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ravenoaks | profile | all galleries >> Galleries >> ALASKA LAND OF THE MIDNITE SUN PART I DENALI NATIONAL PARK tree view | thumbnails | slideshow



Bill Bryson in his best selling book, A Short History of Just About Every Thing shares a perspective of scale that I loved to used with my Biology students when I was teaching. Bryson explains that if the geologic age of the earth were represented by the length of the Bible, then the time that man has existed on the planet would be represented by the last five words (5 out of 783,137).

A first time visitor to Alaska (taken from the Aleut word “alaxsxaq” meaning an object to which the sea is directed) would well be advised to keep that little lesson in perspective in mind, when sizing up Alaska. For whether it is called, “Seward’s Folly”, (paid for by check to Russia for 7.2 million dollars in 1867), “The Last Frontier” (the state motto), or “The Land of the Midnight Sun”, it is the sheer size of everything about Alaska that is so mind boggling. While the land purchase had to endure such satirical names as “Icebergia, Polaria, Walrussia or “Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden”, (President Andrew Johnson and Senator Seward had to convince Congress to fork up the dough) what a deal it was!! At over 365 million acres, the transaction computes down to a little over 2.5 cents per acre. Alaska is huge by anyone’s measure, 1/5 the size of all the other states together, with a land mass larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. Alaska is so large that an international time line had to be bent to keep all of the state in the same day.

And getting to Alaska is not small task either. From Seattle, WA to Anchorage by car is over 2,200 miles of hard driving one way. Sara and I decided to store our full time RV and vehicles in Seattle and fly to Alaska’s largest city of over 280,000 (Anchorage’s population is over one fifth of Alaska’s total) in less than four hours. Time is money, particularly in Alaska where most consumer goods have to be shipped in and flying gave us a good excuse to rent a smaller Class C recreational vehicle for our one month stay. We have often discussed down sizing to a smaller rig if we ever decide to end our nomadic life style and settle in one place. A Class C RV is like a small delivery truck and would afford us an opportunity for occasional trips.

We rented a 23 foot Sunseeker from the third week in May to the third week in June both to avoid the bugs (too cool) and cruise ship tourists (too early) that flood the major seaports of Alaska every summer. Adding up the cost of plane tickets, ($200 more just to fly Charlie, our schnoodle puppy in cargo in a huge cage), RV rental of $3500, storage fees in Seattle and other various costs, this was going to be an expensive month but a once in a lifetime opportunity. Most visitors are lucky to spend a couple of weeks in Alaska and we will be there for over a month.

We stuffed two huge suitcases and two carry-ons with everything we thought we would need. That included two computers, (Sara and I don’t share), camera equipment, GPS unit, cell phones and believe it or not, a huge spotting scope and tripod. There were some clothes in there somewhere, at least for Sara. We were told that you are well dressed in Alaska if your fur hat is dead and your wool socks match. The security scanners at the airport must have thought our luggage images were out of some spy novel, but we made it through with little difficulty. As our plane sliced through the clouds and traversed that tell tail arch of flight, first up, then level and then down, so familiar to frequent flyers, and even to such rare air travelers as us, I couldn’t help but imagine the hours and hours of driving on the ALCAN highway that we were avoiding. It somehow made the impact that our chosen method of travel was having on our checkbook a bit less disconcerting. Speaking of discord, Charlie was not thrilled with Alaska Airlines. In a dramatic way that only a dog could, without being arrested for exposure or disorderly conduct, Charlie showed his disapproval of his flight accommodations in two different ways immediately upon landing at the Glen Stephens International Airport in Anchorage.

Anchorage in May has a look of a city that had been buried under tons of snow for a very long time. Fire hydrants have long, narrow plastic antennas that kept them from being rearranged by now dormant snowplows, and the litter of the winter past seems to have been compressed into little piles, snagged in crevices by the force of flowing water now no where to be seen on the streets and curbs. But it is in the vacant lots and right of ways where testimonies to the severity of the past winter are most evident. Mountains of snow and ice now black with grime instead of white, lie slowly, silently, melting into oblivion.

