Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Denali National Park and Preserve

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Words and pictures don't even come close to the experience of being in Alaska. It feels to me like being in a different country, maybe on a different planet. Time is stretched here. Sunsets meet sunrises. Darkness is reserved only for the winter months. Seeing the local wildlife, quite literally, takes my breath away. If I had a gigantic lens that zoomed out till I became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared, there would still be the Alaskan landscape, sprawling and infinite.

I realize I'm seeing this great state in its most ideal season. Days have been hovering around the mid 70s, nights are chilly but not freezing. The evenings are endless. While preparing for this trip, I was a little afraid that the long days would mess with my sleep rhythm. They haven't. Winter, of course, is full of darkness and snow. Challenges abound and it's a lot more solitary. Part of me wants to have that experience in Alaska but the other half just chickens out at the mere thought.

One of the most anticipated places on our itinerary, for me, was Denali National Park and Preserve. I knew the experience would be unique on many levels. Unlike any other park I've been to, access is quite limited for vehicles. Once I got used to how the bus system works, it was easy. It's actually nice to explore the park this way and not encounter hundreds of cars clogging up the road.

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The Teklanika River was just a short walk from our campsite.

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The Teklanika River early in the morning. The first rest stop on our bus.

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Our first wildlife sighting during our bus trip. How exciting!!

The bus drivers are all different and they wield a lot of power. What I mean is that they can influence the experience of your day. The road inside the park is well maintained but it still takes hours to get to each destination. In essence, most of my day was spent on the actual bus just getting to where I wanted to go and then deal with another long trip home. If the bus driver is full of information about our surroundings and is willing to stop anytime an animal is seen, it can be a fun day. For the most part, the drivers I rode with were quite accommodating but I did encounter at least one who thought the road home was a racetrack and remained silent the whole time (except to tell us that we had 5 minutes at a particular stop, no exceptions).

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Buses lined up at the Eielson Visitors Center to take passengers to various locations.

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Take a closer look and you’ll see one of the buses against the scale of the mountains at Polychrome Pass.

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People find a good vantage point for photographs at the Polychrome Overlook.

Riding the bus was always an adrenaline rush. It reminded me of seeing bear jams in Yellowstone. Someone would yell "Stop!!" and the bus would screech to a halt. We would look around for wildlife. For the split second before it was announced, I would think is it a bear, a moose, a sheep, a wolf....a squirrel?? Then someone says "Bear!". Tablets, phones, compact cameras, big DSLRS all point out the window, everyone clamoring for a view. I thought the bus might keel over! Mostly these larger animals were quite far away, say a quarter to a half mile distance. Still, it was thrilling to see them. It's a distinctly different feeling than viewing animals behind bars in a zoo.

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The closest I got to the wildlife of Denali. Here is a mother bear with her yearling.

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A family of Dall sheep travese a hilltop.

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Caribou crossing the mountain reminded me of ants or camels on their way across the desert.

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A Willow Ptarmigan sporting summer plummage. They are completely white in the winter.

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Caribou just chillin’, wondering what all the fuss is about as a hundred cameras point his way.

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Arctic ground squirrel.

The landscape is indescribably beautiful. Aside from the mountain itself, my favorite range inside the park is Polychrome (many colors). That now familiar feeling of insignificance is at its height in this park. The valley floors are vast and the mountains touch the clouds. It had a feeling of spirituality for me. It made me glad to be alive, grateful for those moments. 

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The Polychrome mountain range.

And what of Denali itself? There was a good chance it wouldn't be visible during our stay. A week beforehand, the weather forecast was for rain the entire time. Thankfully, the sun shone for three straight days and the mountain flaunted its magnificence. 

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One man and his mountain, as seen from my hike down to the Toklat River.

The first day we rode the bus, there was a particular part of the journey where all of Denali comes into view. Every passenger says "Wow!" at the same time like one collective voice. Pictures don't do it justice. You think you know what to expect but it never holds up to the real thing and feeling the scale of it all.

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The view from Eielson Visitors Center.

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One of the first views of Denali on the bus to Eielson Visitors Center.

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A campground at Wonder Lake with a drop-dead gorgeous view.

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I can attest to that having spent a week at Denali National Park.

The day we left Denali was the beginning of rain for a couple more days. There were people heading into the park as we were leaving. I felt sorry for them because they probably wouldn't see Denali during their stay. At the same time, it made me think that my experience really had been a rare privilege and that made me smile.

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On day three of my trips to see Denali, I finally had a little cloud drama!

