Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Get Up and Go - Anchorage to Denali to Tangle Lakes

Part 2 of our trip to Alaska....

After journeying down to Seward and back to Anchorage, we woke up early to meet our tour group.  Most people who visit Alaska seem to lean towards the myriad of cruise alternatives.  We started this way, but decided we liked a very active, land-based tour instead.  Julie, my favorite travel agent, spent a lot of time researching alternatives on the web before we settled on Get Up and Go Tours.  As you will see, these tours are active, see a lot, and have small groups, all things we were looking for.

As we sat in our hotel lobby waiting to hook up with our guide and other tour members, we discovered two of them.  Joe and his son Danny were from the Bay area in California.  Soon we discovered that we had now met all the members of our tour!

Our guide Ian arrived to pick us up and get us on our way.  The next big surprise:  Ian works in Alaska during the summer.  The rest of the year he lives just outside Park City, about 8 miles from us.  Now that is a small world.

Pictured from left to right:  Ian, Danny, Joe and Julie.  Get used to them.  They are in lots of pictures.
This was our touring limo for the next 10 days.  For a normal sized tour, they pile all the equipment on the rack on top of the van and put the people in the 4 rows of seats.  With a total of only five people, we had two rows of seats and just hucked everything into the back.  Over the next few days, we evolved a seating strategy.  Ian drove.  We took turns in the passenger seat.  The other two adults were in the next row.  Danny, being a normal 16 year old, laid down in the back seat and slept.  We woke him for all the cool stuff. Getting up early every morning is not what many teenagers would equate with vacation.
If you read the first blog entry of our journey, you know we were encountering rain and clouds every day.  As we started leaving Anchorage north towards Denali, we got a view of Mount McKinley.  Little did we know that this would be our best view.  Even on fairly clear days, that mountain is so large that it creates its own weather, and frequently that involves a lot of clouds.  A recurring theme for us in Alaska was our inability to judge the enormous size of things.  This view of the mountain is taken from about 125 miles away!
On our way to Denali, we stopped and did what was the first of many hikes.   The scenery was beautiful, even with the drizzle.  It was a few miles of reasonably steep hiking and I think it gave Ian the opportunity to see what condition his group was in.  Fortunately, all four of us were capable of doing the numerous hikes over the next few days.

With this particular tour, you have the option of camping or staying in lodges.  The lodges are fairly primitive, but they are warm, dry and have showers.  We stayed at the McKinley Creekside Cabins, about 10 miles outside of the national park.  They were a delight.  Quiet, comfortable and they had a babbling brook 30 feet from the front door, complete with comfortable lounge chairs. God apparently knew we were coming and put a good little pizza joint about 200 yards away.

The next morning we started by heading over to the national park and visiting the sled dog camp.  Denali has very tight restrictions about how and when motor vehicles can be used.  During the winter, almost everything is done by sled dog.  I was surprised when I saw racing sled dogs in Park City. They only weighed about 35-40 pounds, much smaller than Jasper.  These huskies were meant for hauling large loads and they were probably closer to 80 pounds.  They seem to love sunning themselves on their dog houses.
Several of the sled dogs had to be in pens instead of out in the open on a chain.  To aggressive?  Nope.  They seem to have a bad habit of eating rocks so they had to have a concrete floor.  I love dogs but damn they can be stupid.
We watched a brief sled demonstration and then did a few mile hike over to the visitors center.  After learning all there was to learn, we headed out to our next adventure: white water rafting.

I wasn't about to take my nice camera on the raft.  In fact, I wasn't about to take my little pocket camera either.  We did get one shot before we headed off to the river.  Those pretty blue outfits we are all wearing are dry suits.  Seems the water is only 38 degrees, which I guess one might expect when it is coming from melting glaciers. Our outfits had all the styling of Oompa Looompa with the color scheme of a Smurf.
The rafting was fun, exciting without being scary. Most of what we saw were Class 3 rapids, which I am convinced our raft could have made it down without navigation from a guide.  That might have moved the needle over to scary though.

The next morning was our trip into Denali.  There is only one main road into the park and it could easily be a traffic nightmare.  They did something smart though.  Almost no one can drive into the park.  You get to the visitors center and then board school buses for the trip in.  Instead of having thousands of cars driven by people who will always do unpredictable and frequently stupid things, you put 50 people on each bus and have a professional, knowledgeable driver.
Notice how the river is very wide, shallow and full of little cuts through the gravel.  That is very indicative of a glacier fed river. It is hard to see, but the water is very grey and cloudy from all the silt picked up along the way.
The bus rides are not the best solution for photographers.  The good news is that the buses will stop for interesting wildlife along the way.  The bad news is that you can't get out so you are frequently shooting out bus windows full of 50 other passengers.  Just the same, we had some decent sightings.

