Denali National Park

Today: 64 degrees, sunny and Denali is clearly visible. Alaska heaven!

“Denali is six million acres of wild land, bisected by one ribbon of road. Travelers along it see the relatively low-elevation taiga forest give way to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains, culminating in North America’s tallest peak, 20,310′ Denali. Wild animals large and small roam unfenced lands, living as they have for ages. Solitude, tranquility and wilderness await”

View of Denali

Creation of Denali National Park and Preserve

“Charles Sheldon was a hunter and naturalist attracted to Denali specifically by Dall sheep. He had traveled the world hunting sheep and was drawn here by the world’s only wild, white mountain sheep.In the winter of 1907-8, Sheldon observed over 2000 Dall sheep taken from the Denali area by commercial meat hunters who sold the carcasses to Alaska railroad workers and gold miners in Kantishna.

These two occurrences brought the first significant numbers of white men to Interior Alaska. Sheldon was astute enough to realize the hunting of wildlife and the fragile ecosystem would vanish under these kinds of pressures.Sheldon returned to Washington, D. C. and with the help of the Boone and Crockett Club, lobbied Congress to establish Mount McKinley National Park to protect the wildlife within. On February 26, 1917, President Wilson signed into law the bill establishing Mount McKinley National Park as a 2 million acre wildlife preserve.

Considering that at the time most people’s impression of Alaska was “Seward’s Folly, and the fact we did not reach statehood until 1959, it was a courageous act to protect such vast lands in what was then considered by many to be a remote and frozen wasteland.“

We entered Denali National Park after a long, beautiful trek on the unnpaved Denali Highway. Immediately, we saw a mom moose and her two twin calves next to the road.

Mom Moose, the most dangerous animal in Alaska (or Colorado )
Cute moose calves two weeks old, like stuffed toys until mom saw us .

Grilling our King Salmon steaks from the Haines Canning Company. Best Salmon we have ever had.

Raymond Grillmaster prepares King Salmon steaks

Despite my aversion to tourist busses filled with white (or no hair) retirees, we booked a tour, which is the only way to see the inner areas of the park as personal vehicles are prohibited for much of the park road. It turned out well.

Shuttle bus Lots of stops, On/off where you like and way cheaper than the tan guided busses

We saw 80 or so Dall Sheep , Ptarmigans, snowshoe hares, a coyote, Arctic Ground Squirrels, many caribou, golden eagles, ravens, and black billed magpies, but regrettably for Shirley, no Grizzly Bears 🐻

A bit crowded and noisy, but ultimately fun!
Ready for adventure
Steep drop offs. Sally and Shirley’s favorite! Especially when two busses pass…,
The white spots are Dall Sheep, nearly wiped out in the early days of the park.
Dall Sheep ewes. We saw 80 or so, Dall Sheep
One of many caribou.
Male Ptarmigan changing from winter to summer attire.

For dinner, we grilled my Wyoming Elk steaks (New York strip cut). Yummy!

Dogsledding or “Mushing”

A Kennel Ranger “Mushing”

“Why Mush?

In a modern world filled with high tech solutions for everything it can be hard to comprehend why we would still actively choose to use traditional dog team travel rather than any of the modern alternatives. In fact, there are many reasons to choose sled dogs. TraditionDenali has had sled dogs since 1922. Our first Superintendent, Harry Karstens purchased the first seven sled dogs for use patrolling the newly established park boundaries. The park has maintained working dog teams ever since. Their job has evolved over time and they are no longer patrolling for poachers, they are still performing essential and inspiring work in protecting and preserving the unique character of Denali.

Reliability

Sled dogs have hearts and brains that machines like snowmobiles and airplanes do not. Every kennels ranger has a story of wise lead dogs helping them navigate to a patrol cabin in a white out or to avoid dangerous ice obscured under snow. The dogs know this landscape so well they can provide invaluable wisdom that machines cannot. While a team of sled dogs is obviously far slower than an airplane or a snowmobile, they are arguably more reliable to operate in the extreme conditions of a sub-arctic winter.When it is 40 below zero it can be near impossible to try to start a motor, whereas a dog team simply needs a good breakfast and they are ready and willing to run.

Overflow is a common challenge on rivers and trails in Denali. Snowmobiles can get bogged down and sink in this slushy mess whereas a dog team can run right through it and roll in the snow to dry off on the other side. If a machine breaks down in the middle of remote wilderness like Denali you had better hope you are carrying the right spare parts and tools to fix it. However, if a sled dog gets sick or injured you still have the rest of the team to pull the sled while the injured one can run loose or ride in the sled until they are recovered.

Access

Similar to summer’s back-country rangers, kennels rangers on dogsleds contact winter recreationists and provide information on trail conditions, offer assistance, and monitor use in a low-impact style that preserves the wilderness spirit essential to Denali. The sled-dog trails made during winter field operations are used by winter recreationists who want to explore Denali on skis, snowshoes, or with their own dog team. In winter (November-April) you can use a map to track the travels of the NPS sled dogs and get updates on current conditions throughout the park.

