Saturday, June 25, 2016

Denali National Park, Week 2 - Stop 22 on our Trek North to Alaska

Hi, everyone!  Did you miss me?  I’ve been unconnected since we entered Teklanika Campground within Denali National Park, where there are no hookups, no internet, no television, no radio—just us and the wilderness!

Back in December when we made reservations, The Park agent said that there were only a few sites within this campground that could accommodate truly big rigs.   We were encouraged to actually purchased two sites—one for our 42” fifth wheel and one for our medium duty truck, “Big Boomer.”  However, there are no “reserved” sites—it is first come, first served.  They would not even guarantee two sites next to each other so we could hook up our solar to the rig.   So we got all our permits a few days early and headed into the Park by 6 a.m.  Along the route, we see Linda and Steve, folks who traveled part of the way to Alaska with our mutual friends, Kelly and Bill.  They scouted the campground before they left it earlier that morning and provided us with a list of available sites suitable for our setup.  And thanks to their efforts, one site is long enough and wide enough to fit both the truck and rig, and it is close to a site that accommodates the 40’ bus of Claudia/Mike.  So, we blew $154 for a second site and received no refund.  Bummer—I could have bought me a ton of cheese with that kind of dough! 


Site 42 at Teklanika Campground

The weather was mostly damp, cloudy, and rainy.  We even experienced sleet while participating in a Ranger-led hike on Monday near the Eielson Visitor Center.   Good thing we had the opportunity to view Denali (a.k.a. The High One) three times last week, ‘cause she hasn’t been seen since!  The little sunshine we experienced usually occurs about 10 p.m.  Makes me want to sleep during the day and be active during the night! 

But the weather did not hinder our ability to explore, although I can’t say the same for the shuttle bus system!  The system is very limiting, and much more complicated and convoluted than need be.  As I mentioned in my previous post, you cannot go to any point east of your campground.   You must determine how far into the Park you wish to travel at the time you make reservations.  You are scheduled for a specific bus to get to that predetermined point on your first day of shuttle bus service.  After that, you can take any bus to any point between the campground and your predetermined final point, but there is no “reserved” seat for you.  Every shuttle bus guarantees four empty seats when it leaves the Park Entrance, so you just hope a seat is available when the bus reaches you!  Furthermore, not all locations are serviced by every bus.  For example, there were only two buses to get us to Kantishna, our pre-determined final point at Mile 92.5 (the end of the Park roadway) and only two to get us back, one of which left within 45 minutes of arrival, leaving virtually no time to explore the area.  The other return bus did not get back to the campground until 10 p.m.!  One day we went to Wonder Lake, about 55 miles from our campground.  It took us 5 hours to get there just so we could do a 7 mile hike, which took less than 3 hours to complete.  Then back on the bus for another 5 hours!  And did I mention these are not luxury buses, but instead school buses.  It is insanity.   We were glad we took “The Kantishna Experience” Tour when we stayed outside the Park, since we never did make it back to Kantishna this week.

The only good thing about the bus system is that the drivers are excellent at spotting wildlife!  Although we viewed tons of animals, most were too far away to photograph.   From the bus windows they looked like little dots in the distant hills and mountains.   However, we hit the jackpot on Wednesday, seeing a total of nine bears, including two cubs romping around!  One bear in particular decided to give us a real show!  After scratching his groin, counting his toes, and washing his face, he came off the mountain and walked right next to the bus!

I learned all kinds of cool animal trivia, which will come in handy when I apply to be on Jeopardy for Rat Week!  For instance, did you know that moose antlers weigh eighty pounds and can grow as much as a foot a day!  Or that when bear cubs are born, they are hairless and their eyes are closed?  Yet, by the time they emerge in spring, they are furry and ready to see the world.  Or that the arctic ground squirrel is the only animal that truly hibernates.  Unlike bears, who just go into a deep sleep, arctic ground squirrels’ body temperatures decrease to freezing and they have a heartbeat of only one beat per minute.  If you were to dig one up out of its burrow, it would be frozen like a popsicle and look quite dead!   Unfortunately, the arctic ground squirrel is at the low end of the food chain.  They are breakfast burritos for bears, and are a source of protein for ravens, golden eagles, foxes, etc.


An arctic ground squirrel--every animal's favorite treat!

