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
After the cruise
portion of our June 2014 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.
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.
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
Marla and I were
no different from the rest - we stayed at a lodge just half
a mile away from the entrance.
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.
was a massive earthquake that took place in the Aleutian
Islands while we were there, but none of us felt a thing.
and I saw at least a dozen eagles, but my pictures don't
come close to capturing the majesty of our national symbol.
way, did you know Ben Franklin wanted our national bird to
be the turkey? Our tour guide Becky shared that
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
"Denali" is what
native Athabaskan Indians call the majestic peak
that is the tallest mountain in North America.
word "Denali" means "the high one" and refers to the
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
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.
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
The name 'Mount McKinley' was subjected to intense
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,
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
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.
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
However, the Alaska people refuse to stop
there. They intend to keep pushing until they
persuade the Senate to remove the ridiculous
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
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
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
of the day it was playing peek-a-boo behind a curtain of
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.
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.
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
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
missing the park through no fault of our own.
Interesting dilemma, yes??
So how did we get in this mess?
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,
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
call to these people's conscience didn't work either.
No one stepped forward.
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.
reason is that due to the cost, these people had
accept the upgrade package when it was first offered a day
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
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!
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,
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
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.
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
see the windows on the other side of the bus? No.
is because people are standing in the aisles. There
are no seats.
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
are the Left Behinds. These guys are smiling, but I
can report that Marla was very worried we going to miss
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".
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
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.
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
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.
you, Lynn did this knowing full well he could have just
thrown away his only chance to see Denali Park. I was
Our Tour Guide Becky
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
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
Our tour guide
on the Princess Bus was Becky, age btw 35-40.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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.
is Becky and her husband Jeff.
is on the right. I think this other woman is her
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).
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
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.
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
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
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.
be sharing some of the Denali scenery now. This
wide-open area was once a glacier.
we are viewing the start of a river known as Toklat.
These bands of water are called "braids". They are
formed by ice melt.
those "braids" have merged and formed an actual river
further down the valley.
those white dots in the middle of the mountain on the left??
zoomed in. Those are Dall sheep up there.
in Bend, Oregon
In the middle of her description of the harsh
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
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
To get the idea across, Marla sent me pictures. She also
included some brief messages. Here's the story in a
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
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
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?
had told us in graphic detail about
her many grueling
winters in Alaska.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Another time she entered a bikini contest wearing
nothing more than two pizza boxes. She said she won $100 for
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!).
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
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
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.
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.
For the most part, she stood by her man. However, the
move to Oregon shows Jeff is starting to thaw a little bit.
Oregon, in the winter. Very pretty!
Marla, and Roz braving the blizzard
are a couple pictures Marla sent me of the Bend Blizzard.
Gee, that must be almost six inches of snow!! How do
you even imagine using an outhouse in 60 degrees below zero?
where was this picture taken? Oddly enough, I found it
on Becky's Facebook page. Is this Becky's new Bend,
Another look at Becky's cabin... hint: this is NOT the
Here is what the caption said:
for joy, the sun is BACK! We’ve made it through the Alaskan
Winter Solstice! This week,
the first time in over a month,
the sun shone on the cabin logs and illuminated our smiling
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
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.
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.
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.
face it - no matter how bad we have it, Alaska has it worse.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
distance on the road was 1.3 miles. I thought it was
is the Land of the Midnight Sun. This interesting picture
off the Internet shows what Toklat Valley looks like at
Moose is Loose!!
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"
remind us to be as quiet as possible so as not to scare
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.
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.
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
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
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;
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.
grief. Look at them all! Put a red nose on the
one in front and hitch up Santa's sleigh
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
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.
River Ranger Station (mile 53).
the Ranger Station - do you see the picture of Mt Denali??
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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".
what happens to these braids? Let's find out...
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
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
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
More About the
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 End of the
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
Wonder Lake (pretty wonderful indeed!) and
Katishna Lodge. I wish we could have
seen them both, but I agree there wasn't
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
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.
before we turned, I snapped a shot of the mile marker for
boys and their cameras. Marla took this shot.
do you think... is this Stony Dome spot an interesting place?
do you agree with me that it is perhaps a bit hohum?
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.
about to get back on the bus ahead of time when I noticed these guys
were staring off into space. What were they looking
backpackers are the dark spot in the center of the picture
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'
I think this was the first trip where I realized that I
could really use a higher quality camera for these long
shots. Oh well.
enough, the picture on the left would turn out to be very
important. Take a look at
the picture below...
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.
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
the presence of the tallest mountain in North America.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.