I left off in the last post when our cruise ship arrived in the port of Seward Alaska, and we disembarked. There were three nice buses waiting for our group (who had been joined by several stragglers to fill in the extra seats) and we headed north across the Kenai peninsula, around Turnagain Arm and into Anchorage just in time for lunch.
I had made arrangements to meet Ken’s sister Tami downtown near our bus stop, and she picked up Alice and me from the rainy sidewalk and drove to a little diner. We had a lovely lunch together, catching up on family news and us giving her a recap of our trip so far. It was too short a time, but our bus was leaving just an hour and a half later for Denali, so we had to say goodbye.
The bus drove north on Route 3 through Wasilla, the fastest growing city in Alaska, toward Denali National Park and arrived at the Denali Wilderness Lodge just about dinner time. We were on our own for all our meals once we left the ship, so Alice and I took a shuttle to a small town a few miles away and ate at Prospectors Pizzaria and Alehouse, home of 49 beers for the 49th state. Neither Alice nor I are beer drinkers much, but we wanted to try one. We asked the waitress for a recommendation and she brought us three samples. Of the three, we both loved the Raspberry Framboise, and got a pint of that. It even came in these lovely glasses!
Back in our room, we had to get maintenance to come close a jammed window because it was … yep, you guessed it … COLD and RAINY out! We settled in for the night with dreams of visiting one of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness parks on earth. The next morning we boarded a shuttle bus for the three hour tour into Denali National Park.
We had high hopes of seeing some wildlife and kept our eyes peeled. Alas, it was not to be. We did see a beaver dam, but it was on the wrong side of the bus, so I didn’t get a photo. We also had hopes of seeing the High One (or Great One), but the clouds and rain obscured any views of the manificent mountain. Luckily, this wasn’t my first trip to Alaska, and I have seen the beautiful peaks before, but I was disappointed that many in our tour group likely missed their only chance.
However, the bus driver did double duty as tour narrator and had many interesting things to say and point out to us.
- While Mt. McKinley is not the highest mountain, it is the tallest one in the world when measured from base to peak.
- Only 55 wolves live in the park.
- President McKinley never visited Alaska!
- And this guide wasn’t the first to point out that Alaska has three seasons: Winter, Still Winter, and Road Construction.
The best part of the tour was shortly before our turn-around point where he stopped in a pull-out and an Athabascan woman boarded the bus to give a short talk about the history of her people. She was fascinating, funny and poignant as she related how her great grandfather was responsible for negotiating the Alaska Native Corporation with the federal government. Athabascans are Navajos and live in the interior of Alaska, around Denali. She proudly announced she is a grandmother to “10 little Indians”.
That afternoon, we rode the Wilderness Express glass dome train from Denali to Fairbanks.
We arrived at Fairbanks to find our bus waiting to escort us to the Pikes Waterfront Lodge, where we would spend our final two nights of the excursion.
We awoke on day 10 to find (what else?) … rain! But we trudged on anyway. First stop, Gold Dredge 8. First, we viewed an exhibit of the Alyeska Pipeline, and heard about it’s construction and safety features.
Then we took a little shuttle tour of the old dredge, learning about the Alaska gold rush, and how a dredge differs from a gold mine. We explored the old dredge camp and saw the equipment, and then panned for gold! I got the most of anyone in the group, finding $24 worth in my bag of dirt. It was cheesy, but fun, and I highly suspect they do very well on selling a bunch of jewelry to show off your “nuggets”.
After lunch on our own, we boarded the Riverboat Discovery III for a cruise down the Chena River. We watched a float plane take off and land on the river and learned that one out of every 60 Alaskans is a pilot. We floated past a house Ronald and Nancy Reagan stayed at while Air Force One was being refueled.
If you’d like to read about the fascinating life of the first woman to win the Iditorad multiple consecutive times, check out Susan Butcher’s story. She died in 2006 from cancer, but her legacy lives on at her home and kennel where her husband and two daughters carry on a tradition of raising and racing sled dogs. The riverboat stopped in front of her home and her husband did a demo of some of his top dogs pulling a small tractor around a track.
As we continued on down the river, we saw where the Chena meets the Tenana, and the difference in the waters. The Tenana is filled with glacier silt and you can see how muddy it appears beside the clearer Chena water.
It wasn’t long before someone yelled out “Moose!” They were wrong; it was caribou, but we all moved to the right side of the boat to get a look. It turned out to be captured caribou, and they were let loose to run down to the riverbank just as we floated past. But just look at the rack on that big fellow! Amazing, especially when you realize they shed their antlers every year and regrow new ones. That means this guy has sprouted these beauties in the past 12 months.
Before our return to the dock, we disembarked for a tour of a primitive Athabascan village demonstration. The tour guide was a high school girl and she did an excellent job of showing off her heritage and modeling this beautiful fur parka. It is made of muskrat, wolf and wolverine pelts, took six months to make and is worth $20,000.
That evening, Alice and I had our last dinner together, as she left early the next morning. My flight didn’t leave until 8:00 p.m., so I had one final day in Fairbanks on my own. Guess what? It wasn’t raining! I rode a shuttle into downtown and meandered through the Morris Thompson Visitor’s Center, ate at the Fudge Pot (a popular bistro that also sells dozens of flavors of fudge), and walked a couple of miles to Pioneer Park and back before heading to the airport.
As my flight took off over Fairbanks, I finally got my look at Denali, proudly “peaking” above the clouds.