Friday, July 27, 2012

Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska

Wed, Juy 11th - Sun, July 15th          

Leaving Fairbanks.  I think this picture speaks for itself.  They say laughter is the best medicine and they certainly have a sense of humor in Alaska. 

We stopped at the small town of Nenana where the Nenana River joins the Tanana.  It was a construction base for the Alaska  Railroad in the early 20s and President Harding drove the golden Spike here for it's completion.  The story we heard was that he had "some" drinks on the trip here and was so inebriated by the time he arrived that he completely missed the spike several times before he finally was able to hit it.  Their depot houses the state Alaska Railroad Museum and it is the hub for the tug boat/barge shipping industry that traverses the interior.  But it's best known for the Nenana Ice Classic.  It has been a spring highlight since 1917.  They set this tripod on the river the last weekend in February starting the festivities that end at break up time in late April or May.  It is connected to a clock, so when it goes thru the ice, it records the exact time.  Tickets are sold throughout the state and very large cash prizes are paid to those who guess the exact minute of the ice break up, $350,000 in 2012. 

We finally made it to Denali National Park.  Their Visitor Center is like a museum, and we went to a couple of evening Ranger talks and took a tour of their sled dog kennels.  Sled dogs are their mode of transportation here in the winter.  They put on 3,000 miles every winter with the dogs, patroling and bringing supplies to the remote regions of this 6.2 million acre park and preserve. 

This was along one of the little hikes near our campground.  The railroad trestle bridge is in the background.  The train stops right in the park twice a day bringing passengers from Fairbanks, Anchorage and Seward.  There are many bus loads of people getting on and off every time the train stops.  There were four very large, outdoor shelters for waiting passengers on each side of the depot. 

You are only allowed to drive the first 15 miles into the park.  Beyond that, you have to take a bus.  They have been using the buses since 1987 because the number of visitors was so overwhelming.  We took the bus 92 miles into the park as far as the only road into the park goes.  It was a 12 hour tour from 6 am to 6 pm including a box lunch and snacks. 

It's a fairly narrow winding gravel road and you ride in a school bus.  Not the most comfortable and it sounds like a long day, but we stopped many times to get out and look at things and hike a little and, of course, potty breaks, some more rustic than others.  These two pictures show a little bit of the road. 

This picture shows our first view of Mt. McKinley, probably still over a hundred miles away at this point.  The Russians had originally given the mountain a different name and the natives called it Denali, but a gold miner named it McKinley after President McKinley (from Ohio) because he supported the gold standard. The state of Alaska changed the name back to Denali in 1980 when over 4 million acres of wildlife preserve was added to the original park.  The U.S. Government Map Board still refers to it as Mt. McKinley on all maps.  There have been several bills brought to the legislature to change it to Denali, but the representative from Ohio always has a bill in place to block it.

We saw Caribou a couple times and some mountain goats and a couple of moose quite far away. 

These are just a few views along the way.  We picked up a park ranger along the way who spent a few hours with us talking about plants, animals, history of the park and such.  We are starting to see the peaks of Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker to it's left.  The natives call them Denali and Mrs. Denali (I forget exactly how they spell her name). 

This one is a little closer up view.   You have to look closely for the peaks above the clouds.  It was much clearer in person, but didn't show up very well in the photos.

This was taken from the viewing platform at the Eielson Visitor Center which is about half way to the end of the road. 

And a closer view.  At the end of the 92 mile road is Kantishna, an old mining town from the 1905-06 gold rush.  Most of the mining claims have been bought by the park, but their are still a few privately owned homes and claims within the park boundaries.   

This little lake was surrounded by cotton grass and was quite pretty.

 Meeting another bus in some places could be a little hairy, but sometimes it's that way in the RV, too.  

We saw grizzlies at least five or six times along the way.  Usually they were alone.  Once there were two together.  Brown bears and grizzly bears are the same species.  Grizzly bears are smaller and live in the interior and get their name from the silver-tipped hairs they develop as they age, that makes them look older and "grizzly".  Brown refers to the coastal bears who feed primarily on salmon.  A five pound salmon has 4,500 calories equal to nine cheese burgers.  An adult bear can eat up to 90 pounds of salmon per day to gain 3 to 6 pounds per day.  Females can weigh 200 to 450 pounds, males 300 to 1,000 pounds and they can run 35 mph in short bursts.  Bears can eat three 5 gal. buckets of berries a day.  Alaska has an estimated 32,000 to 43,000 grizzlies. 

This Momma bear had two cubs trailing far behind her. 

Everyone in the bus was so excited, scrambling to take pictures as they came down the hillside.  Finally, they caught up with Momma and just kept coming down the hill and came right across the road right behind our bus.

We just happened to be sitting in the back seat, but the back window was really dirty, so the picture isn't too clear.  What a way to top off a great day of sightseeing! 

The next day we hiked over to Denali Drive, the little strip of businesses along the highway just outside the park. 

This is a boat ramp from the boardwalk down to the Nenana River below, where there was a group of rafters getting ready to set off down the river.  Looks like a cold adventure to me.  Somewhere I read that you would get hypothermia in less than ten minutes in the water up here.  I'm not sure if it's that cold in this river, but I'd rather do my rafting a little further south. 

