Alaska's Winter Horizon

Alaska's Winter Horizon

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The road to Valdez

We left the Denali Highway and traveled along the Richardson Highway to the south. It was a very quiet drive with little travel. There was only forest to look at for the first few miles. When we got to Glennallen you could see the beautiful Wrangell Mountain Range in the distance.

After stopping to grab a bite to eat, we headed on toward Valdez. The drive was stunning for the rest of the trip. We were able to see many glaciers from the road and gorgeous mountain views. Near the Copper River Basin, we stopped at the Wrangell St. Elias National Park Visitor Center. Unfortunately, it had already closed for the day. This park is the largest park in the National Park System. It covers 13.2 million acres. It contains many different ecosystems. This park is something we plan to give more time to exploring later.
Hitting the road again for Valdez we climbed toward the top of Thompson Pass. We stopped for a short break along the roadside. The wind was blowing fiercely and the temperatures were in the low 40s. It was almost a struggle just to stand still. Once we headed back out, it began to rain and we could see fog developing in the distance and layering the mountains. It happened so quickly that it almost looked like a giant sheet was being spread upon the mountains. The bad news was that as we continued to climb we found ourselves covered in the same sheet. The night had grown dark. This was the first real night darkness we've seen for a long time. I can understand why Thompson's Pass is such an obstacle during winter road travel. As we crawled along, trying to find the road, a large porcupine nearly wobbled into our car. These things are huge! We had no idea they were that big. Greg was able to concentrate and narrowly avoided a quill/car collision. He credited this maneuver to his defensive driving training at police academy, or just quick reflexes. It was nearing midnight and we had poor cell phone service. We had much trouble finding a room on a July weekend in Valdez. Thankfully, we don't have any pictures of where we stayed. The walls were soooo thin, we could hear the people snoring and coughing in the 2 adjacent rooms. However, we did get a picture of my wet clothes that had to be laid out in the trunk to dry. I tried to take a shower and water leaked out all around the tub area. My clothes got drenched from the water spewing and flooding the floors. We were all exhausted and didn't really care. We just wanted to fall out. This ended a long, beautiful, and exhilarating day.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Saturday, July 17th, Part 3

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As we covered more of the Denali Highway, we continued to be in awe of our surroundings. We saw a bald eagle soaring near the mountains. Anne, quite the photographer, captured it in this photo. Just a few miles further on, we began to see several glaciers in the distance between the mountains. If you look closely in this photo, you can see the river of ice on the distant landscape. We stopped beside one of the many lakes along the highway. There are also several campgrounds managed by the Bureau of Land Management along the road. Most of them seemed relatively empty. This seems quite a shame as this is one of the most scenic drives we have taken in the state. When we reached the highest summit along the highway at 4086 feet, Anne and I posed beside the sign. Greg climbed up a bigger hill and beckoned for us to come up and see the fantastic views. Anne made it about 4 feet up on a 6 foot climb before collapsing from exhaustion. Greg was forced to use his skills as a first responder to assist her at the scene. She got to her feet, regained her balance, smoked a cigarette, and was fully recovered. She was able to get to the top of the hill to view the endless beauty of the mountains, glaciers, tundra, rivers, and lakes. Near the end of the highway was a brand new rest stop. It had many awesome views and interpretive signs. This was a beautiful ending to a beautiful day.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday, July 17th Part 2

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We left Alpine Creek Lodge and continued our journey along the beautiful Denali Highway. By this point in the trip, any reservations we had about driving this road were long gone. We assumed that eventually the panoramic vistas would lose some of their intensity. This didn't prove to be the case as the road is like driving through a 135 mile postcard. Greg said it was hands down his favorite part of Alaska thus far. Soon after leaving the lodge, I spotted a swan atop a beaver's lodge. We think these were tundra swans not trumpeter swans. Unless they are side by side it is difficult to tell the difference. She left her nest and swam back into the grasses at the edge of the water. As we passed hundreds of lakes we saw many more swans, some swimming with their young and others congregating along the grassy banks. It was quite a beautiful scene to see them gliding along the mirror-topped lakes. A few more miles up the road we glimpsed a moose near the edge of a lake. She was feeding by the water of another beautiful lake.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Saturday, July 17th

