TR Robertson …. Before describing the incredible time we had in the back country of Denali, I mentioned a little about the famous Iditarod in Parts I and II. Thought I would give you a brief bit of information about what is called the “Last Great Race on Earth”. I should also mention the sun set around 11 pm for a short period of time, about 2 hours or so, and was back up for lots of daylight. A hard thing to get used to. It never really got dark.
The trail for the race, called the Iditarod, that is followed was initially a mail and supply route from Seward to Knik and on to the interior mining towns and beyond. The actual length of the race is 1,161 miles long and begins with a ceremonial start in Anchorage, then moved to Willow for the race to Nome, on the Bering Sea Coast. The race was first held in 1973 as a tribute to the 1925 serum run to Nome to stop a diphtheria epidemic. It takes mushers 8 – 15 days to complete the race, with frequent changes of sled dogs. The trail the 50-60 mushers follow is a U.S. National Historic Trail. Prize money is given to the winning team. During the summer, tourists can enjoy a sled dog experience with the dogs pulling visitors on wheeled sleds.
Photos by Carolyn Robertson
Meanwhile, back to Denali. We stayed in the Denali Cabins and directly behind the cabins was a dog sled compound where one of the leading mushers raised, trained and kept his dogs. Our accommodations at the Denali Cabins were very nice and the rooms quite large. There are a number of experiences visitors to Denali can take part in. We had booked a Denali Back Country Tour, 13 hour trip which would take us deep into the Denali National Park, as far as the road would go without continuing on foot and hiking into the park. We would travel 90 miles into the park on our tour and along the way we would encounter grizzly bear, moose, caribou, fox, Dall sheep, hare and numerous birds.
Denali welcomes close to 600,000 visitors a year. The land is a mix of forest, tundra, glaciers, rock and snow. People have lived in this part of Alaska for over 11,000 years. Denali became a park in 1917, with the mountain called Mt. McKinley at that time. The park includes the highest portion of the Alaska Range. Glaciers make up 16% of the over 6 million acres. Summer temperatures can be cool and damp and snow in August is not uncommon. The park is home, in the summer, to many migratory birds such as the tundra swan. There are over 450 varieties of flowering plants during the short spring and summer.
As we turned on Park Road to head into the park, our guide told everyone to constantly be on the lookout for animals and as quietly, but directly as possible to indicate where the animals were. We began to pass by lakes, streams, rivers and creeks with names like Riley Creek, Igloo Creek, Savage River, Sanctuary River, Teklanika River, Toklat River, Stony Creek, and Wonder Lake. We could also see Muldrow Glacier from the bus. There are 881 glaciers in Denali Park. Our guide made frequent stops for us to take pictures. Along the way we were fortunate to see at least 12 grizzly bear foraging in the mountain sides, individual and small herds of caribou wandering in the hills and wading in the creek beds, fox right on the roadways, Dall sheep high on the upper part of the mountain range and two bull moose lying fairly close to the road in a swampy area. Owls, eagles, spruce grouse, and tundra swan were in various locations along the way. Make sure you go through the slide show of pictures to see some of the animals we were able to get pictures of. Grizzly Bear in the interior get to around 600 lbs., with coastal Grizzly weighing even more. Bull Moose can stand over 7 feet tall and weigh as much at 1,600 lbs. Dall sheep are slightly different than mountain goats in appearance. There is an estimated 2,500 Dall sheep in the park and 2,000 caribou. Caribou grow to eight feet in length. On this trip we did not see wolves or wolverine, very difficult animals to see.
We stopped at Polychrome Overlook to see the beauty of Polychrome Mountain and at the Eielson Visitor Center for a snack and restroom break. As we crossed over the bridge leading to the center, we encountered two young caribou very close to our bus and galloping in the water. Our destination for the tour was Kantishna and the Denali Backcountry Lodge, at the end of the road, 90 miles deep into the park. This was a beautiful lodge, where we had a great lunch in a large indoor eating area, visited the upstairs bar and lounge area, wandered through the different accommodations visitors were staying in and watched people learning how to fly fish in Bear Creek. Denali was not visible on this day, even though our day turned out to be a sunny day, as a hazy cloud cover surrounded the mountain. Denali is only visible 20% of the time in Alaska.
After our lunch, we loaded back onto the bus and drove back on the same road, seeing more animals and made our way back to the Denali Cabins, a day well spent with amazing sights in our memory banks. The next morning, we took a shuttle back to the Denali Visitors Center, checked our luggage into the small train station and prepared for a train trip back toward Anchorage, but first we would make an overnight stop in a Talkeetna. Talkeetna is called the Gateway to Denali. Many back packing trips begin here as well as many plane flights over Denali, made from the small airport. Talkeetna is an Athabascan word meaning “River of Plenty”. Its normal population is slightly over 800 people, but in summer months this swells to thousands due to the tourists and campers. Each July, the city holds a Moose Dropping Festival where contestants can see how far they can throw a moose “nugget”. We week after we were there, the city was to hold a Blueberry Festival, blueberries a favorite food of Grizzly bear. They also hold a yearly Bachelor Auction and Wilderness Woman Contest. Fishing, jet boats and float trips also take off from Talkeetna.
The Honorary Mayor of Talkeetna used to be Mayor Stubbs, a stubby tailed cat, but unfortunately Mr. Stubbs passed away just before we arrived. He was a resident of the Nagley General Store. We were staying in a beautiful lodge hotel, called the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. They boast the World’s Largest Indoor Stone Fireplace, and it was very tall. The lodge and our room had an amazing view of Denali, and this time we could see the entire mountain, but it was a little hazy. We took a shuttle ride into the small town, wandered through very quaint gift shops, had a great lunch at The Wildflower, right across the street from The Denali Brewing Company and wandered down the street for delicious Fireweed Ice Cream before catching a shuttle back to our hotel. The next day, it was back on the train for a roughly 4 hour ride to Anchorage for a short overnight stay, an early morning rise for a cab to the Anchorage Train Station and an early train ride to Seward, where we would board the NCL Sun for our Alaskan Cruise.
The train ride to Seward is one of the prettiest parts of the trip. Lots of valleys, rivers, waterfalls and another view of Anchorage as we headed toward the coast. We actually saw a young moose from our train window that had become trapped in an Anchorage home owner’s backyard and was desperately trying to figure out how to escape. We also passed by what was the town of Portage. The town was devastated by a 9.2 earthquake in 1964, with the surrounding land dropping 10-12 feet. The town was flooded and all that is left now are dead trees. Spencer Glacier is also visible from the train.
More on the port town of Seward in Part IV and our Alaska Cruise and the beauty of our 49th State.