Tuesday, July 24, 2007

At Denali’s door

Monday, July 23, 2007

DENALI PARK, ALASKA — Just a mile beyond the entrance to Denali National Park is a collection of shops, resort hotels, rafting and flightseeing enterprises and RV parks. We are at the Rainbow Village RV Park, on a strip of land tucked between a row of these little shops alongside the highway and a sheer rocky cliff that rises almost vertically behind us. It’s a busy place which reminds me of the hustle and bustle in the town of Banff, where everyone is there to see the awesome beauty of the mountains.
We had a short drive today from Wasilla. It was raining just as hard when we woke up as it was when we went to bed, but the upside was that our trailer windows were almost clean again! Our route took us northward through some exotic places — Houston, Honolulu and Colorado to be precise! Another small town we passed through was Willow (population 1,932) which got chosen to be Alaska’s capital in 1976, but when they realized how much it would cost to move the capital from Juneau, the idea was voted down. It’s hard to figure out why Juneau ever made the list, since it has no roads leading to it; it’s only accessible by water!
Speaking of water, we crossed a number of rivers today. They varied from wide, blue-green torrents to small streams and some that are called "braided" rivers. These flow through very wide riverbeds that are sandy and gravelly on the bottom and quite shallow. The water separates into rivulets or strands around the sandbars as it flows along. Some of the river names have a similar ending — Susitna, Talkeetna, Kashwitna, Chulitna. A couple of creek names were Montana, Sunshine, Trapper and Troublesome. That last one had quite a few rocks in it.
We’re still in sled dog country, and we learned that the annual 1,100-mile Iditarod sled dog race has its ceremonial start in Anchorage on the first Saturday in March. Then they all pile into trucks and trailers and head for Wasilla, 35 miles further on! The "real" race restarts there the next day if that’s where the snow is, which it was in 2004 and 2005. Lack of snow forced them to start in Willow, even further west, in other years. The end of the race is always Nome. No worries about snow there, apparently.
The GPS altitude reading went up steadily on my laptop as we approached the mountainous areas that signaled the beginning of Denali State Park. There are two parks; one a state park and the other, more famous one, a national park. The terrain changed from flat areas with tall trees on either side of the highway fringed with lovely banks of mauve fireweed, to more open country with fewer trees and spiky black spruce, and glimpses of mountains appearing like ghosts through the cloud and drizzle. We hit more than 2,000 feet when we got to the Broad Pass, a huge flat expanse that was aptly named, which marks the divide between the drainage of rivers and streams that empty into Cook Inlet and those that empty into the Yukon River.
There, the cloud ceiling rose and we started to see patches of blue sky. It was a good spot to stop for lunch, which we did. This time, we turned on the propane and ran the furnace while we ate, for a less chilly midday interlude. The terrain of the pass had a real look of tundra, where one could imagine grizzly bears or moose roaming about. Today, they were all hiding behind the black spruce, which is a real feat considering how skinny some of those trees are.
We stopped to refuel in Cantwell, just beyond the pass, and there were some grand vistas of bluffs and mountains, some close by and others, purple and blue, in the distance. We saw very little snow on these, but they were majestic none the less.
Only a few miles further on, we arrived at Denali Park. It was just two o’clock, so we got registered and settled in our campsite, unhitched the truck and, after a short break, headed in to the park to see the Visitor Center and find out what activities were available.
Just as we were about to turn in at the park entrance, we saw a cluster of vehicles by the roadside, so we pulled over. There was a cow moose, munching on the leaves of some low branches, only a few feet away! We got a good shot of her. She was very large, with great long legs. I took this as a good omen for further wildlife sightings in the park proper.
The park’s public access road only allows you to go in 15 miles, but commercial vehicles, such as tour buses and the park’s shuttle buses, can go all the way in to Kantishna at Mile 90. You can hop on and off the shuttles at various stopping points to go hiking, view wildlife or try to catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley, which is often shrouded by clouds. This peak is North America’s highest, at 20,320 feet. Or you can take guided tours of varying lengths to learn more about what you are seeing. We opted for the latter, and went to sign up for tomorrow’s six-hour tour. Start time: 5:20 am!! And that’s not the first trip of the day! Looks like an early turn-in tonight!

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