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet. We chose to bike it, rather than hoof it, and opted for a tandem bike. It worked very well. I rode in the back, which meant I didn’t have to steer or shift gears while I navigated us through all the twists, turns, tunnels and train tracks on the trail. But I still provided power, especially on the hills. (Those spinning classes really paid off!) We covered a total of 20 miles–the trail and then some–and an elevation gain of 420 feet. Not bad for a day’s ride!
the Alaska Range across the Knik Arm
“I’ll be right with you. Just have to find my glasses.”
He looks like he’s made out of beads.
Finally! A moose in the wild, in Kincaid Park.
Lunch at the Lakefront Hotel, adjacent to the world’s busiest seaplane base, Lake Hood.
busy airport whether taking off from land or sea
Bikes and cars share the road with aircraft.
the snowcat bridge at Winner Creek
The trail from the Alyeska Hotel up to Winner Creek is rated easy to moderate, but there were enough ups and downs that we regretted not bringing our hiking sticks. Marcus broke his leg earlier this year, and he’s been trying to take it easy, especially with the downhills. But we took our time and were rewarded with this beautiful, mini-gorge where the creek is propelled between two rock walls. You can stand on a bridge over the cascading, blue water and watch it spin and dance over and around boulders on its way downstream. This pint-sized little gorge is so picture-perfect you want to scoop it up and put it in your pocket.
Just beyond the gorge is a hand tram that hikers can use to pull themselves across the creek. There’s nothing on the opposite bank except the tram terminus. The trail ends at the tram, so traversing the creek is only for the thrill of dangling above it. The tram hangs from a steel cable 100 feet above the creek. The height itself was not my issue; it was the open grate floor that allows you to see the creek rushing by below that kept me from taking the plunge, so to speak. But it was fun watching others do it.
wood bison at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
The global population of wood bison, a bigger cousin of the plains bison we know in the Lower 48 and the largest land mammal in North America, was wiped out in the 19th century–or so naturalists thought until they discovered a small herd in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 1957. In 2003 conservationists were able to isolate 13 disease-free bison from the herd and ship them to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), which we visited today, with the intent of bringing the animal back to one of its native habitats. In 2005 wood bison calves were born at the Center, the first in Alaska in over 100 years, and by 2015 a herd of 130 was released from the Center into its indigenous grazing ground in the Yukon River area, some 300 miles west of Anchorage. That spring 15 calves were born in the Alaskan wild. The herd will continue to be monitored, but so far they are thriving.
Muskoxen, another species hunted to extinction in Alaska, were also restored to the their natural habitats in northern Alaska. Thirty-four muskoxen were shipped to Fairbanks from Greenland in 1930, and later released into the wild. Today there are over 5000 wild muskoxen in Alaska, thanks to conservation efforts.
Besides supporting the repopulation of native Alaskan species, the AWCC serves as an orphanage and hospital to animals that are abandoned or injured and cannot be released back into the wild. What a remarkable organization!
Adonis, an eagle whose left wing had to be amputated after a gunshot wound
Kobuk, a bear cub rescued last year after losing his mother. He’s eating a popsicle: fireweed (wildflower), dog food, and blood. Yum!
Reindeer are not indigenous to Alaska. They were brought over from Siberia in the 19th century to provide Inuits with a winter source of food.
wolf on the roof of his shelter
Finally got to see a moose, although not quite in the wild. Isn’t he handsome?