We logged some hiking miles this week, including trekking through several different ecosystems along the McKinley Bar Trail.  However, there are few developed trails within this Park wilderness.  We created our own, as the Park encourages, including hiking along the sandbars of the Teklanika River. I’ve never walked across a river before!  

View of McKinley River from trail at Wonder Lake

Donning the latest mosquito net fashions at Wonder Lake

View of Alaska Range from Wonder Lake

Hiking along Teklanika River

View from Teklanika River

Our reward for tolerating all the rain--a beautiful rainbow!



Good thing we got to hike along the Savage River at the eastern end of the Park last week—upon re-entering civilization, we learned the area is now closed down due to bear activity.

Since campground guests are a captive audience, the Park offers a Ranger Program each evening in our campground amphitheater, which we attended regularly.

We met some great folks at the campground, including Christie and Art, mutual friends with Nancy and David from Amazon.  It is a small world sometimes!

With what we know now about Denali National Park and if we did it again, we would stay longer outside the Park and camp at Teklanika only for the minimum requirement of three nights.  Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing!

As it turned out, we left Teklanika a day early anyway—Mike has not been feeling well and wanted to get to a V.A. doctor/hospital in Anchorage.  Unfortunately, our reserved campground in Wasilla could not accommodate our early arrival.   So we are now boondocking in Walmart for one night.  Makes for a very short trip to get to the campground tomorrow--just three miles.  At least we got to see a bit of Denali again when we visited Denali State Park along our planned route to Wasilla.

My favorite flowers--daisies reflect both beauty and simplicity

South View of Denali from Denali State Park

North View of Denali from Denali State Park

Alaska Veterans Memorial - Denali State Park

OK, I’ve got to sign off now.  Walmart is running a special on Swiss cheese I don’t want to miss!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Denali National Park, Week 1 - Stop 21 on our Trek North to Alaska

It poured rain all Saturday night, and we faced more rain on Sunday as we left Fairbanks.  All this rain in Fairbanks, a place that supposedly gets only 12 inches of precipitation per year.  Are you seeing a pattern here?

We spent the last week hooked up at Denali RV Park in Healy, AK, just 8 miles outside of Denali National Park.

Denali National Park has a weird system in place, different from any other National Park we have visited.  If you don't have the annual National Park Pass like we do, there is a $10/person/week charge to enter the Park, though there is no gate for entry nor did we see any specific area to purchase passes.  You can visit anywhere within the first 15 miles of the Park with your own vehicle or by utilizing their complimentary shuttle service.  In order to access any area beyond the first 15 miles, you must take a specific tour or purchase a shuttle pass for $34/person.

For those staying in an RV at Teklanika Campground within the Park, you must purchase a bus pass to access points in the Park beyond the campground at Mile 29.  All personal vehicles are prohibited.  So if you tow a car like Mike/Claudia do, you must leave it at the Visitor Center.  The bus transports you anywhere from the campground to Mile 92.5, the end of the Park roadway.  However, once you enter Teklanika Campground with your RV, you cannot go back to visit any point within the first 29 miles of the Park, where the Visitor Center, Mercantile, Sled Dog Kennels, Savage River hiking trails, etc., are all located.  If you drive out of the campground for any reason during the course of your stay, your reservation is canceled and you must repay to get back into the campground!  Does the Eagles song, "Hotel California" come to mind?

Hence our decision to spend a week outside of the Park before our stay at Teklanika Campground.  And a good decision it was!

On Monday we perused the Visitor Center displays, watched the film (Mom insists we do this EVERYWHERE we go), and participated in a wonderful ranger-led hike to the dog kennels where the sled dogs demonstrated their talents and duties.  (These are all things that cannot be accessed once we enter the campground.)  What fun meeting all the doggies!  These dogs are part of the Park Service Staff.  Rangers consider them co-workers in protecting this vast wilderness.  They are some heavy haulers, too, moving debris and equipment.  The sled dog ranger team travels 3,000 miles per year.  Each dog works about 9 years of his/her 14-15 year lifespan! 

2016 Canine Rangers

Sled Dog Demonstration

Canine Ranger Koven

Canine Ranger Sylvie

On Tuesday, Daddy, Mike, and I spent the day fishing at Otto Lake.  There were fish jumping all around us.  What did we catch?  As Yukon Cornelius would say, nothin’.

