Thursday, October 30, 2014

Denali National Park

We left Fairbanks in clouds of fog - the road ahead barely visible.  Forecasts hinted at possible snow and Kathy crossed her fingers.  Our first stop was the visitors center in Nenana - home of the Ice Classic, the annual guess of the spring ice breakup on the river.  A large tripod is placed on the frozen river and, when it has moved 100 feet, the exact time is recorded and the person or persons with the closest guess to the time wins the pot.  Last year's payout was nearly $250,000.

We made no more significant stops along the way as the cloudy skies muddied views.  We arrived at Riley Creek, the first campground inside the Denali National Park, checked in and purchased some hot coffee as we considered setting up in the cold rainy weather.  We separated the Jeep from the RV in the parking lot while Frances drank Kathy's mocha latte in the cab of the RV. We drove through Wolf Loop, found our spot and parked.  

As is usually the case when we set up somewhere new, we couldn't wait to explore our new temporary home so we drove down the park road even though the day coming to an end.  Only the first 15 miles of the road is open to vehicle traffic and to go beyond that you must enter on foot, bike, or shuttle bus.  We saw our first "moose jam," cars parked on both sides of the road with people jumping out, cameras in hand, to photograph three moose near the road munching away.  Joy hopped out and joined the crowd. Kathy caught up after parking the Jeep and, after seeing the trio, said "We're too close"!  A park ranger came up and immediately told the crowd they were too close and asked people to back up to a safer distance.  

A little further down the road, we spotted a few reindeer aka caribou. By the time we arrived at the end of the public road, it had become very cold so we didn't stay outside long.  We turned around for home before the sun began to set.  

There are no utilities in the Denali campgrounds and limited generator hours - 4 - 8 pm and 8 - 10 am.  We cranked up our generator, cooked dinner and enjoyed the warmth of our space heater.  We set the thermostat at 55 degrees to conserve both propane and our 12 volt electricity and headed to bed.  Frances got to sleep with us because it was too cold for her since she just got groomed in Fairbanks - bad timing for a 9 pound poodle to be nearly naked!

In the early morning hours we awoke and noticed how cold it was in the RV.  The refrigerator began to beep and indicated a low dc warning -  meaning we had no 12 volt electricity remaining. We turned it off and noticed the thermostat indicated it was 50 degrees in the RV.  The house batteries had died which meant we did not have enough power to run the fridge or heater.  We made cowboy coffee (on the stove) because we have priorities and tried to start the generator.  It wouldn't start due to the dead batteries.  We started the RV and cranked the cab heat as the temperature dropped to 49 inside.    

Finally, Joy turned the RV's inverter on and somehow the generator started.  We let it run for an hour in hopes that it would recharge the 12 volt batteries but they were still dead.  We decided it was time to look for campground with electricity and found a local RV park about 6 miles north of the park. W called to ensure they had a spot for us, broke down, checked out and hit the road.  

After setting up at out new campground and calling our favorite RV tech for battery advice, we went out to lunch and walked along the shops in the town of Denali.  We were able to locate two batteries of the type that Jim recommended in Anchorage, which just happened to be our next stop after Denali.  As long as we could plug in until then we wouldn't freeze to death!

We headed back into the park as it was a beautiful clear crisp day.  After about 7 miles we saw Denali, aka Mount McKinley, it's peak clearly visible for where we stood. We are now part of the 30% club as weather typically hinders a view of the mountain 70% of the time.

We returned to the RV and prepared for our evening shuttle bus ride.  We dressed for the mountains - layered clothing, backpack with camera, snacks, water and binoculars.  Instead of paying for a tour guide, we opted for the shuttle bus, the shortest ride into the park which allowed us to get back to the dogs in 6 to 7 hours.  We drove back to the park, got in line early and chose the first seat right behind the door.  

Rex, our driver, whose biggest decision at this point in his life regarded whether or not he was going to spend the winter backpacking across Mexico or work in a ski resort, introduced us to the game of spotting animals.  If he spotted an animal first, he got the point.  If a passenger spotted an animal first, we got the point.   

The shuttle stopped for breaks every 90 minutes or so.  At the second break, Polychrome Pass, there were no bathrooms but a nice short hike up and around a loop on top of the mountain.  At a Y in the path, we opted for the visible loop because it was very cold and windy and we wanted to return to the bus quickly.  After our quick walk we got back on the bus to warm up and watched a group of about 7 professional photographers set and re-set their expensive camera equipment to capture images of the extraordinary scenery surrounding us.

Up to this point, we had yet to see a grizzly bear during any of our journeys.  As we ate a snack, Joy disappointingly stated that it looked as though we were going to be in the 5% group, referring to the fact that 95% of Denali visitors get to see a grizzly during their visit.  Just then, two girls hurried down the hill we had just hiked and quickly jumped unto the bus, their faces flushed.  As they entered, they announced, "There was a bear up there!" Apparently, someone had shared the same information with the group of photographers because we saw them run up the hill, cameras in hand, in the direction the girl had just come.  

