30 Alaska 2014
Home Up Alaska Passengers Seward's Folly Denali National Park Russia's Revenge

   


Alaska
2014

 Friday, June 13  Depart Vancouver, British Columbia
 Saturday, June 14  day at sea: Inside Passage
 Sunday, June 15  Ketchikan, Alaska
 Monday, June 16  Icy Strait Point, Alaska
 Tuesday, June 17  Juneau, Alaska
 Wednesday, June 18  Skagway, Alaska
 Thursday, June 19  Hubbard Glacier
 Friday, June 20  Disembark Seward, Alaska

Cruise Tour Extension

 Friday, June 20  Seward to Anchorage to Denali by bus
 Saturday, June 21  Denali National Park, Alaska
 Sunday, June 22  to Fairbanks, Alaska, by train
 Monday, June 23  return home from Fairbanks


About the Trip to Alaska


• Trip Organized by Marla Archer
• Trip Recap Written by Rick Archer
  
Published June 2014

Forward

Rick's Note:  I heard this quote from my tour guide:

After returning from his first visit to Alaska in 1899, geographer Henry Gannett cautioned,

“If you are old, go to Alaska by all means, but if you are young, stay away....The scenery of Alaska is so much grander than anything else of the kind in the world...it is not well to dull one's capacity for such enjoyment by seeing the finest first.”

This trip was an important landmark of sorts - this was our 30th Trip. This is a true milestone. I applaud my gifted wife for her marvelous accomplishment.

Oddly enough, this Alaska Trip was Marla's most difficult trip ever.  Something disconcerting is going on behind the scenes at Royal Caribbean.  Based on the extreme wait times to get a person on the phone (30 minutes to an hour at times), the company seems seriously understaffed.  Furthermore, there is something wrong with their "system".  Marla was forced to correct an entire boatload of mistakes on a daily basis.

However, it is doubtful our 58 guests had any idea how troublesome the walkup to this cruise was.  I give all the credit to Marla - she worked incredibly hard to make sure all the details were properly handled before anyone set foot on the ship. Once we were on board, the trip went very smoothly. Marla is quite the professional.

There were a ton of people on our cruise ship from Texas.  I can only guess that the excellent Texas economy played a role here. In addition, there seems to be a connection between Alaska and Texas that I can't quite put my finger on, but it feels like the people of both states are drawn to each other... big to big. 

I was surprised by just how friendly the people of Alaska were to the Texans.  I expected them to frown when I mentioned we were from Texas, but on the contrary, the people were very nice to us.  Yes, some of them told the obligatory "Texas" joke, but it was always with a smile. There was no sense of rivalry.

It wasn't always that way. As we all know, Texans are very proud of the state size and importance.  When Alaska became a state In 1959, this immediately dumped Texas into the second spot.  At the time, many Texans were deeply unhappy about their state's sudden decline in status.  I was 9 at the time and keenly remember all kinds of grumbling.  Since then I have always assumed that Texas and Alaska were unfriendly.

Until Alaska became a state, many Alaskans were bitter about how long it took a long time for Alaska to become a state. It had been over 90 years following "Seward's Folly" in 1867.

Considering how the media reported how unpopular this move was with the people of Texas, perhaps the Alaskans assumed that Texas opposed their admission and was blocking it. 

I was surprised to find that just the opposite was the truth.  Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (from Texas), Senator Lyndon Johnson (from Texas), and President Dwight Eisenhower (born in Texas) all pushed for Alaska statehood. 

Of course Alaska's cause was helped considerably by the discovery of oil in 1957.  One might say that valuable find greased the wheels of change considerably. 

Our Alaska trip was special in an unusual way. We were all looking for things you don't ordinarily see on ocean adventures. Everyone was engaged in a spirited search for whales, wolves, eagles, caribou, sheep, and bears.

This was not as easy as it sounds. For example, there were definitely whales out there in the water. Unfortunately, unlike Seaworld's Shamu, the Alaskan whales prefer to appear at random. Personally, after taking a look at all the leftovers from each meal, I think the ship should dump it all in the water and treat us to a whale of a show. But I suppose that is illegal.

Instead we are all forced to just sit there staring idly out on the water hoping and wishing. As for me, I didn't see a thing. However, I was in the minority. Most of our group (including Marla), did indeed have whale sightings. I think it takes a special talent of sorts; I don't think I am patient enough.

30 Cruise Trips is a lot of trips. Marla and I have been at this for so long that Marla is now starting to retrace some of her steps. For example, last year she brought us back to Hawaii for the second time.  Our previous trip had been Hawaii 2007. Like Hawaii 2013, Alaska 2014 was the same idea. We had previously been to Alaska 9 years earlier in 2005 (Alaska 2005).

For me, this second trip to Alaska was much different than our first trip. The main reason was "more time". Now that I am retired, this allowed us the flexibility to turn our one-week cruise into a two-week visit. First we used several days at the front end of the trip to explore the beautiful Vancouver area.

Then after the cruise was over, we added a four day "Denali Extension" to our travels.  More so than any other place we visited, Denali Park indelibly imparted the impression just how ridiculously large Alaska is.  There were vistas so broad that they seemed endless. This became the highlight of my trip.

There is much to write about concerning our June 2014 visit to Alaska.  Since I have to start somewhere, I think I will begin with the story of our trip to Denali National Park. 

Rick Archer

That is the magnificent "Alaska Range" in the background along with Toklat Valley.

Marla is my hero.  This was her 30th cruise trip and definitely one of her best.  However, it took a tremendous amount of effort behind the scenes on Marla's part to make sure this trip came out so well. 

What do you think about this picture?  I think this shot captures perfectly the incredible vastness of Denali National Park

Alaska became our 49th State in January 1959.  They had to change the flag again six months later when Hawaii became #50 in June.

The Alaskans definitely enjoy rubbing it in when it comes to Texas.  One joke is that Alaska is 3 times larger when the tide is out.  Another joke is they could cut Alaska in half and then Texas would become the third largest state. 

I didn't see any whales, but it wasn't for lack of trying.  Everyone else in our group was more successful

The fabled "Alaska Range" gives the State of Alaska its name.  Although this range is  relatively narrow, it extends for 400 miles.
It features Mt. Denali (not pictured) as its centerpiece.  The Alaska Range is the highest in the world outside of Asia and the Andes.


Denali National Park

Here is a picture of the Denali Road... this is the only road in the entire park!   Incidentally, keep this picture in mind.  We will come back to it later.

Rick and Marla's Denali Trip

After the cruise portion of our trip was over, we took a fascinating trip inland to see Denali National Park in the center of Alaska. This trip was known as the "Denali Extension".

It was arranged through Royal Caribbean as a special feature that allows their passengers to see an important part of Alaska that is of course inaccessible by water unless you are a salmon.

Apparently this "extension" feature had been available to us back in 2005 when we took our first trip, but I never knew about it at the time. Marla didn't even bring it up since she knew how reluctant I was to leave the dance studio unattended for any length of time.

However, nine years makes a lot of difference. In 2014 I not only had the time, I was keen to see the interior of Alaska.

As I said previously, Denali National Park was the highlight of our trip. Denali is meant to be a nature preserve. It is so vast that the Park itself is two-thirds the size of Switzerland (and probably just as mountainous). Wrap your mind around that!

I was utterly fascinated by Denali. Some people assume the national park was established because of the majestic Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America.

That is incorrect. Back at the turn of the Twentieth Century, explorer Charles Sheldon conceived the plan to conserve the region as a national park. His original intent was to protect its large mammals from hunters.

Naturalist and conservationist, Sheldon first traveled there in 1906 and again in 1907. Sheldon was disgusted at the wanton slaughter of the animals. He came across carcass after carcass of animals such as caribou (moose) that had been shot simply to remove the antlers for trophy. Many dead animals had not even been touched; they were killed simply for the thrill of the kill.

