We got through SFO without any problems and had a 2hr layover in Seattle. Then on to Anchorage with a 3 hr flight. Lot's of Z's got caught up. As we descended, the views from the airplane were awesome: snow capped mountains and glaciers spilling into the sea. We negotiated the airport and rental vans without a hitch! Then a series of errands: acquire food boxes, stoves, coolers, bug and bear spray. Then we drove to the gate of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. From there directly to the Commissary for a massive 4 shopping cart food run, enough for the first 4 days. Finding a suitable campsite was a little challenging, however we accommodated to the open field overflow area which they provided. By this time it was 8 in the evening and the sun was far from setting. Plenty of light for a chicken and salad dinner, and for sorting of supplies. We all went to bed by 11 in full daylight.
The sun was up by 4 AM, us by 6, grab-n-go breakfast, then bye bye Anchorage and north to Denali National Park. The countryside is best described as green, green, lush, green, more green and then finally green. As the highway weaves through the forests, interspersed with surging rivers, lakes and broad blooming meadows, there is only sparse evidence of Homo s. to be seen. Passing a town marked on the map, you see the highway exit sign but no buildings or town. Just luxurious green.
Our first stop, aside from taking pictures of Denali (actually the local name for Mt McKinnley, means the great one), was Husky Homestead. This is a sled dog breeding center and home to Jeff King, 4 time winner of the Iditarod dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome (1049 miles). We were greeted by the recent litters of puppies and everyone had a chance to fondle them and have pictures taken with them. After a presentation, we proceeded to our Denali NP campsite at Savage River and set up camp. A little hike preceded dinner. We were warned by the Ranger that a bear was spotted earlier in camp and to be cautious. We cooked our dinner of beef stir fry and peach cobbler with heads anxiously turning, but no bear was seen. Then off to bed for an early departure into the Park.
Up early and on the park bus by 8, with our guide Kit Kreuger. We took the only road that goes into the park to Eielson Visitor Center, approx 4 hrs. There is no other access into Denali, private cars are generally excluded. We were all primed with binoculars and cameras for the feast of wildlife viewing. Bears, caribou, moose, wolves, Dall sheep, squirrels, porcupines, eagles, deer hawks, and mew gulls. We encountered all but moose, but in some cases animals were only visible with magnification.
The real joy was a cloudless sky and priceless views of Denali in all it's glory. As we got closer, the photo ops were ever more impressive. Meanwhile, the terrain varied between other mtn ranges, foothills and glacial plains with rivers coursing through like braids of hair. Just vast wilderness. Stunning natural beauty.
At Eielson, we embarked on a steep climb to a 360 vista, well worth the effort. A mere 900 feet in approx one mile, you do the math. The drive back took 3 hrs and a few Z's.
Back at Savage River Campground we cooked up some Red Beans and Rice with Sausage, followed by s'mores. Some of us hiked down to the river edge while others played games.
We broke camp very efficiently and, after cherished monkey bread, went on a 2 mile round trip hike along the Savage River. All but squirrels were hiding, but the path offered numerous ecological and geologic opportunities for Dave to talk about. Then, drove a couple of hours to Nenana where we stopped for lunch. Home of the famous Nenana Ice Classic. A local betting scheme, the winner of which most closely predicts the moment the ice thaws enough on the Nenana River for a buoy placed in the previous fall to shift and yank a bell chord in a tower on land. Next, we drove out to the University of Alaska Large Animal Research Center. We had a guided tour and received tutelage regarding muskoxen and reindeer. A little less inspiring than advertised, but very informative. When muskoxen shed their inner coat in spring, they yield some very valuable and ultra soft wool. Reindeer are genetic precursors of caribou, both of which sport antlers on both genders.
From here we entered Ft Wainwright, executed another massive Commissary food shop and set up camp in a a beautiful meadow, bordering a pink children's swing set and horseshoe posts. Dinner was steak, potatoes and sautéed carrots with sweet watermelon, a very peaceful place.
We were up by 7:30 and had egg burritos, then embarked for our activities centered around Fairbanks.
Gold Dredge 8 was the first stop. However, we detoured briefly to inspect the Alyeska Pipeline. We viewed a retired pig and read the fascinating informational billboards.
The dredging operation is a historical view of industrial surface gravel sifting akin to panning. We took a short narrow gauge train ride through exhibits of water cannons, sifters, and other mining equipment, with people demonstrating use of the equipment.
Then we arrived at an enormous tent with troughs and individual panning stations. We were handed a bag of gravel and everyone successfully produced a flash in the pan! Then we were herded through an enormous emporium of gold jewelry, historical exhibits and other touristy stuff.
From here we went to Chena, the most northerly point we reached. Here we toured a resort in the following order: first an ice sculpture museum, then a hot springs series of pools and hot tubs. As you enter the antechamber of the ice museum, you don parkas and gloves, then into the artic museum. Everything was created and is maintained by resident artists. Life size gladiators, sculptures of all varieties and glass globes with colored lighting. As you pass the sculpting shop, you can watch the artist create martini glasses that are used to serve drinks at the ice bar with ice stool seats covered with caribou hide. There's even a wedding chapel for ice brides. From the ice zone we transitioned to the hot springs and relaxed our muscles. We topped it off with showers. From here we drove back to Fairbanks, stopped briefly to watch a moose grazing on a streambed. For dinner we gorged on a traditional, all you can eat salmon bake. What a great day sampling the tourist spots around Fairbanks.
We woke to the aroma of a pancakes and bacon. After loading we drove a couple of hours into Healey. Here we suited up for class 2-3 rapids down the Nenana River in rafts. A rather wild ride in glacial melt water, but we were protected by dry suits. Several went for a swim and others perched up front for "bull rides", Much fun for all.
