Dick Eveson's Alaska Tour - Talkeetna and Denali National Park

Published: August 13th 2010
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Mother and calf moose in the field next to our hotel parking lot.
Dick Eveson’s Alaska Tour - Talkeetna and Denali National Park

The two weeks are drawing close to the end. We have one more “biggie” event arranged for Dick, a tour of Alaska’s jewels, Denali National Park. Denali, the mountain, is sometimes called Mt. McKinley. The highest peak in the North American continent, it is located about the middle of the State of Alaska in the Alaska Mountain Range. Surrounding the mountain is the Denali National Park and Preserve and the adjoining Denali State Park. Accessible by road, railroad and light aircraft, Denali National Park hosts thousands of visitors every year.

Our trip to Denali would be by road. It is a long drive from Chugiak to Denali. Our plans were for an early morning departure from home and drive to Denali and neighboring Healey, Alaska for overnight lodging. Early the next morning we were scheduled for a bus tour of the park. After the tour we would stay again in Healey for the night before returning home by a slightly different route. With the ice chest filled with goodies, we left on a Sunday morning for Denali.

As long as we were driving, we decided to stop
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Dick, standing on the porch in front of our room, taking pictures of the moher and calf moose who came to visit.
by Talkeetna, only a slight bit out of the way. You might remember the TV show, Northern Exposure, that aired from 1990 through 1995. It featured a “lower forty-eight” doctor that was coerced to work in remote Alaska, in a fictional, kooky town called Cicely. The fact that the exteriors for Northern Exposure were filmed in Roslyn, Washington and none of the production took place in Alaska. Notwithstanding, a lot of people think Cicely was inspired by Talkeetna. Inspirational or not, Talkeetna qualifies as one of Alaska’s kooky towns.

There is a serious side to Talkeetna. The large airport serves as the ground base of operations for the mountain climbing attempts on Denali. Ski planes take off from Talkeetna and land on Kahiltna Glacier supporting the base camp high up on the mountain. The town is located at the confluence of three rivers, the Chulitna, the Susitna and the Talkeetna River, it makes a natural place to stage to stage flightseeing, river jet boats rafting, mountain biking, camping, hiking, hunting and fishing. The traditional old town Talkeetna, founded in 1919, is listed a National Historic Site. Some of the buildings, dating from the early 1900’s, include Nagley’s General Store
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The obligatory pose in front of the sign. Denali National Park and Preserve.
and the Talkeetna Roadhouse.

My first trip to Talkeetna was a solo winter flight in 1985 to sightsee. I had about 45 minutes, perhaps an hour, to see Talkeetna before the engine of my Cessna 152 would get too cold to reliably start in the minus 10 degree weather. I visited Nagley’s General store. I could feel the thick wood plank floor sag when I stepped on it. I browsed around looking for a token purchase. I selected a nice cold can of cola from the glass front refrigerator case. Although cold from the case, the can felt strangely warm in my hand. I noticed the gallon container of milk priced at five dollars.

Dick and I arrived in Talkeetna in mid-morning, in the rain. We found a parking place and walked about town. There was the obligatory photo in front of the crude wooden sign proclaiming, “Beautiful Downtown Talkeetna.” There were more visitors than during my winter visit. Dick did a little window shopping and then we went to Nagley’s. Stepping through the door, we could feel the thick wood plank floor sag under out weight. There were a few more merchandise counters than my first visit
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Bull moose with large antlers off the side of the first 15 miles of the Denali Park road, near Savage River.
but there was milk in the deli case, about five dollars a gallon.

A bit further down the street we bought some sweet rolls for a snack before continuing our journey to Denali. Picking up speed on the road out of town we had to brake to avoid a roly-poly black bear that scrambled across the road and disappeared into the trees. A good sign, the wildlife was coming to us.
We arrived at the Denali Park Hotel in Healey, about ten miles north of the park entrance. Nice accommodations at very reasonable rates, easy to find because of the office, a refurbished Alaska Railroad car. After checking in, we drove the car to our unit to unload our luggage. In the field adjacent to the parking area a mother moose and her yearling calf were browsing on the vegetation. Less than fifty yards away, they remained unconcerned as we clicked away with our cameras. The moose became tired of the impromptu photo shoot and ambled away into the trees. We finished unloading our baggage only to find another moose browsing on the low trees at the edge of the field.

The first fifteen miles of the
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A mose playing hide-and-seek among the spruce trees.
road into the park is paved. There is a checkpoint at the Savage River crossing. For most visitors Savage River is as far as you can drive a private vehicle. Exceptions are the annual road lottery when, for a week, a hundred cars a day are allowed to drive the park road as far as weather and road conditions allow. On a good day you can make it to Wonder Lake, some ninety miles into the park. For a short period of time before the official opening and the official seasonal closing of the park, weather and road conditions permitting, personal vehicle are allowed as far as the Teklanika Overlook, some thirty miles into the park. With the exception of a campground past Savage River and some special permits to researchers and photographers, the public access into the park past the Savage River checkpoint is on to walk, take one of the park shuttles (get on and off privileges) or a tour bus. (There is another special situation, the lodges at Kantishna, but that is not covered here.)

