Chapter 7. Central Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Shari and I join Richard, Georgia and Sally in a drive to a known nesting site for Northern Shrikes (Paul got the location from the Alaska Bird Observatory before we left for Barrow). The others have already located the birds when I arrive. The first is a juvenile, recently fledged, now flying freely but still begging for food. I photograph this one and follow it to another aspen where it obligingly stays for more photographs. The young bird is a fuzzy warm gray and light brown with a stubby bill and a black-and-white cuckoo-like tail. Already the stubby bill has a sharp hook at its end, useful when it starts hunting on its own. I notice a second juvenile and after 20 min. of watching one of the adults shows up to feed the chick. I eventually get photos of all three birds, a great find on a non-birding day.
(Bert) Just when I believed my RV problems had left me, R-Tent-III behaves as it did before replacing the clogged air filter: it cannot shift out of first gear. Again it chugs along for a few miles at high rpm and low gear, then suddenly shifts to higher gears and the symptoms disappear. Uneventfully, we continue up and down the thickly forested mountains between Fairbanks and Denali. Once at camp and again in cell phone range, I call Allison service in Anchorage to get an appointment for servicing our transmission. With only one trained technician in the city, not working on Saturdays, and scheduled to work on Kodiak Island on Thursday, we are left with the poor alternative of leaving today for Anchorage. Shari and I assist the caravan with picking their choices for Denali Park tours and then head to Anchorage at 2:30 PM. We reach the repair center while the night crew is still working and park in their lot, awaiting service when the engine and transmission are cold in the morning.
(Shari) ďOn no, not again!Ē I groan as R-Tent-III just does not want to shift into higher gears. We crawl along the highway with Hoss and Sally behind us and I am wondering what to do next. After about 10 min. of poking along and traffic whizzing past us, the transmission shifts and off we go without further incident. When we reach our campsite in Healy, Bert calls Anchorage and makes an appointment to have R-Tent-III looked at in the morning. I quickly pay the bill here at the campground for all four nights, meet with Terry and Pat and explain the schedule to them, conduct a travel meeting and lead everyone to the Wilderness Center in Denali National Park to arrange for their next dayís activities. There is so much to do in this national park that each person needs to study the options and take what pleases most. Some decide to hike; others want the shuttle bus tour to Wonder Lake and a few others want to sign on to the ranger led discovery walk. The buses for tomorrow are mostly filled and even the next day, the popular hours between 7 and 8 are unavailable but I think everyone gets what they want. After making sure each individual knows what they are doing and how they are doing it for the next three days, I receive some nice hugs and lots of ďgood lucksĒ as we say our goodbyes. Bert and I hitch up the car and make the long drive to Anchorage arriving at 7:15 PM. We are allowed to stay in the lot at the repair center and after parking we drive to a Mexican restaurant. Here the prices are more reasonable than the $22 or more per meal without alcohol, tip and taxes that we have been paying lately. I think we both eat for less than $35, including my beer. It is almost 10 when we return and head straight for bed.
(Shari) Gary at Pacific Detroit Diesel-Allison tells us he can find nothing wrong with our transmission and suggests that we go to an engine repair place. Randy at NC Machinery, a Caterpillar engine repair facility, can find nothing wrong with our engine. Both men agree it is an intermittent problem and are 99% sure it is minor. Some temperature sensor does not kick in until the transmission is warm or does not communicate with the engine. The latter is a Freightliner problem, yet another repair place. Isnít this one of an Rverís worst nightmares: each mechanic pointing fingers at another? In any case we can do nothing about it until it fails for a mechanic. Even though we spent the night at Pacific Power and the transmission was cold, the problem did not surface for the tech. Now I can worry for the whole rest of the trip, especially on travel days. My scariest thought is to be stuck somewhere in the wilderness of the Yukon hundreds of miles from a repair center. Bert and I decide to drive the 250 mi. back to Denali and arrive there at 6 PM. An impromptu social is still in progress and we quickly grab our wine glasses to attend. We catch up on what we missed and listen to a fantastic bear story from Georgia and Richard. I think Bert is going to write about it since he says they had a better day than we did. That sure is the truth.