We decided to eat out, so we went to the Prospectors Historic Pizzeria & Ale House.  We ordered a reindeer pizza and a tower of onion rings.  We thought it would just be a big  plate of onion rings, but no, it was just five onion rings stacked in a tower.  But they were the BIGGEST onion rings we have ever seen and the best ever, by far!  John managed to get one before I snapped a picture. The pizza was really good, too.  I highly recommend this place.  There are quite a few big lodges and hotels along this strip, a couple of dinner theaters and lots of restaurants and gift shops. 

Just in case you wanted to see our smiling faces, some guy insisted on taking our picture together.  It doesn't happen very often that we are in the same picture together, and smiling! 

One afternoon we took a hike down the Horseshoe Lake Trail.  This is a view from the top, of the lake that we are hiking down to. 

Along the trail, there must have been at least a hundred of these big bags with handles full of crushed rock for the trail.  I assume they must have hauled them down with a Bobcat or something, but we saw no sign of any tracks or anything and the trail was quite steep in places. 

This is Horseshoe Lake at the bottom. 

But the beavers have built a huge dam across it and it is no longer horsehoe shaped.

After leaving Denali, we stopped to watch these folks launch their raft in the Nenana River with their two dogs all decked out in life jackets. 

Yes Steve, the abandoned, unfinished Igloo Hotel is still there and still unfinshed and abandoned. 

This Alaska Veterans Memorial is at a rest area just next to Byers Lake Campground in Denali State Park where we camped for the night.  It's a really nice memorial to all five branches of the military and special plaques for Alaska natives with purple hearts and gold medals and some killed in local plane disasters.  Unusual in this quiet wilderness setting, instead of a city park like most war memorials, but seems quite Alaskan. 

View of the Chulitna River looking back toward Denali, which you can't see because of the clouds.  But the Ruth glacier comes down between the two 5,000 foot peaks on the left side of the picture.  There are several 12-14,000 foot peaks behind and then 20,320 foot Denali and Foraker.  The Ruth Glacier extends 31 miles southeast through the Great Gorge nicknamed the Grand Canyon for the towering peaks that rise on both sides.  The glacier is actually 9,000 feet deep (deeper than the Grand Canyon), but the true depth cannot be seen since the glacier fills nearly half of it.  Denali continues to rise, but at a rate about as slow as fingernails grow.

We made a short stop in the small town of Talkeetna, the aviation and supply base for Denali climbing expeditions.  There is a Ranger Station here to support the climbing expeditions, which take place from late April to early July when the snowstarts to get dangerously soft.  The climbers get flown from here to base camp on the glacier at 7,200 feet.  About 1,200 climbers attempt the summit each year, with a little less than half making it and some still die trying.  The first summit was made in 1913, but back then they traveled three months through thousands of miles of wilderness to get here and still had 40.9 miles to go with nearly the entire elevation to climb.   Denali would be taller than Mt. Everest if measured by vertical rise from it's base rather than height above sea level, plus the unpredictable winter-like storms make it more dangerous.

My brother is always telling me that we should eat at those places they have on the TV shows like "Diners, Dives & Drive-Ins" or whatever that show is called.  So at Talkeetna we ate at the West Rib Pub & Grill as seen on the show "Man v Food".  Below is a picture and description of the burger on their menu that was used on that show. 

No Gary, we didn't try it.  Five pounds of meat and almost a pound of cheese, plus bun and veggies, are you kidding me?  We had the fish and chips and chowder, which were all very good.  A neat little restaurant and town.  

Before we left town, we stopped at the cemetery where several of the climbers who died trying to summit Denali are buried.  There is a memorial to them with a huge plaque listing all those that have died on Denali (and there are lots of names) and a pole with climbers carved on it.  It's an interesting little cemetery.   

We spent the night at the Little Susitna River Campground in Houston.  The book said Miller's Place had the best soft ice cream in Alaska and it wasn't hard to find.  They had all kinds of flavors with a little stripe of the flavor twisted into the edges of the ice cream.  I had blueberry and it was yummy.  Notice the mosquito sculpture on the lawn out front.  We do see a lot of interesting renditions of mosquitos.  

We stopped in Wasilla, home of the ditsy lady who claims she can see Russia from her house.  Their claim to fame is they have lots of big box stores like Walmart, Lowes, etc.  We stopped at the Visitor Center.  The lady working there said her family was from the Big Stone area in South Dakota.  She came here with her husband for his job and they homesteaded.  It's interesting how many people were homesteading here in the 40s, 50s and 60s.  The homestead act was in effect until sometime in the 70s, I think.  We did stop at the Iditarod Headquarters here.  They have a little museum and film and give sled dog rides.  The ceremonial start of the race is in Anchorage.  Then they pack up and come to Wasilla where they have the official start the next day. We will be spending the next three days in Anchorage.

T-shirt of the day.  In a shop at Talkeetna where the pilots are flying the climbers up to land on the glaciers.                                      
There's a saying among prospectors, "Go out looking for one thing and that's all you'll ever find." 

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