Although I can now strike it from my bucket list, I will write a note that says "come again" because I'm already looking forward to my next encounter with "the Great One."

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Denali –The Great One

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Long before we arrived in Fairbanks, we had been keeping an eye on the weather for our trip to Denali National Park. Of course we knew the forecasts were too far out to be of any consequence, but we watched them nonetheless. We also knew that Denali makes it's own weather, so even if the day is sunny, the mountain might still be obscured. There is an oft-cited statistic that says only 30 percent of visitors to Alaska actually see a portion of the mountain and only 20 percent see it unobstructed. Each day we looked at the forecast and without fail it appeared we were in for a full week of rain. Ugh.

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The local weather was posted daily at the Eielson Visitors Center.

As you can see from the above and subsequent photos, we did not have a week of rain. Over our entire week-long stay, in our estimation, we had probably 75 percent brilliant sunshine and long, warm days. It was amazing that we managed the perfect week in the park, but really more so that we were in a position to take advantage of that. Together we rode the bus to Eielson Visitors Center on a spectaular sunny day, and Steven returned the next two days as well. You can count him among the lucky 20 percent who have seen Denali in all her glory not once, but on multiple occassions. Stunning!

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The mountain in all its glory and we just happened to be there for an epic selfie!

Denali National Park & Preserve is unlike any other national park I've visited. It's huge, like six million acres, but access to the park by motorized vehicle is extremely limited. You can actually go anywhere you want as long as you walk/hike. In the winter, you can ski, snowshoe or dogsled. So like I said, pretty limited access. There is one dirt road in that goes to Kantishna at Mile 92.4, and you must return on the same road. But, you cannot actually drive to Kantishna, in fact, you cannot drive your personal vehicle past Mile 15. Denali NP is all about riding the bus. (Except in winter, when there are no buses running.)

The bus system basically takes visitors on a round-trip to one of four stops: Toklat River at Mile 53.5 (6-1/2 hours), Eielson Visitors Center at Mile 66 (8 hours), Wonder Lake at Mile 84.4 (11 hours), or Kantishna at Mile 92.4 (12 hours). The cost for adults ranges from $26.50 to $51.00 depending on your destination. If you want to get off the bus at any point and go for a hike, you can just yell "STOP!" and the driver will drop you off. Then after your hike you can flag down another bus and if they have room, which most do, they will stop and pick you up and take you wherever you want to go next. You can also tent camp anywhere you like as long as you're not visible from the road. Pretty neat system, actually. If you see wildlife while on the bus, again, just yell "STOP!" and the driver will pull over at the first opportunity. Did I mention that the buses are similar to school buses, only the seats are slightly more padded? Yeah, so there's that.

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As far as vehicle access, there are a few exceptions to the rules. One of them is Teklanika Campground at Mile 29. There are several reasons why camping at Teklanika is a fantastic idea. First, you get to drive your vehicle twice as far into the park as anyone else other than your fellow campers. Kinda neat, right? Second, you can purchase the "Tek" pass which allows you to hitch a ride on any park bus heading west to any stops beyond Mile 29, in other words, all of them. The Tek pass costs $30 and is good for your entire stay - at Teklanika there is a 3-day minimum stay, and we stayed a full week. So if you utilize your pass and ride into the park multiple days, it's an absolute steal. And third, Teklanika is big rig friendly. So guess where we are camping?

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The buses were usually pretty full on the way into the park but on the way back, there was plenty of legroom.

As with anything that can be categorized as a "steal", there are some downsides. First, Toadie Hopper is not allowed in. I know, right? Poor Toadie is all alone at the Visitor Centers overnight/long-term parking. The only vehicles allowed to drive to Teklanika are those essential to camping. So what that really means is one motor, whatever form that takes. No tow vehicles for motorhomes, but trucks pulling trailers are allowed. The only exception we saw was a motorhome with a tow car which was necessary because one of the campers was disabled and her scooter traveled in their tow car. Makes sense.

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An abundance of the ever-popular Minnie Winnies rentals were parked at the Visitors Center.

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The bus stops at overlooks for photo opps.

The second "downside" to Teklanika is the weird fact that you cannot travel west toward the entrance of the park where the Main Visitors Center is. In other words, the Tek Pass is good for multiple trips between Mile 29 and Mile 92, but is not allowed for travel between Mile 29 and Mile 0. In fact, say you decide to go spend some time at the Main Visitors Center. If you hop on a bus to go there, the only way you can get back to Teklanika is to purchase another Tek Pass. Crazy, huh?

