Road Report #4
July 14, 2008
An indomitable lady by the name of Mary Carey came to Alaska as a 50-something widow and used her journalistic savvy to strong arm the government to build the highway. She was convinced that to thrive, the state needed a more direct route between Anchorage and Fairbanks. She also believed that people needed to see Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, in all its glory. And that glory was best beheld from the lodge she was building. She readily admits her personal stake in the matter. She’d homesteaded property directly beside where the highway was surveyed to pass. Stupid, she was not.
The lady did get her highway built and became locally famous for any number of reasons, one of which was the book she authored, “Alaska, Not for a Woman.”
We stopped at her lodge and bought her book and met her daughter, Jean Richardson, now an older lady and an author herself. Jean comes up to run the lodge every summer from her home in Texas. Mary herself passed on some years ago. You meet some very interesting people up here. This land does not breed the bland.
Alas, we did not see McKinley from the south as Mary intended. It was clouded over as it is 80% of the time. But we did get a great view of it from within the park once we arrived.
But to back up a bit, leaving Anchorage we took a diversion up the Hatcher Pass Road from Wasilla. This is an extraordinarily scenic route that passes high up in the mountains to the old Independence gold mine. Gold was first discovered in the area at Grubstake Gulch in 1897. For several decades sporadic mining took place in the area. In the spring of 1937 construction began on the Independence camp and mill. This transformed a seasonal tent camp into a permanent year-round mining operation. It was closed during WW II when it was declared a non-essential war-time industry.
As you leave the mine and head higher into the hills, there is plenty of evidence of continued mining – dirt roads with big “Do Not Trespass” signs. Look high up in the hills above these roads and you’ll see ledges cut into the sides of the mountains with tenuous-looking wood frame structures clinging to the faces. These are the mines of today. Men are still hoping for the big strike but in the meantime, many eak out a living because there is still gold in them thar hills.
The total loop – Wasilla to Mine to Willow on the Park Hwy is about 60 miles. The road to the mine is paved and lovely. Great beaver ponds and magnificent green-clad folded hillsides with sweeping valleys. Reminded me of the luscious green hills of New Zealand.
Past the mine the road turns into a gravel track – sometimes okay and sometimes quite rough. But we saw lots of 2WD cards on it – just slow. Good thing we were going slow or we would have missed our wildlife lucky draw of the day – a wolverine. At least that is what we think it was. Look at the photo and tell me I’m wrong. We' ve no idea actually.
By evening we were camped at Susitna Landing –a private campground set on the Kashwitna River. There is hardly anyone here – it is a scrupulously tidy and pretty place for the most reasonable price of $12 per night. The river races by. Not too fast – just purposefully. It is obviously a fishing camp – there are many boats parked here just waiting for the salmon to start their run up the river. The air is vibrant with the sound of songbirds calling out to each other.
For a change, the sun has come out. It is blue sky weather tonight and we are in heaven as we watch the sun set over this idyllic setting.
July 15, 2008
The road that travels into the park itself is 95 miles long. You can either drive yourself or take a free shuttle bus as far as the Savage Creek campground at Mile 15. There are a few campsites past that but for most of us, that is as far we can go for free.
You then have two choices – a parks Green Bus shuttle for which you pay according to how far you go or a Tan Bus tour for about $140 US. Our ride on the green bus took us to wonder Lake at Mile 85 and cost $40 each. I asked what an extra $100 would have bought us – cushier seats and a themed narration.
We liked our seats just fine and the narration was plenty colourful. Our bus driver was Gloria, a retired lady who has been wheeling these buses around the park every summer for the past 14 years. She readily admits to being a parks junkie. Says that now that she has retired she has tried to cut down the number of bus tours she does but cannot help herself. She must get out into her back yard a couple of times a week at the minimum and why not get paid for it.
She was a great wildlife spotter and a fount of knowledge about the wildlife, the history and the geology of the park. For example, if the sow bears don’t get fat enough during the summer, the fertilized eggs within their uteri will not implant. They will simply be absorbed by their bodies and their will be no babies that year.
We also learned that caribou are the world’s most disadvantaged creatures because certain evil flies have chosen them as their host bodies for reproduction. They implant their eggs in the caribou’s nose where the larvae hatch and crawl down into the half demented caribou’s throat to grow and develop.
Another kind of fly plants its eggs in the caribou’s haunch. When the larvae hatch they crawl along the crazed caribou’s spine until they find a nice fat place to grow. There they stay until they erupt out through the skin as new flies and start over again on the poor fellow.
Didn’t you want to know all that?
We were at Denali National Park several days. Lots to do here for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. You can actually backpack through sections of the park if you choose. The Wilderness Access Centre provides permits for access to specific sectors of the park. They limit how many people can be in any one area at a time as keeping the wildlife wild is the number one priority here.
I watched the wilderness camping video one day for a little while with a whole roomful of earnest young campers. After watching all the things you have to do to keep yourself and your food out of the way of grizzly attack ...well, let’s just say I’ll stick to the organized campground and my hard-sided van.
The dog kennels are an interesting place. Denali is one of the few (maybe only) parks in the world that actively use sled dogs as a tool in managing the park. They claim that in winter it is the only reliable way to patrol and re-supply the outposts of the park. They welcome visitors to the kennels and put on a demonstration.
The Visitor Centre is also an interesting place with lots of natural history type stuff to look at and touch. One thing that I found interesting was the display of bear scat. In the spring the bears feast on new calves – moose and caribou. In the summer they live off the tender greenery and in the late summer and fall they fatten on the berries. The scat looks considerably different.
The display reminded me of the full-colour illustrations of baby poop I studied so carefully in the baby book that came home with my first son. Useful information, for sure.
But back to the park – Mount McKinley, of course, is the headliner and she did not disappoint. At 20,320 feet she is a snow-capped beauty with an evil temper. Winds gust to 150 m/p/h and the temperatures plummet to -95 degree F. She has a heart of granite overlaid with ice that is hundreds of feet thick in places. Up to 75% of her remains snow-covered 12 months a year.
The clouds move restlessly over her face and flanks. We were fortunate to have several opportunities to see her almost totally revealed, but those glimpses lasted just moments at a time.
For me, though, the wonder of Denali over this past four days was not McKinley but the total sensory experience. The landscape plays out on such a massive scale that it boggles the mind – the mountains are so high, the valleys are so vast, the glaciers pour down the mountains into the braided rivers that chase the moraine fields to the oceans.