The Last Frontier, part 2

Once our trip to Alaska was planned, I nurtured a dream of seeing the Northern Lights, preferably over Mount McKinley. The odds weren’t great for seeing Mount McKinley; its peak is visible less than 30% of the time. On the other hand, the aurora borealis is most active near the equinox and there had been recent solar flares, both in my favor. However, the sky must be clear.

My dream: aurora borealis over Denali.

With rain in the forecast for both days we would spend in Denali National Park, it wasn’t looking good. The train ride up was enjoyable, despite the rain. Our tour guide, Sarah, kept up a stream of steady commentary on Alaska in general and our current location in specific, pointing out such notable scenery as Sarah Palin’s alleged driveway in Wasilla and the so-called “Dr. Seuss House” near Willow. A few lucky folks on the other side of the train saw a moose, but our side was not as fortunate.

Sarah, our tour guide on the observation deck train.
“Dr. Seuss House” near Willow, AK.

Four hours later the train pulled into Talkeetna, Alaska. The rain had let up to a slow steady drizzle, so Phil and I decided to spend some time in that charming hamlet. We ate lunch at The Roadhouse, which has been featured in Man v. Food on The Travel Channel. Phil ordered their signature dish, a reindeer hot dog with chili, while I had a salmon and rice pasty; both were warm and filling. On our way out, we picked up a slice of cheesecake for later from their extensive bakery.

Talkeetna is the point of debarkation for excursions to Mount McKinley, and the ranger station is a must see. It is warm and dry, and the rangers are friendly. Sarah from the train told us they had the nicest bathrooms in town, and she was right. We watched a short film about the mountain and looked around the great room that featured books and exhibits on mountaineering gear as well as a notebook chock full of statistics on attempts to scale Denali, complete with a list of fatalities and their causes. Honestly, I have never understood the appeal of mountain climbing. It’s arduous and extremely cold. What’s to like, I ask in all sincerity.

The rest of Talkeetna is a short strip of eateries, a microbrewery, a museum in a former one-room school, souvenir shops, a couple of art galleries, and an assortment of flightseeing and other wilderness outfitters. Almost all of the excursions were cancelled due to inclement weather. It only took a couple of hours to explore the shops, then we found a little coffee shop and stopped for another chance to dry off and warm up before heading to the bus stop for a trip to the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.

The lodge is about 50 miles from Talkeetna, an hour on the bus, just long enough to savor a refill on my hot tea and share the cheesecake from the Roadhouse. The lodge was about what we expected from a cruise line, nice in the catering-to-the-crowd sense. There was a main lodge with a couple of restaurants, a gift shop, and a tour desk. We checked in and bought tickets to the evening “Norhtern Lights Photosymphony.” Unlike a cruise, meals and entertainment are not included. We ate at the mid-range 20,320 Cafe, where just like a cruise, the food is nondescript. The room was nice, and much larger than a ship cabin, though not as charming as the Anchorage Grand Hotel. We waited for our bags to be delivered, then headed back to the main lodge, the only location with wi-fi.

On the way back to the lodge, we saw that the fog had lifted enough to see the outlines of Mount McKinley through the vapor. I thought that it would be all-or-nothing see it or not, so I was quite pleased. We stopped at the front desk to ask for a wake-up call in case the Northern Lights were visible, spent some quality time with our iPads and headed down to the “photosymphony.” Our tickets bought us each a stacking chair in a conference room watching morphed time-lapse photos of the aurora borealis projected onto a wall and set to classical music selections over a tinny speaker system. The idea has potential; it really does. Play it in a nice auditorium with tiered seating, a big screen and surround sound speakers and it would have been $16 well spent. As it was, though, not so much.

Mount McKinley through misty rain and fog.

Sadly, there was no midnight aurora call, and we awoke to another cold, gray, rainy morning. After breakfast we meandered back to the main lodge to check out excursion options for the day. All flight options cancelled. No luck on horseback riding, either, although we could take a horse drawn wagon ride. (Excuse me? I didn’t come all the way to Alaska for a hay ride!) Neither of us is interested in fly fishing or ATVs. Wait a minute: the Byer’s Lake Nature Walk looks promising. Unfortunately, that’s no longer available because the guide went back to college. Besides, there is a minimum of three people. Not looking good . . . not looking good. We may have to spend the entire day in the lodge with several busloads of retirees to keep us company.