Wonderful presentation by Ranger Jen describing the physical traits of a great sled dog.
Eager Alaskan Huskies pulling the training sled
Dogs going home in “two paw drive”
Shirley and Sally petting a ferociously dangerous sled dog.
Nice views of Denali – fairly rare.

Picnic Lunch at Savage Creek

Mother Seagull on her nest by the creek.
Mom left her nest for a few minutes and we could see her eggs . Who knew seagull eggs were green?
Female seagull dive-bombing Ray as he photographed her nest .
Green eggs and Spam? Seagull omelette for dinner ….? No Way!!

The Denali Highway: 135 Miles of Unpaved Beautiful Wilderness

Meier’s Lake Roadhouse at the east end of the Denali Highway

No internet or phone service since Haines. Generally great weather. Occasionally it rained. Generally warmer (in the 60’s) than home in Colorado.

Wikipedia:

“The highway is now little used and poorly maintained, and closed to all traffic from October to mid-May each year. Only the easternmost 21.3 miles and westernmost 2.6 miles are paved; whether the remainder should be paved as well is a continual source of debate. Washboarding and extreme dust are common, the recommended speed limit is 30 mph

Winter travel on the Denali Highway is exclusively by snowmobile and dogsled. Automobile travelers are severely discouraged from attempting to traverse the road in winter; as recently as 1996 three persons died from exposure when snows blocked their progress. The road is cleared by DOT late in April and generally is passable by non-4WD from then until the first snows close it, usually late September on the eastern, tundra end and late October-early November on the lower, boreal forest western end.”

The description on the internet of the Denali Highway is scary, but the roads were actually better than the county roads to our cabin in Colorado!

Ray, bemused by the 1970’s era gas pumps which work better in the extremely cold winter temperatures
Strawberry rhubarb and berry pie with homemade vanilla ice cream
For $330 I could have purchased an authentic beaver hat. Warm! and I look like a rock star, don’t I?
The Trans Alaska Pipeline. A scar upon the land.
Maclaren Mountains as we climb to the pass.
Maclaren summit Second highest in Alaska
Camping next to Clear Creek
Some fishin’ but no catchin’ on Clear Creek.

Breakfast and Pie at the Alpine Lodge:

The Alpine Lodge

“We are a wilderness lodge in remote Alaska. We are open year round, every day. Alpine Creek Lodge is on the Denali Highway, so travelers can get there in the summer via a gravel road. 68 miles West of Paxson Alaska, and 67 miles East of Cantwell, Alaska. In the summer, we offer hiking tours, photography tours, wildlife viewing tours, gold panning tours, fishing tours and much more! Fully guided, or you can do it yourself! In the winter, the road is not plowed from October 15th to May 15th. During this period, snow machine, dog mushing, skiing, etc are the only way to get to us. Drop off and pick up are available in Cantwell, Alaska via snow machine or tracked vehicle. We are on the South side of the Alaska Range, in the Clearwater Mountains, and this is where you will find real Alaska!”

While we visited the Alpine Lodge, we spoke with the owner and hunters staying there who were harvesting excess grizzly bear (supervised by Alaska game and fish). Grizzlies had almost eliminated the moose population and cameras mounted on grizzlies had evidenced killing sprees of moose calves, fox, Trumpeter Swans, Ptarmigan, beavers and other game animals. The grizzlies killed without eating, then moved on to the next opportunity.

In the winter, the Alpine Lodge gets fresh food and supplies every couple weeks from Cantwell (67 miles to the west). They have a Jeep fitted with tracks (a $10,000 accessory) allowing then to travel the Denali Highway over the snow where otherwise only dog sled mushers or snow machines can go.

Chrissy served up omelettes, spam, hash browns and apple and berry pie!
Ray decorating his omelette with Sri Racha
Oh yes, did I mention there was pie? Best in Alaska so far!
Trumpeter Swan, one of many we saw along the Denali Highway
Campsite on Seattle Creek “Just singin’ in the rain”
Getting close to the end of the Denali Highway
Our first sight of Denali, the mountain, wreathes in clouds
Denali National Park

Next – Denali National Park

Sailing Up The Inside Passage on the Alaska Marine Highway System ⛴

From Bellingham, Washington to Haines, Alaska

We met Ray & Shirley at the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry Terminal for our 3pm check-in. Then we sat in line until 5pm while they loaded the ferry with trucks, cars, campers, boats and commercial vehicles.

Getting loaded aboard the M/V Columbia
Finally aboard and leaving the dock
A chance meeting aboard with Durango friends Steve and Dora Lee

The Alaska Marine Highway System operates along the south-central coast of the state, the eastern Aleutian Islands and the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. Ferries serve communities in Southeast Alaska that have no road access, and the vessels can transport people, freight, and vehicles. AMHS’s 3,500 miles of routes have total of 32 terminals throughout Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. It is part of the National Highway System and receives federal highway funding. It is also a form of transportation of vehicles between the state and the contiguous United States, going through Canada but not requiring international customs and immigration.

