We are home and planning our next adventure because the compass never stops spinning. Check out my Future Adventures tab to see some of the possibilities! I’d love your feedback and ideas.
Last February I was researching a place to stay inside Denali National Park. I had read that the best place to see wildlife is as deep into the interior as visitors can go. There is only one road into the park, and it’s 92 miles long. The first 15 miles is open to car traffic, but the next 77 is open only to the buses that ferry almost 600,000 visitors a year in and out. With stops for wildlife viewing and other necessities, these buses don’t average much more than 10 mph on a bumpy, gravel, single-track road. I started thinking: 92 miles at 10 mph—the drive could take nine hours in one direction! I planned on visiting the park every day for four days, and I had no intention of living on a bus. We were going to have to stay in the park.
There are only three places to stay inside the park, and one involves cabins without plumbing. Scratch that—an outhouse down a dark path on a cold, windy night was not in my plans either. We chose the North Face Lodge, the camp’s sister lodge just down the hill. I read something about guided hikes on the website. Not sure where, when, or how that would work, but if it didn’t suit our needs, we could always do our own thing.
We discovered that the lodge had our entire four-day adventure planned down to the personalized napkin pins. We were met at the park entrance, assigned to a bus, relieved of our luggage, and welcomed aboard—along with 30-some other people. The 17 rooms at the lodge would be occupied for four days by the same group of people. Everyone arrives on the same day and leaves on the same day. We were greeted at the lodge by two energetic, young hosts who, over the course of our four-day visit, told us where we needed to be next, and what we had the option of doing there. They were supported by a whole passel of staff who rotated through various tasks: naturalists, guides, bus and van drivers, cooks, servers, gardeners, dishwashers, housekeepers, and more. The lichen expert may be your bus driver/hiking guide one day, and the next morning she’s serving you stuffed French toast. They were an incredible team, so enthusiastic about spending their summer in the great outdoors.
We were delighted to be part of this little family. We ate our meals together, and at each meal we were seated with someone we hadn’t had a chance to talk to yet. Each day after breakfast we chose our own level of adventure: strenuous, moderate, or foray. Or we could choose to stay at the lodge and hike their nature trails, bike, canoe, or just sit by the fire and read. Selecting our own tempo provided a different way of mixing us up. After finishing a moderate hike on the tundra the first day, we were a bit envious of the forayers who did less walking and more riding around in vans to carefully selected locations where large mammals were known to hang out. So the second day we chose to foray, and we had an opportunity not only to see wildlife, but also to get to know a different group of people. Normally I like to call the shots about what we do and when we do it, but this was so well orchestrated and so congenial that I felt a bit sentimental on the day we departed. What a marvelous group of people—both guests and staff—and what an enjoyable way to share a common passion! I’m going to miss them. Sometimes it’s fortuitous not to know what you’re getting into.
We had an hour or so to kill before catching our bus into Denali National Park, so we headed over to the park’s kennels to check out the dogs. Denali is the only park in the US National Park Service to employ sled dogs.
Before Harry Karstens became the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park in 1921, he was a mail musher—delivering mail via dog sled as far north as Fairbanks, south to Valdez, and west to Kantishna, now the terminus of the 92-mile road that traverses the park. Harry was chosen for the job because he knew the terrain and how to deal with the elements. And he recognized that he couldn’t protect over two million acres in winter without sled dogs. He hired rangers and assigned each an area of the park to patrol for poachers who were killing off the wildlife. Each ranger was given a sled and seven dogs from the park’s kennels, developed by Karstens himself.
The Denali National Park kennels are still going strong. Today poaching is not such a problem, but the park was tripled in size in 1980 and dogs are a necessity to cover all that acreage in winter. Currently there are 35 Bark Rangers, all Alaskan huskies. Each year a new litter is added to the crew and the most senior dogs are retired and put up for adoption.
