Chapter 7. Central Alaska
(Shari) Eighty degree weather always greets us in Fairbanks and it is the only time I can get out my shorts. Bert and I do errands all day long. He vacuums while I wash clothes. He does dishes while I clean the bathroom. He dumps our tanks and fills with water as I grocery shop and fill our car fuel tank with gas ($4.29 per gal.). I spend a lot of time in the local Fred Meyer store. I just love it as I say every time I enter it. I take my cart up and down the aisles and listen for my name. I hear “Shari” at the olive bar and fill a cup with varying olives from a bin until the name calling stops. I hear “Shari” by the steaks: only $2.99 per pound for boneless sirloin, I just have to buy some. “Shari” is heard at the sushi counter until a packet goes into the cart. So goes it until I run out of time. I do not get a chance to go to the clothing section, because I had better quit now so I can get home for social. On my way home I buy some parsley and basil plants for fresh herbs this summer. We join Bill and Marlene and Bill and Ginny and Betty for a short social before dinner.
(Bert) A free day, I don’t emerge from R-Tent-III until 3:30 PM and then only long enough to wash the accumulated dirt off the SUV, using the day to catch up on journals and sightings entries.
(Bert) I remember well June 21, 2002 when I first traveled north on the Steese Highway and for my exact comments I went back to the journal I wrote that day:
“A blast of Arctic wind tugs open the door and fills the car. We change plans and eat lunch first, in the car. Then while Shari reads her novel, I put on many extra layers of clothes and start hiking. … At the precipice, the wind blows so strongly I have to lean heavily into it to avoid falling. Now in the parking lot, tiny bits of hardened ice crystals fall like rain. Summer solstice is chilling at this high altitude only one degree shy of the Arctic Circle.”
By contrast, today is light-jacket warm and clear blue skies yield miles-long views of rounded mountains, covered in burnt spruce to the south and tundra to the north. The first great find of the day is a Lynx that crosses the road in front of my car at mile 21. John, who has not seen one before, comments on the large size of the cat. Some of those in the following cars miss it, but Mel sees it disappear down a narrow side road. I travel the southern part of the highway quickly, wanting to get to the high country and more barren tundra lands, stopping suddenly when I see a perched bird atop a spruce. I radio back to the others and we all pile out of our cars to get an excellent and sustained look at a Northern Hawk Owl. This one allows close-up photographing and even when it flies across the road to the top of a utility pole, it is in good viewing range. Joann counts it as her best ever look.
When we reach Twelvemile Summit we start hiking uphill on the Pinnell Mountain Trail. With few birds along the trail, we stop to look at each one and while studying a White-crowned Sparrow, a Northern Wheatear flies by at close view and then continues downhill on the boardwalk. It stops again where Mel and Joann are walking and alights on the boardwalk not 10 ft. from them. Since they were not with us when we watched wheatears in Nome, this one is a life bird for them. We climb to the top of one mountain, only to see a forever series of successive mountains. A pair of American Pipits fly by, one of them carrying an insect in its mouth, suggesting its eggs have already hatched. The 2 hr. hike builds an appetite and we break for lunch when we return to the cars.
With plenty of day left – in fact at this altitude and latitude the amount of night time is miniscule and actually zero at our next stop – we decide to continue the 22 mi. to Eagle Summit. Fortunately for my tired legs, this summit is easier and shorter to hike. We start off with more wheatears and in fact see at least seven today. John is persistent in trying to find a nesting Surfbird – considered a lucky find in one of my books – and wanders off in the tundra areas. The rest of us climb to the rocky promontory, finding Horned Larks and a Lapland Longspur. Perhaps it is the shortage of birds or maybe it is the bright colors at our feet, but our attention turns to wildflowers. Between Chris and me we identify Purple Oxytrope, Moss Campion, Parry’s Wallflower, Glaucous Gentian, Frigid Shooting Star and a campion look-alike I later identify as Alpine Azalea.
(Shari) I had hoped to go on the outing today, but just did not accomplish enough yesterday. I have bills to pay online, caravan accounting to update, road logs to update, etc. And, I just love to turn over in bed after Bert leaves, knowing I do not have to get up right away. And I don’t. It is 10 AM before my eyes will stay open. I do more loads of wash. Bert comes home at 5 PM and finds me at the computer still entering changes in the road logs. Where, oh where, has the time gone? After a short social outside, we go back to work. It is too hot and the air conditioner goes on. Unbelievable!
