08 August 2012


[Back in August 2003, I took a 12-day land-sea trip to Alaska, principally to see the fjords along the coast, something I’d wanted to do for a long time. My mother and I booked the trip with Holland-America Line which offered a combined tour-cruise. The landscape and scenery, including the wildlife, in Alaska is truly magnificent—whatever you’ve heard, it falls way short of the reality. Our first real stop was Denali National Park and Preserve, the home of Mount McKinley, and a little while ago, the younger daughter of a friend spent the summer there as a member of a performance troupe at the same lodge at which I stayed. I’d hoped to get her to write something for ROT to which I’d add my journal as a kind of supplement, but the young actor was just too busy starting her career (she’s now in California studying with The Groundlings), so I’m just going to brush off my old account, written right after I got back east, and run it on its own—just for fun. For now, I’m skipping all the other parts of the trip, including the sail down the Inside Passage, the views of the fjords and glaciers, and an exceptional whale-watch in Juneau (after which we learned of the black-out back home, where my friend’s older daughter was apartment-and-dog sitting for me).

[Now, sit back and, to put yourself in the proper frame of mind, imagine hearing Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska” in the background.]

The United Airlines flight—flights—out to Anchorage was miserable, except that we did finally get there. We left New York at just shy of 2 p.m. on Thursday, 7 August, and, due to a delay in Seattle, arrived at 2 a.m. Friday, about three hours late. Ironically, though, if our flight from Seattle had left on time, earlier in the evening before darkness fell in that part of the world, we might not have had one remarkable experience. On the flight up to Anchorage, out over the horizon, we saw the northern lights out the plane window. Either because of the atmospherics, or because we were up looking down instead of down looking up, these lights weren't colored like some pictures you see. It was all sort of greenish, like the image on a radar screen or through a fluoroscope. But it was still an eerie sight—like something that really shouldn't be happening. A close encounter of the weird kind!

We got to the Anchorage hotel only to learn that the departure for the train to Denali was 7:30! I had called Holland-America Line from New York to find out when that train left, and the HAL representative at the other end of the line told me very specifically that it left at 12:30 p.m., though they wanted us at the station at noon. (This turns out to be the time the return train from Denali to Anchorage leaves—which we weren’t even taking as we were going on to Fairbanks, not coming back to Anchorage. It wasn’t the first time HAL was unhelpful—or the last.) We had thought we’d have a little time to catch up with ourselves, since we were getting in so late (early?)—even without the Seattle delay. WRONG!!

So we had our hour-and-a-half nap, hardly enough time to warrant being charged for the room, and got to the McKinley Explorer, the Alaska Railroad train to Denali. It’s called a national park but it’s really a huge wilderness, home of not only Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain, but a lot of wildlife. Now, the train itself is kind of interesting. First of all, Alaska’s the only state that still has its own railroad (aside, of course, from commuter trains and subways). Of course, it doesn’t go very many places—Anchorage to Fairbanks to Seward, with stops along the way. (In the winter, apparently, passengers can actually flag the train to stop anywhere along the track. I’m not really sure how that’d work, actually.) Alaska Railroad is basically a regular, though limited, railroad, except that the big tour companies (HAL and Princess) had special cars that they paid ARR to pull. These cars—I assume the Princess cars were about the same—were quite luxurious, with big seats, a bar, a restaurant, a guide, and (of course) a shop. They were double-deckers, with the seats up on top and glass all around—including the roof. (The restaurant, galley, bathrooms, and shop were all below in one or the other of the two cars each cruise line runs. Each car had its own guide/narrator and bar.)