By now we have narrowed our options to one: the Denali Wilderness Hike. “Explore Alaska’s spectacular wilderness on an exhilarating trek with an experienced naturalist guide. Hike through lush vegetation along forested trails while your guide tells you about the local history and wildlife of the area. Denali State Park is famous for its trails, wildlife, and stunning views of nearby Mt. McKinley. Weather permitting, climb 1200 feet from lush forest to treeline for panoramic views of Alaska Range peaks and glaciers. Photographic opportunities abound-from majestic alpine vistas to delicate wildflowers and berries. Denali hiking doesn’t get any better than this! This is a great trip in any weather. Enjoy a fresh, healthy picnic lunch while scanning the mountainside and valleys for foraging bears.” But wait – there’s more! “Hike is 5 to 7 miles and may involve challenging terrain on park trails. Participants must be in good physical condition and be able to sustain a high level of activity. Wear sturdy shoes. Bring raingear, insect repellant, and bottled water. Dress for the weather. Limited raingear, hats, gloves and overboots are provided.” Even better news: this hike has a minimum of two participants. We have a winner! The excursion was scheduled for 2:00p.m.

That left us with plenty of time to gear up. We had brought our hiking boots and rain gear. It was cold so we dressed in layers. I packed up my trusty Canon Rebel digital SLR camera and some protein bars. Back at the lodge, two more hikers had signed on – Dave and Pat from Wisconsin. We met our tour guide, Mackenzie, and headed out.

Once at Byers Lake, Mackenzie had us pack lunches (pasta salad, peanuts, granola bars, fruit snacks and juice plus chocolate bars for those who can eat them) and offered us some additional rain gear. We accepted her offer of hiking sticks, rain hats and Neo overboots. (Important excursion tip: follow all recommendations from your guide. S/He knows what s/he is doing!) Mackenzie loaded our lunches in her backpack and we started our tour.

Byers Lake is fed by spring rather than glacier. Unfortunately the rain precluded us from hiking up to the tree line because the paths were too slippery. Instead we hiked around the lake and took a side trip to a waterfall, made extra spectacular by the extra rain. Along the way we sampled wild cranberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Waterfall at Byer Lake.

We saw evidence of a bear (paw prints and berry-laden scat) but no actual bear. No moose either, despite the large bog we passed. We saw plenty of geese, however, and trumpeter swans and a huge beaver lodge.

Fresh bear paw print.
Fresh bear scat with berries.

Although the hike was described as strenuous, none of us had any trouble keeping up the brisk pace that Mackenzie set. The scenery was beautiful with vivid autumn colors, although many times we were too busy slogging through shin-deep water to notice much of our surroundings. The Neo boots were worth their weight in gold. My low-cut hiking boots were still dry at the end of the six mile hike, although most everything else was soaked through despite our rain gear.

Soaked through (except for feet!) at end of hike.

Back at the lodge, I was eager to try out the hot tub, until I found out it was outdoors. I settled for a hot shower and was moderately successful in getting the black dye from the gloves I had borrowed off my hands. Another night passed without an aurora alert.

By the time the next morning dawned, rainy yet again, we were ready to head back to Anchorage. With several hours between checkout and our afternoon train, we headed back to Talkeetna to once more roam the shops, ranger station and coffee shop. The return train ride had a different ambiance, featuring tables of four rather than traditional seating. This time we opted to dine on the train and when we returned to our seats had a very pleasant surprise – sunshine! – rendering the scenery much more dramatic on the return trip.

Mountains in sunshine! (Picture taken on cell phone due to non-operational waterlogged camera.)

We arrived in Anchorage about 8:00p.m. and headed directly to the Airport Mariott to spend the night in an pleasant but ordinary hotel room. We would have loved to return to the Anchorage Grand Hotel, but a 6:00a.m. flight necessitated an airport hotel with shuttle. Our Alaskan adventure was winding down. We repacked our luggage, choosing to carry on the bare minimum and check the rest, a decision that would come to play on our fateful trip home, which you may have already read about in Putting the Drama in Dramamine.

Even without seeing the Northern Lights or Mount McKinley, Alaska was a great destination and we’d love to go back someday.

The Final Last Frontier

Alaska’s state motto always reminds me of Star Trek. Or maybe Star Trek’s mission statement reminds me of Alaska. Either way, this web log entry is all about our recent trip to The Last Frontier.

Phil and I originally envisioned a trip to someplace warm (Costa Rica, Barbados, Jamaica) for our anniversary in November, combining frequent flyer miles from last year’s trip to Vietnam. Quickly learning that it would require many more miles to fly to the Caribbean, we regrouped to brainstorm about places in the United States that we would like to visit. Alaska was at the top of the list for both of us. An internet search showed that rail tours were discounted at the end of the season in September, then a quick calendar check miraculously revealed six days tucked in between can’t-miss school, work, volunteer, child and parent responsibilities. The trip was on!