(Shari) We have to buy propane before we depart Fairbanks this morning. It takes us 40 min., with a slight unplanned scenic tour (read: Bert missed the turn) before we find the place. I wonder how many in the group are ahead of us. Bert still has not caught up on his sleep and I drive after a break this morning. The road has a few frost heaves but not much traffic and we get in by 11 AM but it takes another hour before everyone is parked. The spaces are tight and Bert directs the vehicles one at a time. After a quick lunch, we meet to discuss the options for the next four days at Denali. Carpooling to the ticket office, we buy bus tickets for the options we choose. As I wait for Bert to get his tickets, the weather changes and a cold front blows in with rain. I go rig to rig telling everyone that our social will be held in the tent instead of outside. There is plenty of manmade sunshine in the tent, especially when we see Ginny bring in the snacks with Marlene and Bill following with more snacks, creating quite a commotion and loud talking. “Sit down and shut up”, Bert tells the group jokingly to get their attention for a talk on wildflowers and a bird count. The wind blows and the tent flaps and leaks. We talk more to generate heat. Possibly the group now believes me when I say “There is no such thing as bad weather, just poor equipment and a bad attitude.” Just possibly!
(Bert) Shari and I stop only once during the drive from Fairbanks to Denali and then to change drivers and I nap while she drives so I notice few birds in route. The best are a pair of Bohemian Waxwings flying across the highway near Fairbanks and a Rusty Blackbird fly-by at Parks Highway marker 296. After arriving at the RV park I hear from others that they found more, including a Northern Hawk Owl 64 mi. south of Fairbanks, as well as Red Fox, Moose, Snowshoe Hare and Red Squirrel. We take our cars to Denali National Park, stopping at the Wilderness Access Center to sign up for bus trips the day after tomorrow. At least eight of us want to take the Discovery Tours, but we find out we must go to the Denali Visitor’s Center instead. One of the assistants calls ahead and finds out there are eight spots available, so we immediately get on the bus that takes us to the center. By the time we get there only five spots remain, so Jim & Donna, Betty & John M. and Bent sign up for Tuesday’s hike. We inquire about Wednesday’s trip and are told we cannot sign up for that trip until tomorrow at 8 AM. The confusing procedure is even more complicated in that after signing up for a ranger-led hike we still have to go back to the Wilderness Access Center to get bus tickets. This used to be much easier in my previous four visits to Denali and became more complicated when much of the park organization was shifted to a commercial company.
By the time we get back to the campground the weather has turned cold and rainy, the temperature dropping into the mid 40s. Our 5:30 PM meeting shifts to a barracks-like tent and when we all gather inside the windowless tent it feels quite cozy away from the storm. After eating a plentiful and delicious array of snacks prepared by Marlene and Ginny, I give a talk on Alaskan wildflowers and conduct a bird count-off for the past four days.
(Bert) We get to the Denali Visitor’s Center before the doors open at 8 AM and I am the first in line to sign up for the ranger-guided Discovery Hike day after tomorrow. I’m surprised when they bring out the sheet to see three or four names already on the list. So much for 8 AM being the earliest anyone can sign up! It seems staff that work at Denali have first priority and come before visitors in getting one of the 11 daily slots for joining these hikes in the restricted area of the park. Before we can add our names to the list a senior staff member lectures us on what to expect – strenuous hiking 4 mi. with elevation gain of 1000 ft., across one stream, through waist-high brush, over scree – and what to bring – hiking shoes, extra pair of shoes and wool socks, multiple layers of clothes, rain gear, high energy food, quart of water. The list is somewhat intimidating and I’m sure designed to ward off tourists arriving in shorts, T-shirts and sandals. I hope the six of us that sign up are not biting off more than we can chew.
