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.

2 Responses

  1. Great to travel to Alaska with you vicariously, Sara! Thanks for the good photos and descriptions. I took a cruise on the Inside Passage several years ago. We saw northern lights the first night out, but were far from Denali. I guess it’s one or the other.

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