The park shuttle bus’s main function is transportation but the drivers do yeoman service making it an interesting trip, calling out
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Dall sheep high up a mountain side.
the wildlife and stopping for viewing. You can get on and off to take picture, hike or enjoy the view. You will have to flag down the next shuttle, space permitting. You can take a cooler with a lunch if you like. However, for this trip with Dick, we chose the Tundra Tour provided by the Princess people. The busses are a bit more comfortable than the shuttles (all basically school buses to meet the parks maximum weight standards, the Princess buses have a bit more padding on the seats and better ventilation systems to keep the windows clear during those cold days.) As an added bonus Princess provides a box lunch for the eight-hour Tundra Tour.

We drove back the park to give Dick a preliminary look-se at the first fifteen miles of the park road and a chance to visit the visitor’s center. Along the way my practiced eye scanned the rocky cliffs for Dall sheep, and out across the taiga looking for an errant caribou or two. By the time we turned around I was worried. Was this going to be one of those trips when all that is visible is the scenery? Up ahead a

A caribou with radio collar.
few cars were stopped alongside the road, a sign that something was out there. Down a dry river bed, a large bull moose with a large set of antlers was slowly walking, stopping to graze from the scrub trees. Perhaps a hundred yards away, it was not concerned about the people on the road. The moose was gracious enough to grant us five minutes of picture taking time.

With any Alaska tour, you take your chances. The weather is always a big if and today the incessant rain did not bode well for tomorrow’s Tundra Tour. To see wildlife or not is certainly the luck of the draw. There have been people that have toured Denali and not seen a single creature. Today we had a momentary sighting of a black bear outside Talkeetna, there were moose near the hotel parking lot and a bull moose along the park road. If one were to believe in omens then perhaps the dismal prospects for the rainy day would be offset by the wildlife.

We set an alarm to make sure we were on time for the bus. The rain had stopped during the night and the solid gray was
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Dall sheepon a rocky knoll.
mixed with white clouds. It was a short ten mile drive to the Princess Lodge just outside the park entrance and boundary. With a few minutes to spare, we got steaming cups of coffee and waited for the loading call. All the while the sky lightened, hopefully some sun would follow.

The bus retraced our route from the previous day. The moose with the large antlers was nowhere to be seen. At the Savage River checkpoint a park ranger came aboard and gave us an introductory spiel about the park and the wildlife. We were now on the gravel road and, for Dick, new territory to explore. It wasn’t until we passed the Sanctuary River that we saw our first caribou. Hey were quite away off on a grassy slope across the river. That is when I found that something new had been added to the Princess tours. The drive, with access to both side windows as well as the front, has a camera with a powerful telephoto lens. The camera image is sent to drop down TV screens in the bus overhead, similar to what you find in airliners. (The scenes filmed by the driver are added to stock footage and the custom made tour disk is available for about thirty dollars.) We had a good look at the caribou.

Our driver, with a long career of Denali tour leader, gave a running account of the park, its history, the animals and the events that have happened in the park. His own personal interest carried through and he garnered your attention and was never just a droning voice in the background. He does his job very well, an educator as well as an entertaining tour guide. We passed Igloo Creek and were near sable Pass when we spotted Dall sheep on a hillside. Several hundred yards away, the sheep were easy to spot, their stark white against the green. Our own cameras were able to bring the sheep quite close.

When we got on the bus, I asked to choose a right-side seat. That was not so much for the trip in but for the trip our and Polychrome Pass. The road is a bull-dozer cut on the side of a steep slope with sheer drops to the river far, far below. The right side of the bus would give an excellent view of the steep
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A small can of chicken salad, crackers, a bun, a bag of potato chips and a chocolate chip cookie.
drop. As a clue to the view awaiting on the return trip, even from the opposite side of the road next to the vertical rise, one lady passenger behind us was heard to say in a loud, almost painful voice, “Oh, my gawd!” We did stop for a moment in what passes for a wide spot in the road to watch a young bald eagle. The wind, striking the near vertical face of the mountain, creates an updraft. The eagle wa soaring in the updraft and from our perspective, was hovering in mid air. For a minute we were able to watch to soaring bird, never needing to flap its wings, just using a flick of the end feathers on its wing tipss to maintain level flight. It brought to mind the cliché, “To soar like an eagle…”

A bit further down the road we got a glimpse of one of the hardest to find animals in the park. Usually just a pair of eyes in the brush, there was a dark wolf trotting down the road in front of the bus. From our seats in the middle of the bus all we could see were the backs of other passenger’s heads. The driver turned on his camera and we had a close up view of the dog-trotting wolf on the monitor. The bus slowly followed the wolf for a quarter mile before the wolf veered off and went into the brush. In all my trips to Denali National Park, it was the first time I had ever seen a wolf in the park. It was wonderful!

