No, I didn’t climb Mt. McKinley, or Denali, as it’s called in the native Athabaskan name, but I spent a good deal of time just trying to see the elusive Alaskan peaks – the highest in North America. After leaving the glorious 7-day cruise on the Coral Princess, we headed north from Whittier to Denali National Park. Our bus driver told us that the route through Turnagain Arm to Anchorage was one of the most scenic drives in the U.S. With beautiful glaciers and mountain peaks all around us, I would agree. We stopped a few times on the way to Anchorage to enjoy the scenery close up. A few pieces of glacial ice were floating near the shore line and I picked this one up and perched it on a rock for a photo op. Isn’t it odd how its shape mimics the shape of the iceberg floating in the background? I didn’t even notice it when I first saw it. Purely coincidental. Stopping off in Anchorage for a few hours, we visited a museum there and even had time for a weekly outdoor market. Reindeer jerky anyone? Later that day, we arrived at our destination for the next two nights: The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge in Talkeetna. This vantage point is one of the best for viewing the peaks of Denali. But even with blue skies over the lodge, clouds in the distance kept us from viewing Mt. McKinley that day. We were ok with that since we had at least four more days to hopefully gaze upon Denali’s peaks. Besides, who can complain when you’re sitting outdoors eating blackened halibut tacos and drinking a sampler of Alaskan beers for dinner?
The TV show “Northern Exposure” was modeled after the town of Talkeetna, which has a funky vibe to it, just like the show did. We ate lunch at the West Rib Pub and Grill. Its menu includes an item that was featured on the Travel Channel’s “Man Vs. Food” called “Seward’s Folly.” It costs $25.95 and it really would be folly to eat this. It contains four pounds of meat: 2 l-lb. arctic caribou patties, 1/2 pound smoked ham, 12 strips of bacon, 6 ounces of Swiss cheese, 6 ounces of American cheese, grilled onion, 3 layers of sourdough bread, shredded lettuce, and what the restaurant calls “Fat Ass Sauce.” A couple from Spain was sharing this mammoth beast as we left. How do you say “cardiologist” in Spanish? Hike anywhere in Alaska and you’re likely to come across beautiful wildflowers, including these two specimens – horsetail on the left and fireweed on the right. Fireweed is ubiquitous along roadsides, and blooms from the bottom up. Alaskans say that when the petals at the top open, summer is nearly over.
We took the Alaska railroad to get from Talkeetna to Denali – very relaxing, very roomy and very slow. Still, the scenery was beautiful. We found our way up to the dome car and had it practically to ourselves the entire trip. The conductors on the train were very personable – chatting with us for hours about Alaska and the train. From the intercom, another conductor announced points of interest to the passengers. Still no views of Mt. McKinley, but we did see a mama bear and her baby cub right next to the tracks. We arrived in Denali National Park and took a two-hour guided hike with Mike, one of the park rangers. We got instructions on what to do if a bear approaches (hold your ground, make noises, don’t run) and what to do if a moose approaches (run fast away from it). No bear sightings yet, no moose sightings yet, and no Mt. McKinley sightings yet. But we did see more pretty wildflowers, including the forget-me-nots on the right – Alaska’s state flower.
And lots and lots of wild mushrooms too.
Still no Mt. McKinley peaks and still no large wildlife (unless you count my unshaven husband). The best hope for seeing wildlife was in the far reaches of the park so we signed up for a 13-hour day trip out to Kantishna, the farthest place in the park open to vehicles – no cars allowed – only buses. Some of the roads seemed quite perilous, with severe switchbacks and steep drops off to the side. Still no sighting of Mt. McKinley, but clouds lifted on parts of the mountains and the colors were surreal – like a paint box of crayons had been used. I was beginning to understand the term “purple mountain majesty.” We did begin to see some wildlife, albeit from pretty far away. No need for that bear training from the park ranger. I shot these grizzlies from the bus, using a 200 mm lens. We got pretty close to some wildlife though, including this fox that was being chased by an eagle. We came across quite a few ptarmigan too – the state bird. Their plumage turns white as snow in winter. There were also loons floating in streams along the way. We saw moose and herds of caribou too. A fellow passenger on the bus, Bernie Unger, took these photos with a 300 mm lens and was kind enough to send them to me. Our bus driver, Gitta, in addition to her expert driving and wildlife spotting, kept us thoroughly mesmerized along the way with her personal stories. This remarkable woman, who was born in Greenland of Danish parents, one summer years ago visited Alaska. She met her future husband there, got married, and moved with him to the Alaska bush – far from any settlement. They built a cabin and raised four boys with no electricity, no heat and no running water, relying only on what they could hunt or fish to sustain themselves. Their mode of transportation was either by canoe or by dogsled (16 dogs at one point). Despite all the challenges, she homeschooled the boys (they speak English, Danish and German) who have all either graduated college, or are nearing college age. If she ever decides to write her life story, I’d be the first to read it. Midpoint in the day, we arrived at the Kantishna Roadhouse, where we ate lunch and had a choice of attending a lecture or panning for gold. We chose the lecture. It was given by Emmitt Peters, who father, Emmitt Gordon Peters, is an Athabaskan Alaskan native who won the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in 1975 (a more than 1,000 mile race), shattering the previous record by six days. Emmitt Jr. was informative and kept us laughing with his humorous anecdotes. Outside, Emmitt and a team of dogs gave a demonstration of the teams’ power. Many of these huskies have very light eyes and need protection from the bright sun and snow. After lunch we boarded the bus to head back, still hoping for a glimpse of Mt. McKinley. Eielson Visitor’s Center, 66 miles inside the park, features a window with a view of the mountain and a photo below the window, outlining the various peaks. We had to settle for the photo below the window since McKinley itself was hiding behind the clouds. Also on display at the visitor’s center was this magnificent quilt of Mt. McKinley by Ree Nancarrow. In addition to the expert quilting job, Ree also hand-colored all the fabric. Click here for a better description of all the plants and animals. We were sad that Mt. McKinley kept hiding from us, but we still had a great time on the bus trip and the next day too, when we took a wild whitewater rafting trip on the Nenana River. The bulky “dry suit” came in handy when I jumped into the frigid river for a swim.
On our last night in Denali, we had a spectacular sunset that occurred at about 11 p.m. or so. I could get used to these long days of daylight. It was time to head back to Anchorage, and on the train, we got a glimpse of Wasilla, where the Iditarod race starts, and home town of you-know-who. On our last day in Alaska, we took a bike ride along the river in Anchorage. Lots of people were fishing for salmon, which were easy to spot since they were a brilliant red color.
On a highway just outside Anchorage, we visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where visitors can see how native Alaskans lived, worked and played.
This fellow was just about finished constructing a kayak, but using modern materials for the covering instead of the traditional animal skins. And this man, David Boxley, is a Tsimshian carver. His work has received national prominence and is many museums and public spaces across the country. Here he is carving a totem, but he also creates beautiful prints and cards from Alaskan native designs. During the trip, I ate salmon prepared in many different ways – from salmon on a plank to salmon quesadillas – but this meal of macadamia encrusted salmon at Anchorage’s Glacier Brewhouse was by far my favorite. In my next post, I’m going to show you my attempt at recreating this delicious dish. So for now, it’s goodbye Alaska – We had a great time and can’t wait to return. Next time, I hope Mt. McKinley comes out of hiding.