The 237-mile trip north to Denali is about five hours, with stops at Wasilla (now famous—or, perhaps, infamous—as the place that gave us all Sarah Palin, but in 2003, just an unknown little Alaska town) and Talkeetna (the frequent staging area for those starting out to climb McKinley) before reaching Denali and Fairbanks. The trip’s always over a meal (lunch up, dinner back), though it comes pretty early by our standards. Still, it was a pretty decent meal. But the real attraction of the train ride was the scenery between Anchorage and Denali. The train runs along a river, mostly the Susitna and several of its tributaries (the Knik and Matanuska Rivers), for most of the trip, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, so there are lots of vistas of mountains, forest, and river landscape, especially as the train rounds a curve or crosses a bridge and you can see way up ahead. We were extremely fortunate because we had magnificent weather on our arrival. The summer weather in Alaska is often rainy and foggy; August is the driest month, but it still gets a little rain at least most days of the week. (Alaskans call this “liquid sunshine” and just go about their business regardless. Only we tourists get discommoded by the wet. All the tour busses were stocked with umbrellas for the passengers, just in case.) But when we got there, Anchorage was having record-breaking high temperatures—75 degrees! And bright sun and blue, cloudless skies, with unlimited visibility all around. You’ll pardon the cliché, but the scenery between Anchorage and Denali was breathtaking. That’s no exaggeration. And as we got near Denali, just past Talkeetna, we got several views of McKinley—a sight all the guidebooks warn might not be available because the mountain is usually shrouded in mist most days. (The weather in Denali can be so unpredictable, the guides all tell you, that snow has been known to fall in August.) But as the train came around several curves, the guide warned us what was coming, and towering above the surrounding terrain was this huge, white mass glowing among the other, brown and green mountains. You can think it’s just another mountain and be prepared not to see anything special—I’ve seen Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn many, many times—but all the preparation aside—McKinley gets a lot of word-of-mouth—the sight itself will subvert any sense of blasé déjà vu you might have: it’s truly majestic—another cliché that turns out to be accurate here. When we saw it that day (we saw it again several times the next day, too), with the unusual weather, it was as if a huge spotlight were focused on the mountain—it actually glows in contrast with the surrounding mountains, which are mostly not covered in snow. It looks like a postcard—a doctored photo for tourist consumption.

Once again, the specter of HAL (isn’t that the name of the renegade computer in 2001? Fits) arose to spoil this part of the trip, too, a little. First, while we were on the train to Denali, a Gray Line/HAL salesperson was aboard, selling tours at the park. Since we were arriving at about 12:30 or so on Friday and our pre-scheduled ride into the park wasn’t until Saturday morning, Mom and I considered some of the offerings. We didn’t want to go rafting, golfing, horseback riding, or fishing, and the plane and helicopter rides seemed very expensive despite the magnificence of the views. But there was a sort of dinner tour that was a carriage ride into the park—remember, during Alaskan summers, it stays light until 9 or 9:30—to a restaurant. We thought it would be a pleasant way to spend the evening, until we got to the lodge and realized how tired we were and that we really didn’t want to go on the ride after all. Aside from the fact that we’d been sold on the package a little too enthusiastically at the time, the salesgirl didn’t tell us that we couldn’t back out. Mother, who can be really annoying when she wants to be, argued with the Gray Line manager at the lodge, and probably to get rid of us, he canceled our reservation. The lodge—called the McKinley Chalet, which sounds a little over-grand for what it actually is—is on the edge of the park. (I’m not actually sure if it’s in the park or just outside it—in any case, the terrain is identical and contiguous anyway.) Unfortunately, the little “village”—it’s really a collection of shops (souvenir, for the most part) and eateries (not quite restaurants, more like snack shops)—was undergoing a major road-construction and everything was heavy equipment, dust, and dirt. We looked around a little, then went in search of some place to have a very light supper.

The choices for dinner being minimal in the immediate range of the hotel, we ate in the lodge bar, the Nenana View Bar & Grille, which did have a beautiful view of the mountains and, just below us, the little Nenana River. The rafters go by below the bar as they round a bend in the river, which, like many in Alaska, is grayish because it’s glacier-fed. (The glaciers grind up the bedrock as they move along, making glacial silt—a fine, gray powder—which colors the rivers and lakes whose sources are the glaciers. The other streams and lakes are clear, and as we rode past one confluence of two rivers on the train, the guide pointed out that one was clear and the other cloudy as they ran together at that point: one river was spring-fed and the other glacial. When we were whale-watching in Juneau later in the trip, the naturalist on the boat pointed out the part of the bay into which the glacial Mendenhall River ran—the river actually runs out into the bay several miles—which is visible because the river is opaque and the bay is clear. And they stay that way—they don’t blend! It sort of looks like Elsa Lanchester’s wig in Bride of Frankenstein.) So, we sat and had a drink—Alaska beer, which is very, very good, by the way—and ate our supper—salmon, which I ate as often as I could (including salmon chowder on the train); we originally ordered reindeer sausage, but they were out of it!—and watched the rafters and the scenery. (Later in the trip, we did get reindeer sausage. So, yes, in my life I’ve eaten Bambi, Thumper, and now, Rudolph. Wanna make somethin’ of it?) It was still bright daylight—dusk didn’t come along until after we’d retired.