Sheldon realized the animals were so vulnerable due to the thin forest that some sort of protection was called for. He believed the Denali territory should be made into a game refuge.  So Sheldon devoted much of his 1907 travels to studying boundaries for the proposed national park

When Sheldon returned to the East in 1908, he helped launch the campaign to establish a national park. Largely due to these efforts, Mount McKinley National Park was established in 1917. Its dwindling population of Dall sheep and other wildlife were now legislatively protected.

After studying the dangers of overcrowding at Yellowstone and Yosemite, the first park rangers determined the fastest way to ruin the wilderness was to open the floodgates to visitors. Consequently they resolved to limit the number of free-roaming visitors to a mere trickle.

Although some people are allowed to camp inside the park, their numbers are small. Instead the vast majority of visitors see the park via tour buses. They stay at resorts just outside the park limits, and then take a day-long bus ride into the park.

Marla and I were no different from the rest - we stayed at a lodge just half a mile away from the entrance.

Our cruise ship docked in Seward which is a very small town.  I asked why we didn't dock in Anchorage instead since that was where the airport was.  The answer is that the waters in front of Anchorage have become so shallow due to eons of silt run-off that docking there would be too risky.  Dredging is a possibility someday, but not now.

There was a massive earthquake that took place in the Aleutian Islands while we were there, but none of us felt a thing.

Marla and I saw at least a dozen eagles, but my pictures don't come close to capturing the majesty of our national symbol. 

By the way, did you know Ben Franklin wanted our national bird to be the turkey?   Our tour guide Becky shared that tidbit.

   

McKinley or Denali ??



Marla had 60 guests on our cruise; out of that 60, 20 people had asked to join the inland "Denali Extension" tacked on at the end of their cruise.

Our tour package was arranged through Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. They made all the plans for transportation and excursions. We were totally dependent on them.

So far we had enjoyed a streak of good luck.  The omens driving up were positive.  The weather was perfect; the scenery breathtaking.  Best of all, our entire group was able to see the magnificent peak of Mt. Denali… or Mt. McKinley if you prefer.

Which name is correct??

"Denali" is what the native native Athabaskan Indians call the majestic peak that is the tallest mountain in North America.   

The word "Denali" means "the high one" and refers to the mountain itself.

So where did the name "Mount McKinley" come from?

Most people remember William McKinley as a President who was assassinated.  Perhaps the sentiment was to remember him in some way after his death.  However, that was not the case. 

McKinley was shot in 1901.  The mountain had been given its Americanized name four years earlier in 1897.  At the time, a local prospector decided to the name it in reference to McKinley, the governor of Ohio who was running for President at the time.

Unfortunately, McKinley had absolutely no connection to the mountain.  He had never visited the mountain or even Alaska for that matter.  Nor did he bother to see the mountain after it was named for him.  

A controversy immediately developed.  The name 'Mount McKinley' was subjected to intense local criticism. That is putting it mildly.  In actuality, that name was considered a tremendous insult by the people who actually lived in Alaska.

However, down in the Lower 48, people could have cared less what the Alaskans thought.  The name stuck.

Consequently the name of the mountain has caused controversy ever since. The entire population of Alaska refers to the 20,000 foot mountain as "Denali" without hesitation.  To them, "McKinley" is a joke.

Over the past century, Alaskans have preferred to use 'Denali' as the name for both the mountain and the park even though it officially continued to have the McKinley name still attached.

As respect for the rights of Native Americans has grown in our culture over the years, many people across America have come to agree naming the mountain "McKinley" was a hasty mistake.  I happen to be one of those people.

There is a good chance the official name will change someday.  The elected representatives from Alaska have tried several times to get the name changed by Congress, but so far they have only succeeded in changing the name of the park.

However, the Alaska people refuse to stop there. They intend to keep pushing until they persuade the Senate to remove the ridiculous "McKinley" designation.

According to Becky, one of our tour guides, it is probably only a matter of time before the Alaskan people finally get their way. She said that since President McKinley never even set foot in Alaska, to name this magnificent mountain after him is a continuing insult to the people who actually live in Alaska.

As for the mountain itself, Mt. McKinley-Denali is a huge tease. Due to its massive size, the mountain traps the winds and creates a cloud cover. Like a stripper who artfully uses fans to conceal her ample curves, Mt. Denali hides behind those clouds for much of the day. However, we were among the lucky ones. Late in the day, the clouds briefly moved aside to allow us all an unfettered view of the majestic mountain. Ta da!

At the time, Jane, our Royal Caribbean representative, totally gushed over our good luck. She said we were now among the fabled "30%" of all visitors who actually get to see the peak.  Most people come all this way and never see more than a brief glimpse of some part of the mountain if even that much.

Mount McKinley... or Mount Denali if you prefer... is the tallest mountain in North America at 20, 237 feet. 

This magnificent mountain acts as the centerpiece of Denali National Park, but unfortunately it is usually shrouded by a constant cloud cover.  There are many when a visitor can't even see this much.

Although our group did see McKinley from a distance on the bus trip up from Anchorage, it was not until late in the afternoon. 

Most of the day it was playing peek-a-boo behind a curtain of clouds.

Overnight, a storm began to enter the area.  In the morning the skies were grey.  Consequently we did not see McKinley/Denali on the second day at all. 

   

Off to a Rocky Start

On the morning of our "one chance to visit Denali", Marla and I ran into a very disturbing problem… there was no room on our bus.  Zero.  Nada. 

When we arrived, there was a long line of people.  Neither Marla nor I thought anything about it. Yes, we were at the back of the line, but we had pre-paid for a seat on the bus. 

Jane, our RCCL representative, had not arrived yet.  Nor had Heidi, her RCCL counterpart responsible for a companion group.

Out of nowhere, a lady in a red jacket told everyone to begin getting on the bus.  I didn't know if she was the bus driver or the tour guide, but I assumed she knew what she was doing. Slowly the line grew shorter as people took their seats.

And then the line stopping moving.  Our jaws dropped as we stood in the parking lot staring at a bus crammed full of people.

Incredulous, I looked at Marla and she looked at me. We had one day here; there was no "tomorrow". Today's trip was our only chance.  This evening we would be headed to Fairbanks.

We had traveled 3,500 miles and spent at least $3,500 dollars apiece for this privilege. And now on the day of our only shot, there was no room on the bus.  We would both be crushed to end up missing the park through no fault of our own.

Interesting dilemma, yes??

So how did we get in this mess?

Yesterday morning when our cruise ended, the 20 people going on were met by a tour bus.  During our bus ride from the cruise ship north to Denali, Jane, our tour representative, had reminded us that we were all signed up for the "Basic Denali Package". "

However, Jane recommended that we upgrade our package to the 124 mile round-trip "Tundra Package".  This
"Tundra Experience" promised to take us much further into the park. 

We both frowned.  This Denali trip was NOT cheap to begin with.  And this upgrade was yet another $100 extra for each of us.  Of course this was a racket, but Marla did not hesitate to upgrade nor did I raise an objection.  The chance to see Denali was our main reason for booking the Alaska cruise in the first place.  Therefore this was hardly the time to economize. We wanted to see as much of the park as we possibly could see.

Yesterday Marla had clearly added her name to the list.  But that wouldn't do us any good if we couldn't get on the bus. 

I think three different women shared in the blame.  Jane and Heidi were to blame by not getting there ahead of time.  And then in all likelihood the driver had created the problem by letting people on the bus before Jane and Heidi showed up with their two lists of pre-paid passengers.  Consequently several people got on the bus who had not reserved a seat.

There were no tickets to collect nor did the bus driver have any way to check names.  So when the extra people got on the bus, someone was left out.  That would be Marla and me. 

We were not alone. Standing with us in the chilly morning air were Ed and Tracy Akin as well as Jack and Jo Myers. The six of us stared at the bus with worried frowns.

Once Jane and Heidi showed up, they realized they had a serious problem on their hands.  Now how to fix it?

