Denali is the Athabaskan word for “The Great One” and an appropriate name for the 20,310’ mountain formerly known as Mt. McKinley. I’m going to stretch it a bit and apply “Denali” to much of what I feel characterizes Alaska. Seven National Parks? Denali. A state covering 650,000 sq. miles? Denali. There’s even a road called the Denali Hwy. We drove 120 miles on it yesterday and it reminded me of a media performance I saw years ago in something called a “theater in the round” where you literally have to turn your head to scan the entire screen. Well, that pretty much describes our drive yesterday; all the way to the left, tundra giving way to the rugged higher mountains of the eastern Alaska Range, including Mount Hayes (13,339 ft.), and the beautiful ice-covered pyramid-shaped Mount Deborah (12,339 ft). Scan all the way to the right and you’ve got more tundra, glacier-produced kettle ponds, and nearly everything living plant dressed in blazing autumn colors and capped with billowy clouds against a cobalt blue sky. Even the potholes in the road are Denali. That’s why it took us the better part of 7 hours to drive.
Waiting for us at BLM’s Tangle Lakes campground were our friends, Marty and Terry. They’d arrived from the other side of the Alaska Range, having come in from Paxson whereas we’d begun from Cantwell on the Parks Hwy. The Denali Hwy. was completed in 1957 and was the only route to the National Park until the “Parks” Hwy. was constructed in ’72, connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks. That pretty much made the older road redundant, and its condition suggests road crews feel pretty much the same. It’s not that we were alone, however. Camping is permitted on any public road in Alaska, and at nearly every pullout there was a truck, tent, or both sharing the space with an ATV (All-Terrain-Vehicle). Sometimes more, and most had trailers. It’s Caribou hunting season and if you bag one of those 400 pound animals, it takes a lot of equipment to get it back to the road, not to mention butchering and hanging it. Some hunters even include chest freezers in their hunting trailers, and more than once we heard generators in campgrounds powering those things. I saw one guy packing up his kill, sweat pouring off his face and the skinned animal overflowing the bed of his pickup. The temptation to photograph him was compelling, but since were were plugging along at little more than 20mph, I got a pretty good image of the scene. Even more memorable was him screaming past us an hour later, literally flying over potholes I was desperately trying to avoid. Topping off his load were the beast’s massive antlers, mounted proudly on top of the animal much like they were a day earlier, only under different circumstances. We merrily carried on, stopping periodically to bird (a beautiful flock of Bohemian Waxwings), to photograph (click any photo in this post to see our Denali pix), or simply absorb the gorgeous beauty surrounding us. Alas, we’re on our way home and expect to return to Ashland in early October. Before I forget ‘em, there are a few episodes to compile about some recent adventures.
After an evening in Eagle River, just outside Anchorage, we headed north to Talkeetna while conforming loosely to our 200 miles or 4 hour travel limit. Our route was unconventional as we opted to first drive over Hatcher Pass to Willow before continuing north. The summit tops out at around 3,800’ but felt like 10’000 with the chill factor, and the drive over the pass was above tree line. (It was also clearly not the moist, marine environment we’d experienced for most of our journey so far, and was, in fact, our introduction to an entirely different ecosystem for much of the remainder of our trip—alpine, both in elevation, flora, and fauna. ) Low-hanging clouds obscured peaks, sunlight peeking through to create a checkerboard on the soft, moist mosses, grasses and mountain berries. Streams flowed from distant drainages, flowing eventually into the Cook Inlet. Winds howled and accompanied the squeaky ground squirrels scrambling to have a look at us. It was chilly and, with limited bird sightings, we proceeded west, paralleling Willow Creek before resuming our journey north.
Talkeetna is on the rail line from Seward to Fairbanks and is a short spur off the Parks Hwy. This popular destination is renowned for one of the best southern views of Denali and its adjacent peaks. Furthermore, anybody intending the 3-week ordeal to summit the mountain is required to obtain permits, attend mandatory orientation, have gear checked, and book flights to the basecamp from the NP Visitor’s Center located there. After a long driving day, we lucked out and grabbed the last spot in the local RV park’s overflow lot. Positioned adjacent to an covered communal space, we visited with some travelers from Minnesota who were up for a family wedding. The bride’s sister said they’d chartered a plane, and with her recently obtained 24-hour certified Alaska Marriage Commissioner license, she conducted the wedding ceremony while flying above the mountain. They’d been unable to see much of anything (only 10% of visitors ever do) but that hardly mattered—wedding receptions are always festive, even in pouring rain.