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Slept in a little this morning. Decided we should get some breakfast so we didn't have a repeat of yesterday's junk food bonanza. We rode down to the Miner's Market in Healy for breakfast sandwiches. While we were eating, reigning 4 time Iditarod Champion Lance Mackey and his wife came in the store. We congratulated him on his recent win and wished him luck in next year's event. He and wife were both friendly and cordial. This is the equivalent of meeting a NASCAR driver in the South. A winning driver- not just a top 10 finisher! After finishing our food, we made a couple of stops and headed toward Cantwell to check out the Denali Highway. We had heard it was a somewhat rugged 135 mile mostly gravel road. We were a bit unsure about taking a rental car on it. After driving a few miles we decided to continue on and just take our time. Most of the first few miles we drove through taiga or boreal forests. These forests consist mostly of skinny evergreen trees growing closely together. They are the last forests before the tree line ends as you ascend in elevation. As we were climbing, we decided to stop and check out the views. We had barely gotten out of the car before we saw fresh grizzly prints in the soft mud. Greg's hopes for us hiking with him today ended right there! We could already tell being a few miles into the road that we were basically in the middle of nowhere. This proved to be the case for the remainder of the drive. We probably only encountered about 10 other vehicles on the entire road. After experiencing fairly heavy crowds at Denali National Park yesterday, the solitude of Denali Highway was a welcome relief. For the most part, our open views of tundra, an endless number of lakes, and countless mountain vistas were interrupted only by the occasional lodge. We stopped at one, the Alpine Creek Lodge, for a break. Anne took this opportunity to rest a bit in the hammock. The lodge is a work in progress with some finished and unfinished rooms. They have running water and electricity derived from solar and wind power. Everyone there was extremely friendly and treated us as if we were guests in their home , even giving us coffee and cake. Just looking at the view from their driveway, it is easy to see why they were in such a good mood. To find out more about them check out

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Friday, July 16th

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We had to get up soooo early to ride the Denali Park bus. We had stayed up late last night and it was hard to get going. The cold air woke us up when we went outside. We drove over to the Wilderness Access Center in Denali National Park and boarded the bus about 7:30. The bus barely got moving on the road when we saw a mother moose and calf along the roadside. This was Anne's second moose sighting as we had seen a moose last night. Our next wildlife sighting happened on a grassy hillside a little further into the park. The bus filled with ohhhs and ahhhs as we saw 2 large grizzly bears. These bears were quite a bit bigger than the ones we saw last night but they were at a safer distance away. The bus was abuzz with excitement at the chance to see the bears at this distance. Remembering last night's encounter, the 3 of us looked at each other, smiled, and didn't say a word. As the bus continued to climb and make its way deeper into the park, we began seeing an assortment of wildlife including a couple of marmot on Marmot Rock. When we stopped for a rest at the Toklat Visitor's Center, Anne modeled some caribou antlers. At Eilson Visitor's Center, the air was so cold you could see your breath. The wind was more than brisk, and we all wished we had brought heavier coats. We could see bits of Mt. McKinley in the distance. The upper part was hidden by the clouds. This Visitor's Center is really a state of the art facility. We experienced the only running water and flushable toilets we would have access to all day. This Center has solar power and it environmentally friendly. The spring water comes from a nearby stream and is delightful and cold! At the end of the road in Kantishna, water rushing over the road was one of the only sounds you hear . The only predators we saw here were squadrons of mosquitoes. This is as far as any road goes into Denali National Park- to continue you must fly, walk, or raft. There are a couple of private lodges at the end of the road. They are kinda expensive and we found several other more beautiful and just as remote accommodations on the Denali Highway. We will write about the Denali Highway in the next blog. On return trip, we stopped at Wonder Lake. We saw a loon nesting in the grasses on the edge of the lake. We boarded the bus and saw a caribou resting on the gravel riverbed. Several Dall sheep were spotted far up on the mountainside. There were several rams close to the road. Check out the ram almost hidden from view as he rested. When we stopped at Toklat again, we were able to see 2 blonde grizzly bears ambling up the mountain. They were slightly out of camera range, but fun to watch through the binoculars. That brought grizzly sightings up to 4 for the day. Having been on the bus for about 9 hours at this point, Greg and I struggled to stay awake as we rolled on. Anne was too excited to doze. We left the park and headed to Rosie's Diner in Healy. After 12 hours of nothing but snacks on the bus, a good burger would top off this great day. Greg decided to attempt the Grizzly Burger Challenge. It is a one pound burger topped with a fried egg, ham, lettuce, cheese, tomato, and served with a huge stack of fries. He was able to devour it all and his photo is now on the Grizzly Burger Wall of Fame. Check out the link at Full and tired, we made it back to the room and fell out after a great day.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thursday, July 15th