It took three flights and nearly fifteen hours to travel to Anchorage from Columbia, Missouri. We gained three hours in time zone changes, however, and arrived in the early evening. We elected to stay at the Anchorage Grand Hotel for its downtown location and proximity to the train station. Excellent choice! It’s a charming older hotel with a sitting area and kitchenette in each suite. Highly recommended.

Downtown Anchorage scenery.

The first evening we strolled around the shops in downtown Anchorage and asked locals for a recommendation for a light dinner. We were directed to the F Street Station. (No web site, but you can see reviews and menu here.) It turned out to be an Irish pub with a bush pilot theme, and the food was great – I will never enjoy the manager’s special salmon from Gerbes quite as much ever again.

The only bear we saw in Alaska.

Thursday we enjoyed a full day in Anchorage. The hotel offers a continental breakfast, which turned out to be a bag hung on the doorknob filled with bagels and cream cheese, granola bars, instant oatmeal and apple juice. Aside from being all carbs, it’s really rather brilliant – nothing that needs to be refrigerated and everything except the oatmeal can be eaten on the go. We were out and about early and enjoyed a stroll through a very quiet downtown before heading to the Anchorage Museum. Part art, part cultural, part history, part children’s and totally enjoyable. Smithsonian has an extremely well-done permanent Arctic Studies Center at the museum with thousands of tribal artifacts, including waterproof parkas constructed from marine mammal bladders.

Decorative bladder parka.

In one of the current exhibits, Finding My Song, artist Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner combines his heritage with music and art to explore efforts to retain native Alaskan languages. One wall presented a series of faces molded into rawhide drum heads. I’m not sure what activated the display, but as we perused the drum heads they unexpectedly illuminated and projected the images and sounds of chanting natives. (Yes, I jumped.)

Singing drumhead.

We also took in paintings by Alaska artists, the story of scaling Mount McKinley, the history of the Alaskan pipeline, the heritage of whaling, and so much more that it is hard to keep it all straight. We could have stayed all day and not absorbed it all, but we had another activity planned for the afternoon.

A Taste of Anchorage combines Alaskan history and cuisine in a walking tour of downtown Anchorage eateries. We turned out to be the only ones on the tour that day and spent a couple of diverting hours with our host, Damon. He did an outstanding job accommodating my no-caffeine no-blue-cheese dietary restrictions. We sampled truffles (dark chocolate with salmon, cayenne and cinnamon for Phil; white chocolate with black cherries for me), Philadelphia beefsteak egg rolls, soup (caribou vegetable and creamy chicken), savory tea, salmon and artichoke pizza, caribou sausage, and crepes (chocolate and strawberry for Phil; lemon creme for me) – prepared with locally grown ingredients. Somewhere along the line we asked about Alaskan wines, and Damon graciously added an extra stop to sample local berry vintages. I am a huge proponent of local businesses and niche marketing, so kudos to Damon. I hope he is back next season.

Following our culinary tour, we strolled around downtown a bit longer and visited a few more shops, including the Anchorage edition of the Apple Store and the Oomingmak musk ox producers co-op in the tiniest store ever. Then we returned to the hotel to finish our pizza and turn in early for our 8am train ride to Mount McKinley.

Tune in next week for our Denali National Park adventures.

Putting the Drama in Dramamine

A sold-out Delta flight from Anchorage to Minneapolis-St. Paul on a Boeing 757-200 airplane accommodates 184 passengers. (I know this because I looked it up.) Such was the case last Monday as Phil and I were returning from our trip to Anchorage and Denali National Park.

We had enjoyed our mini-vacation, despite rainy weather that precluded seeing either Mount McKinley or the aurora borealis. We were able to fit quite a bit into a four-and-a-half day stay, carefully sandwiched between major responsibilities back home. Phil had several meetings scheduled at work on Tuesday, while I looked forward to a day to unpack, do laundry and decompress before an evening school board meeting and medical appointments for my mother-in-law on Wednesday.

At the Anchorage airport, we declined an offer to trade our seats for future airline travel vouchers and stumbled – along with 182 equally bleary-eyed traveling companions – onto the 6 a.m. flight. I scooted into the window seat, Phil folded his 6’4” frame into the middle seat, and we settled in for the first leg of our trek home. Flight 1084 was scheduled to be airborne just under five and a half hours. With three flights, two layovers and the loss of three hours crossing time zones, we anticipated arriving home around 10 p.m.

About the time we expected the announcement that it was safe to move about the aircraft, we instead heard, “If there is a medical doctor on the flight, please make yourself known to the flight crew.” As a doctor arrived from first class, the rest of us were asked to remain in our seats.

