North to Alaska

Note: I missed my monthly blog post in July as we were on vacation. Read on and you will see where we went.

The first surprising thing about Denali National Park, in the heart of Alaska and home to Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain on this continent, is how few animals one sees.  It is not that the animals aren't there in this largest and most remote of America's National Parks.  The Park abounds with grizzly bear, caribou, Dahl sheep, and moose but, unlike Yellowstone or Glacier, Denali is not accessible by car.  There is but one east-west gravel road that cuts through the Park.  It is 92.5 miles long and accessible only by the Park Service shuttle busses, green converted school busses that traverse the road every couple of hours during the day, making a few stops at places like the Eielson Visitor Center about in the middle of the Park and Wonder Lake - a favorite spot for viewing Mt. McKinley at mile 85.  Sally and I stayed at the remotest lodge in the Park, Skyline Lodge with all of 10 guest rooms at mile 91.5.  We actually flew in from the Park entrance in a small plane in about 40 minutes. The Park bus does the trip in five hours.

The impact of making Denali relatively inaccessible is that the animals there are masters of their habitat and quite unused to seeing humans.  The result is they are mostly quite wary of hikers or the occasional fisherman who may cross their path.  They sense your presence long before you might see them.

During our four days in Denali we did see a few caribou while hiking, and friends saw a grizzly from the shuttle bus one day.  But in spite of seeing all sorts of signs of moose along the Moose River where we fished several times, we never saw one.

What we did see was lots of beautiful wilderness, quite unspoiled and much as it has been for hundreds of years.  Most of the land in the Park is on relatively low plain two to three thousand feet in elevation. The plain leads south to foothills, then a set of rugged low mountains that lead to the glaciers and snowfields of Mt. McKinley itself.  McKinley is a mountain of broad shoulders.  It is a massive presence, above 20,000 feet tall, and rarely fully seen.  During our visit we saw the top of the mountain only once - a ten to fifteen minute window in late afternoon when the cloud cover above 14,000 feet opened to show us the true bulk of this vast white giant.

McKinley makes its own weather and is reported to be the coldest place in the world.  We took an hour flight one morning to explore the mountain and traveled up several glaciers observing some of the routes that climbers have used.  The peaks of neighboring mountains like Mt. Brooks, 12,500 feet, were on our wingtips.  We glimpsed massive ice fields, dark moraines in the glaciers, and the lower ridges favored by climbers - yet still we did not see the upper 8,000 feet of the mountain in its own cloud bank.

We loved our time in Denali.  It reminds us of what the wild really looks like.  The Park has an original simplicity and charm.  Mt. McKinley is an extraordinary presence - often a brooding presence and just occasionally a majestic one.  It should be a part of any Alaskan visit.

Mind you Alaska is a big state with few roads itself.  We traveled to Denali from Juneau.  It was a two hour flight from Juneau to Anchorage, then an eight hour  (lovely scenic) train ride to the Park entrance before our forty minute bush plane flight to our Lodge (the alternative is the five hour shuttle ride).

Denali was actually the second week of our two week Alaska visit.  The first week was a boat trip on Alaska's Inside Passage from Sitka to Juneau.  We shared this experience with eighteen friends as the only passengers on the M/V Liseron, a beautifully restored post-World War II minesweeper.  The Liseron gives one a true small boat experience of South Eastern Alaska.  This area is mostly large islands that stretch north from British Columbia to form a sheltered but very deep series of passages from Ketchikan and Sitka to Juneau.

Our routine on the Liseron was idyllic.  We started most days with a pre-breakfast kayak from one of the many remote and beautiful coves along the route. In this part of Alaska the Sitka spruce and hemlock come right down to the shore from mountain ranges fed by the occasional glacier. It is like a more rugged version of the Maine coast, absent the pink granite. Almost always we were the only boat in the cove, though on a couple of occasions, we had one or two boats nearby.  After a lovely breakfast we were off to morning adventures.  Most often our choice was to go ashore stream fishing for Pink Salmon and Dolly Varden, the Alaskan version of our trout, or to take a walk or nature hike. 

After lunch we might move to another cove or we might do deep sea fishing for halibut and coho or king salmon .  Whatever the afternoon's activities, we were back in Liseron's spacious salon for a lovely dinner, often featuring what our fisherman had caught.

As we cruised these islands we saw lots of humpback whales, orcas, seals, sea lions, irrepressible sea otters, plus incredible numbers and varieties of diving ducks.  These waters are simply the most amazing and prolific habitat for all sea species that we have ever encountered.  And much of all of this habitat is driven and renewed by the millions (the estimate this year is upward of fifty million) of salmon who return to these waters every summer to spawn.  The salmon provide for well-regulated commercial fishing, a great variety of sport fishing (as one Alaskan native said "In the lower 48 they talk about fishing.  Here we talk about catching.")  But the salmon provide much more than fishing.  The bear in Alaska depend on the salmon for the protein needed for their long winter hibernation.  The decaying salmon carcasses are also an important fertilizer for the areas along Alaska's thousands of rivers.

We left Alaska with a greater appreciation of this vast state. We also recognized we had only scratched the surface of what this state has to offer. We are already planning a next visit.