We biked to town the following morning and learned about the Talkeetna Lakes Trail, a 3-mile stroll through a fungi filled mixed forest composed of black spruce, alder, willow, and cottonwood. Meandering around 2 lakes, the birding was memorable as Sooney, at one juncture, spotted a Three-toed woodpecker and a Northern Water Thrush, both life birds. Furthermore, as our journey moved farther and farther away from the coast, we anticipated buggy conditions. Not so, and with one exception a couple weeks later, this entire trip as been relatively bug free. Our departure from Talkeetna was briefly interrupted by a visit to the Flying Squirrel bakery and a very interesting visit to a birch syrup visiting room. A couple seasonal workers did a commendable job explaining the whole process and we enjoyed supporting their endeavor. Blessed with a positive weather forecast, and eager to use our inflatable kayak, we pushed on to yet another special location, Byers lake.
En-route to Denali National Park, travelers plying the Parks Hwy. are provided a viewpoint of majestic Denali that compares favorably with the view from Talkeetna. Since we struck out at the latter, we hoped for better luck from the viewpoint, assisted by several residents and some helpful interpretive displays. Alas, all we saw were cloud-mantled peaks that would be the gems of any mountain range elsewhere. More Denali, but not today. So we proceeded to Byers Lake and arrived to a mirror-like surface that welcomed our inflatable kayak for a paddle. We crossed the lake and even paddled against the current into the creek that feeds the lake. Anticipating more of the same, we repeated the same route the following morning. Even better, the sun was out and we beached our boat on a sandbar and hung out with a pair of friendly Trumpeter Swans, some spawning Sockeye salmon, and Marty wetting his fly line hunting for trout. Long awaited sunlight encouraged us to bathe, its heat drying us as we lay in our kayak, feet resting on the gunnel as we let nature’s theater entertain us. It got to a point where we were rotating our attention to 3 different screens: the swans frolicking wildly not 40’ from us, absolutely huge cumulous clouds in warm afternoon light and, surprise surprise, Denali revealing herself, section by section as if in some seductive dance. I remember when my neighborhood playmates and I would pack into one of our parents’ cars and spend a Saturday each month at the Montrose theater watching double features for 25¢. We packed in much, much more that lovely afternoon, and finished if off by playing guitars and singing on the dock before a thundershower forced us into the Karlin’s nearby camper for hors d’oeuvres.
We’ve noticed a pattern where late afternoon rains become overnight rains that, by morning, are reduced to “partial” clouds (a nebulous weather term). That’s fine with us, as damp mornings often morph into perfect recreational weather. Byers Lake proved no different, and we hiked the trail to the creek flowing into the lake that we’d kayaked to the day before. Along the trail were a combination of trees that were virtual supermarkets for several different birds (see the list below). At one point we met a community of Spruce Grouse. They’re really trusting birds and posed for our cameras before continuing down the trail ahead of us. A similar event occurred while in Denali National Park when our bus confronted a large caribou blocking the Park road. Our driver explained that the poor animals are afflicted with annoying flies that hang out in their nostrils. They shake their antlered heads, all the while exhaling forcefully trying to rid themselves of the infestation. This one had another strategy. The wind in the middle of the road helps alleviate the affliction better than when caribou stand in the tundra willows and alders adjacent to the roads. So down the middle of the road that caribou jogged, fearlessly commandeering his right-of-way for several hundred yards while our patient bus driver noodled along behind—his passengers, of course, enthralled by the exhibition. I don’t know what reduced the fear factor of those grouse, but they carried on without an apparent care in the world. Adaptation is a curious thing.
Accompanying Sooney (Marty and Terry, too) on her maritime birding tour in Homer was another fellow who’d had an unusual adventure in Denali NP and recommended viewing the southern side of the Alaskan Range that’s also part of the park but rarely visited due to its accessibility and sheer remoteness. Nourished primarily by moist air masses from the northern Pacific Ocean, ancient glaciers were much more impactful along the southern flank of the Alaska Range, creating an entirely different presentation of the park’s attributes. We booked a day with Denali Sightseeing Safaris, a “monster” truck guiding service. While channel surfing years ago, I happened onto a program featuring “Monster Trucks”, those enormous machines with enormous wheels and ridiculously tiny truck bodies perched high above the axels. Their fans pay to see drivers maneuver them around tracks, leaping over obstacles and onto each other, much to the amusement of both live and TV spectators. With some trepidation, we were met by our guide in a conventional 9-person Dodge van parked in a conventional pullout along the Parks Hwy. That’s when convention doubled down. We followed him down a narrow, nondescript road not uncommon to most Alaskan highways. Leading off to who knows where, these signless roads most likely provide access to homesteads and ATV’s during hunting season. He led us across a private rail crossing, locked the gate behind us, and moments later we arrived at a staging area where there were not one, but 3 huge “monster” trucks. No joke. All featuring stereotypically huge wheels dwarfing truck chassis 8’ off the ground. Replacing the truck’s bed, however, was a covered area that accommodated 9 passengers on comfortable seats. Just the four of us. Sort of like riding an elephant, I’d imagine. These trucks required extremely powerful engines to manipulate those 1,000 pound tires. Amazingly, drivers are able to steer the rear wheels as well as the front wheels, permitting these ungainly machines to turn on a dime. There’s an Alaskan firm that makes these vehicles for guiding services, repurposing surplus tractors that formerly pulled airliners around airports. We climbed a 9’ ladder into our seats, covered ourselves with wool blankets, and began the wild ride.
