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.  

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