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.
There was a dusting of snow on the Talkeetna Mountains between Denali and Talkeetna, south of the park, that wasn’t here just five days ago when we made our train ride north. Now we are southbound, on our return to Anchorage, to begin our journey home.
Winter is coming and it’s time for these two travelers to head where it’s warm. Hard to believe that it’s still summer in the Lower 48. Looking forward to some warm weather in Portland, Oregon.
Not to be outdone by the wildlife and mountains, the clouds have their day. These lenticular clouds were everywhere today.
Lenticular, or lens-shaped clouds, are formed by air moving over the surface of the Earth that encounters obstructions, like, say, mountains—big mountains. The air swirls around the obstacle and, under the right conditions of moisture, temperature, and dew point, can form these crazy saucer shapes that some people mistake for UFOs.
We came to see the wildlife, the kind that moves, but we never anticipated the wild beauty of these mountains. Trees, rock, snow, glaciers—it’s awe-inspiring! And if you time it just right, you might even catch a reflection off of a calm lake on a clear day.
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!
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.
The drive in to Denali National Park started as a typically overcast Alaskan day. The rain drizzled down the bus windows as we made our way from the park’s entrance into the interior. But the rain didn’t dampen our spirits. Our eyes were glued to the landscape, scanning for anything that moved. This park is the most likely place to see Alaskan wildlife in its natural habitat, the reason 30-some strangers had boarded a bus to spend four days together in the wilderness. “It’s snowing!” the bus driver announced. We readjusted our focus and discovered that, indeed, those raindrops had turned into fat, icy snowflakes. The first of September and the first snow of the season on the park road (approximately 2000 feet above sea level).
As the skies cleared through the afternoon, we could see a thin dusting of snow–termination dust, they call it–on the Alaska Range foothills. The powder on the donut, so to speak. Some day soon these hills, and the tundra below them, will be a white wonderland.
By the time we stopped for our picnic dinner, around 4:00, the sun was shining so brilliantly we had to don hats and sunglasses and remove layers of jacket. We gazed across the east fork of the Toklat River at the frosted foothills, a stunning backdrop against the reddish glow of the tundra. We had been so intent on finding wildlife that we neglected to notice the beauty around us. Mother Nature had to wake us up a bit. I’m sure she had a good laugh over that one.
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!