(Bert) The inevitable happens. When Gary, the Allison transmission specialist, starts R-Tent-III and drives it down the street, the transmission shifts smoothly into higher gears. I read off the transmission settings displayed on the laptop computer he connected to the Allison and nothing is amiss. Gary calls the factory and the only forthcoming suggestion is to visit the Caterpillar shop to see if the engine shows historic error codes. I drive R-Tent-III to the Cat shop, the technician hooks up his computer and again, no error codes, no problem found. With no symptoms and a non-reproducible problem, we are left with no solution. The mechanics assure Shari that we are not likely to break down at the bottom of the mountain to Valdez or Skagway, unable to make the climb back up because of a failing transmission. So with nothing else to do, we return to Denali. Surprisingly, we see Mt. McKinley in all its white glory throughout the first half of our trip. In south Anchorage, while waiting for a traffic light at the intersection of Seward Highway and Tudor Road, I can see the glowing mountain directly to the north. An hour later, I again see it clearly along the Parks Highway when we are still 167 mi. from the Denali National Park and get many views thereafter. Closer to the park, the clouds move in, and the white mountain dissolves in the gray rain clouds.
We arrive for 5 PM social and in time to hear Richard and Georgia tell us of their scary bear story. On their excursion into the park today, they were watching Grizzlies when they noticed a couple of children happily bounding down the hillside in the direction of the unseen bear. The siblings paused briefly and then resumed their race. The bear took notice at the same time the young boy alarmingly discovered the bear. The boy turned to run uphill followed by his sister and the bear bounded in their direction. Finally the oblivious parents become aware of the disastrous situation and the father remembers the proper response to a bear attack. He stands tall, waving his arms and gathers his family tightly together, including two teenagers that had wandered in another direction. The Grizzly circles the family and the huddled group turns to keep eye contact. The bus driver lays on the horn and with the heralding of forces, the Grizzly looses interest. Two lessons learned, the worst and the best responses to a Grizzly.
(Shari) Before I feel gypped that I did not see Denali National Park, I convince Bert to walk with me on the Savage River Trail. Since Bill is sick, Ginny accompanies us to Mile 14 of the park where the trail starts. The weather cannot make up its mind on whether it wants to be cloudy, sunny or rainy and I think we get all three, but nothing hinders our hike. I like this easy 2 mi. walk along the river, even though we do not see a whole lot of things. A hillside is covered with white flowers. Small patches of purple flowers peek through green moss. Yellow flowers are scattered here and there. The rush of the river prevents our hearing bird songs, but we see pica and marmot before we cross the bridge to the other side. We return to R-Tent-III for a late lunch and catch up on work before our impromptu social hour.
(Bert) Wildlife along the Savage River hiking trail must be accustomed to people, because the animals are easily found and often stay close-by. Snowshoe Hare, now completely brown but for white feet, hop along the approach road. Arctic Ground Squirrels pose easily for photos along the trail. I add another mammal to the trip list when the miniature rabbit-like Collared Pika makes a quick appearance as it scampers around the rocks. A couple of Hoary Marmots favor the higher elevations, lying on the cliff rocks gazing serenely down on us hikers. Shari, Ginny and I are taking the trail at midday; most of the others are off on buses into the restricted areas today. The raging river boils coldly through the rocks, muddy gray with silt. Spring flowers are showing, not yet in the full glory of summer, but generously evident nonetheless. Eight-petaled Avens and some species of Anemone are the white flowers; Tundra Roses are the predominant yellow ones and Moss Campion the tiny pink flowers on a soft cushion of green flat leaves. Leaving the trail, I watch a family of Willow Ptarmigans, the all brown hen leading her fist-sized chicks into the tundra covering, while the bright rufous and white cock struts along the road.