I can't really figure that one out, except maybe they don't want to give up seats on the buses for Tek campers that might otherwise be filled with paying customers. (Cynical, I know.) There was a German couple in the park who didn't understand all the restrictions and failed to even purchase a Tek Pass. They were simply stuck at the campground and limited to hikes with no way in or out until their time was up, but decided it was worth the extra cost to ride a bus back to the entrance and pay again to get their passes. Of course you can leave early, but once you do, there is no returning. You get one trip in, and one trip out.  
 
In spite of all the restrictions, camping at Teklanika has been fantastic. The campground is right on the Teklanika River, which is a great hike along the wide rocky river bed. I was on high alert for bears when we went down to explore the river. Moose tracks were everywhere, but we never saw one.

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Site #35 at Teklanika Campground was perfect for us.

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Sky drama at the Teklanika River.

The park rangers give a talk every evening at 7:30 pm. It was here we met Christine and Bryce, a fellow fulltiming couple from Montana who hit the road in 2013. They travel with their dog, Gus, a German Shorthair, who is 75 pounds of pure muscle. We agreed to take him for a walk while Christine and Bryce were on a bus trip to Wonder Lake, but really, it was Gus who took Steven for a drag. That dog is STRONG! We look forward to catching up with them next month once we get to the Kenai. They will be in Soldotna starting in mid-July as lead builders on a Habitat for Humanity project.

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We had a lovely evening with Christine and Bryce…and Gus, of course!

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There was a ranger talk each evening at the Teklanika Amphitheater.

The National Park Service is celebrating it's 100th anniversary this year with a campaign called "Find Your Park". My park is Yellowstone and it has been since I was a child living in Cody, WY. While it's unfair to compare, if I were a hiker or a backcountry camper, Denali might be my favorite place ever. But then there's that whole grizzly bear thing. From the minute you enter the park, the education begins: How to Avoid Being Eaten By A Bear. Before every ranger talk, they go through the details. The newsletter is full of information on avoidance. Curious, I asked a ranger how many grizzly bears were estimated to live in Denali National Park and she said, "Three hundred." Whaaaaaaat? That's it? Only a measley 300 grizzly bears in SIX MILLION acres? I did the math. That's one grizzly every 20,000 acres. What are the odds? And yet, you don't want to be "that guy" who got chomped up by a grizz, right? So we dutifully carried our bear spray everywhere we went.

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The first day on the bus had multiple bear sightings but they were mostly about half a mile away.

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Can you tell which picture is a real Denali wild animal?

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During our downtime, Linda planned for our upcoming trips while Steven got inspired for his next shoot.

And speaking of bears and wildlife in general, I know I didn't talk about that much in this post, but rest assured, it's coming. Your intrepid blog photographer captured stunning photos of all that is Denali National Park, which he will share with you in our next blog post. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Busy Time in Fairbanks

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The Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs.

It was a beautiful sunny day as we set up at the Elks Lodge on the Chena River. We watched as Fairbanksians perched themselves atop every type of floatation device known to man and drift lazily downriver. What surprised us, however, was seeing speed boats and jet skis simultaneously buzz upriver narrowly missing the floaters. In our eyes, the Chena just wasn't wide enough to support floaters, kayakers, canoes and motorized boats as well. It was kind of scary watching all this, but thankfully we didn't see any kind of collision.

The Elks Lodge has a great outdoor deck right on the river, which is another fun place to wile away the hours watching river activities. We sat out with a couple of Elk members and Sandy, the bartender. Sandy had a super cute haircut, so I asked for the number of her stylist and made an appointment for myself. That's pretty much how I roll these days. I see someone with a cut I like and walk right up to them and say, "Cuuuuute! Who's your stylist?" They are usually happy to share the name and number of the salon.

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Steven on the Elks Lodge deck with bartender Sandy.

The rate for the Fairbanks Elks Lodge camping is listed at $25 per night, but they do have a weekly rate of $125. This includes electric only, which is typical in Alaska, as winters are harsh on water facilities. They also have a washer and dryer which is free to campers, so it was a perfect place for us. There are a few Sourdough truck stops that have both dump stations and potable water at no charge, which we used on our way out of Fairbanks.

