Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alaska: Into Denali

Keith hiking into an open valley near the
Photo by Jennifer - June 21, 2008.

Note: This is the second in a series. It is best to read the first entry for Alaska on this blog before reading this one. ~Keith

It is slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts. Denali National Park offers a vast, spacious wilderness area that mostly protects the northern reaches of the Mt. McKinley footprint.

A lone road goes in there. It is a one-way 90 mile road. There’s a loop at the end where you come back the same way you went in. With few exceptions, the rest of the 6 million acres is trackless, open and free. You hear no planes overhead. There’s little human noise, even along this lone road as it winds through much of the ridgeline that borders the valley to the north of the Alaskan Range.

The road is mainly gravel, though all dirt in a few stretches usually where road preservation is at work. Buses take you in there. Denali has its own timed and scheduled bus line. At any given moment there are dozens of these school bus type vehicles hauling visitors into and out of the park.

Jennifer and I took an early bus into the park. It was going to one of several "rest" spots dotting the Denali Park road every 15 - 20 miles. Our destination was the Eielson Visitor Center about 70 miles along the road. The center had just recently opened to the public and offered an exceptional viewing platform for the northern face of Mt. McKinley – the opposite side of the mountain we saw on the morning of the day before.

It was the summer solstice, longest amount of daylight for the year. We were in the land of the midnight sun.

The bus was not actually a tour. Tours are focused on the bus driver talking in more detail about something along the Denali Park road. Non-Tour (passenger) bus drivers will mention whatever comes to mind along the way but it is nothing detailed or structured really. Tours include meals and highlight something specific about Denali. We were passengers not tourists in this sense.

Our bus driver provided some very good general facts about what we saw along our way in. Mostly, the passengers just conversed among themselves for several minutes at a time as the bus moved along. The bus made a slow pace – maybe 30 miles an hour tops but that is rare. Frequently, we stopped to make way for a bus headed the opposite direction or to make it through road preservation projects or because either the bus driver or a passenger spotted something in the mountainous Tundra worthy of note.

Even after the previous day’s “close encounter” with grizzlies they were still wonderful to behold and we saw many on the bus ride. Probably 7 or 8, I don’t recall. They didn’t seem scarce. Solitary though.

I took my most “artsy” pic through the bus window as we came upon a Bull Moose grazing in shrubs near the road. We happened upon him so quickly that the bus driver actually passed the Moose and brought the bus to a halt just as the Moose reared his head at us, mouth munching. I snapped a pic.

The Moose immediately turned and ran. Many of the short spruce trees are softball sized or larger. Anything that large is at least 100 years old.

We saw mountain goats, caribou, sea gulls(!), ground critters punctuating long stretches of spectacular terrain. The Earth encroached upon the sky making the latter seem rather small.

After a few stops over 4 hours traveling time, the bus came to its particular destination, the newly built Eielson Visitor Center. 20 miles further in waited the special Denali stop of Wonder Lake. Originally, Jennifer and I planned to go all the way to the end of the road.

But, after discussing things the day before, we decided that another hour on the road meant that you turn around and came back on a 5 hour trip out. The prospect of 6 more hours on the bus didn’t sound as appealing as staying afew hours at one spot and having a 4 hour drive out afterwards. I’m sure we missed a lot by not going on. It is one of many reasons I plan to go back someday.

Eielson had about 150 visitors at the time we spent there. The number fluctuated as the buses came and went. People took advantage of the stop to use the restroom facilities and quickly glance through the center. Every 15 minutes or so there would be an announcement over the solar powered announcement system that such and such bus was leaving in 5 minutes. There would be another announcement just before the bus left and then it would be gone.

Jennifer and I let our bus go. As with any bus line, we could catch another on the way out later. Although our bus stopped at Eielson for about 30 minutes since this was its destination before heading 70 miles back out – that amount of time was inadequate. We hiked after eating our packed lunch.

The scenery was gorgeous. If McKinley had been out it would have been breathtaking but it was hidden in clouds on the solstice. Still, you got to feel the vast openness of the many mountains and valleys surrounding McKinley. This was Denali in the greater sense. The mountain was huge but the vastness surrounding it made it a tiny thing, especially since you couldn’t see it that day.

Eielson has a series of trails leading through the tundra, some going maybe 1/3 mile away from the center at a couple of places. Most visitors huddled near the comforts of the center but many ventured out into these trails. As you went further out, however, out to the limits of the trail, the sound of even the buses was greatly muted in the silence of the valley unfolding at your feet and you found yourself alone for several minutes. Small groups came and went but they didn't seem to take up any space at all. So free.

An easy hike takes you back to the center and opens you up to a very large meadow filled with yellow wildflowers.

In addition to being a splendid platform for viewing Mt. McKinley Eielson offers some interpretive information, and a surprisingly large collection of art inspired by Denali. I felt connected with much of the work, knowing it was inspired by something of the short hike I’d just taken.

Among the artwork there was a paneled quilt. Jennifer adored it and went on and on excitedly about it. She was fascinated by all its details which were, admittedly, very special art.

Among the interpretive aspects of Eielson is a 3-D miniature of McKinley and the surrounding terrain including the Center itself. (The Center is a dot on the edge of the map immediately below me in my Alaska cap in the pic.)

Part of our reasoning for not going further into Denali was that it was another 2 hour roundtrip to the end. We didn’t want to spend more hours on the bus. If you are staying at places further in to Denali like Wonder Lake or Camp Denali it makes sense to travel all the way in, stay overnight or several days, then take a bus out of the park. I hope to do that one day.

You can see some terrific professional quality pics of Wonder Lake here.

Otherwise, the drive back out, while affording several views of wildlife and spaces previously gone by unnoticed, is rather tedious in its 6th or 7th hour. By the time we returned to the Park entrance the bus ride into Denali took us longer than our flight to Anchorage from Atlanta. In terms of time Denali was bigger than flying across the continent. Along the way we witnessed a distant thunderstorm.

We celebrated the summer solstice in the small town of Healy, Alaska. Removed from the unsightly tourist amalgamation that has invested itself near the main entrance to the park off Highway 3, Healy was quiet. Its “streets” were gravel and dirt even around the Healy Chamber of Commerce. We were in the “real” Alaska sho nuff.

We noticed many homes had rather odd structures that resembled giant bird houses at the entry to their drive ways. We had no clue what these were meant to symbolize or if they, in fact, had some sort of function beyond aesthetics. Often they feature colors or artwork that matched something about the home to which the drive way belonged. Generally, they stand 10 or 12 feet high. Jennifer insisted we get a pic of one.

What they are remains a mystery. We are not Alaskans and this was only our first journey there.

(Revision: My good friend and frequent Alaska visitor Guy Kent says these are called a "cache". More photos of caches are here. According to Guy: "It's an important part of "bush" living and it is a symbol of the Alaskan way of life. The cache is built on those legs, which are partially covered in metal to prevent wolverines and other animals from stealing the contents. Usually groceries and meats are placed in the small cabin at the top of the legs. There's an opposite version of this in history when the natives would bury their food in the permafrost and then cover the food with rocks or a wooden frame." Thanks Guy!)

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