The south section of Denali NP is moister, glaciated, and punctuated by the braided Middle Fork Chulitna river. The actual width of the river bed is easily a quarter mile at points and the murky, glacier runoff chooses its route, known as “braids” that meander any which way, often changing daily. The depth of these braids varies, and hence the value of Monster trucks—they easily plow through 4’ depths as if a trickle. Deeper into the park, our road intersected with artfully damed beaver ponds and, again, no problem for the monster truck. We effortlessly traveled 7-8 miles deep into territory only accessible by foot due to special road permits grandfathered to homesteaders and leased to the guides. Thousands of acres of the park was all ours, viewed from the road, and we lunched at what they call “The Nob”. From there, we scanned a 360° panorama, spotting moose, black bear, Willow Ptarmigan, Merlins, while munching on a seemingly endless supply of blueberries. With that being our introduction to the National Park we were somewhat unimpressed after dismounting our mechanized elephants and driving north to the formalized entrance to the park, our home for 7 nights.
In some respects, Denali is like any other national park; you simply can’t anticipate the grandeur until you’re deep in them, on foot, and free from the ubiquitous generators. Because we’d already been introduced to the southern section of the park, our late arrival to the Savage River Campground under cloudy conditions was somewhat underwhelming. But, out of nowhere, the moon appeared. A full moon. That was nice. Then, to the south, sections of Mt. McKinley appeared. That was very nice. We smiled to sleep and awakened to a rosy-colored Denali, clear skies, and perfect hiking conditions.
To limit vehicular traffic on the 90-mile road well into the park, a bus system was established that provided Terry and me a shuttle 2 miles up the road to the Savage River trailhead. Sooney and Marty decided to begin the loop hike from the trailhead at the campground. The 4-mile Alpine trail switch-backed straight up through craggy rocks to a point where the view of Denali was breathtaking. We continued up to meadows painted with moist grass and high-elevation plants that inspired the trail’s name. I reflected on our recent family hiking holiday in Austria’s Mayrhofen valley. All that was missing here were the clanging bells of resident cattle. (Interestingly, I received an email from Bill, our HF Holidays guide last summer who thoughtfully wrote me—at just about the same time we were on that ridge. Hmm? ) Terry suggested trailblazing farther up the soft tundra-covered slope to explore the other side. I agreed as it was, after all, her birthday weekend, and there was no denying this youngster. Atop some ridge we ate lunch, our backs to a reflecting Denali in deference to the grandeur of our newly-discovered canyon. Alas, we inadvertently missed our mates sticking to the trail down below, and reunited hours later to share bird and critter tales. As did the day begin, dusk settled with a classic Kodachrome sunset, pastel-colored hills blending into yet deeper shades, and the entire scene culminating with long shadows on Denali’s majestic face.
Our visit to the park was a combination of hiking on established trails, walking the road, riding our bikes and, for maximum exposure, using the dusty shuttle buses plying the road from dawn to dusk. The buses run on a schedule, departing every 20 minutes or so, their destination displayed as would any municipal bus. Eielson Visitor Center (mile 65.9)? Hop on. Kantishna (mile 92.4 and the end of the road)? Hop on. In addition to scheduled stops throughout the 90-mile route, drivers stop when requested, generally with a yell of “BEAR” or “MOOSE” from a passenger. Drivers are very patient and, after a reasonable time for photos, announced the 30-second warning and resumed the trip. You may also ask the driver to drop you off at any point along the road to wander around, bear spray handy. When you’re ready to continue, simply wave down a passing bus (space available), luxuriate in the classic school bus seats, and continue to keep a lookout for game. That’s how we saw our Wolverine. The driver was understandably excited; in 10 years of driving one driver had only seen 1! It’s been that kind of trip. After 3 nights in Savage River, we moved farther into the park to Teklanika Campground (Mile 29), and on our final day hooked up with a ranger for a strenuous hike into Polychrome Hills. From milepost 47, we bushwhacked through mushy tundra for a mile or so and then caught a stream bed that became our trail from there on up. At some point we lunched, hats secured in the howling wind, and enjoyed the spectacular array of colors that give Polychrome its name. Grazie per la bellezza.