This caribou was sporting a beautiful rack.
We saw a half dozen grizzly bears along the way, some mothers with cubs and one off on his own.  These grizzlies are smaller than the huge ones down around Kodiak.  The difference is their diet.  The Denali bears are mostly eating berries and roots.  The Kodiak bears are gorging on fatty, high protein Salmon.  You can tell that the fall colors were just starting to kick in.
This is a terrible photo of a Dall Sheep, but it was the only one we saw that wasn't from an airplane. They tend to stay way up on hills or cliffs, away from predators and photographers.
This grizzly was the only one considerate enough to come in reasonable camera range.  He was about 150 feet away and didn't seem to care about us at all.
When you are riding the buses, you can get off anywhere you want, hike around, and then catch another bus later on.  The only time they won't let you off is when wildlife is around.  We ended up taking the 66 mile trip all the way to the Eielson Visitors Center.  That's about 4 hours each way on the bus.  Why bother?  Because this is where you stand the best chance of getting a spectacular view of Mount McKinley.

See that snow capped mountain on the right?  That's not it.  It is only about 10,000 feet high.  That cloud in the middle?  That's it. If you look very closely and squint a bit, you can see the right hand edge of McKinley heading up at about a 45 degree angle.  That started coming into view and we had hopes that things might clear up.  Not a chance.  The bus ride was a total of eight hours and we didn't make it to the end of the road.  That's more like 12 hours round trip.
The next day it was time for us to leave the national park area and head east.  We hopped on the Denali Highway, the key east-west corridor between the thriving metropolises of Cantwell and Paxson.  The only downside is that they apparently forgot that "highways" are supposed to be paved, not dirt.
We stayed at the Tangle River Inn, which I would describe a a little village of hunting/fishing cabins.  Truly in the middle of nowhere, I was astounded to find that they had their own cell phone tower.  And as is so common when you aren't in a big city, Verizon had great reception and AT&T had absolutely nothing.

It was still raining (yes, this is like day 7 or 8), but we did go canoeing on the Tangle Lakes and followed that up with a scenic hike.  I wish I had brought my camera canoeing to document the adventure of having a canoe with a slow leak.  Slowly but surely, our boat was filling up.  By the time we pulled it to shore and dumped it, there was about 2-3 inches of water at my end of the boat.  Something about Julie weighing 60 pounds less than I do kept her boots from getting soaked.

The next day we left Tangle Lakes and an amazing thing happened.  THE RAIN STOPPED!!  I will spoil the ending. We were now set up for lots of sunshine.

Even as things started to clear up, we still had the problem of not seeing all the majestic mountains off in the distance.  I think that was my biggest disappointment with the rain.  It didn't stop us from our activities it made the photographs look more like Ireland and less like Alaska.
As we were driving towards the entrance to Wrangell-St Elias National Park, we spotted this coyote along the highway.  Ian stopped the van and let us watch him and shoot his picture for a while.
He was hunting, doing the leaping attack you see with fox.  As best we could tell, coyotes just aren't as good at this as foxes are.  He jumped, moved to a different spot, jumped, ... and so on.  Never once did we see him come up with anything.
How is it that I have never heard of Wrangell-St Elias National Park?  It is over 13 million acres of land.  As big as I thought Yellowstone is, this is 6 times bigger. You'll see lots of pictures of this fabulous park in my next blog entry.

Having now seen bears, moose,coyotes, sheep, caribou, mountain goats and more, we got into a discussion about what we wanted Ian to find us next.  We were getting to things like a bear throwing a moose, but I went with something more challenging:  a yak.  Even though they have no business in Alaska, Ian came through. As we were driving along the highway he pulled over for an entire herd of yak.   I guess I should have wished for something better.  Wasted that one.
Notice the blue skies! Life was getting better.  We did another hike to one of the many thousands of little lakes scattered around this old glacial terrain.
This one gave us quite a view though. 
Down on the lake there were some nice reflections of a northern spruce forest.  These are often referred to as drunken forests. The trees have really shallow roots and grow in boggy areas.  As a result, they never look very healthy and a frequently leaning at different angles.  By comparison, the southern spruce grew taller, straight, and beautiful.
As we were hiking down to the lake, I was taking some pictures of different moss and mushrooms.
The I ran across the famous Penis Mushroom.  This is a fairly small example, but it was a bit chilly.  Actually I have no idea what it is.

Now we are into nice weather and the trip (and the photography) keeps getting better.  Another blog entry soon.

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