At this point, our itinerary changed. There was a wildfire between our current location and Anchorage. The planned Nancy Lake canoe adventure was off the table. So we decided to detour around the fire zone and head east on the Denali Highway to Praxton, over a hundred miles of gravel road. We reached a primitive campsite at Bushkana River (Federal BLM) around 9 PM. As we emerged from our vehicles we were greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes all chanting "we are gonna suck your blood". Those of us with exposed skin were immediately engaged in combat. We rapidly transformed into head-netted warriors coated with Deet. The mosquitoes went hungry, but their blood lust is unrelenting. Having already eaten dinner, all we did was pitch and dive (into tents). For water we filtered from the river.
The following morning, Crew voted to leave the mosquito fest and seek higher, windier ground for breakfast. We ultimately cooked our mountain man egg scramble on a vista point with the a great view (shone in the picture). Note the glacier on the left. The next 100 miles featured similar such breathtaking views as we crossed west to east at the foot of the Alaska Range. The fauna consisted of porcupine, beaver dams and "hotels", a moose with two calves and several interesting birds. We arrived mid afternoon at Triangle Lakes, ate lunch and then rented canoes. We meandered around the lake/river with mountains surrounding us and got real close to several beavers trying to race with us. For the evening, we drove partway towards Anchorage and camped in a private campground, cooked up corn and chili, and discovered showers! Yes, we took them.
This morning we baked gluten-free apple crisp. Since we couldn't bring Dutch ovens, Dave F. conceived of an ingenious alternate baking scheme with aluminum pans and charcoal, can't give away the secret until the U.S. patent application is submitted, but superlative meals are being rendered with this apparatus.
We drove back to Anchorage for the Saturday Solstice Weekend Street Fair. We lunched on Reindeer Hotdogs and sampled the kiosks. Then on to the Heritage Cultural Center for a tour of the various Native American People inhabiting Alaska. The outdoor exhibits were reconstructed homes with representative tribe members to talk about their clans.
That night we head down the Kenai Peninsula, on our way to Seward. A beautiful journey winding along the edge of mountains and the ocean. Actually a fjord. We set up camp at Ptarmigan Creek and had a great dinner of burgers and beans followed by sweets like cantaloupe, s'mores and fudge.
This morning we suited up early for sea kayaking, and after instruction we all had fun paddling around in 2-person kayaks. Saw an eagle, seals and a porpoise, along with some sea birds.
After lunch at the beach we hiked to the Exit Glacier, an offshoot of the massive Harding Ice Field. We were able to get down to the terminal end to see ice cracking off and water dripping into the river emerging underneath.
We finished the day's activities by stopping at a place where we could watch salmon leaping upstream. For dinner we had chicken foil dinners with Death by Chocolate for dessert.
This was our day to sleep in a little. Made egg/sausage/cheese muffins and then killed the rest of the morning hanging out in Seward. Lot's of little shops with Alaskan gifts and craft items, cafes and other eclectic wares. Then we made chicken salad sandwiches for lunch, ate them in a waterfront park, and then over to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
First, they dazzled us with a Puffin Experience. We spent 45 mins learning about these birds that remind you of penguins. They even brought 3 puffins in to show us and to take pix of. These birds are able to fly small distances and they use their wings to swim and dive for fish. In the Avery, one could observe them above water and also one floor down under water, really cool.
Then we met Russ Andrews, a friend of Patrick Reichenberger, who is on staff at the Center, where he does research (thanks Patrick). Russ treated us to a behind the scenes tour. This was very special, we learned about their efforts to save the Steller seals and Russ's investigations with tagging whales. He certainly added an extra dimension to the visit. Following the tour, we spent an additional couple of hours scouring the center, taking in all the wonderful exhibits and aquariums.This was our day to sleep in a little. Made egg/sausage/cheese muffins and then killed the rest of the morning hanging out in Seward. Lot's of little shops with Alaskan gifts and craft items, cafes and other eclectic wares. Then we made chiken salad sandwiches for lunch and then over to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
First, they dazzled us with a Puffin Experience. We spent 45 mins learning about these birds that remind you of penguins. They even brought 3 puffins in to show us and to take pix of. These birds are able to fly small distances and they use their wings to swim and dive for fish. In the Avery, one could observe above water and also one floor down under water, really cool.
Then we met Russ Andrews, a friend of Patrick Reichenberger, who is on staff at the Center, where he does research (thanks Patrick). Russ treated us to a behind the scenes tour. This was very special, we learned about their efforts to save the Steller seals and Russ's investigations with tagging whales. He certainly added an extra dimension to the visit. Following the tour, we spent an additional couple of hours scouring the center, taking in all the wonderful exhibits and aquariums.
Then we went back to Ptarmigan Creek, constantly searching for additional wild life on the way, no major finds. For dinner we cooked Teriyaki rice with chicken.
Up early to pack out after a breakfast of pancakes with bacon, then some driving through beautiful wilderness. Following this we drove to the Crow Creek Mine for a tour of the old gold mining operation that duplicated the Placer technique with water cannons and giant sluices until water cannons were outlawed.
We were given dirt to pan, and all found the little specs mixed into the dirt. From here, our guide Charlie set up a high banker with continuous water flow and we processed 25 buckets of gravel. This yielded a couple of bigger nuggets estimated at $75 each. What a great afternoon.
Then we headed back to Anchorage to clean the vans, pack up, have showers and a quick dinner.
Up very early for our flights home.
I think everyone had a great time. No major health issues, lots of unique experiences, real bonding and friendships were formed, and some actually learned things! I will certainly have many fond memories.