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Left Anchorage around 10:30 and hit the highway toward Denali. We made a brief stop in Wasilla for snacks. Continued on the Parks Highway and ran into a little road work, this slowed us down a bit. We stopped at the Visitor's Center right off the highway and decided to visit Talkeetna. This is one of the towns that the TV show "Northern Exposure" was based upon. It is a nifty little artsy town. There are many unique little shops offering anything from paintings to crafts made by local artists. We walked in the light rain and explored many of these quaint and eccentric stores. Anne was able to buy some Band-Aids at the General Store. She needed these for her foot blister that she got yesterday on the 10 minute walk. I shouldn't be so hard on Anne- she's no spring chicken- and I'll be old myself some day! We watched a movie at the Talkeetna National Park Service Ranger Station about climbers and their adventures on Mt. McKinley. This is where you need to stop if you are insane enough to attempt a climb on Mt. McKinley. They assess your skill levels and preparedness before your climb. After purchasing a few souvenirs, we were back on the road. We checked in at our hotel in Healy for the night and then headed to the Black Diamond Grill for dinner. Our server, Veronica, was a hoot. She considered herself to be living the "ghetto-fabulous" lifestyle. She was waiting tables for the summer in order to pay for her travels throughout the year. Anne and I were chomping at the bit to get into Denali. We had to beg Greg to drive over there. I'm sure he's glad we convinced him to go because we had a close experience with a mom griz and last year's cub. Our goal was to drive down to the Savage River and walk along the Loop Trail for awhile. We stopped several times to enjoy the scenery. At one point, a gull perched on the car and became friends with Greg. It rode on top of the car for almost half a mile before flying off. Right before the entrance to the Trail we saw about 4 cars on the side of the road and people pointing over the edge. They were snapping pictures like crazy. We decided to pull over and see what all the fuss was about. When we walked up we couldn't anything down the steep side into the valley. A lady told me there were 2 grizzlies romping around down on the valley floor. We heard people yelling from the bridge about 200 feet away. Suddenly, the Ranger pulled up in her personal truck and yelled for us to get back in our vehicles. People scattered but we still didn't understand what was happening. We turned around in the parking lot and headed back to the area where people had congregated. When we got there, maybe a minute later, two grizzlies came up the embankment from below and walked onto the road. Not believing our good fortune, Anne and I readied our cameras and began snapping photos. As cars moved on ahead of us, we found ourselves side by side with the mother grizzly and last year's cub. They were both slightly wet from the rain but still majestic and awe-inspiring. We took countless pictures of them walking, digging for grubs or roots, and generally being oblivious to all of us. We don't know what happened but at one point the mother's ears pricked up and she jumped to her feet- ready for action. I guess she decided it was not a threat and settled back down. We could have stayed there for hours, enjoying the show. Since there were 2 cars behind us that hadn't been right beside the bears, we decided to bow out gracefully and share this rare opportunity with others. Greg says perhaps others in parks could follow this example so we can all share in these rare experiences. We left still shaking and in disbelief that we were able to get that close to the grizzlies. We drove back to the Healy for beverages at the mini mart. As we were getting back into the car, a fox ran across the road. On the road back to the room we briefly saw a full rainbow in the sky. A perfect ending for a delightful day.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Grizzlies at Denali

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We had a very eventful day. As it is very late and we have to be up very early for the Wilderness Bus Tour, we will detail today's events tomorrow night. However, there was one of those lifetime events that happened and we couldn't wait to share. We saw 2 beautiful grizzly bears (sow and cub) just feet away from us on the road in Denali National Park and Preserve. We will relay in detail this hair-raising adventure tomorrow night. In the meantime, enjoy our great photos.