Otto Lake

Me’s thinks I should have joined Mom and Claudia in their nearby hiking and shopping endeavors!

More Beautiful Wildflowers

Horses in a Pasture

Christmas Shop at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge

Flower Bed at Grand Denali Lodge

Humorous Sign, But Oh So True--Huge Mosquitoes Here in Alaska!

On Wednesday, we took the Kantishna Experience, an 11-hour tour originating at Denali National Park Wilderness Access Area.  Our bus driver/tour guide Omar and Ranger Crystal were great, providing us with interesting facts about the Park and its colorful residents.  Mt. McKinley National Park, established in 1917, consisted of 2 million acres.  Renamed Denali National Park in 1980, it now encompasses 6 million acres, making it the third largest Park within the National Park system.  After 5 years as a National Park, it had a mere 7 visitors.  The powers to be decided in order to maximize visitors, an access road was required.  Work started in 1922 and took 15 years to complete through Mile 92.5.  But efforts certainly paid off:  today the Park hosts 400,000 visitors annually.

Cabin of Fannie Quigley, one of Denali's colorful residents from the past

The Park is home to 8 species of trees, 600 species of plants, 160 species of birds, 14 species of fish, 39 species of mammals, and 1 amphibian specie, the wood frog!  And we saw quite a few mammal specimens during our tour:  caribou, moose (including a bull sighting!), snowshoe hare, and fox!

A Bull Moose Bathing

Hoppy, the Snowshoe Hare

This fox was ordering himself some baby magpie bird for lunch!...


...That is until Mom Magpie Dissuaded Him!

We had absolutely gorgeous weather!  A gloriously cloudless blue sky; warm, comfortable temperatures; “a Sunshine Day” as the Brady Bunch would sing (I know, cheesy, eh?  But remember, I am a stuffed rat who adores cheese).   We were among the 30% minority to actually see the tallest mountain peak in North America, Denali, in all its 20,320 feet of wonder, splendor, and glory!

On Thursday we rode about 20 miles down the Denali Highway, once again getting a great, unencumbered view of Denali.

View of Denali from Denali Highway

We passed a few fishing holes, which Dad insisted we test out. Remind me, what is the definition of insanity?  We had 4 moose sightings, including a pair of young females.   We dined in the King Salmon Restaurant at the Princess Wilderness Lodge.  Terrific meal!  Dad had the king salmon while Mom ordered the Asiago cheese and herb crusted halibut.  I, of course, had some of both!  We shared mushrooms stuffed with reindeer sausage covered with melted cheese, and topped off with a dish of homemade huckleberry ice cream!  Yummy!

Mike, Dad and yours truly fishing off Denali Highway--insanity prevails

Two young female moose (sisters?) near Nenana River

On Friday, we hiked along the Savage River Loop Trail, Mountain Vista Trail, and Savage Cabin Trail, which also are located within the first 15 miles of the Park.  The latter two trails are where all the Park activities and tent accommodations were in its early days as a National Park.  It was fun to see photos along the trails of what things looked like back then!

Cabin from the Park's early years

We are blessed with a third day of great weather for viewing Denali.  This is unheard of!  And we got some up close and personal views of caribou, making it another terrific day of exploring Denali National Park!

View of Denali from Mountain Vista Trail

Caribou resting on shore of Savage River

All week long we were told about a mama moose and her calf roaming near the Park entrance.  Well today was our lucky day--we finally spotted them at Horseshoe Lake, while hiking the last trails we wanted to explore at the front of the Park.

We just completed a short hike up Antler Creek Trail near our RV park.  Now I've got to take a shower and clean behind my ears real good in preparation for spending the next 7 days boondocking in Teklanika Campground.   No cell phones, no internet, no electric—just us and this vast expanse of beauty known as Denali National Park.

View from Antler Creek Trail

Heading down the trail about  10 p.m., Alaska Time

P.S.  Happy Father's Day to all the Dads out there!  Hope you are loved half as much by your kids as my Dad is loved by me! After all, he rescued me from the agony of sitting all alone up on that dusty toy store shelf so many years ago!

I blew a whole month's allowance on this gift for Dad, but he's worth it!


My hero!  Thanks for rescuing me, Dad!