As we gazed at the Alaskan Mountain Range as it towered over the city skyline, we began to understand the enormity that is Alaska. This range features Alaska’s most famous mountain Denali, also referred to as Mount McKinley. Denali is North America’s highest peak, topping off at 20,320 feet. Mount Foraker (17,400 feet) and Mount Hunter (14,573 feet) are also within the Alaska Range. All three can be seen from downtown Anchorage on a clear day which it was not. But we could see the lesser of the “white giants” as we traveled to the RV rental facility in Anchorage. They seemed to stare down at us as if to say, “Welcome to Alaska, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

To a summer visitor to Alaska, another thing that seems to be bigger than life is the length of the days. The closer to June 21, the summer solstice, and the further north you are, the longer they appear and that is because they are. In fact, at Fairbanks about half way up the state, it never really gets dark at summer solstice and for about 22 hours it is as bright as noon in the lower Forty Eight States. Thus Alaska is often referred to as “The Land of the Midnight Sun”. Native Alaskans don’t seem to want to go to bed much during the summer, almost as if they have been saving up their energy all winter which, keep in mind, they probably have, because before and after the winter solstice of December 21 the sun may not have been seen much. Up to 85 straight days of night with temperatures down to 60 below depending on ones exact location, must have a way of damming up a bit of energy for future release. In May most native Alaskans have a pale, pasty look of anticipation and many appear to have stored up a bit of energy around their waists as well as in their mind’s eye. They chuckled at us “Lower 48ers” as we keep asking each other, “What the hell time is it?” or “Gosh, is this day ever going to end?”

After a short orientation from the RV rental manager, for after all, we have lived in an RV for the past three years, we were off in our 23 ft, Forest River Sun Seeker. Traveling in a Sun Seeker in the “Land of the Midnight Sun”. What could have been more appropriate? Finding your way in Alaska is not really that difficult if you plan to stay on roads because there are so few. Keep in mind that the capital of Alaska, Juneau is only accessible by boat or plane and you have some idea of where you can’t go by roads. In fact Milepost, the legendary trip planner and travel guide to the highways, roads, ferries, lodgings, recreation, sightseeing attractions and services, divides the information by the names of the major highways and there are only twelve reaching over 650,000 square miles. Alaska boasts over 14,000 miles of roadway of which only 33% are paved. That compares to Texas, with 268,000 square miles (less than half as big) and 21,000 miles of paved roads. Taking a large or heavy RV into Alaska, particularly off the main roads, is a very risky endeavor indeed. On this trip we met one couple who broke all three axles on their 5th wheel as they flew over a series of frost heaves on the ALCAN Highway at 55 MPH. Getting parts for anything in the wilds of Alaska may result in a wait that can take months.

We decided to stick to the main roads and began our adventure out of Anchorage north on the George Parks Highway to the most visited attraction in all of Alaska, McKinley National Park, or as it is now called, Denali. Denali is an Athabascan name (native peoples of Alaska and origin of the Navajo tribes of Arizona) meaning “The Great One’. And the great one refers to Mt. McKinley, the highest point in North America at 20,320 ft located within the boundaries of this 6 million, yes, million square miles. Denali National Park is larger than the state of Massachusetts, and if one were limited to just a single visit in all of Alaska, it would be the place to see.

There are certain places on the face of this earth that defy description. Words and pictures simply cannot adequately create the images in the mind of the reader. But even more difficult often is to capture the inner stirring of the soul that some locations are capable of generating. A rainbow over Niagara Falls, the sun late in the day dragging shadows across the Grand Canyon, the pounding surf of Acadia National Park in Maine, the morning sunrise over an ergret’s nest in the Florida Everglades, the gentle drips of water from Pissing Mare Falls in Grosse Morne National Park in Newfoundland that drop over 1100 ft to the lake below, the golden rays of morning sunlight peeking above the crystal blue water of the Sea of Cortez in Baja, the sun setting the thorns of the cholla cactus abaze in total silence in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona are just a few of these special moments we have had the privilege of experiencing in the past three years. Denali National Park in Alaska has to be included in anyone’s list of “special places”. We live in a very anthrocentric world where most view humans as the reason for the world’s existence; that we are the central aspect of reality and that everything not human exists for humans.

