A Train Ride, White Water Rafting and a 12-Hour Bus Trip to the Depths of Denali National Park

Published: September 8th 2018
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As I was planning the Alaska trip, I wanted to get out of Anchorage AK on Sunday evening so I didn’t have to deal with the Anchorage rush hour on Monday, August 13, 2018 so I made a reservation at Best Western Lake Lucille Inn in Wasilla AK, less than 50 miles away. Initially, I had discovered a couple of attractions of interest in Wasilla but then happened upon a really cool attraction that originates in Talkeetna AK, right on our glide path. After breakfast at the Lake Lucille Inn, we completed some housekeeping errands in Wasilla under threatening skies that produced some sprinkles from time to time and began our 1 ½-hour drive to Talkeetna, home of the Hurricane Turn Train. What I had read about the attraction, part of the Alaska Railroad, led me to believe Hurricane was an “off-the-grid” community (there is a scheduled one-hour stop at Hurricane where Marilyn and I planned to get a light lunch) that is serviced by the Hurricane Turn Train and that Hurricane is the terminus of a spur line off the main rail line connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks AK. The Hurricane Turn Train does operate as a flag stop service, allowing passengers to hop on and off as they please, but it does not operate on a spur line AND Hurricane is not a town but a gorge traversed by the Hurricane Gulch Bridge.

The Hurricane Gulch Bridge is a steel arch railroad bridge that is both the longest bridge (918 feet long) and the tallest bridge (296 feet above Hurricane Creek) on the entire Alaska Railroad. It was the most difficult and, at $1.2 million, was the most expensive bridge project on the entire railroad as well. For eight years, it was the tallest bridge in the US. The American Bridge Company began construction of the bridge in early 1921 by using an aerial tram to ferry trusses across the gulch so construction could occur simultaneously from both sides of Hurricane Gulch. Here is the craziness. The first steel was erected in June 1921, and the first passenger train crossed the bridge on August 15 OF THE SAME YEAR! Here’s a picture from Smithsonian Magazine of a train as it crosses Hurricane Gulch.

By the time we boarded on Monday, August 13, 2018, most passengers were already aboard, and most seats had been taken by a single person. Only one, a “front row” seat with only a half window, was empty, but it was at the base of the stairs leading to the observation deck (which was barricaded for some unknown reason). As the train departed Talkeetna, Conductor Warren told us via the PA system that a group of passengers would be boarding at the next stop and would be occupying the observation deck for a short train ride before disembarking. Then, the observation deck would be open for everyone. As soon as the high-dollar passengers departed, we made a beeline for the observation deck and took a front-row seat, hoping to get a glimpse of Denali through the clouds.

The first hint we got that our route was not on a spur line was when we slowed to pull onto a siding to allow a main-line passenger train to pass. Conductor Warren explained that Hurricane Turn Train is at the bottom of the food chain since it does not have an “etched in stone” schedule. Later in the trip, we again pulled onto a siding to allow another passenger train to pass. We, obviously, were not on a spur line. At several locations along the way, Conductor Warren made comments referencing views of Denali “on a good day.” There was very little hope that we would get even a smidgen of a glance at Denali.

Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet and a topographic prominence of 20,156 feet, has been known as Denali to the Koyukon Athabaskan people, who have inhabited the area around the mountain for centuries. During the Russian ownership of Alaska, the common name for the mountain was Bolshaya Gora or "big mountain" in Russian. However, a gold prospector named the peak "Mount McKinley" in 1896 in support of then-presidential candidate William McKinley. By most accounts, the naming was politically driven; Dickey had met many silver miners who zealously promoted Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's support of a silver standard. That inspired him to retaliate by naming the mountain after a strong proponent of the gold standard, McKinley. According to Conductor Warren, President McKinley never did anything for Alaska and, indeed, never even visited Alaska.

The mountain has always been commonly referred to by its Koyukon Athabaskan name Denali by Alaskans, mountaineers and Alaska’s Native Peoples, and, in 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali; however, the request to the United States Board on Geographic Names was opposed by the Ohio congressman whose district included Canton, where McKinley spent much of his life, and he was able to prevent the name change. In 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law, McKinley National Park – which had been created on February 26, 1917 – was incorporated into a larger protected area named Denali National Park and Preserve. Naming the new, larger park Denali while retaining the name Mount McKinley for the actual mountain was thought to be a compromise by many "Mount McKinley" partisans; however, "Denali" advocates, including Alaska Congressman Don Young, rejected the position that the 1980 action constituted a real compromise and, instead, argued that naming the mountain and park by different names only created confusion.

