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.
I stand corrected regarding an earlier statement I made that reindeer are not indigenous to Alaska, but had been brought here from Siberia by fur traders in the 19th century. According to one of our naturalists, reindeer and caribou are one and the same animal, and caribou are definitely indigenous to Alaska. In Europe and Asia, the animal is called a reindeer. In North America it is called a caribou. Alaskans use the term “reindeer” to refer to a “domesticated” caribou, a caribou that is kept in a herd for the purpose of meat harvesting, and the domesticated variety probably did originate in Siberia.
It was James Michener’s book, Alaska, that confused me. He described the fur traders purchasing reindeer in Siberia to bring back for the Inuits in northern Alaska. These natives of the Arctic coast couldn’t always get out to hunt in winter. If their Fall hunt wasn’t sufficient to sustain them over winter, they faced starvation. Domesticated caribou would provide a reliable supply of meat during the winter. Perhaps the Alaskan wild caribou could not or would not be herded, but the domesticated variety from Siberia, bred in a herd, could be.
The Dall sheep’s primary defense from predators is to hang out at high altitudes on inclines too steep for their predators to climb. Their teensy feet help them balance on impossibly narrow ledges.
Denali grizzlies are significantly smaller than the coastal variety. They don’t have access to salmon and other fish and are essentially herbivores. At this time of year they are eating every berry they can find, some 20,000 calories a day. Mama Bear may have to get up in the middle of her winter’s nap to forage for food, if she’s got new, or even yearling, cubs to nurse.
In the video below, Mama Bear’s pace never changes as her young cubs (born in the Spring) frolic around her. They stopped to sniff and eat a few berries, wrestled with each other a bit, then ran to catch up, never letting her out of their sight.
These four beavers were busy storing willows in their cache for consumption during the long winter. They construct underwater accesses to their lodge (the mound of sticks in the foreground) and cache because the surface of the pond will be frozen over.
We heard them calling before we could see them, two large flocks of sandhill cranes preparing to head south. They will follow the Alaska Range southwest until they come to a low pass where they will wait for air currents strong enough to lift them up and over the mountains. These two flocks merged and separated, merged and separated, and finally merged as one before heading toward the mountains.
We saw hundreds of sandhill cranes preparing to migrate. Our guides say that the crane’s migration is their cue to make their own preparations to head south. Safe travels everyone! We’ll see you cranes this winter in Florida!
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.
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.
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.
I don’t recognize fictitious Cicily, Alaska, in Talkeetna, but we did get to stay in our very own little log cabin.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I didn’t know exactly what Cape Perpetua had to offer, but I was drawn by the name and the fact that it is a designated “scenic area.” In Oregon they take their scenics seriously. They have a lot to choose from. Only the best are granted the title.
No one seems to be willing to officially declare how the Cape got its name, but they will tell you that Captain James Cook was the first to reference it by that name in his ship’s log on March 7, 1778, St. Perpetua’s Day. That sounds pretty conclusive to me.
The Cape offered much more than I expected. The headland itself, the highest point on the Oregon coast at 803 feet above sea level, offers unique views of the coast afforded only by altitude. Wow!
And then we ambled across the highway to take a look at something called Devils Churn, a US Forest Service property that hadn’t even registered as a blip on my scenery radar. Wow, again! This skinny little inlet that the ocean eroded into the coastal basalt wreaks havoc with the waves. I could watch them all day, entering the inlet and colliding with previous waves that are retreating after slamming against the back wall of the inlet. When the tide is high, or the frequency and period of the waves are such that they collide with excessive force, water can project well into the air. All along this stretch of coast signs warn of “sneaker waves.” Steps allow you access to the water’s edge, but proceed at your own risk!
Here’s a video that Marcus made of Devils Churn. It’s low tide, but you get the idea.
There’s a nifty little coastal hike through the windswept Siuslaw Forest to Thor’s Well and Spouting Horn. Both are rocks undermined by the ocean to create little caverns. Eventually the ceiling of the cavern erodes so thin it caves in, which is how Devils Churn began. Spouting Horn is off of an inlet, rather than directly on the ocean, so it takes a pretty big wave at high tide to blow a spout through its hole. It was almost low tide when we were there, so we didn’t see any spouts, but we did hear a phenomenal thunderclap, like a huge bass drum, as the surf filled the cavern each time.
Thor’s Well (the name alone is intriguing) sits right on the edge of the ocean and has a wider aperture in the ceiling of its cavern, around 15 feet in diameter. You can walk out onto the rock and peer into it, if you dare. When a large wave comes in, it fills the well from below and flows up over the rim. The water pools on the rock around the well, and then drains back into the hole so rapidly when the surf retreats that it creates the effect of being sucked down into a very deep shaft. Magnificent!
Lots of sunshine and fascinating wildlife here today. Outstanding hike!