We had been in touch with Missy and Rowdy Stowell, a couple from Fairbanks known to many in the RVing community. Our mutual friend Debbie Kendall introduced us. They have long welcomed travelers to their property as part of the Boondockers Welcome website, and are happy to show folks around their community. Rowdy was born in Fairbanks and had just retired from the fire department and Missy, who moved here in the 70s, is still working for the North Star Borough Parks and Recreation department. They have just purchased a new truck and toyhauler and will begin their semi-fulltiming journey in October. As such, they have sold their house in Fairbanks and moved everything they plan to keep out to their awesome cabin in the woods where they will spend their summers.

In spite of all they had going on, including a massive weekend-long retirement bash, Rowdy and Missy made time to introduce us to a couple of eating establishments around town, show us around the beautiful county park that Missy has poured her heart and soul into, and invite us to an impromptu dinner with family and friends at their cabin about an hour outside Fairbanks. I was frankly exhausted and told them I wasn't sure how they were going to make it through the retirement bash weekend, but they assured us this was their "normal."

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Yummy food and local beer at the Siver Gulch with Rowdy and Missy.

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Missy showed us around the Tenana Lakes Recreation Area.

While in Fairbanks, we also enjoyed a Happy Hour with fellow travelers Dave and Kathy Scranton, whom we had met through RVillage. They crossed the border into Canada a couple of days before us, but we soon zoomed right by them and didn't cross paths again until Fairbanks. It was great to meet them face-to-face and time flew by as we yakked for nearly three hours. Kathy & Dave drove up the Cassiar Highway to reach Alaska so, of course, we were very interested in their thoughts on the route as that is how we plan to return to the lower 48.

We had no sooner driven away when we realized we forgot to get a selfie of the four of us, but as luck would have it, we met again the next day at Chena Hot Springs, home to the Aurora Ice Museum. We had signed up for the 3:00 pm tour of the Ice Museum and thus managed to get our selfie at 25 degrees F. Notice in the photo below we are all bundled up for the occassion. The ice museum also offers a souvenier of sorts. Along with admission, you can also purchase an Appletini which is served in an ice glass that you may keep. haha. Kathy took one for the team and ponied up $15 for the full Appletini experience. She just about froze her fingers off waiting for Dave and Steven to get her photo.

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Such a fun visit to the Ice Museum with Kathy and Dave.

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The Chena Hot Springs grounds had an eclectic mix of vintage cars and reindeer!

In spite of the frigid inside temperature, I was wearing shorts. During our stay in Fairbanks there were definitely a few warm days. In fact, we ran our aircon several times. So for our trip to Chena Hot Springs, I decided to be comfortable. Funny enough, my legs never did get cold, but my hands sure did! Though we are not terribly prone to do the touristy stuff as we travel, we really enjoyed the Ice Museum. We did not stay for a soak in the hot springs as we were meeting up with Rowdy and Missy. Their awesome cabin in the woods is just a mile or so from the Chena Hot Springs.

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The welcoming entrance to Rowdy and Missy’s cabin.

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Great people and a great place at Rowdie and Missy’s cabin.

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When you’re in the middle of nowhere, this is where you do your business.

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Beer Can Chicken and burgers made for great eats.

At Rowdy's suggestion, we also visited the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center which has interesting and unique displays of life in the far north. Well worth a visit. Our favorite stop, by far, was The University of Alaska Museum of the North. The Milepost describes this museum as "world-class" and it truly is. Both Steven and I commented that this was among the best we had ever visited. There are several sections, one being so stuffed with displays there was just no way to take it all in. Upstairs, the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery displays over 2,000 years of Alaska art and it was fantastic. The collection is thoughtfully curated and beautifully displayed. We spent most of our time here. There is also "The Place Where You Go to Listen", where sounds and light are made to reflect earth's day and night cycles, seismic and electromagnetic activity. It was a very cool place, but honestly, those sounds could be used as torture. Steven really enjoyed it but I couldn't stay in there for long.

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The University of Alaska Museum of the North was a truly memorable visit.

As we travel through Alaska, most of the towns and communities we visit are small and lack the amenities of a larger town. Usually when we roll into a place that has Walmart, Fred Meyer, McDonalds, etc. we are expecting the vibe of "Anytown, USA". We were pleasantly surprised to find that Fairbanks still has a rustic charm to it. That said, I don't think I had a conversation with a single local who wasn't looking forward to the day when they "get out". Everyone, it seems, wants to live somewhere else. Life is not easy in the far north. While you might think Fairbanks gets tons of snow, it's actually an arctic desert. There is so little humidity there my skin looked like an alligator. But Missy warned me, don't use product, because it will attract the mesquitos. So, alligator skin it was. :( 

After eight days, we packed up and headed to our next stop - Denali!