On August 30, 2015, Sally Jewell announced that the mountain would be renamed Denali under authority of federal law which permits her, as Secretary of the Interior, to name geographic features if the Board of Geographic Names does not act within a "reasonable" period of time. In media interviews, Jewell cited
From atop the Hurricane Gulch BridgeFrom atop the Hurricane Gulch BridgeFrom atop the Hurricane Gulch Bridge

Hurricane Turn Train - Talkeetna AK
the board's failure to act on the state's four-decade-old request by saying, "I think any of us would think that 40 years is an unreasonable amount of time." During a March 2017 Oval Office meeting to discuss the reversal of several Obama executive decisions affecting Alaska, President Trump asked about reversing the Obama executive order and changing the name back to Mount McKinley. Trump, perplexed that the two Republicans wanted to keep an Obama-era decision, asked why. "The Alaska Native people named that mountain over 10,000 years ago," Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan said. "Denali, that was the name." Politics!!!

Eventually, we made our way to Hurricane Gulch Bridge where the engineer stopped the train so all could reassess their fear of heights while he made his way to the “caboose” – another locomotive he would use to pull the train back to Talkeetna. After 15 minutes or so, well short of the advertised one hour stop, we began the return trip. Conductor Warren provided an interesting narrative and was quite entertaining throughout while the scenery was mundane and photography was nearly impossible from a moving train through raindrop-covered windows. On a clear day, I think the trip would be worth every nickel. On an overcast day, let alone a rainy day – well, not so much. The bottom line is, however, “Would you take the trip again?” Yes, however, I would not buy a ticket in advance but would wait for a clear day when views of Denali are available. Timing is everything; and if the meteorology gods are with you, great; if not, so be it – your money will be in your pocket, and your time will be spent elsewhere.

After we returned to Talkeetna, we stopped for a bite to eat at Latitude 62 Lodge and Motel and set out for Healy AK some 168 miles, 2 hours and 48 minutes away. It was a little strange driving on a two-lane highway with my headlights (unnecessarily) ablaze and encountering a couple of cars sans headlights at 10:30 PM! We arrived in Healy without incident, checked in at the Aurora Denali Lodge, brought in the luggage and went to bed immediately.

A trip to Alaska without a stop in Denali National Park would be akin to heresy, but we had only two attractions slated for our two full days (three nights) in the Denali area. Our first Denali adventure on Tuesday, August 14, 2018 was the Nenana Half Day River Rafting Trip with the Denali Outdoor Center which was to include two hours on mild water and two hours on white water. We reported to the nearest of two offices and were transported by van to the second location. There we were fitted with dry suits (the glacier-fed water was a mere 35 degrees) and helmets and then transported to the launching location. There, Guide Taylor provided a detailed explanation of the whos, whats, whens, wheres and whys of whitewater rafting and provided all the required safety briefings. Then, we were onto the Nenana River with three other younger female adventurers, all positioned in the bow, while Guide Taylor held down the midship position (where the oars were located) and Marilyn and I secured the stern.

There were widely interspersed areas of mild whitewater in the first portion of the trip where the skillful rowing of Guide Taylor dipped the bow into an eddy and intentionally got the folks in the bow quite wet. Finally, it was my turn. He took us port side first into an abyss, and I got a mild splashing but was thoroughly exhilarated. I could tell by the expression on Marilyn’s face that she was done having fun and that this adventure was becoming burdensome for her. When Guide Taylor said we were about ten minutes from the half-way point, Marilyn said she wished he had said we were ten minutes from the end. At that point, I asked her if she wanted to bail out at the half way point, an option that had been given all of us up front. After some consideration and a little urging, she relented and we ended our whitewater rafting adventure. BUT, we had done it. We had been whitewater rafting on the Nenana River on the border of Denali Nation Park in Alaska. This was a first for us both and was one more thing to scratch from the bucket list. Unfortunately, however, it had been strongly encouraged to leave all electronic devices secured in the (dry) safety of the car – NO PICTURES!!! During our return to Denali Outdoor Center headquarters, one of the guides noted that one of the best-kept dining secrets in Healy was right next to our motel – Rose's Café. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018 would be another “set the alarm” day. I had us signed up for the Kantishna Experience Tour which is a 12-hour (+/-) all-day bus tour to the end of the road in Denali National Park. With a start time at 6:05 AM, we had 4:30 wake-up call and, still blurry-eyed, arrived at the Wilderness Access Center. Our bus arrived, driven by Driver/Naturalist Joe. He told each of us to grab a wrap and a cheese stick as we boarded the bus. When we got to the seat, an insulated, zippered “lunch box” awaited us filled with an apple, trail mix, granola bar, cookies, potato chips and pretty much everything one needed for his/her nutritional needs for the day. All this was a complete surprise and negated the need for the “sack lunches” we had purchased at Rose's Café the evening before. Briefly, many motels and restaurants in the Denali area offer sack lunches for all-day adventurers.