And that’s what we did, after a short stroll along the Nenana riverbank—which is several hundred feet high above the rushing little stream. We were still exhausted from our flights the day before (well, earlier that same day, actually). We had sort of thought we’d nap on the train, but even at five hours, there was too much awesome scenery to take in, so we never closed our eyes. I guess we knocked off about nine o’clock, while the sun was still shining outside. The park drive was scheduled early the next morning, anyway.

The next day, Saturday, 9 August, we drove through part of the park—Denali is the native Athabascan name for McKinley; it means “The Great One” (an homage to Jackie Gleason perhaps?)—which, as I said, is vast. Mount McKinley is the official name of the 20,320-foot peak (at the South Peak; the North Peak is only 19,470 feet high), part of the 600-mile-long Alaskan Mountain Range, but Alaskans use both names and prefer Denali—though sometimes it’s just called “the mountain.” The park is principally forest, and it’s a preserve as well as a park, which means that it’s pretty much left natural with minimal interference by humans. Trees that fall are left (unless they block a road or path), hunting is prohibited (except for some “subsistence” natives who are allowed to take what they need to live on, but not to sell or trade), and there are minimal roads and constructed facilities in most of the park. (There are a few small cabins or huts, now used for park maintenance—though one is kept as it might have been as a hunting cabin back at the turn of the 20th century—but they all predate the establishment of the wilderness preserve in 1980.) You’re not even allowed to take away a rock as a souvenir or pick the wildflowers. (This sort of contrasts with Israel when I was there: They fairly begged us to take a rock home as a souvenir!) The use of motorized vehicles within the park is limited to maintained roads and parking areas. Private vehicles are not permitted past the Savage Check Station, 14 miles along the 92-mile Park Road (of which only 15 miles are paved because the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground makes maintaining the road prohibitively costly). Only busses (and bicycles) are allowed past a certain point to keep vehicle traffic and pollution to a minimum—and the busses have to be old school busses, not the big, heavy tour or city busses. As far as I could learn, the interior of the park is pretty much free of anything artificial—open only to hikers, campers, rafters, and climbers. (You can fish in Denali, but it’s catch-and-release.) I believe Denali, a little smaller than the entire state of Vermont, is the third largest national park in the country.

Six million acres (9,420 square miles) of rich and diverse terrain, Denali National Park and Preserve is home to large mammals—wolves, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and grizzly bears—which roam freely in the park, sharing the land with a host of smaller mammals including ground squirrels, hoary marmots, pikas, and snowshoe hares. More than 650 species of flowering plants and a wide variety of other flora adorn the slopes and valleys of the park’s dynamic landscape. The lower altitudes of Denali are forest, the middle elevations include tundra, and at the highest levels are glaciers. Among the many peoples who originally called Denali home were the Ahtna, Athabascan, Koyukon and Tanana. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, prospectors rushed to the area too search for gold. President Woodrow Wilson established Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 and the United Nations designated the park an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976. In 1980, the original park was designated a wilderness area and incorporated into Denali National Park and Preserve.

We had only a small amount of luck in the wildlife-sighting department. No bears or moose, but we saw some Dall sheep and one caribou that actually came down to the road, practically right up to the bus. Of course, we saw lots of eagles in flight, but none perched or close enough to get anything more than an impression. The Dall sheep, a noble-looking, long-haired, white sheep with immense curled horns that lives way up in the hills among the rocks and scrub to keep them safe from wolves and pumas, were pretty far away—how anyone spotted them, I’ll never know—but our driver came equipped with a telescope (we’d brought binoculars, which were also helpful on the whale-watch later) and he set it up at the roadside and we took turns looking up at the small herd. These big sheep, named for William Healey Dall (1845–1927), the same naturalist who’s also the namesake for the black-and-white Dall porpoises we watched frolicking in the wake of our ship’s bow later in the trip, just have a wonderfully serious, stern look, set off by the great, curled horns that look almost too big to be real. (Think of the biggest Shofars you’ve ever seen.) The caribou, on the other hand, looks very ungainly. His horns are tremendous, too—way out of proportion to his head and body; it was hard to see how he kept from toppling over. He was standing in some low vegetation near the roadside when we first saw him—it was tall enough to hide him when he put his head down to eat—and he just hung out, eating and loping along in a meandering path in front of us. Little by little, he moved toward the edge of the road, and we wondered if he’d actually climb down—the road was below the ground level by four or five feet—and eventually, he did. He sort of slid down the cut, loped across the road and continued his lunch on the other side. He pretty much ignored us.