Neither Marla nor I could understand why this was so difficult.  Both women possessed a list of the people's names who belonged on the bus.  You go to the first seat, ask them to identify themselves, then cross their name off the list.  Sooner or later, you get to the bottom of the puzzle.  Right?

Wrong.

Instead of the "cross names off the list" approach, Heidi decided to use the "Honor System" to see if the four people would come forward.  Heidi asked in a very gentle way if someone was on the bus "by mistake"… a face-saving phrase that might encourage the four perpetrators to stand up. 

When no one stood up, Heidi added there were people standing outside who had a right to be on this bus and she needed to make room for them.  That call to these people's conscience didn't work either.  No one stepped forward.

Why not?   I could think of two reasons. 

The first reason would be the embarrassment.  Probably the "cheats" knew other people in the group and would prefer not to be shamed by admitting they had caused the problem.

The second reason is that due to the cost, these people had declined to accept the upgrade package when it was first offered a day earlier.  However, after sleeping on it, they had changed their minds.  Now they wanted to see as much of Denali as they could.  They felt like they had just as much right to go as anyone else. 

The correct way would have been to inform their leaders, but they had conveniently skipped that formality.  As it turned out, they were never identified.  This saved them $100 a piece.

I think Heidi was surprised that her "Honor System" approach didn't work.  She got back off the bus to confer with Jane some more.  Now the bus driver/tour guide had a temper tantrum.  Right there in the parking lot she was stomping her feet and ordering Heidi and Jane to speed things up.  The tour guide had a schedule to keep!

Although Jane and Heidi had a list of all 52 people who had purchased a seat and had a right to a seat, the bus driver had insisted she didn't have the time to go through this ordeal.

So in the end, Jane and Heidi decided not to drag everyone off the bus and do things the hard way.  First Jane and Heidi decided to maximize what they did have.  They "suggested" two "large" people sitting by themselves share their seat.  Then they found the two thinnest people on the bus to sit next to the oversized people. That opened up two spaces.

Then Lynn Hogan, a member of Marla's group, voluntarily got off the bus since he had been sitting alone. His kind gesture opened up two more seats. Jane came back of the bus and said that four of us could get on.

There were now seven of us standing in the parking lot: Ed, Tracy, Jack, Jo, Lynn, Rick and Marla.  The natural thing would be to send the two couples onto bus.  Marla and I understood that it was our duty to allow Ed, Tracy, Jack, and Jo to go ahead.

They were very reluctant to leave us, but the tour bus lady was stomping her feet and having a serious moose tantrum over all the delay, so off they went.

Now it was down to Marla, me, and Lynn. What would our fate be?  At this point, Jane put Plan B into action.

Jane made two quick phone calls.  First she ascertained that a Princess tour from a different lodge two miles away had enough extra seats to accommodate us. But we had to hurry. The bus would leave at 8 am. It was now 7:45 am.

Jane's second call confirmed that Crystal, one of the two RCCL bus drivers, was dressed and willing to drive us over to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

So now the Amazing Race began. Five minutes later Crystal the bus driver magically appeared with an empty tour bus.

Jane and Heidi rode with us over to the Princess Lodge. Thank goodness the Princess tour bus was still there.  They had just started to load. 

I am not sure who was more relieved… Jane and Heidi or Rick, Marla, and Lynn.  But all's well that ends well. Thanks to Jane's quick thinking, our visit to Denali was saved.

 

Do you see the windows on the other side of the bus?  No. 

That is because people are standing in the aisles.  There are no seats.

Here is our guide Jane standing with Charla, one of the members of our group. The other guide, Heidi, is trying to figure out what the problem is.  Heidi eventually told the people standing to get off the bus while she solved the problem

Here are the Left Behinds.  These guys are smiling, but I can report that Marla was very worried we going to miss seeing Denali.

Boy were we happy to see the Princess bus still there!  The bus on the right was the one Crystal used to ferry us from one lodge to the other.  "TWT 13" stands for "Tundra Wilderness Tour 13". 

#13 suggests there are 12 other buses already crossing through Denali.  I saw many buses in the distance that day.  I estimate 10-25 buses visited Denali on the same day as we did.

I was interested to discover Princess Cruise line had their very own lodge.  Although Marla and I liked our lodge just fine, the Princess Lodge was quite magnificent.  It featured a terrific view of the Nenana River.  In addition, the Princess bus was superior to the RCCL bus and their tour guide was far superior as well.

After Lynn, Marla and I got on the bus, there were still about six remaining seats.  What a lucky break for us!  Judging by Jane's worried face, I don't think they had another option if this fell thru

Lynn Hogan gets my "Humanitarian Award".  Without any prompting whatsoever, he offered to get of the first bus.  There was no other single person left to sit beside him, so he voluntarily gave up his seat so a couple standing in the parking lot could go instead.

Mind you, Lynn did this knowing full well he could have just thrown away his only chance to see Denali Park.  I was impressed.

   


Our Tour Guide Becky

Here is a map of the Denali Road, the only road in the entire park.  I remember when we turned around at Mile 62, Becky, our tour guide, said the road went 30 miles further in.  I notice on the map that there is a very attractive Visitor Center named "Eielson" just 4 miles further down the road.  I imagine Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 would make a much more logical stopping point than the boring hill where we stopped instead.

Considering we got back to the Visitor Center just barely in time to catch our train, I think Becky quietly cut her own Princess tour short in order to get the three RCCL people (Lynn, Rick, Marla) to their train appointment on time.  We probably are in an even greater debt to Becky than we ever realized.

 

Our tour guide on the Princess Bus was Becky, age btw 35-40. 

After Lynn, Marla and I got on Becky's bus, there were still about 5 extra seats.  Marla and I smiled at each other - our bus was clearly superior to the one our friends were on.

Typically "no good deed goes unpunished", but this stroke of fortune was the exception. We had not only gotten the better bus, our sources would later confirm my suspicion we had definitely gotten the better tour guide as well.

Becky was a friendly, athletic-looking woman. She was trim, pink-cheeked and very outgoing. Becky wore her blonde hair in a thick braided ponytail just like in this picture.

At the start of the trip, Becky explained that she was ex-GI. Becky had served many years in our military, first as enlisted, then later many years as a paralegal in the Army Reserves.

I never got a good picture of Becky. This was because I was in the dog house.  At one of our potty break stops, I drifted over to the gift shop and studied the books about Denali.  By the time I snapped out of it, I sensed I was late.  Sure enough, both Becky and Marla were headed my way to find us. 

When I got back on the bus, everyone clapped for me.  I got the message.  Considering that taking my time earlier in the day had nearly cost us our trip due to the bus overcrowding, I definitely felt guilty now over not being more responsible. 

I didn't dare take a picture after that.  Fortunately I was able to find a couple pictures of Becky on Facebook.  As you will read, I consider Becky to be a very special person.

As Becky began driving us to the park entrance, she explained this park road we would on was the only road in the park. We would be taking a sixty mile trip to a remote point in the park, then turn around and retrace our steps back along this same road.

From the outset, Becky set the tone. She began by saying she wanted to share her philosophy about Denali. The first thing she wanted us to do was to set some of our 'civilized ways' aside and understand that Denali was an unspoiled wilderness and she wanted to keep it that way.  Her objective was that we leave no footprint behind.

Mind you, she said it in a nice way. That was the first thing that impressed me about her. Becky wasn't overbearing; she simply explained that this was an ecologically fragile area with a very limited three to four month growing period each year. If there was any damage done, it would take a long time to heal the scar. Consequently the park rangers had asked enlisted all tour guides in a comprehensive plan to protect the tundra.

Similar to an African safari, other than three restroom breaks and two "move around" breaks in designated areas, we would stay inside our bus for most of the seven hours. Was this for our own protection?  No.

The Park's policy suggested we were only allowed out of the bus in several specific areas lest we inadvertently damage the fragile tundra.  Becky added that she agreed with the park philosophy. 

She was firmly on the side of the animals and the vegetation. In an extremely firm yet gentle way, Becky wanted us to promise to leave no footprint behind in the wilderness. No trash would leave the bus, no foot would leave a trail. We were there as stealth visitors.