The doctor and several flight attendants converged on a man situated across the aisle and five rows or so ahead of our Row 39 seats.  We overheard snippets of conversation about chest pain and headache. The doctor started an IV, and had a flight attendant fetch an oxygen tank.

The remainder of the flight attendants gamely attended to the rest of the passengers, bringing beverages two by two from the galley.  I could see a wide-open drip from the IV bag, which was hanging from a suitcase handle in the overhead bin. As soon as it was finished, a new bag was started.

About midway through both the flight and a third bag of fluids, the captain informed us that the flight would be diverted for a medical emergency. Edmonton, Alberta was the nearest airport and passengers would need to remain in their seats while the medical crew transported the patient. Since it was an unscheduled stop in a foreign country, nobody could leave the plane.

About 15 minutes the plane made a bumpy landing in Edmonton. We could see an ambulance and a fire truck waiting at the terminal. A team of EMTs entered the plane and tended to the man. I was relieved to hear him respond to their questions. He complained of a headache, fatigue and dizziness, but no chest pain at that time. The EMTs moved him to a gurney. I expected him to be an elderly gentleman, but from the back, he appeared to be in his 40s.

The passengers applauded as he was taken off the airplane. The captain thanked us for our patience and assured us that we would be back in the air as soon as possible.

An hour passed. The plane started to get warm and stuffy. The flight attendants served beverages again, more efficiently this time since they were able to utilize their carts.

The captain made another announcement to explain the delay. First, because we were only halfway through our flight, the plane had not burned all of its fuel and we landed overweight. A mechanic would have to inspect the plane to approve it for takeoff. Second, the onboard oxygen that had been used would have to be replaced before departure. He did not know how long it would take, but hoped we would be back in the air shortly as he knew that many passengers were worried about making their connections.

Our seatmate, George, was one of them. On her way back to Buffalo, New York, she had just a 45-minute layover in Minneapolis. She was worried about how the delay would affect her dog, traveling in the cargo hold.

The flight attendants distributed headsets and started some TV episodes on the overhead screens. Another hour passed. Following a series of apologies, the captain made the welcome announcement that passengers would be allowed to deplane, as long as we stayed in the immediate terminal area. Otherwise we would officially enter Canada and would be required to clear customs to reboard the airplane. We would have access to restrooms and an area to stretch our legs, but no shops or restaurants.

There were, however, friendly and helpful airport personnel, free wifi, plenty of charging stations, and sunshine. Phil and I caught up on e-mail and Facebook.

Flight attendants set up an area to arrange alternate connecting flights. George talked to the ground crew, who took her dog for a walk. Some passengers made calls to explain delays or reschedule meetings and appointments. Phil called our eldest daughter to apprise her of our delay. Delta brought in bottled soda, water and juice, and sandwiches for a lucky few.

Finally a mechanic approved the plane for takeoff, an FAA-approved oxygen canister was located, and the passengers reboarded the plane. By the time we arrived in Minneapolis, we were five hours behind schedule and the sun was setting.

As we waited in yet another line for hotel and meal vouchers and tickets for flights the next day, a woman behind us remarked that this was a lot of trouble caused by an idiot not taking proper care of himself. “What?” I asked, “I thought it was a heart attack.” She had been seated within a couple of rows of the man and heard all of the conversations with the doctor on board and the EMTs in Edmonton. Turns out it was not a heart attack at all. He had taken too much Dramamine on an empty stomach.

Seriously? He overdosed on Dramamine? I couldn’t begin to calculate the cost of our diverted flight. Nearly 200 people were affected, most of whom had missed a connecting flight and were spending the night in Minneapolis at Delta’s expense (although without checked luggage). How many seats went unfilled on missed flights? How many passengers, including at least one physician on board, would miss a day of work? . . . important appointments or meetings? . . . a special event with family or friends?

While I am aggravated that this man inconvenienced a lot of people, I am also relieved that he was not seriously ill. I am also grateful not to be in his position: hospitalized in a foreign country, possibly without a passport. I have no idea what kind of arrangements had to be made to get him home. Canada offers national health care to its residents, but does that extend to foreigners? If not, he may be facing a whopping out-of-network expense.

Although Phil missed a day of work and I missed a school board meeting, there was a bright spot in our delay. My brother lives in the Twin Cities and Phil and I were able to meet him and his wife for lunch.  Our remaining flights were uneventful and we arrived home exactly 24 hours after we anticipated. Our kids survived the extra day just fine and we have an extra story from our vacation.

And the moral of the story is: know your medications. Read the package directions even if it is over the counter and you’ve taken it successfully a million times before. Keep the drama out of Dramamine.