Our best experience of the day is the family of Great Horned Owls that reside at the Savage Campground. Others saw them yesterday and Ginny leads us to the spot today. One of the adults perches atop a spruce and two of its young are on nearby trees. I move slowly beneath them, trying to find the best lighting to illuminate their features. They screw their heads to watch my movements. Two have a soft fuzzy look of juveniles and the feather details have a more blurred look than the distinct dark brown lines over white on the adult. Likewise, the horns of the juvenile ears are short, barely rising above the head, whereas the adultís stick out devilishly from silhouette a hundred yards distant.
When we return to camp, I hear the stories of what others found driving along the entrance road and hiking along the Savage River shortly after us. Georgia and Richard found beaver and caribou; Chris found a moose and calf; Ralph and Virginia found Dall Sheep twice. Nature is constantly revolving and an hourís difference changes what we view.
(Bert) As I ride the modified school bus through Denali National Park, I wonder what makes this place seem so different from others. The Grand Canyon in Colorado and the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua give some of the same feeling of enormity, but in these vast canyons the scene is dry rock and desert emptiness. At Denali, the vastness mixes with abundant life: green tundra, dark spruce, gray sprawling rivers and repeated sightings of wildlife. Denaliís is not the spaciousness of an endless plain; my view is broken by an amazing variety of mountains in polychrome colors and myriad contours. As I hike up one of the mountain slopes, each time I turn back to scan the valley, the scene has changed like the twist of a kaleidoscope. The overwhelming enormity of Denali is an experience not condensable to words. I take photos that capture only one piece of a 1000-piece puzzle. For perspective, I show Bill and fellow hikers on the ranger-led hike struggling up the slope on one mountain among many. In another, the single lane gravel road is but a thread almost invisible in the broad landscape fabric, and a nature tour bus on that road is only a period in a sentence in a paragraph on a computer screen filled with this journal text.
So, I turn to the other extreme and look down on the tundra at my feet, an easy consideration as I trudge up the steep slope, my body bent over in work. The variety of the scenery is matched by the variety of plant life growing below my feet. Many go unnamed, yet I can identify some: Pink Plumes, Bear Flower, Rock Jasmine, Alpine Forget-me-not and a half dozen others. Mostly itís willow, from the stubby Arctic Willow to the chest height brambles we scratch through: 36 species of willows in Denali, if I recall Ranger Jennifer correctly. Turning again toward the valley, my binoculars search along the wispy stream for wolves, whose dens are along this river and holding pups recently born. I see none today; others have found them previous days on their trips. My mammal list today covers the regulars: Barren Ground Caribou (20), Dall Sheep (101), Grizzly (4), Cross Fox (1), plus some of the smaller animals. Birds are few and mostly heard, not seen. In route, we watched an adult Bald Eagle, a rarity for the park as only one of the many rivers carries fish. Hiking, I find Golden-crowned Sparrow and hear Arctic Warbler. By the time we finish our hike - up 540 ft on a 20% slope along a rocky ravine, across the steeply sloped tundra peaks and ravines for a half-mile and back down another ravine - weíve generated enough heat to shed our jackets, faced enough chilling wind to put them back on and endured enough icy rain to be glad we wore rain gear. When we reach the gravel road again, rain pushed by light winds has cooled our hiking ambitions and we are glad to be picked up by a bus with a few empty seats. I doze for much of the return trip as the bus trolls on for several hours and the dozen Polish tourists talk in a language I donít understand. By the time Bill and I get back to his car and drive to this eveningís activities at the Princess lodge, the meal is over and the show already in progress. We enjoy most of the show nonetheless and take our meal home in a Styrofoam box.