We saw more caribou and then someone called out there was another wolf on the roadside. A variegated gold and white, the wolf was busy hunting and paid us little heed. It crossed the road in front of the bus and searched among the tussocks before disappearing down a ravine. Another wolf! We were just about to resume when another wolf was spotted walking on the opposite side of the road, and then two more loping across the river bed far below, and finally, a group of wolves on a knoll on the other side of the river. We had apparently encountered the entire pack, a rare opportunity indeed.

Normally the Tundra Tour stops at the far side of the Toklat River Bridge for the lunch break, the half way point in the tour. The Park Service has erected a tent building that serves as a visitor center. We were cautioned about not taking food out of the bus and possible dropping some and attracting bears to the visitor center. We had a rest room break and went a bit further into the park, to Stony Dome, for the lunch break. We would return after lunch to the Toklat visitor center.

From Stony Dome, if the weather is good, you can see the mountain, Denali. All day long it had been improving weather but the clouds persisted and Denali never showed. There were several busses, from various tours, all parked on Stony Dome. Everyone was facing southwest, cameras aimed at the elusive mountain. Down the road from the northeast, behind everyone’s back, trotted another wolf. The wolf approached to within fifty yards before turning and disappearing in the brush. For the normally elusive and shy animals, they seemed to have developed a significant tolerance for the tour busses and their passengers.

Last boarding call, a look over the shoulder to make sure the mountain hadn’t peek out from behind the clouds, and then it was back in the bus for the return trip and a stop at the visitor center at the Toklat River. They had some exhibits featuring the local wildlife and some souvenirs. It is sort of a work in progress. I did find that the tent building visitor center has its distinctive stamp for the National Park Passport. Although we didn’t, on this particular tour, get as far as the Eielson Visitor Center, I would suspect the newly rebuilt center has its own particular stamp as well.

We did see some more caribou, some with impressive antlers, on a hillside. The closer we got to the end of the tour I was worried that Dick would miss seeing the big critter, the grizzly bear. In the past the tour drivers referred to the Grand Slam - a list of the five most prominent things to see in Denali. First of all, there is the mountain. That was to remain elusive. Secondly, is the moose. Thirdly, there is the caribou. Fourth is the Dall sheep, and lastly, the grizzly bear. The mountain was already a bust and we still had to spot a grizzly bear in the few remaining miles of the tour. I was worried that we wouldn’t.

There they were! It was a grizzly bear, an almost white grizzly bear and cubs. They were on a hillside across the river, perhaps a quarter mile away. To the naked eye they were moving dots in the brush. To the camera’s telephoto lens they were well defined bears beautifully displayed on the monitors. For his tour Dick managed to get a four out of five of the Denali Grand Slam. The weather had continued to improve during the day and a light jacket was sufficient, far less than the parkas we brought just in case.
After the Tundra Tour, we went to the Denali Visitor Center to catch yet another bus to the park headquarters to see the sled dog demonstration. During the visitor season, vehicle traffic is limited as noted before. During the winter the only access to the park is by snowshoe, ski or dog team. Even the park personnel who patrol the park do so by dog sled. From the very inception of the Denali National Park the dog team has been an important transportation element.

All of the dogs are well socialized, friendly, which is an important asset when you depend on your dogs for your survival in the wilderness. The Alaska husky is not a defined breed. They are bred for their eagerness to run, performance and endurance, not their looks. They have the double coat, guard hair and a finer inner hair that is shed in the spring. The double coat makes it possible for the husky to curl up in the snow and be comfortable in below zero weather.

The program includes a walking tour of the kennel area. The dogs are there and you can pet them when they come to you. The dogs are extremely interested in very small children. They stare fascinated by the little people. The main structure, an original building from the inception of the park, features a dog food cook house, a sled and harness repair shop and the sled storeroom. In the winter the dogs need to get their water in their food, the water in bowls freezes. Cooking causes the food to absorb more water and that helps to keep the dogs hydrated.

The dogs are harnessed to a single line connected to the front of the sled. There are no reins or other control over the dogs. Only training and verbal commands control the dogs to go right, “gee,” and left, “haw.” The dogs are avid runners and at a hint, a whispered, “hike,” is all they need to be off and running. About the only command sled dogs don’t take seriously is, “Whoa.” As soon as the dogs understand they are being harnessed they get excited, howl and bark. It is like a football team doing a rah-rah chant to build spirit. The conclusion of the demonstration is the harnessing of a few dogs to a sled with some runner wheels. The dogs take the sled for a break-neck circuit of a small trail loop adjoining the kennel. The demonstration over, we started walking back to the bus. It started to rain.

Those were some of the highlights of Dick’s first tour to Alaska. I think he will be back. There is so much more to see and do. For more information about Denali National Park and Preserve, see
http://www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm .

Additional photos below
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