North Face Lodge

at the park entrance

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.

a warm welcome at North Face Lodge

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.

a fireside chat before breakfast

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.

personalized napkin pins defined our social groupings

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.

Talkeetna

Main Street, Talkeetna

Talkeetna lies between Anchorage and Denali National Park at the confluence of three rivers: the Susitna, the Talkeetna, and the Chulitna. Its name means “where the rivers join” in the native Athabascan language. At one time it was an important camp for the Athabascan tribes who congregated here in summer to catch and dry fish for the long Alaskan winter. “Na,” we found out today, means “river,” which is why we see it in so many Athabascan geographical names. Rivers were a source of life.

The town had a brief stint as a mining camp at the beginning of the 20th century, but the real boon—and one of the primary reasons it’s on the tourist map today—was the railroad. As with so many railroad construction camps that popped up along the tracks, Talkeetna grew from camp to village when railroad workers, drawn to the beauty of the place, chose to stay and plant roots. There are now about a thousand year-round residents. The population swells to around 3000 in summer.

Denali with the mighty Susitna River in the foreground

It’s easy to understand why people who come to visit choose to stay. The view of the Alaska Range on a clear day is breathtaking. And then there’s The Great One, Denali, that calls to professional climbers all over the world. The National Park Service ranger station in Talkeetna is the first hurdle potential climbers have to clear on their journey. Rangers ensure they are adequately prepared for what they are about to encounter. And once prepared, Talkeetna is where they hang out until the weather clears enough for them to be flown to the first base camp, usually on Kahiltna Glacier at 7200 feet. The ascent and descent typically take around three weeks. This year, in the short climbing season from April to July, 1189 people went up the mountain—and 1189 returned. Only 495 successfully reached the summit.

Obviously, we aren’t planning to climb the mountain. We stopped off on our way to Denali to see the cute little town that some claim was the inspiration for the 1990s television show, Northern Exposure.

the only stop sign in town

 

cute shop!

 

This shop sold nothing but salmon-oriented art. Beautiful stained glass!

 

Cute li’l cabin–love the moss growing on the roof!

 

Our li’l cabin, the historic Black John’s cabin built in 1933 by a miner/trapper.

I don’t recognize fictitious Cicily, Alaska, in Talkeetna, but we did get to stay in our very own little log cabin.

Cozy!

Bearfest?

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.

Bearfest?

Winner Creek

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.

adorable gorge!

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.