Many of the animals, such as the caribou and the moose, are unafraid of the busses—drivers keep the engine noise down and move very slowly or stop when an animal is spotted—but people are admonished not to get out of the bus, make noise, or even lean out of the windows. This is ostensibly to prevent the animals from becoming used to humans too much; the park people don’t want the wildlife to be panicked by human contact, but they don’t want them to become too people-friendly, either. Human-animal interaction is kept to a minimum and feeding the wildlife is entirely taboo. Parts of the park are even closed to tourists from time to time if there’s increased wildlife activity, either by dangerous animals or vulnerable ones. Seems wise. (Ironically, the Alaskans we met or heard about on our visit all demonstrated deep concern for their environment and wildlife. The ones who seem to give the reputation to the state for rapaciousness, the drive to profit extrinsically from the resources in oil, minerals, and timber at the expense of the state’s natural beauty and pristine wilderness, are apparently all big businessmen and the state’s government representatives and officials. The folks, even—maybe especially—the hunters, want to preserve what they have, barring letting a bear wander into their yards and eating their dogs.)

The timing of the park visit was the next little complaint we had. The various park tours, which were prearranged by HAL, not selected by the passengers as some of the shore excursions from the boat were later, were all scheduled for early in the morning, even though the train to Fairbanks wasn’t until late that afternoon. We tried to switch to a later bus, but there wasn’t one available until too late to get us back in time for the train. The runs were all mostly in the morning anyway, then late afternoon—there’s a big gap in the middle of the day. The explanation is that there’s more chance to see wildlife early or late than there is in the middle of the afternoon. Considering how little we saw anyway, I’d have taken the chance and spread the activity out a bit better. As it was, we got back to the lodge in the late morning, but had to vacate the room by 11 so we couldn’t even take a short nap. There wasn’t really enough time to get on some other excursion, even if there had been one that appealed to us, and we’d already explored the “village” as much as we wanted to. (Besides being mostly shops—it’s not really a village; no one lives there—and all that construction dust, it’s spread along the highway like a strip mall so it’s a long trek even just to poke around.) The “tour” aspects of the trip, the part organized by HAL, left much to be desired, even if the Alaskan aspects, the natural scenery and the people, tried to make up for it.

So we killed some time in the chalet lobby until the train for Fairbanks, which actually left a little early to everyone’s surprise. (Indeed, one couple had booked a plane flight—”flightseeing,” they call it—over the park and McKinley for the afternoon, and got back just in time to see the train depart! They would have been fine if it hadn’t left earlier than scheduled, and people on the trip who knew the couple even reported that they weren’t aboard when the train started to pull out. The tour people put them on a helicopter, called the train, and we waited at a siding down the track several miles as they were delivered to the train. Pretty stupid.) Anyway, the second train ride was nothing like the first. The cars were the same, of course, though we had a real nebbish of a guide this time—our first guide was quite wonderful, even though she wasn’t a native Alaskan; she came up from Southern California for a break just to take this job—but the terrain is ugly and uninteresting along the 120-mile route from Denali northeast to Fairbanks just as soon as you leave the park area. (For the first couple of miles—until we stopped for our delinquent passengers—there were spectacular cliffs as we rolled along the Nenana River.) This time, we did nap. And since the dinner was going to be served so early—around 5:30—we skipped it and opted for the chance we could get something at or near the hotel in Fairbanks when we arrived at about 7. We did have a nice drink en route, though!

[I may pick this account up some time in the future, including perhaps the disappointing visit to Fairbanks and then the cruise down the coast from Seward to Vancouver, British Columbia, which included visits to Sitka (the capital of Russian America), Juneau, and Ketchikan, as well as stops in College Fjord and Glacier Bay.]

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