Becky said that the animals in the park were completely under protection. As long as they kept their feet inside the park boundaries, they were safe. However, one step over the line and they were fair game so to speak.

She spoke about an incident where hunters had set up camp right at the edge of the park boundary and began to cook salmon to spread the aroma as far and wide as possible. Then they got in their truck and drove half a mile away.

Each time an animal - caribou, bear, deer, whatever - came by to check out the smell, they blasted away. One animal after another dropped dead on the spot. Then they would drive the truck up and remove the dead body to a remote location, then start the whole process again.

When the park rangers found out, they busted up the scheme big-time. Becky didn't explain what "law" they used to put an end to it, but said that they had made it clear to the hunters this stunt would not be tolerated again.

Becky said what these hunters had done was technically legal, but it filled her with contempt.

The men had used an expensive high-powered sniper rifle complete with tripod for steadying purposes. The rife was fitted with a state-of-the-art hunting telescope. Becky said she knew all about those rifles and telescopes from her years in the US Army. The powerful 6:1 zoom ratio provided a crystal clear image. The magnification made it seem like the farthest targets were no further than ten feet away. All the hunters had to do was put the red dot on the targeted animal and pull the trigger.

Becky snorted in disgust.

"These men claimed they were sportsmen. Trust me, I was in the military long enough to know this is not sport. There is no danger involved and little skill. A six year old could accomplish the same shot.

These men were killing unsuspecting, defenseless animals with high-grade military weapons. What is the sport in that? In my book, these men are no better than cowards. This is pleasure killing at its most extreme."

Becky went on to say that the park rangers now regularly patrol that vulnerable spot on the nearly the highway on the edge of the park. In addition, they patrol the park daily during the winter as well. Snowmobiles are prohibited, so the rangers use dog teams.

One day last winter one of the rangers found a dead caribou inside the park. The animal had been shot by a long distance rifle. The shot did not kill the animal immediately; it apparently was able to get away, but then collapsed from loss of blood.

The ranger decided to check out a nearby thicket of trees which was the most likely place to conceal a hunter. He didn't find any men, but he did find tracks. Half an hour later, he came to a campsite and confronted two men.

The men claimed that they had no idea they were inside the park's boundaries. Upon inspection, the ranger discovered detailed maps of Denali Park as well as an advanced GPS device. He called for backup and took the men into custody.

Becky concluded her story by saying that a lot of people in this world simply "don't get it". Denali is no different than a game preserve in Kenya. If we keep destroying animals and invading their habitats, by the end of the 21st Century, many endangered species will disappear from the planet.

Part of the problem is that many Alaskans couldn't care less about "laws".  Becky said she once met a hunter who had dedicated his every waking moment to shooting bears.  It made no difference whether it was hunting season or not.  If he saw one, he shot it.  It made no difference that there was a limit on how many he could shoot in one season.  If he saw a bear, he shot it.  No one was going to catch him, so why not? 

""Extinction is good. If God had meant bears to live, he wouldn't have created humans with guns."

Becky said that in Alaska, there aren't many laws, and in some parts the police don't really care if you obey them.  Alaskans absolutely hate government interference.  She talked about a movement called "Buy Back Alaska," started by a mysterious rich guy from Fairbanks who had disappeared recently. 

The idea was to buy back all the federally owned land here and then secede from the union (gee, that sounds like Texas!)

Many of the locals hate authority.  Becky said Denali was a prime example of a current battleground.  Their issue is government control of Denali Park.  Alaskans find it irksome that they are herded onto government-run school buses (like ours) to see the one single road in Denali Park.  They live here year-round.  They should be allowed come and go as they please. 

So last year on July 4th, 14 protesters drove right through the private-vehicle barrier in defiance of the ban. Rangers photographed their license plates but decided to avoid a publicity-generating confrontation.

One interesting thing about Becky was that she could tell her stories but made sure she didn't let us know which side of the issue she supported.  She was good at this.  It was clear that she was always on the side of the animals, but on other subjects I was left guessing.

This is Becky and her husband Jeff.  

Becky is on the right.  I think this other woman is her sister.

   

Becky's Story

Now Becky switched gears and told us her life story (don't forget, she had seven hours of air time to fill).

Becky said her life-changing event took place in none other than Houston, Texas, about 10 years ago. She was at Houston Intercontinental when they asked for volunteers to give up their seat. In return for delaying her flight, Becky was given an extra plane ticket to 'Anywhere USA'.

At the time, Becky had retired from active service. Now she was in the Army Reserves. She stayed very busy taking assignments as a paralegal, many of which brought her to Washington, DC.

A self-described city girl, Becky visited New York city practically every weekend only to return to DC at the last moment and start the work week anew.

Becky was on vacation when she reached Houston. With time to kill in the airport, she went over and looked at some of the places on the schedule board where planes were departing to. One spot caught her fancy.  On a whim, she decided not to go to her original location, but rather use her special Go Anywhere ticket to visit Alaska for the first time. She landed in Fairbanks.

Becky said there is a strong military presence in Alaska so she knew a few people up there. After a phone call, her friends recommended she visit Denali 100 miles to the south. So she took the train down and found a hotel.  Then the next day she got on a bus to explore Denali the same way as us.

At the end of the day, Becky got separated from her bus (oddly enough, she didn't explain how this happened).

Now she was stranded and forced to walk two miles on her own to the visitor's center at the front of the park.

Becky said she had never been so frightened in her life. She stopped behind every tree to see if there were any bears or wolves chasing her. Becky said she was ready to climb a tree and take her chances.

Finally she made it to the visitor's center and immediately headed to the bar. Her nerves were shot. Three beers later, she was feeling much better. Plus she mentioned she had made friends with a couple of the park rangers. Hmm.

Becky left a few details out, so I will fill in the blanks with my hunch. I am guessing that she hit it off big-time with one of park rangers. The reason I say this is that Becky decided to STAY IN ALASKA for a while.

Becky called in to check on her next paralegal assignment which was going to take her to Germany. By coincidence, the trip had just been canceled.  As Becky coined it, sometimes things happen for a reason. 

Now that she had her freedom back, Becky accepted a job offer cleaning hotel rooms at the hotel she was staying at. Becky added this included scrubbing toilets and making beds.

When Becky dropped that little tidbit, I looked at Marla and she looked at me. Who quits a great job to begin scrubbing toilets?  Who gives up an entire career to become a maid?

Now you get my point.

The next part of Becky's story skipped a few chapters. She was now happily married. Her husband had the same job she did driving tour buses through Denali. In fact, late that afternoon we saw her hugging a guy and wearing a big smile. When she got back on the bus, she confirmed that was her husband.

Becky's life was pretty much an open book to us. She answered any question we asked. However, since Becky never explained how she met her husband or when she met her husband or where she met her husband, I suspect she omitted those details for a reason.

What she did say was that they had no children. Until recently, Becky has spent the last 5-10 winters in a log cabin she and her husband built not too far from Denali. This cabin does have Internet. But it has no electricity… they use a generator when necessary.

And the cabin has no running water. They carry the water up from a well. When she wants to take a bath, she first heats the water, then pours it into a tub upstairs.

To conserve water, she pulls a string whenever she needs water and takes a semi-wet shower. The nearest grocery store is in Fairbanks 100 miles away. Becky visits once a month for supplies.

During the winter, the temperature can dip down as low as 60° below zero. Becky said that she and her husband spend several hours a day cutting wood to burn in their cabin. There is very little room for error.

Some of the stories Becky told about the harsh existence of Alaska's winter made my jaw drop. It was inconceivable to me that a city girl with a good career would chuck it all for this harsh existence.

But Marla heard the same story, so I guess I wasn't dreaming.

I will be sharing some of the Denali scenery now.  This wide-open area was once a glacier. 

Here we are viewing the start of a river known as Toklat.  These bands of water are called "braids".  They are formed by ice melt.