Less than a 45 seconds later, the entire group came running back down the hill, nervously laughing and looking over their left shoulders.  They jumped into their SUV except one who ran to the door of our bus.  Rex let him in just as we saw a beautiful brown grizzly running down the hill after the photographers and towards the back of our bus.  We opened bus windows and got some great photos as the bear glared at us deciding what his next move was going to be.  Rex started the bus as the bear approached it. We guess he finally got a little spooked and disappeared over the edge of the road. We drove on less than a 1/4 mile and spotted two more blonde grizzlies on the hillside eating roots.  Alas, we were not destined to be part of the 5% ers!

On the way back, Rex spotted a porcupine next to the road and pointed out a ravens nest under a bridge and a couple of ptarmigan nests.  Part of the bus ride back was in the dark.  Our group talked about the aurora borealis forecast and we decided we would stay awake after getting home and wait for the Northern Lights.  We stayed up until 1:00 am without luck thanks to some clouds.

The next day we visited the Denali dog kennels and arrived just in time for the sled dog demo.  Kathy said Frances should have led a team because she has the heart of a sled dog.  The strength of these beautiful animals was very apparent, as was their love of what they did everyday.  Although it is not a life we understand as dog lovers, we appreciated the care the dogs of Denali receive.  

After spending one more cold night near the mountain, we packed up and headed to our next destination - Anchorage.  

Denali - via Fairbanks

Delta Junction is halfway between Tok and Fairbanks and is also known as "Moose Alley."  Near Dot Lake, we saw a hunter with his family, sighting in a moose from the side of the road.  Two kids in the back seat of his beat up car and a dog were waiting.  We drove by hoping kind of hoping they'd miss but realizing they were hunting for food and not just for a trophy.  Ironically, we stopped at our favorite meat market in Delta Junction and once again filled the freezer with reindeer, elk, beef and pork.

Since it was Wednesday, the Highway's End farmers market was open.  Patty, a fellow Tetlin volunteer, loved the market and had traveled to it several times on her days off.  We looked forward to fresh crisp greens and other locally grown veggies. We bought fresh greens from the woman who brought offerings from her own garden and made small talk with all the vendors as we shopped.  We scored some awesome raspberry vinaigrette to give to Ruth and Jim upon our arrival to their home in Washington. Although it was late in the day and the market was small, we were able to find a few other things.

Joy had wanted to the visit the Sullivan Roadhouse across the parking lot last time we stopped but it had been closed.  This time, the door was open and we wandered in.  After a few minutes, Bruce, the docent, appeared and began giving us a tour.  It was fascinating learning about the history of the building and how it had traveled to its current location.
It had moved three times in order to be saved as a historic sight.  

Bruce was impressed with how much we knew about the area and the importance of roadhouses during the Alaskan expansion.  Joy spotted an old pump organ and asked if she could play it.  Bruce didn't even know if it worked.  Joy already had her shoes off and was pumping away, playing a beautiful tune she created on the spot. She had played a similar organ in a neighbor's basement going up in Minnesota.  Music was an important way for immigrants to entertain themselves as well as to bring their culture and religion to the natives.

By the time we were ready to leave, Bruce invited us to raid the beautiful historic garden in front of the roadhouse.  This garden would have provided meals not only for the residents but all the travelers who stopped at the roadhouse.  We pilfered two onions, parsley, and a small rutabaga and delighted in the wonderful opportunity to be right where we were.

Fairbanks awaited as the day was getting away from us so we got back on the road.  After a few more miles, we saw a cow and two moose calves along the road. Mama moose did a great of herding her two young ones away from us and the road and back into the woods.

Hunger hit so we parked in a roadside pull off to eat lunch.  Kathy took the dogs for a walk and came back yelling that she'd found a dead moose.  Joy, with camera, ran out to see the remains.  It looked like a cow, since it had no antlers, but we both knew they could have been removed. No smell but lots of decay indicated it may have been killed a week or so earlier, probably hit by a car.  We looked around carefully for  bear as we no longer had bear spray and returned to the RV.  

After a lunch of recently purchased caribou sausage nibs and Pilot Bread, we drove straight to the campground in Fairbanks that we had stayed at earlier in the summer, which provided clean showers, no mosquitoes and a nice place to walk the dogs.  We were even treated to a parade of vintage cars as the local car club wove its way through the park, showing off their wheels.

Besides the cable TV, we also celebrated the Alaskan interior, which we explored like any traveler may have done the past 75 years - following the Tanana River and stopping to share with people along the way.  This time around we were able to explore the University of Alaska museum which is on the beautiful UA campus overlooking Fairbanks. We seemed to enjoy this visit to Fairbanks more than the last time and we surmised it was because we were returning to a familiar place which still held so much to explore.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ships and Dips - Our Trip To Valdez

Even though we're on the road, little things like dental cleanings still have to be completed.  Kathy got an appointment in Tok so Joy ended up closing the VC early with the help of the volunteer coordinator and the rangers.  She hurried out the door, shut off the generator and hit the road.  She met Kathy at HQ and we finished the laundry and hit the road that evening, intending to spend the night somewhere along the route to Valdez.