These dogs love to run and live to work. They were marvelous to watch as they pulled a wheeled sled around a gravel track for our enjoyment—and theirs! The dogs get so excited about being put to work that their human handlers have to “put them in two-wheel drive” to hitch them to the sled. They say that if they let the dogs approach on all fours, their enthusiasm could cause injury. The dogs are strong, especially around the neck and shoulders, and they have been trained from their puppy days to “hop to it” on their back legs. It’s the most natural thing in the world to them.
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.
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!
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.
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.
We stopped in Old Town Bandon for lunch and came across this exhibit by Washed Ashore. Artists create sculptures out of trash washed up on the beach and collected by volunteers. The artists are very creative in how they choose to use the found materials, and it’s fun to examine each sculpture up close to see what they’re made of, but there’s also a message here. I can’t help but think of all the garbage that’s not collected and reused. Check them out at http://washedashore.org
I had to visit Ashland, not only because it is an adorable little town smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, but also because my sister went to college here 50 years ago. I remember going to Ashland with my parents to drop her off. We were about to move to Bangkok, and it was sad to leave her behind. How hard that must have been for her to leave home for the first time with her family so far away. At least she had friends from high school with her in this beautiful town.
Here we are in cute little J’ville. The town is so perfect we felt like we were on a movie set. Lots of cute shops, restaurants, galleries, wine-tasting venues, and even an impressive Halloween-themed show by the local art league. It was fun wandering around pretending like we lived here.
We hesitated to spend the $15 per person admission price for this museum just south of Bend. $15 is not much for a quality museum, but you never know how good a local museum is going in. (I’ve long ago given up trusting online ratings.) But there was this ominous note on my typed travel itinerary: “Do it!” In red font. With the exclamation point. Can’t remember what motivated me to add that, but you can’t argue with that kind of message, so we went. And it was worth every penny.
Here’s what we liked.
Outstanding exhibit on the history of Oregon’s High Desert, including the portion of the Oregon Trail that ran through it. This is where the oxen and mules started to die from exhaustion and lack of food and water. Families who brought more than one wagon had to consolidate their belongings into one. Out went the cast iron stoves, furniture that had been in the family for generations, and other large items they had hauled for thousands of miles. Some families had to dispense with even functional, daily items like pots and pans and clothing. The High Desert was where the Oregon Dream began to fall apart for many.
Rescued animal presentations. Tumbleweed, the porcupine, was happy to share his lunch hour with us, eschewing the non-seasonal apple to chew on the more autumnal choices of pumpkin and parsnip. Does he know something we don’t know?
The river otters were absolutely delightful! They began a dizzying game of Follow-the-Leader throughout their newly constructed habitat—under the water, into their den, out the back exit to their island, back into the water, rolling onto their backs, diving underwater, then heads back up to see if the wildlife presenter was ready to dispense with some of the smelt treats she had for them.
Roaming through the 135-acre property, we came across several High Desert habitats: desert (of course), cultivated farm, stream, pond, forest—each habitat diverse and beautiful in its own way.
Also loved the exhibit on prehistoric buzzsaw sharks (What???) Never heard of these guys before. Artistic renderings of these ancient fish, based on fossils of their buzzsaw-shaped jaws found in Idaho, Australia, and China, are incredible. The exhibit on the WPA art projects—architecture, paintings, sculpture, literature, and theater—was fascinating as well, especially to consider how deeply the people of Oregon were affected not only by the training and employment of artisans during the Depression, but also by the enjoyment derived from their works.
Dual sculptures, Blanket Stories, by artist Marie Watt emphasizes the importance of storytelling in past and current American cultures. First she stacked blankets donated by Oregon residents in a column almost reaching the ceiling, each with its own story written on a tag attached to the blanket. Fascinating to read about the people who created them or the mysterious circumstances by which they came to be in the possession of the donors. Then she carved a rendering of her blanket column in pine, reminiscent of a Native American talking stick used in council meetings.
Overall, a very rewarding experience. Do it!
You’ve got to love a town named Bend. There’s just something about the name that sounds so, well, flexible. Everyone we’ve talked to who has been here says they love it. We had high expectations, and were not disappointed. Here’s a slideshow that attempts to show why.