Here those "braids" have merged and formed an actual river further down the valley.

See those white dots in the middle of the mountain on the left??

I zoomed in.  Those are Dall sheep up there.

   

Marla's Ordeal in Bend, Oregon

In the middle of her description of the harsh winters, Becky dropped a bombshell. She admitted that recently she and her husband had a bought a second home in Bend, Oregon.

Becky actually sounded guilty as she described the modern pleasures of running water, electricity, central heat and an indoor toilet.  By the way she talked about it, I could tell there was a part of her that was a bit ashamed for turning soft.

The name "Bend, Oregon" rang a bell.  Where had I heard that name before?  Then it came to me.

By an odd coincidence, Marla had visited Bend, Oregon, about seven months ago.   Her brother Larry and sister-in-law Roz had moved up there, so in early December 2013, Marla and Ellen (a different sister-in-law) went to Oregon to keep them company for a few days.

Marla immediately ran smack dab into the worst "Bend" blizzard in many a year.  The temperatures plummeted drastically.

To get the idea across, Marla sent me pictures. She also included some brief messages. Here's the story in a nutshell:

Marla to Rick:

1. OMG it's going to be -13. Yikes! Love u!

2. Brrr. 4 inches so far. Going to snow for the next two days.

3. No walking; too much snow. I am going Nutso!! They call it cabin fever; I have it bad!

4. Too much food. My neck is giving me fits. In a bunch of pain. We're watching a movie right now. Can't get warm no matter what I do. Can't wait to get back to the hotel. Glad my hotel is only 3 minutes from Larry's house.

5. After two days solid, it finally stopped snowing but it's still very cold. They warned people not to be outdoors for over 30 minutes or you will get frostbite. We will see what today brings. A lot of the roads are closed.

6. It's -8 degrees right now. Much colder than our sleigh ride at Christmas in Keystone, the night you should was the coldest you had ever felt.

7. Should be up to 20+ tomorrow. We r going walking and sightseeing. Yippee yah

8. OMG, it was -25 degrees last night. It's -14 right now. What happened to 20+??

9. I won't ever be coming back here in December again. I didn't know what real cold was until now. Need exercise desperately.

10. Yep only two more days in snow prison. I am paralyzed with fear I can't get out due to snow.

 

Rick to Marla: You sure know how to pick the perfect time to visit! And you don't even have me to share your misery! I feel so bad that I am not there to comfort you.

10. Marla to Rick: Not quite sure I believe that.

11. Thank God for Ellen (Marla's sister-in-law who was visiting from San Diego at the same time). Ellen and I were saying the same thing. All the bad weather. w/o her I go crazy. We r enjoying each others company though. Even w the bad weather it's been a good trip.

12. I am going on Margaret's diet when I get home. I didn't eat dinner last night and I still feel stuffed. First thing on the agenda for Tuesday morning is a walk at the arboretum w you! Please tell me that there's no rain forecasted.

Rick to Marla:  OMG I am out of peanut butter!!! This is life threatening. How much longer are you going to be gone? I can't hold out much longer. Can you get an earlier flight?

13. Marla to Rick: poor helpless baby. Can u say 'grocery store'? Hey, guess what? We're going for a walk!!!!
 
14. Bad news. We didn't get very far.

Rick to Marla: How far did you get??

15. Not far at all. Maybe a half mile. They all got too cold and turned around. What a bunch of sissies. OMG, Ellen tried walking in her high heel fashion boots; living in San Diego, she has never even seen snow.

16. I will lose my mind if I don't return home soon. How do people live in these conditions?
………………..

Earlier Becky had told us in graphic detail about her many grueling winters in Alaska. 

Once Becky brought up the subject of recently moving to Bend, Oregon, for the winter, she add she felt a little embarrassed about "snowbirding" with her husband Jeff in Bend, Oregon.

As Becky continued on this subject, I noticed Marla was kind of squirming in her seat.  What could it be??  I had a hunch I knew the answer.  Finally I couldn't resist any longer.

It was time to ask Becky an innocent question.

Rick to Becky: Hey, Becky, I heard they had quite a blizzard up in Bend, Oregon, early last December. Were you caught up in that?  (Marla looked at me hatefully).

Becky to the Bus:  How did you know about that?  Yeah, I was there. A lot of the locals were freaked out by that storm.  I don't know what their problem was. That blizzard was nothing compared to winter in Alaska.  My husband and I had to laugh. We just put on our coats and went for a walk. 

Marla continued to stare daggers at me. I just smiled sweetly. C'mon, honey, all I did was ask a little question!

The main point in Becky's tales of the Alaska winter was the unbelievable harsh conditions that they face on a daily basis. Becky said there were times when they got no more than two or three hours of light the entire day. She said there are tremendous problems with depression during the Alaska winter.

The only way to fight cabin fever as she called it was to make a real effort to visit with friends as often as possible. Becky said they do all kinds of crazy things like have dances in the community center wearing nothing but duct tape.

Another time she entered a bikini contest wearing nothing more than two pizza boxes. She said she won $100 for her efforts.

Then someone asked about central heating. Becky scoffed. Are you kidding? There's no such thing out in the bush as 'central heating'. Things are nearly as primitive today as they were 100 years ago… if you are cold, you build a fire and do everything in your power to make sure it doesn't go out.

Becky said the worst thing ever is to let fire go out, but it happens sometimes during sleep. The pain of making a fire in the cold - getting dressed in the cold, going out in the snow to fetch wood, trying to get a fire started with cold wood - is an ordeal of the highest magnitude.

She said if you give into the cold and lay in your sleeping bag too long, the fight goes out of you. The more she thinks about it, the harder it is to get moving. Becky said with every moment of procrastination it becomes harder to make the effort to get the fire burning again. The fear of how miserably cold the cabin will be keeps her paralyzed inside the comfort of her sleeping bag.

Sometimes when the fire goes out, Becky said she would play a game of chess with her husband Jeff for the highest stakes imaginable…. Loser has to get the wood and get the fire started again. Becky says those are brutal battles. She says that even if it is hopeless for her to win, she hangs in there if for no other reason than to delay the suffering. As long as there is a chance of stalemate or a really dumb move on her husband's part, Becky won't quit till the bitter end.

Then Becky added there was yet another curse to worry about - the need to use the outhouse in the winter.  She said she was going to spare us any details, but a person from the Lower 48 does not understand "cold" until they have been forced to use the outhouse in 60 degree below temperature. 

Yes, of course the winter is terrible. But the summer is weird too! Think about it, 22 hours of light at the Summer Solstice! This is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Becky said that in Fairbanks, they have an annual baseball game that deliberately starts at Midnight... without lights.  It is so bright they don't need lights!

Becky says she has her own Summer Solstice ritual.  On a day when she is certain it is not going to rain, she gets on her bike and rides the entire 180 Denali Road (90 miles one way, 90 miles back) in ONE DAY. 

To me, that sounded like quite an accomplishment. Mind you, much of this trip includes climbing grueling steep grades (Becky sheepishly confessed she gets off her bike and walks her bike up the toughest ones; what a softie!).

Fortunately, since it never gets dark, Becky says she has never failed to make the entire trip in one day. 

Becky was right about the sun. It's true. I saw it with my own eyes… one time I woke up and the clock said  3 am - it was still light outside!  It felt like the sun had not bothered to go down.

Another time it was 10:30 pm when we got back to our lodge, but the sun was as bright as 4 in the afternoon here in Houston.

Normal sleep patterns were impossible. We tried completely closing the blinds, but sun would always find a way to creep in somewhere in the room. Half the time we walked around like zombies due to insomnia.

Of course Marla and I got to see Alaska when it is the most beautiful. The winter thaw begins in May and by the middle of June all the wildflowers are out. Everything is so pretty.

However, looks can be deceiving.  Once the wildflowers emerge in June, there will be only three more months before the snows come again.

That's right… Alaska has only five months without snow (May-September), and then the ordeal begins all over again. In early October, the snows begin anew.