Driver/Naturalist Joe related that timing is everything and that where wildlife had been seen the day before was no guarantee that it would be seen there again today. He told us of the “Big Six” – brown bear, black bear, moose, Dall’s sheep, caribou and wolf and related that many other small mammals such as hare and ground squirrel might be seen. With a lot of luck, rarer animals such as lynx might be seen. He explained that the origins of grizzly means gray or gray-haired and, therefore, a grizzly bear is merely a brown bear with a gray color variation and that a reindeer is merely a domesticated caribou. I could tell in the first ten minutes of the tour that we would be entertained and educated simultaneously. He explained the various ecosystems as we passed through terrain changes and increased our elevation to above the tree line – i.e., the tundra, which means an area of treeless vegetation. He explained permafrost and on and on and on.

I had wanted to taste the whole enchilada but had wondered if I might have bitten off a little bit too much with an 11-12-hour tour; however, I had not. Not everybody saw ALL of the spotted wildlife, but everybody saw MOST of the wildlife. It’s an “on the wrong side of the bus for one to see” or “a bush obstructing the view of another to see” kind of thingy dingy. Driver/Naturalist Joe used the on-board video system to zoom in on the specimens so everybody got to “see” the critter regardless of their seat position on the bus. In the end, we as a group saw 15 brown bear, 25-30 Dall’s sheep, 3 moose, 1 herd of 20 or so caribou and another 15-20 in smaller groups and 1 wolf along with numerous smaller mammals and over a half-dozen species of birds. Many of the bear sows had two yearling cubs, and one trio decided they would stand and either pose or learn how to assess a danger level. I prefer to think it was a learning opportunity seized by the sow. The wolf was lying down when first spotted but, as we were watching, he arose, walked toward the bus, then around the rear end of the bus and finally off into the underbrush. Driver/Naturalist Joe has been doing these trips for several years and has never seen anything quite like that. The Dall’s sheep were all seen from afar, and all the moose were at last partially obstructed by the underbrush. Driver/Naturalist Joe didn’t get the elusive “Big Six” but did get the “Big Five” (black bears are not common in this part of Denali) for only
Bus Driver/Naturalist Joe Took Pictures for All Who Wanted “Proof!”Bus Driver/Naturalist Joe Took Pictures for All Who Wanted “Proof!”Bus Driver/Naturalist Joe Took Pictures for All Who Wanted “Proof!”

Kantishna Experience Tour - Denali National Park AK
the 4th or 5th time. We got "The Big Five" on our first try! If one goes by the numbers, I guess one could say we had a great day. Would I recommend the all-day bus trip? Absolutely. Would I recommend making a reservation for the full-day trip well in advance? That’s a tough one, but I could easily envision those who wait for the five-day weather forecast to be told, “Sorry. Sold out.” Would one get shortchanged by taking the half-day trip? Perhaps. Timing is everything, but the more hours spent in the observation seat, the more likely one is to see a greater number and a greater variety of critters. Bring extra film (tongue making cheek hurt really badly) and your binoculars. Two physically taxing days followed by a very long day led to two very tired oldsters and a very early bedtime.

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


Dall’s Sheep on the Video Monitor …Dall’s Sheep on the Video Monitor …
Dall’s Sheep on the Video Monitor …

Kantishna Experience Tour - Denali National Park AK
… Dall’s Sheep (Center) without Magnification… Dall’s Sheep (Center) without Magnification
… Dall’s Sheep (Center) without Magnification

Kantishna Experience Tour - Denali National Park AK
This “Loner” (In the Grass Just Right of Center) Was Spotted First …This “Loner” (In the Grass Just Right of Center) Was Spotted First …
This “Loner” (In the Grass Just Right of Center) Was Spotted First …

Kantishna Experience Tour - Denali National Park AK

8th September 2018

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