We have lived in the Pacific Northwest for over 15 years, yet we have never visited Alaska, which we might consider our big backyard through the backdoor. We have always wanted to explore the wildness, the emptiness, the chill and the mystery. The short season available for visiting makes the idea of the trip more exciting.
Since it is such a short and easy trip, just a 3-hour flight in and out of Fairbanks, we planned a total of 3 days including a quick drive to see the Arctic Circle and then Denali Park. Not nearly such a big deal as we are sumptuously planning for our Australian extravaganza for 18 days in December.
Barbara booked the nonstop flights, hotels (one night in Fairbanks, two in a hotel near Denali Park) and a rental car. With the barest mininum planning, we felt ready to go, with a couple of good tour books in our carry on luggage.
During the Friday evening flight to Fairbanks, Barbara started reading the detailed tour book and was horrified to learn three facts.
Arriving in Fairbanks, we checked into the Historical Exploration Inn on the north side of town late Friday night. Waking up to the alarm before 7am on Saturday, we called the Visitor Access Center at Denali Park and got the last two seat reservations on the 7:15am bus for the Sunday scheduled 11-hour tour. What luck! What a relief!
We enjoyed a hearty full breakfast at the Inn and then started driving towards the Arctic. The 800 mile long Oil Pipeline is very impressive (regardless our opinion about the Alaska Oil drilling). There is great view along the way with amazing colors of flowers (photo, Alaska Wildflowers). By the time we got to the beginning of the unpaved old Haul Road, we realized how dangerous this route could be for our small car. The road is paved with gravel, littered with little stones, some sharp as razor blades. When 18-wheelers go sweeping by without braking, our little car would take a gravel storm shower. We suggest that you do not drive on that road unless you have a couple of extra tires and are prepared to camp out. The towing service if you get stuck will run $5 per mile or more. We cowardly stopped at the Yukon River, 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. As it was, we considered ourselves lucky to get that far (and back) without disabling or seriously disfiguring our car. We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the bank of the might Yukon, where we saw some boaters and some pretty red and blue dragonflies (photo, Dragonfly).
We turned back south and went back through Fairbanks, loading up a food supply in the local deli and then continued down to Denali.
Sunday morning turned out to be overcast, but not raining as the forecast had predicted. We got to the park early, and were first on line to get on the bus, taking the frontmost seats. Tom the driver, also our guide, has a dry sense of humor, more a drill sergeant than a tour guide. We like him a lot for his massive knowledge of the park and the wildlife. It seems all the drivers really enjoy their work despite the long hours. Most of them return to work there year after year.
The park has mountains, swamps, high plateaus (photo, Mountain Scenery). There are views of glaciers (photo, Muldrow Glacier) and a massive dried riverbed. We saw a moose couple, (photos, Mrs. Moose and Mr. Moose) taking a morning walk. Then came the Dall Sheep, up high on the mountain range. Even with binoculars, you see just some moving white dots spread along the steep slope of the peaks. Then along the road came a family of three grizzly bears, a Bear Mom and her two cubs. (photos, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) They stopped right next to our bus and started digging in the ditch for some roots, apparently for their lunch (photo, Digging). Compared to their coastal cousins, who fatten themselves up with salmon, grizzly bears in Denali Park are forced to be mostly vegetarians. They get 80% of their diet from fruit and roots, and tend to be a leaner and smaller version, just half the size of the Northwest ones.
The tour bus's western terminus is Wonder Lake, a true natural beauty. The water is crystal clear, reflecting the mountain range farther north (photo, Wonder Lake reflections). We had a picnic lunch along the bank of the lake, hiked along the Mckinley Bar Trail for a little way (photo, Barbara on the Trail). We flagged down a later bus to get back to the Visitor Center. On the return passage, we saw more Caribou (photo, Caribou) and some beavers.
We felt happy that the weather had been very cooperative for the first two days till near the end of our Denali Park tour, when it started to rain. The rain lasted the whole night into the next morning, our last day in Alaska. We coped by sleeping in, had a light breakfast and checked out of the Denali Bluffs Hotel (photo, Denal Bluffs Hotel). We went to see a Sled Dog (photo, Working Dog) demonstration offered by the park. Denali is the only national park that keeps dogs as part of their winter working crew. Those huskies are handsome, strong and friendly, reflecting the true quality and sprit of Alaska.
We did not get enough of Alaska. On the flight back, we were already making plans to fly all the way up to Barrow next summer to see the real Arctic and the Arctic Ocean, and maybe be a couple of happy backcountry hikers and campers in Denali.
For more information about traveling and vacationing in the great state of Alaska, check out this website: http://www.digalaska.com.