As I listened to Becky explain the constant struggle for survival in Denali, the message I got was just how difficult it is to live in the extreme conditions of Alaska.

Becky's story made it very easy to comprehend the "cabin fever" that comes from being confined by the long hours of winter darkness and the 60° below zero temperature.

Overall Becky painted such a bleak picture that I couldn't imagine anyone 'voluntarily' moving to a place like Alaska like she did. It is one thing to be born into those conditions and not know anything better, but for Becky to give up a soft life of jet-setting back and forth across the Lower 48 for this harsh existence was unfathomable to me.

I can only assume her love for her husband is the missing piece of the puzzle. They say a good man is hard to find, but I have never heard of a woman going to those kinds of lengths before. I suspect most women would find a good man and then lure him to the Lower 48 once he got attached.

Not Becky.  For the most part, she stood by her man.  However, the move to Oregon shows Jeff is starting to thaw a little bit.

Bend, Oregon, in the winter.  Very pretty!

Ellen, Marla, and Roz braving the blizzard

Here are a couple pictures Marla sent me of the Bend Blizzard.  Gee, that must be almost six inches of snow!!  How do people survive?

Can you even imagine using an outhouse in 60 degrees below zero?

So where was this picture taken?  Oddly enough, I found it on Becky's Facebook page.  Is this Becky's new Bend, Oregon, home?

Uh no.  Guess again

Another look at Becky's cabin... hint: this is NOT the Oregon home.

Here is what the caption said:

"Jump for joy, the sun is BACK! We’ve made it through the Alaskan Winter Solstice! This week, for the first time in over a month, the sun shone on the cabin logs and illuminated our smiling faces.

As the bright light slanted suddenly through the window, the smoldering embers of my soul burst into flame, like a pheonix rising in my chest. My skin tingled with a familiar, long-lost electricity, and animated by celestial power I sprang into action, grabbing the camera and dashing outside.

And then it was gone.  Too soon, it was over. The sun’s feeble chin-up over the mountains
lasted just 5 minutes before it sunk back in a burning exhale of pink clouds and peach-colored mists. I was left standing in the twilight-blue shadows of winter once more.

But for those brief moments, when the pale sunlight had made its awkward lunge over the horizon and slapped me across my pasty face, it had felt like spring. This, then, is the gift of deep winter.

This is the other side of Alaskan winter solstice."

Ironically, someone from Texas (no, it wasn't me) pointed out to Becky just how bad the summer heat is down here in the Lone Star State.  He went on and on about how tough it is to live in the heat.

Becky said she would make him a deal.  She would spend a week in Texas air-conditioning if he would come up and use her outhouse for one week in the winter.  That's when the guy backed down.

Let's face it - no matter how bad we have it, Alaska has it worse.

   

The Long and Winding Road

62 miles one way, 62 miles back. It was a LONG TRIP.

It turned out we were hardly the only bus on the road. The vast open spaces and the long curves made it easy for me to spot a bus a mile ahead of us on the road and another bus a mile behind us. The bus drivers all do their best to keep a reasonable distance between them, but it isn't easy. I estimate there were between 10 and 20 buses working the long road that day.

Towards mid-day, we began to have buses pass us heading back to the starting point. I would stare into each bus looking for a familiar face. At 11:49 am, I finally spotted Tracy Akin as her bus went by. Her blond hair made spotting her fairly easy.

A little bit after noon, our bus stopped at the turnaround place known as Stony Dome.  We got out in a paved area to stretch our legs.  Then after a brief 8 minute layover, we headed back.

I passed the spot where I had seen Tracy at 12:15. That made sense. 26 minutes separated us.  That made sense. Thanks to my delay getting started due to the bus overcrowding, they had a half hour head start on us.  And now they were still about a half hour ahead of us. 

Marla was terrified we would miss our early evening train to Fairbanks.  Jane had promised us that would not happen, but Marla was not feeling very trusting.  She worried about it all day as is her nature, but I decided to take Jane's word and not give it any thought.  Not Marla; every 20 minutes she brought it up.

I think one of the things that makes Marla so good at organizing these trips is her ability to anticipate what can go wrong and do something about it before it happens.

That becomes both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing because Marla puts out fires before they become a real problem all the time.  But it is a curse because Marla can never let her guard down.  She worries constantly, especially in situations where she has little control like the train departure time.

Too bad I have to drive her crazy by being late back to the bus.  She worries about me too all the time and with good reason.  I can be really absent minded because I am always thinking about angles to write my stories and lose track of time.  Or perhaps I am busy taking the perfect picture and lose track of the group.

Fortunately, once Marla realized there was only a 30 minute gap between the two buses, she eased up.  That made me feel better. If anyone deserves to enjoy her trip, that would be Marla.

On the other hand, sometimes 'problems' can be blessings in disguise. For example, despite the morning delay and the fear of missing this precious Denali excursion altogether, there was no doubt in my mind that Marla and I had gotten the better deal in the bus swap.  Watching the tour guide on Tracy's bus lose her temper at Heidi and Jane over the passenger problem had definitely softened the blow of being left behind. 

Furthermore, I was enchanted with Becky's wide range of knowledge.  For one thing, I was never bored... the highest compliment I can give any tour guide. She was able to communicate without being overbearing.  Furthermore she was able to discuss touchy subjects such as gun control and hunting without being offensive.  Now that is a gift!

Another talent was her change of pace.  One moment she was describing the hardships of living in Alaska, the next she was telling us her life story, next came an anecdote from her Denali adventures.  Then she would throw a joke at us out of nowhere.

I discovered Becky had a light side to her early in the day. As we were heading to the park entrance, Becky gave us a long lecture about the joy of spotting animals. She called us "her eyes".

Becky said she was really good at spotting animals.  Then she asked if we wanted her to watch for animals or watch the road.  Once we caught on to the implications of her suggestion, we quickly assured her we would watch carefully and let her drive. At this point we all dutifully began to stare into the distance hoping to demonstrate our collective powers of observation.

Becky said it wasn't enough just to spot something.  We needed to tell her immediately before the animal saw the bus and perhaps took off.  So she began to coach us. She said that the key word was "STOP!" without any hesitation whatsoever.

The moment we saw an animal, we were instructed to shout it out. Becky said that sometimes people are reluctant to raise their voices, so she wanted to make sure we weren't shy.

"So, everyone, I want to be sure I can count on you to speak up. I am going to count to three. When I get to three, yell 'Stop'!! Do you promise to yell it out?"

We all promised to we would.

"Okay, then, don't forget, I don't anyone holding back."

So Becky began the countdown. One, Two, Three!

We all yelled, "STOP!"

And with that Becky stopped the bus at a railroad crossing.  Even though no train was coming at the time, it was an obligatory bus stop nonetheless. 

Gotcha.
  I saw Becky smiling in the mirror.

See the little black spot?  That's a baby raven.  I also saw his brother.  There was a nest under the bridge.  Becky said she watched those two for a week every time she passed by.  When we came back later in the day, they were gone.  They had just learned to fly.

It is not obvious from this picture, but the curve of the road allowed me to see the road way up ahead as it was about to twist behind that mountain.  For fun, take a guess the distance btw the two red Xs.  I will answer in a moment

This is the magnificent Toklat Valley.  To see the entire valley, I took a series of five side by side shots, but I was largely unsatisfied with my results.  The valley was simply too vast for my puny camera to do justice.  It was 17 miles long and 5 miles across.

The distance on the road was 1.3 miles.  I thought it was longer.

Alaska is the Land of the Midnight Sun. This interesting picture off the Internet shows what Toklat Valley looks like at MIDNIGHT. 

   

The Moose is Loose!!

Shortly after that, someone shouted "Stop!" for real.

In happened just minutes after the railroad crossing.  In fact, the call came  so quickly I think Becky thought that someone was pulling her leg.  However, Becky dutifully stopped the bus.