(Shari) Braving the cold and dampness, Ginny and I drive to the Visitorís Center. Here we browse the bookstore, watch a movie and go on a short hike. Soon it is after 12 and we head to town for lunch. High on a bluff is a new motel and we find the road that snakes up to it. Walled in glass, the restaurant looks over the town, the river and the national park. It is gorgeous even on this cloudy day. We decide to stay for lunch and a visit to the gift store before returning home. I do a few errands before it is time to leave for our scheduled dinner show. We arrive early to find a parking place and have time to look at more gift stores. At 6 PM the doors open and 18 of us fill up a long picnic table and are treated family style to salmon, coleslaw, biscuits, ribs, corn-on-the-cob and mashed potatoes. It is not until after the show has started that Bert and Bill arrive from their outing in the park. Luckily Ginny and I had saved a plate for them and had a container to take it home. The musical revue of early Alaskans in Denali is wonderful and Ralph again is picked out of the audience to go on stage. He has some sort of appeal for those fancy dance hall ladies, thatís for sure. He is a good sport about it even when the stage girl twists his hair and messes it up.
(Bert) We leave Denali under cloudy skies, not expecting to see the mountain, and where it should be on the southwest horizon, only clouds appear for the first part of our travels. From previous trips, I know we have passed the mountain and I start looking back. From the south side the weather is clear. Most of the caravan, driving separately, stop at the various viewpoints along the road to see Mt. McKinley (20329 ft.) shine brightly on the horizon. I donít stop until we reach Kashwitna Lake, 170 miles south of our starting point. Still here, we can see McKinley reflected in the lake and to the west another white mountain, Mt. Foraker (17400 ft.) is mirrored at the horizon. Nancy S. makes a point of telling me how much she enjoyed seeing Mt. McKinley today and Iím sure that feeling is shared by the others. Perhaps it is the enormous size, or the extreme whiteness or that it can be seen from such great distances, but whatever the reason, seeing Mt. McKinley is near the top of everyoneís list of Alaska experiences.
We reach Anchorage in early afternoon and at 5 PM gather for a count-off of birds and mammals seen at Denali in the past four days. While birds often seem scarce in the National Park, perhaps because seeing them from a moving bus is not ideal, Iím surprised by the long list of sightings when we combine our lists. We tally 59 species, the rarest being Northern Shoveler, Black Scoter, Spruce Grouse, Red-throated Loon, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl, Western Wood-Pewee, Northern Shrike, Cliff Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Golden-crowned Sparrow and White-winged Crossbill. Although not rare locally, some of the other good birds found include Rock Ptarmigan (Chris T.), Gyrfalcon (Bill & Ginny), and Wandering Tattler (Chris). The list of mammals is even more impressive, with 14 species represented. I ask the group for numbers and keep track of the highest number seen: Grizzly Bear (8), Caribou (20), Dall Sheep (101), Moose (3), Wolf (3), Hoary Marmot (2), Arctic Ground Squirrel (many), Snowshoe Hare (many), Red Squirrel (1), Lynx (1), Collared Pica (1), Beaver (1), Fox (1), Ermine (1). Chris T. saw a Lynx on Thursday afternoon, and Chris B. and Curt saw theirs in early evening at another location. Chris and Curt watched the cat for more than 5 min., mostly running along the road. Another of our group saw wolves, which seem to be increasing in the park. Certainly, Denali National Park is the best accessible place in North America to see mammals.
(Shari) The early birds get the worm today. We see Mt. McKinley in all its glory, but by noon the clouds roll in and those leaving later do not see the mountain. It still amazes me that we can be over 100 mi. away and the mountain dominates the scenery. Also, clouds can cover the mountain on one side yet as soon as you turn a bend, the clouds are gone. Like magic! Other good news, R-Tent-III did not have any trouble shifting this morning even at the start. Maybe the problem took care of itself (hopefully, I think). We arrive in Anchorage early afternoon and while Bert parks the group I take off to shop for groceries. It is time for another impromptu social hour by the time I get back and the group is doing a mammal count off. We saw a good list of animals on our stay in Denali that I am sure Bert will write about. We have a nice visit with our friend Charlu, from our Mexico-Belize caravans, before we retire for the night.
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