Tuesday July 5, 2016
Episode 5: Fashion meets fur at Denali National Park
Hello to all.
After visiting the Kenai Peninsula in the South, we drove North, to the Denali National Park area. We stopped first at Talkeetna, a quintessential Alaskan town that sits in the shadow of Mt Denali. Talkeetna is a charming place with some fine old buildings, with wooden facades bearing moose antlers or bear skins. Several good pubs too.
“Talkeetna was the inspiration for the TV show “Northern Exposure”,” said the shrill tattooed woman behind a bar that we found ourselves in. “But it was actually filmed in Washington state.”
We stayed at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, a great atmospheric place and something of a local institution. We especially enjoyed sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of the Roadhouse in the warm afternoon sun and watching people walk by as we talked in faux American accents to each other:
“Well, Verne, what a fine old evening it is.”
“Yes, Earle, a fine evening, by my reckoning. These folk walking past out yonder, they are mighty finely dressed. My wife dresses to kill. She cooks the same way.”
Verne. You know, my wife and I were happy for twenty-five years. Then we met each other.”
Our main aim in Talkeetna was to do a flight-seeing trip over the nearby snow-capped Alaskan Mountain Range and Mt. Denali in particular (6190 metres high - the tallest mountain in North America. Another one for you to climb, Thomas Ohnesorg). We did the flight-seeing in a plane early one sunny morning – just us, another couple and the young pilot called Shiloh. The plane was very small – Ross and the pilot in up front, then the other couple, and then me squashed in the single seat at the back. A little unnerving as we approached the huge mountains in a seemingly flimsy plane that bobbed about in the air, but it was absolutely awesome. Fantastic scenery. The plane was dwarfed by huge jagged mountains draped in dazzling white snow and ice, interspersed with glaciers snaking into the distance. We flew quite close. The plane was equipped with, um, I guess you’d call them skis. So it landed on a glacier in the middle of the mountain range and we had some time out of the plane to look about. Mt.
Denali loomed straight above us, a massive white monolith. We then took off across the glacier and made it safely back to town. A brilliant experience and easily the best short plane trip we have ever done.
The following four days were spent at Denali National Park itself, some three hours drive North of Talkeetna. Denali is home to the previously mentioned mountain, and iconic tundra wildlife. We stayed just outside the park in a little area called Canyon that had various accommodation options, eateries, bars, etc. To maintain the pristine nature of the park, you cannot drive inside it (well, only the first 15 miles of a long 92 mile-long single road). Instead, you catch park shuttle buses – like school buses – that traverse the road throughout the day (a six, eight or twelve hour round trip, depending how far into the park you choose to go). The further you go, the more chances of seeing critters, so of course we opted for a couple of consecutive lengthy day trips. We had a great time in the park. Our bus driver was informative and entertaining and the scenery was epic. The landscape at the park entrance starts
off as thick boreal forest (spruce and aspen trees as well as wildflowers in abundance), where several moose were sighted, including calves. As you move deeper into the park, the forested vegetation gives way to expansive treeless tundra, with large undulating hills, snow-capped mountains and fast-flowing braided rivers carrying glacial silt. We were very fortunate to see illusive Mt Denali (usually covered in clouds). Denali is a massive snow-white mountain (formerly called Mt McKinley, but returned to its former name just last year by a decree from President Obama). We saw a number of grizzly bears in the park, including one with two cubs, a herd of caribou and various ground squirrels. (Plus I was thrilled to see a ptarmigan – a ground bird like a grouse). I think Denali ranks up there with Yellowstone and Yosemite as one of my favourite places in America.
On our last afternoon in Denali National Park, I hiked the Horseshoe Lake trail. According to a park ranger that I spoke to, the trail featured a lake with a beaver dam and lodge, and hence the possibility of seeing beavers. Although I have seen gnawed trees, dams and lodges in the past (in
Canada), I have never seen an actual beaver in the wild, so it was worth a try. As this involved some walking, Ross opted for cocktails in our hotel bar (!), so I set out alone. At the start of the trail, a sign had been posted:
“Warning: Bears in the area. Walk in groups. Talk, clap or sing so as not to take bears by surprise.”
Three girls in their late twenties arrived at the start of the trail. They introduced themselves as Mandy, Karen and Rishika, three top models from New York (in their estimation, at least). For safety reasons, I decided to team up and walk with this contingent of ‘Victoria’s Secret’ wannabees. I was not carrying any bear spray, nor were they. I advised them that Mandy’s offer of insect repellent would be a highly unsuitable alternative. Indeed, the girls seemed to be a bit clueless. I had to shake my head at their attire: stiletto-heeled boots and expensive looking pants and blouses, and draped in excessive jewelry. Good for the hip streets of NYC, or perhaps a catwalk, but the sandy and rocky trail in a national park?
As we started off,
I said: “Well, we need to make some noise as we walk, so how about singing? I’ll start off:
“I made it though the wilderness, Somehow I made it though, Didn’t know how lost I was till I found you - ”.
Oddly enough, this did not catch on, and we settled on chatting while we walked instead. After a while, a light drizzle started and Karen said:
“Oh no, its raining. Do you think there will be a restroom at the end of this walk? I wonder if they have hair dryers there?”
The drizzle soon stopped, and we proceeded, the girls picking their way along the trail like horses trying to walk on marbles. At one point, Rishika strayed off the path and suddenly found herself in a swampy area, whereupon she started sinking. Her main concern was for her purple Givenchy boots, rapidly disappearing below the waterline. We quickly helped her out, and for the rest of the walk she was in utter despair over how her boots had been affected. Really made me wonder how they would have reacted had we actually seen a bear.
Anyway, we made it to the
lake, a beautiful horse-shoe shaped emerald lake encircled by dark green spruce trees. To my great excitement, there was a beaver on the edge of the water, munching on some vegetation. It was a wonderful sight, about 10 feet away. The girls regarded it with indifference, as they were busy taking selfies. My guess is that they had seen plenty of beavers before, although perhaps of a different type. Meanwhile, I scrambled to get out my camera and take photos. The beaver was unconcerned. After a while, it left the water’s edge and swam out to its large lodge made of tree branches, twigs and logs. Then, with a flip of its fat tail, it dived under water and presumably up into its lodge.
“Where did it go?” said Karen.
“Into the lodge.” I said.
“What Lodge?” she replied. “A hotel? I hope those things aren’t running around our hotel.”
Anyway, I was able to tick off another iconic North American mammal from my list. Very cool.
Our time in Alaska is coming to an end, but we have one more appointment: the coastal brown bears fishing for migrating salmon in Katmai national park. To
get there, this will in involve a floatplane (sea plane) and then a bit of camping!
Bye for now,
Craig (and Ross)
P.S. More photos below. Click the first one to enlarge, then scroll through.
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