We all gazed at a remarkable sight.  An entire family of 7 caribou (aka moose or reindeer) was casually walking along the side of the road rights towards us. Becky went "sssh" to remind us to be as quiet as possible so as not to scare them off.

And there they were.  Becky whispered that tour buses are such a frequent site that many animals had gotten used to them.  Apparently that was exactly the attitude of the caribou since they paid us little attention.

I got several good pictures and some people even took video of this special treat.

I whispered what a shame it was that the bus windows were somewhat dirty. Surely the camera would pick up the blur.  My friend Lynn Hogan was sitting next me.  After he heard me, he had an idea. Since Lynn had a seat to himself, he had room to stand up and play with upper panel of his window. To his obvious delight, the window came down.  Good move, Lynn!

Now Lynn and I began to stick our cameras out the window and get unobstructed views of the caribou. Worked like a charm.

I was fortunate Lynn was sitting next to me. For pictures on the left I used his window. And for pictures on the right Lynn used my window. More than a few times I was practically in the man's lap while leaning out the window. Thank goodness Lynn was "understanding" about my reasons for intimacy.

From that point on, any time he or I saw something, we would bring the window down.  Since we were on opposite sides, we were able to work both sides of the bus for pictures.

The only problem was getting those windows up and down was a lot of work.  I soon discovered I couldn't simply leave the windows down; the cold air blowing in made everyone miserable.

Therefore I had to work pretty hard to get a decent picture. In order to take most of my pictures, first I had to drop the top half of my bus window down.  The I had to stick my camera out the window to get a clear shot. And when I was done, then I had to push the sticky window up again. It took a lot of effort to take a picture, but I was willing to do the work.

I know this seems like an odd thing to say, but Denali was not nearly as pretty as I had expected. The place is essentially barren in many places. There was a thick forest at the start of our trip, but once we reached a certain elevation, the vegetation became very sparse. Due to the elevation and the extreme weather conditions, survival is difficult in Denali not just for the animals, but for the vegetation as well.

Although Denali lacked the kind of forest I had expected, it was striking if not "beautiful", especially if you enjoy mountainous terrain. The vistas were absolutely amazing. Like Lynn kept saying, no photograph would be sufficient to convey just how vast this place was.

I completely agreed. The main valley was so large it seemed like it had to be 50 miles wide. So when I got home, I used Google Earth to measure the correct distance. 5 miles wide. Hmm. So much for my ability to judge distance. What do you expect from a city boy?

Only one other time have I seen a valley with this kind of expanse. The crater inside Mt Haleakala, a massive volcano that comprises half the area on the Hawaiian island of Maui, isn't as big as Denali's valley, but it definitely invites a comparison.

Good grief.  Look at them all!  Put a red nose on the one in front and hitch up Santa's sleigh

Here is another look at Toklat Valley.  I am standing at a place known as Polychrome Overlook at Point Y.  The valley below is Point X.  We are at Mile 47 of a 62 mile trip.

To be honest, my pictures of Toklat Valley are pitiful compared to professional photos I found on the Internet so I will use theirs instead.  In particular, there is a treasure trove of wonderful Denali photos at this National Parks website. 

   

Toklat River Ranger Station (mile 53).

Inside the Ranger Station - do you see the picture of Mt Denali??

Try not to get too excited, but that is the Toklat River.  Unlike Colorado where the snow melts FAST in April and creates turbulent fast-moving rivers, the Alaska snow melt is more gradual because the temperatures don't get as high.  That explains the relative trickle of water. 

I would have never guessed, but this braided river is the "East Fork" of the Toklat River.  I will explain shortly. That is the Alaska Range in the background.  Mt Denali (or Mt McKinley if you prefer) could not be seen from our position, but it was off to the right somewhere.

Overhead view of the Toklat's braids.  They eventually come together.

Lynn Hogan at Polychrome Overlook shooting the Toklat Valley

   

Toklat Mystery Solved

I am admittedly a river freak.  I love to study where rivers start and end.  I once spent an entire week writing about rivers in Switzerland.  I assume everyone has heard of the Continental Divide here in the USA... the point in the Rocky Mountains at which the rivers decide to head to east or west. 

By accident, I stumbled upon a weird place in Switzerland where there is a TRIPLE continental divide.  All the major rivers of Western Europe... the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, the Po... get started at one spot in Switzerland.  How special is that?

Depending on where a snowflake falls within a ten mile radius, it could end up in the North Sea (Rhine), the Mediterranean (Rhone), the Adriatic (Ticino/Po), or the Black Sea (Danube).

I got such a kick out of researching the Swiss River story that every time I see a river, now I wonder where its destination is.

During our trip to Denali, I was very curious about those braided rivers.  For one thing, I couldn't understand why they were called "rivers".  Considering the small trickle of water, I felt like I could have waded from one side to the other and merely gotten my ankles wet. 

Becky explained to us that 10,000 years ago the immense Toklat Valley had once contained a giant glacier.  Today all that is left of the glacier is this giant valley carved out by the powerful ice.  I found an excellent web site to explain it all if you're interested:
The Encyclopedia of Earth

Every time I stared at my Denali map, it irked me no end to see TWO Toklat Rivers.  As it turned out, my eyes were so riveted on the details of the Denali Road that missed some valuable information.

It is very easy to imagine a solid block of ice once filled those gaps in the mountains and the valley in front of them.  Today all that is left are these gentle trickles of water known as "braids".

So what happens to these braids?  Let's find out...

 

That line of snow-capped mountains in the background is known as the "Alaska Range".  Mt Denali is 33 miles to right of center... that might be a part of Mount Denali at the far right.  In the picture below, I have marked where I think the picture above was taken using two "Z"s

26 miles to the north, two braided rivers merge on the other side of the Wyoming Hills.  This Google Earth snapshot gives us a bird's eye view of how the two braids - Toklat River (left) and Toklat River East Fork (right) - eventually come together.  Now let's see a dramatic picture of the Merge Point...

This picture was taken from the north looking south.  The Alaska Range is in the background.  Those are the Wyoming Hills in the center.  The Toklat Valley where the braids begin is invisible on the other side of the Wyoming Hills 26 miles to the south.  What an amazing picture. 
 

More About the Toklat River

Please note there is a chance I could be wrong about the picture above. The Internet caption for the picture above was called the "merger of the Toklat River". 

Okay, but then I found yet another merger of a third Toklat tributary, the "North Fork" of the Toklat (which may also be known as the McKinley River).  This second merge point was located 40 miles further to the north from the first merge point.  However, after studying both merge points using Google Earth, I think I got it right. 

There are several rivers that begin in Denali National Park... the Toklat, the Kantishna, the Savage, the Sanctuary, the Nenana, the Teklanika and so on.

They all eventually merge with the Tanana River somewhere along the way in the area just west of Fairbanks.  The Tanana becomes a major river at this point, but not for long.  About 120 miles northwest of Fairbanks, the Tanana River meets with the Yukon River flowing west from Canada's Yukon Territory.

At this point the Yukon River continues on to the Bering Sea. The Yukon River is home to one of the longest salmon runs in the world. Each year Chinook, coho, and chum salmon return to their terminal streams in Alaska, the Yukon Territories, and British Columbia. The Chinook have the longest journey, with an estimated 35–50% bound for Canada.  

As salmon do not eat during their spawning migration, Yukon River salmon must have great reserves of fat and energy to fuel their thousand-mile long journey (imagine swimming for 1,000 miles without eating!)  How any salmon survives this journey at all seems a miracle.

The Yukon,
Alaska's
longest
river

   


The End of the Road

The Denali Road runs for 90 miles.  As the map shows, the road ends just past Wonder Lake (mile 85) at Katishna Lodge (Mile 89).

However, we didn't see the lake or the lodge.  Our "Tundra Experience" journey ended at Stony Dome, mile 62.

Wonder Lake (pretty wonderful indeed!) and Katishna Lodge.  I wish we could have seen them both, but I agree there wasn't time.