As we entered the park and began the drive into the interior we were absolutely humbled by the breadth and scope of the place. As you look west from the gravel road you see the Alaska Coastal Range in all its splendor. Peak after peak covered in pure white snow almost as if someone had poured marshmallow topping over the ridges. As the white rolls of fluff flow between the ridges, one has to concentrate to realize that those are glaciers, miles long and miles thick.

The park road is over 91 miles long from the new multi million dollar visitor center to Wonder Lake at the end of the line. It is the singular nature of this roadway that has, since the creation of the park in 1917, been central to the protection of the park’s vast resources. Keep in mind that this park is over 6 million acres, larger than the state of Massachusetts, yet unless you are willing to walk, the only access to the park is this thin ribbon of mostly gravel road. And even then you are very limited in how you can travel that roadway. Denali National Park has had a bus shuttle system for visitors from its inception a full 52 years before Yosemite was forced to shut down public vehicular traffic to protect the park. During our visit, Denali was not officially open, so we were able to drive our RV to the 29 mile mark at Telanika River. Due to road repairs the rest of the roadway was closed. Once the park opens officially, visitors will be able to drive only to the Savage River point, a mere 16 miles into the park. From that point on all future travel is done by shuttle and tour buses provided by the park service. Visitors have 4 options of trips ranging from a few hours to the 11 hour round trip from the visitor center to Wonder Lake at the end of the road and back. The costs range from $55 dollars to a $139 per person, and you had better get your reservations early. With over half a million visitors to the park last year, the park facilities are full for most of the summer. Many visitors who fail to plan ahead have to wait several days just to find a spot on the tour buses or shuttles.

The view across the expanse between the road and the mountain range plays with your mind, warping all concept of scale and proportion. Checking the park guide is when you first realize that you are anywhere from 5 to 8 miles from the peaks. It is in this zone between the mountains and the road where most visitors try to get a glimpse of the famous “Denali Big Five”, a caribou, a Dall mountain sheep, a timber wolf, a moose and of course a grizzly bear. Sara and I saw three of the five during our visit, a mommy grizzly with two cubs, several moose, herds of caribou. We missed the sheep and illusive wolf but saw countless other wildlife. Snowshoe hares were everywhere as were the state bird of Alaska, the ptarmigan, both changing from their winter white to summer browns. We also saw a red fox, porcupine, beaver and red squirrel just to mention a few. Sara’s keen birding eye spotted a great horned owl, the beautiful golden eyed duck, black billed magpie and the greater scaup. Her life time list of positive IDs now stands at 240 and is slowly rising…

After we had left the park, we came to realize that we had missed spotting the most impressive sight of all in Denali. On several occasions during our 4 day stay at the park, we would stand at the edge of the park road with maps in hand and view the rows and rows of towering mountain peaks. Was that one Mt. McKinley or was it that one? No, it has to be that one. The clouds would shift, shadows would move and the search would begin again. Finally, on a fairly clear day, we were sure we had seen “The Big One”. We left the park heading north and some 68 miles from the park we stopped at the little town of Nenana. At a local souvenir shop in a restored railway station, the attendant ask us how we liked Denali and we told her it was awe inspiring but we had trouble finding Mt. McKinley. She responded with a chuckle and said, “Most people at the park do and if you had trouble seeing it, you didn’t see it.” Then she marched us to the front door of the museum and there, right in the middle of Main St, some 60 miles away, stood Mt McKinley in all its splendor, towering above the horizon like some massive monolith. She went on to explain that, ironically, only about one third of the park visitors actually see the tallest mountain in North America from inside the boundaries of the park. It is either obscured in clouds or the foothill are so tall, that from your position on the park road some 8 miles away, you are still so close that you literally “cannot see the forest, McKinley, from the trees”. Once you see it, even from 68 miles, McKinley takes your breath away. No trip to “The Land of the Midnight Sun” would be complete without a visit to Denali National Park………
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