Sunset west of Vancouver , Canada

M/V COLUMBIA IS THE LARGEST VESSEL OF THE FLEET. THE VESSEL IS 418 FEET LONG AND 85 FEET WIDE, WITH A SERVICE SPEED OF 17.3 KNOTS. THE M/V COLUMBIA IS DESIGNED TO CARRY 499 PASSENGERS AND 63 OFFICERS AND CREW AND HAS A VEHICLE CAPACITY OF 2,660 LINEAR FEET, WHICH IS EQUAL TO APPROXIMATELY 133 TWENTY-FOOT VEHICLES. THERE ARE 45 FOUR-BERTH AND 56 TWO-BERTH CABINS, AS WELL AS 3 WHEELCHAIR-ACCESSIBLE CABINS.

Amenities include observation lounges with comfortable chairs, a covered heated solarium, a snack bar, a full service dining room, a movie lounge, showers, coin operated lockers and laundry, writing and quiet lounges, and a toddler’s play area.

Walk-on passengers are welcome to sleep in lounge chairs, hang hammocks or pitch tents (using duck tape instead of tent stakes) to secure them to the deck.

The solarium
Tents and hammocks
Out of the weather
Vistas continually changing

On our first day we saw 2 pods of seven Orcas. One group was feeding on a freshly killed sea lion.

Ketchikan

On day number two, having a six hour stop in Ketchikan, we decided to get off and explore town, 2.5 miles from the ferry dock. Unfortunately Ketchikan is incredibly touristy. In addition, three huge cruise ships disgorged their passengers that same morning. There were some nice gifts and nice views, but lots of “Authentic Made in Alaska” (China) native art and souvenirs, fast food joints, etc.

The ladies enjoyed poking around the gift shops, we all enjoyed the history, diverse population, the refurbished “red light” district, Creek Street (“Where men and salmon came upstream to spawn”) and a quick lunch before returning to the ferry.

One of the local beauties
Surreptitiously sipping whisky in Ray and Shirley’s cabin
Dinner with Steve and Dori in the scenic dining room

Onboard we met a national park ranger, Mike Thompson, who had worked all over Alaska. Over dinner he suggested quite a few scenic towns, campsites and backcountry roads which were not on the main tourist trail. We will report on them later on the trip.

Sunset near Wrangell, Alaska
Another sunset view outside Wrangell

Breakfast surrounded by scenic Alaska
The Juneau Icefield, Mendenhall Glacier
Eldred Rock Lighthouse, nearing our destination port, Haines, Alaska
The view from our campsite, Haines Alaska

North to Alaska 🐾

From Colorado to Bellingham, Washington

Along with our good friends Ray and Shirley Yang, Sally and I are embarking on a land and sea voyage to Alaska.

Starting separately, we will meet Shirley and Ray for dinner with friends in Spokane Washington, then later again on May 17th at the Bellingham, Washington Alaska Ferry Terminal to load our campers on the ferry for the second leg of our journey.

After three days of coastal marine sightseeing, we will disembark in Haines, Alaska where we will connect to the Alaska Highway and begin our driving tour of Alaska and the Yukon.

Please visit http://davidwwillett.blog to sign up for email notifications as I post updates.


Leaving Fort Collins, we camped the first night on Bear Lake.

Bear Lake is a natural freshwater lake on the Utah-Idaho border in the Western United States. About 109 square miles (280 km2) in size, it is split about equally between the two states.

The south end of the lake, in the area of modern-day Laketown, was the location of a rendezvous in the summer of 1827 and 1828. Mountain men, including Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger, gathered at this location, along with trade goods suppliers, and American Indians from several different tribes. The mountain men and Indians sold their furs in exchange for various store goods and supplies, and several weeks were spent reveling in assorted amusements and liquor.

Sunset on Bear Lake

We spent the second night at Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park, Utah.

The state park is the site of North America’s highest single-structured sand dune which is approximately 470 feet (140 m) high.[A] The park encompasses 4,800 acres and features the Bruneau Dunes Observatory, where visitors can use a telescope for stargazing.

Bruneau Sand Dune

On our way to our friends, the Millers in Spokane, we drove through the lovely Northern Idaho and Western Washington countryside.

Mother’s Day dinner, remote campsite, Northern Idaho

Fragrant Canola in bloom, Fenn, Idaho

Miller family hike, Palisades Park, Spokane amid blooming Camas

Lovely ladies!

Millers, Yangs and Willett’s, Cedars Floating Restaurant, Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Sally and grandson Drake

After a stop with daughter Julie and family in Seattle, we meet the Yangs at the Alaska Ferry terminal in Bellingham on May 20th.