With our 7 nights camping in Denali NP winding down, we pushed on to Fairbanks for everything we needed, and we found the local COOP a much longed-for source of groceries. The town is well laid and the Univ. of Alaska campus is the home of the lovely museum It’s a beauty, and helped me put some semblance of order to many questions arising on our journey. Fairbanks is also is a destination for migrating Sandhill cranes, and we spent hours prowling Creamer’s Field to see them, listen to them and, when lucky, catch them in some peculiar behavior.
While there, we visited with a recent acquaintance made in Ashland who’d promised us a tour of the Ursa Major distillery for a Lignin berry Cosmo. Locally, the berry is commonly referred to as the low-bush cranberry, and it matures abut the same time as blueberries. There was no shortage or material to glean while trekking. The Cosmo is a blend of their specialized vodka, some Cointreau, lime juice, and the berries cooked with a little simple syrup. Very tasty. After an informative visit with the owner and distiller, we proceeded to the small community of Ester for a beer at the Golden Eagle Saloon, Maggie’s watering hole that apparently doubles as the community center. You want the beer special? $2 and don’t ask what it is cause the label washed off. You want a burger? Here’s the meat and there’s the grill. I sidled up to a patron during a break from that 1/2 pounder and he raved about one of the best restaurants in Alaska. No, not the Golden Eagle but back down the Parks Hwy. at milepost 229. Called appropriately the Milepost 229 Restaurant, it was written up the recent edition of Edible Alaska.
We’d received a report that Chena Hot Springs was buggy, the forecast was for rain (that would reduce our chances of seeing Northern Lights to null), we really wanted to drive the 140-mile Denali Hwy. We opted for the potholes because, hey, it included a fabulous meal of Alaskan Reindeer Ragu on a bed of roasted sweet potatoes, with fresh mint, tomatoes, arugula and house made ricotta. Sooney opted for fresh Alaskan King Salmon with their take on a classic Nicoise salad. We’re southbound now, laying over in Delta Clearwater campground for some Grayling fishing in a world-class river and a sky full of northern lights for a late-night treat. It’s then on to Tok for another junction. Stay tuned.
Wildlife spotted along this leg of our journey:
Eagle River CG
Red-breasted Nuthatch, Boreal Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, Wilson’s Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, White-winged Crossbill
Common Loon, Boreal Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, Hermit Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, *Northern Waterthrush (3), *American Three-toed Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, Moose
Common Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Trumpeter Swan, Lesser Scaup and young, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Spruce Grouse (4 on path), Boreal Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, American Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, *Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Varied Thrush, Downy Woodpecker , Gray Jay, Fox Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Slate, Common Redpoll, White-winged Crossbill
Monster Truck on the Middle Fork of the Chilitna, Bull Creek up to Silver King Mine
Northern Flicker, Raven, White-winged Crossbill, Muskrat & Beaver, Mallard, American Wigeon, Trumpeter Swan, Junco, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rump Warbler, Spruce Grouse, Golden-crowned King, Northern Waterthrush, Wilson Warbler, Gray Jay, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Caribou, White-crowned Sparrow, *Willow Ptarmigan, Moose, Black Bear, Merlin, Kestrel, Goshawk
Savage River CG
White-crowned Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, White-winged Crossbill
Savage River Alpine Trail
Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, Spruce Grouse, Wilson Warbler, *American Tree Sparrow, Moose, Raven, Northern Harrier, Goshawk, Golden Eagle, *Northern Wheatear, Pika
Park Road, Denali NP
9 Willow Ptarmigan, Pine Siskin, Gray Jay, White-crowned Sparrow, Grizzly, Dall Sheep, Black-billed Magpie, Raven, Junco, Wilson’s Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-crowned Sparrow, Common Loon, Mallard, Scaups, Moose, Willow Ptarmigan, Golden Eagle, Caribou, Kestrel, Wolverine , Gray Jay, American Robins, Boreal Chickadee
A. Robin, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Peregrin Falcon
Fairbanks, Creamer’s Field
Lincoln’s Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Mallard, Black-capped Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, Junco, Swainson’s Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Sandhill Crane (200+), Greater White-fronted Goose, Canada Goose (200+)
Denali Hwy. (from Cantwell to Paxson)
Green-winged Teal, Harlequin Duck, Belted Kingfisher, Beaver at work chewing on alder, Bohemian Waxwing flock, Gray Jay, White-crowned Sparrow, Junco, Magpie, Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rump Warbler, Common Loon, Raven, Trumpeter Swan, *Arctic Warbler, Northern Shrike, American Tree Sparrow
7 life birds (21 total for the entire Alaska road trip)