The Tok cutoff was a new experience for us.  The views of the Wrangell mountain range was an immediate invitation to take a lot of pictures.  We planned to drive as far as we could until we tired and pull over to sleep.  In Alaska, you can legally camp overnight at any turnout or rest area.

The road was tiring as it was in pretty bad shape with many frost heaves.  We would drive over miles of terrible roads and then see a sign that read, "Rough Road."  We often wondered what criteria made THAT part of the road "rougher" than the miles we had just driven that were just as bad but lacked signage. We also though it was funny that they would take the time to determine that the road was rough and then place a sign near it - rather than just fixing the road.

At one point, we hit the frost heave from hell and it literally launched us into the air.  As we were airborne, it seemed like Kathy and looked at each other in slow motion as the RV and Jeep came down hard.  We decided to pull over and check things out and ended up sleeping at a wayside rest along with two other RVs.

The next morning we decided to avoid using the generator so we wouldn't wake up our neighbors and made cowboy coffee on the stove. Our wake up view was of Mt. Sanford and Mt. Drum, two beautiful peaks that we saw a lot of while in Alaska.

As we returned to the road, the Wrangells gave way to Thompson Pass, a beautiful stretch of descending and climbing winding roads, glacial views,  and switchbacks.  We pulled over at the Worthington Glacier and hiked a moderate half mile, with the dogs, to the edge of the glacier.  We touched a glacier!

After enjoying the hike, our travels brought us through Keystone Canyon which entertained us with ice caves, waterfalls, and incomplete railway tunnels.  The story is there were 9 railroad companies vying for the contract to build a railroad between Valdez and Fairbanks.  The disagreements ended in a shootout and no one built a railroad.

When we reached Valdez, we decided to choose a campground after driving around and looking at what was available.  We wanted to be close to the water, if possible, and decided on Bayside.  We set up and headed out to a late lunch/early dinner.  We were really looking forward to some awesome seafood and were told that the restaurant at the Best Western, Off The Hook, had the best seafood in town.  We sat near the windows and looked out over the harbor but the menu was limited and the meal was ok but not great.

The next morning we explored and drove to the end of town and checked out the ferry schedule.  As we walked along the docks taking pictures, Kathy looked down towards the end of the dock and spotted a familiar-looking turquoise ship.  A closer look revealed the ship's name, Cornelia Marie. OMG - it was the Cornelia Maria of the TV show Deadliest Catch.  The boat used to be Captained by Phil, our favorite character on the show.  We cried for days when Phil died of a stroke on the show and eventually stopped watching as it just wasn't the same.  To stumble upon the ship and stand a mere few feet from the helm where Phil sat episode after episode was a pure fate neither of us had expected.  It was very emotional for us even though he was a mad we only knew through TV.  We can't explain it.

As we ran up to the ship there were a few crew members talking to some other fans who had made the same discovery we had.  They said that they were in Valdez to help ferry salmon to the cannery so other boats could stay out at sea.  Joy climbed out on the areas where the ships are actually tethered to see into the pilot house, hoping to get a glimpse of Phil's famous chair.  After quite a bit of time, we decided to move on since other fans had also discovered the boat and were hanging out, too.

After leaving the docks, we drove to the location of Old Valdez.  After the huge earthquake in 1964, the city rebuilt only to find out in 1967 that the city was rebuilt on unstable ground.  So, the entire city moved four miles away to its current location. It reminded Joy of how the city of Hibbing, MN was moved as the Hull Rust Mine encroached upon it.  Although Old Valdez' streets still exist, they did not have the grand curbs, sidewalks, and light posts like old Hibbing did.  Upon this writing, Joy also realized that she lived in the area of Richfield, MN which was also moved.  In the 1990's, the area of Richfield on the north side of 65th street and east of the freeway was purchased by the airport. Joy's house on Standish Avenue is now the location of the UPS Hangar.

We found the remnants of a floating barge that had settled into the sand during low tide and Joy tried to climb it but she was wearing the wrong clothes. We drove around the bay to Dayville which housed the alyeska pipeline tank field and transfer station.  Near the station was a fish hatchery which was abuzz with salmon coming home to spawn.  There were literally thousands of salmon trying to swim back into the hatchery.  We hung around and watched the salmon and sea lions for awhile and were hoping to see bear come across the street and steal a few fish.

After no bear action, we drove back to the RV to walk the pups and planned on returning to the hatchery in hopes of seeing a bear hunt fish.  We visited the Valdez museum which was pretty small but held an interesting array of art and artifacts.

We returned to the hatchery to watch the salmon run and watched a male sea lion dine on the floundering (no pun intended) salmon for over an hour.  He was a great fisherman and had an audience of other sea lions who apparently asked for permission to join him and were told "no." Although a local safety officer had cordoned off the area with bear warning signs, we never saw one and finally headed home for the night. This was our first time staying up until sunset in Alaska and noted that the days were getting shorter as sunset was at 11:20 pm.