Candy Moulton: On the Trail 11-5-12
November 12, 2012
The landscape in Alaska is so big, so diverse and so surprising it is somewhat difficult to capture it in words. With the family I spent a week there this year and although we did a lot, we barely scratched the surface of all you could do in that immense environment.
Certainly a highlight of our trip was the opportunity to go salmon fishing, as I wrote about in an earlier On the Trail. But we also took a day-long cruise in Glacier Bay, spent time exploring Anchorage including the outstanding museum there, and then we headed farther north.
We had driven south to the Kenai Peninsula for the fishing and cruising, but decided to let someone else do the driving on the remainder of our trip. So we bought tickets on the Alaska Railway, taking the Gold Star service (which is more expensive, but gives you a seat that has a wide open view of the land). The glass windows and dome in the Gold Star Coaches make you feel like you are outside because the views are so unobstructed.
It took all day for the trip from Anchorage to Denali National Park, with the train passing though a few towns, but mostly crossing rural landscapes, which in Alaska means forests, rivers, mountains and some "developed" areas that are little more than spots in the road (or along the tracks). On one stretch we learned that the only motorized access was on the train. The conductor threw bags holding books and newspapers off at locations where he knew these hardy backcountry residents lived.
Those folks can hang a flag by the trail to their homes, and stop the train if they need a ride to town; they get their groceries and other goods delivered, along with the occasional newspaper or book thrown their way.
Once we reached Denali, we paired up with our luggage and took a short van ride to the Denali Grizzly Bear Lodge, our accommodations for our stay in Denali. It was end of the season, which meant the place was not as busy as it would have been during a visit there in mid-summer, and this was to our liking.
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For our day-long bus tour into Denali, we were truly glad it was late in the year. Not only was the bus less crowded, but more important, we saw an amazing array of wildlife: caribou, moose, several grizzly bears and more. Although it was early September, the north-country was already experiencing colder temperatures and that meant the landscape looked like fall.
The birch brush of the tundra was a rich mosaic of red and yellow; aspen leaves were red, gold, yellow, orange and as pretty as any I've seen in the Colorado or Wyoming Rockies. The only way to travel deep into Denali is with an organized tour. With someone else to do the driving, we could watch out the windows for wildlife and scenery.
Of course, a visit to Denali is highlighted by seeing that massive mountain of the same name (also known as Mount McKinley), but the weather did not cooperate and we barely spied the base of the mountain. Knowing that only about 20 percent of the people who visit the park actually see the peak, the fact that we were in the 80 percent was not even all that disappointing. That is because everything about the landscape was inspiring and majestic.
For a final stop we spent a night in Talkeetna, located along the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna rivers. While we were there Steve and Luke took a jet boat ride up the Talkeetna River seeing bald eagles and other wildlife. The Talkeetna locals told us a big storm was moving into the region. It was raining (but then it had been raining almost every day of our trip so that was nothing new) and the clouds hung low.
Son Shawn had not stopped in Talkeetna with us, but instead returned to Anchorage in order to catch an earlier flight home. That is where the storm was particularly severe with winds approaching 100 miles per hour, causing damage to houses, businesses, and trees, and resulting in power outages. The electricity was out in his hotel, so he had no choice but to go to a bar! (At least that is what he told us the next day). But of course, he also had no hot water and ended up with only a cold shower, which I thought was pretty funny, since we spent the same night at the Talkeetna Wilderness Lodge, a very nice property to say the least!
Approximately three weeks after we returned home from Alaska, I saw in the news that the continual rains, at unprecedented levels in the Talkeetna area, had caused major flooding, and a section of the Alaska Railroad washed out, cutting off all contact with those folks living in the most remote areas along the route. I hope by now the line is repaired.
If you have not ventured north to Alaska, I encourage you to do so. Ten years ago Steve and I took a cruise through the Inside Passage visiting Seward, Valez, Skagway and Vancouver, Canada, seeing whales, dolphins and amazing scenery. This year with our kids we did the "land" expedition. Both trips were truly wonderful offering unique experiences. ❖