   

One thing Becky was consistently mum about was the location of Mount Denali.   I asked twice and both times Becky gave non-committal answers.  She simply said on cloudy days like today, Mount Denali was tough to see.  She never brought the subject up again.

I assumed Denali was way off in the distance hidden behind another large mountain that blocked its view. 

For example, I have been in the Rocky Mountains enough times to know when you are down in a valley, it is easy for a smaller mountain to disguise the existence of a larger mountain standing immediately behind it.

Since I was stuck on the bus with a limited view and because I didn't have a clue which direction to even look, I eventually put the idea of seeing Mount Denali out of my mind.

After a potty break at the Toklat River ranger station, we drove nine miles further into the park.  I have to be honest - I found this part of the trip kind of dull.  Other than spotting another herd of caribou, the final nine miles was highly uneventful. 

At the 62 mile point, Becky turned the bus into an elevated area and parked.  We were free to get out and roam around for a while.  Becky said the area was called "Stony Dome". 

Not to sound negative, but there wasn't much to look at.  There was little vegetation, no streams and no animals.  Just a bunch of rocks everywhere I looked.

That didn't stop Lynn and I from shooting pictures anyway.  After all, there wasn't much else to do.

I'll tell you what, I will share some the pictures I took from this spot and let the reader judge.

Just before we turned, I snapped a shot of the mile marker for later reference.

Two boys and their cameras.  Marla took this shot.

What do you think... is this Stony Dome spot an interesting place?

 Or do you agree with me that it is perhaps a bit hohum?

Don't get me wrong... at first it was interesting to look at, but after six hours in the bus, the landscape had all begun to look the same.  

I was about to get back on the bus ahead of time when I noticed these guys were staring off into space.  What were they looking at?

The backpackers are the dark spot in the center of the picture

The man pointed to three backpackers down in the valley.  I looked and 3 dots.  He said they were waving at us.  Noticing he was using binoculars, I said I would have to take his word for it.  I could barely see them, but I took the picture on the left anyway.   Do you see the backpackers in the picture on the left?  If not, then cheer up, I have added an amazing 'close up' for you.

I think this was the first trip where I realized that I could really use a higher quality camera for these long distance shots.  Oh well.

Oddly enough, the picture on the left would turn out to be very important.  Take a look at the picture below...

I came across this picture by accident.  I was just poking around the Internet for a picture that compared the size of Switzerland to the size of Denali National Park. 

I absolutely FROZE when I saw this picture.  I recognized it immediately.  That spot looked exactly like Stony Dome, the "boring" stop point at Mile 62

My first thought when I saw this picture was that it couldn't be the same spot.  If so, how on earth did I miss seeing that mountain?  It is difficult to overlook the presence of the tallest mountain in North America.

I raced back to my backpacker picture.  There was no mountain.  Must be a different place.  But then I looked at the shape of the road and FROZE again.  That road proved this had to be the same place. 

   

Imagine that. It was only by a complete accident that I figured out the big secret.

Can you believe it is possible to drive right past the largest mountain in the United States and have no idea it is there?

Well, that seems to have been exactly what happened to me.

There is little doubt that Becky knew Denali was hiding in plain sight right before our eyes.

Why she didn't tell us is a mystery, but I can only assume she didn't want us to be disappointed. 

After all, what we didn't know wouldn't upset us.  Maybe she was right.  I wasn't mad until I figured out the truth.  But now that I know, I am irritated she didn't tell us.  Maybe I could have squinted a little and pretended it was there.  Whatever.

I have no doubt the Spirit of the mountain was greatly amused by my ignorance.

   


T
he Fight for Survival

 

Shortly after we left the Stony Dome viewing area, Becky pointed to a bridge in the distance. I dutifully took a picture of it through the window without knowing the story.

Becky said a couple years ago she had witnessed a remarkable event that took place in that exact spot. 

spotted a wolf perhaps a half mile up the road before the reached that bridge. She slowed down to give the passengers a chance to look. The bus was now slowly trailing the wolf from a distance. The wolf never seemed to notice the bus.

To her surprise, the wolf stopped at the bridge and disappeared under it. Becky stopped to see if it would reappear, but it did not. She was about to start the bus up again, but some instinct told her to hesitate.

Sure enough, moments later a sole caribou moose came trotting up the trail from the other side of the bridge.

In a flash, Becky saw what was happening. The wolf had spotted the caribou coming its way. Now the Big Bad Wolf was hiding while Little Red Hood Moose trotted unsuspectingly to drink in the river under the bridge.

Becky saw the trap and wanted to warn the caribou, but she was a half mile away. What was she supposed to do, honk her horn? She considered it, but decided to let nature take its course.

When the caribou came close enough, the wolf sprung out from its hiding place under the bridge. With surprising agility for an animal that big, the caribou sidestepped the wolf's desperate lunge. As the wolf stumbled past, the caribou took off running.

Now a desperate race ensued with the entire busload of people riveted to the windows. They began cheering. As expected, most were cheering for the caribou, but several people were cheering for the wolf.

Becky had once read that a caribou was slightly faster than a wolf. However, with that giant rack of antlers on its head, Becky could not imagine how the moose could ever run fast enough to hope to escape that wolf.

(Rick's Note: I looked it up. The caribou does seem to have a slight edge. Caribou run btw 37-50 mph, wolf btw 31-45 mph).

Once the caribou caught its stride, the wolf had to bust its butt to keep pace.  As the race for survival continued, neither animal seemed to have an edge. The distance of about 10 yards didn't change at all.  Which animal would have more stamina??

Then suddenly the poor caribou tripped and fell awkwardly to the ground. The wolf was on the animal in a split second.

Becky groaned. She was certain her tender-hearted guests were about to witness first-hand a fight to death followed by a gruesome blood bath.

Visions of the caribou screaming in agony as the wolf clamped down on its throat made her consider starting up the bus and sparing the guests the cruel fate of the helpless moose.

However, to Becky's surprise, the caribou turned its head just in time to intercept the wolf's leap with its massive antlers. The caribou caught the wolf in mid-air and flung it to the ground a few feet away. Now the caribou quickly got back on its feet and confronted the wolf. 

The wolf had narrowly missed a kill.  But the antler trick had caught it by surprise.  The wolf had badly lost its balance.  By the time the wolf recovered, the caribou was set and staring it in the face.

Now it was a showdown in the wilderness.  Everyone on the bus was holding their breath in suspense.

There was the massive caribou… 5 feet tall, 400 pounds… facing the lone wolf… 2 feet tall, 110 pounds.

Everyone on the bus assumed the reindeer was a goner; they knew how fierce and deadly a gray wolf is.

However, once the two animals squared off, suddenly it seemed to Becky that the caribou didn't seem quite as helpless as she had previously thought. With its immense size, those formidable antlers and those deadly hooves, the caribou was clearly not afraid to stand its ground against a single wolf.

And the wolf seemed to "get that" very clearly. Becky was certain the wolf was hesitating before charging.  Those antlers had put some real doubt in that wolf's mind.

Now with the element of surprise gone, that wolf no longer seemed quite as interested in taking on its giant opponent.

The two animals stared at each other for about a minute, and then the wolf turned around and walked away.

The bus exploded with cheers and high fives. Even the ones betting on the wolf were forced to smile. It had been a remarkable confrontation.

Becky pointed out that dramas such as these take place on a daily basis out in the wilderness. However, she added, it is unheard of for visitors to the park to be given a front-row seat to life and death scenarios as tense as this had been.


Summary

Yes, Alaska is an amazing place to visit indeed.  But I cannot imagine ever wanting to live there year-round.  Hawaii would be a definite yes, but as for Alaska, no way Jose. 

I am just not that tough.

I hope you have enjoyed my story about Denali.  It was the chance to fulfill a lifetime dream.  I consider myself deeply fortunate to have Marla to make these trips happen for me.

Thanks for reading,  Rick Archer

 More to Read!

Rick Archer's Travelogue for our 2005 Alaska Cruise Seward's Folly - the Story of Alaska
   
   
   
   
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