We continue on the park road to Savage River for a 2-mi. hike that takes us over 3 hr., not because it is difficult but rather because what we see so captivates us we move along at snail’s pace. Looking down we see Languid Lady (Bluebells), Capitate Valarian, Netted Willow, Moss Campion and many more flowers. Looking up to above the cliffs we see a soaring Golden Eagle. At our side rushes a river milky white with glacial silt, with gravel islands where Mew Gulls nest. In the willow bushes lurk Willow Ptarmigans, usually noticed first by the soft cluck of the hen as she sends out signals to her chicks about her location. The newborn chicks scurry around aimlessly searching for bits of food. They find the gravel path and roll around in a dust bath, little balls of fluffy feathers so round it takes effort to sort out bill from tail. The adult male ptarmigan keeps guard, often revealing just its red comb and dark eye above the shrubs, cocked at attention. We hear from a park ranger that each male breeds with several females and then attends to the needs only of the first female to hatch her brood.
As the passageway carved by the river narrows between two mountains, the sides are more rocky and less vegetated. Here we find our first Hoary Marmots and two of them put on a show I’ve not encountered before: a boxing match and wrestling contest. The two approach each other, stand erect on their hind legs and proceed to use their front paws to hit each other. Boxing rules must be liberal because biting is allowed. When boxing becomes too tame, they push each other over and roll around on the ground in a wrestling match. A brief breakaway between rounds has them running on all fours for a minute or so before they begin another boxing round. The two are so engrossed in the action that they do not notice or do not care that I keep taking steps in their direction. By the time round five begins I am only 25 ft. away and my camera catches the full action. Is it male aggression, teenage fighting or youthful playing?
Earlier we noticed six Dall’s Sheep a third mile above us at the peak of Primrose Ridge. Now each time we look in their direction we see them at lower elevations. By the time we cross the foot bridge and have completed half the loop trail, the sheep are in close view and seem to be heading to the river. All are females with short backward curved horns and one slightly larger than the others seems to be in charge as it takes the lead and others follow. It stops short of the river and turns down the path in the direction where Bent and I are standing. We step off the path slightly, thinking they will stay on the trail. Instead they turn just before they reach us and come within a dozen feet of us and watch us curiously. My camera must be on its 300th photo by now, when they continue past us and head uphill to where John is standing, take a close look at him and proceed over the ridge.
By the time we complete the loop we have seen more than a dozen adult ptarmigans and twice that many chicks. At the vehicular bridge alone there are eight adult ptarmigans. Looking down from the bridge we watch a Mew Gull feed three fluffy chicks. My camera has trouble focusing on the chicks because their fine feathers have no sharp edges and they seem to dissolve in a linty ball. We are back to the parked cars by noon after a fabulous walk. I can think of no better place in Denali National Park than Savage River to enjoy nature close up and personal.
(Shari) Hearing Bert open the door I open my eyes as he says, “Do you want to go? You have a half hour.” I hear the awning flapping in the wind and I remember yesterday’s rain. I snuggle farther into the blankets and say 30 min. is not enough time. When I do finally get up, the sun is shining and the winds are calm. Darn! I did not play that one right. Especially when I hear of the sheep and the marmot antics they saw on their hike. Oh well, next time.
At 4:40 Marie knocks on the door and asks if we need a ride. I notice that the whole group is already waiting in cars to car pool to the dinner show. Oh, oh, I thought we had an hour yet. I was to change clothes but have no time and Bert and I are in the car within 4 min. We park the cars in the hotel lot and grab a shuttle that takes us to the log-built dinner theater where varnished wood picnic tables are arranged around a stage. We are shown to our front row side table for the show and dinner. I feel a bit rushed at the meal to hurry up and eat, but the salmon and ribs are good. After blueberry cobbler, we settle in to hear about Alaska in song and verse. Some floozy takes a liking to Bert and even kisses him leaving a red smack on his cheek. As she walks away I see her wave a dollar bill in the air which makes me wonder a bit. Ann is picked to help on stage with “My Bonnie flew over the ocean”. Curt is the star of the show when he is picked to play the miner in the Robert Service poem, The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
He wears a silly miners felt hat with pride and holds his cap gun as if it were real.
Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, the two guns blazed in the dark.
And the woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that’s known as Lou.
A comment about blanks brings the house down in laughter and now Curt is on stage and supposed to be dead. He is comforted by a pretty salon miss as she strokes his head close to her bosom. I think the dead have come alive and all the years I have known Curt, this is the first time I have seen him blush. I take lots of pictures and video for good natured blackmail.
(Shari) As the group enjoys the wonders of Denali, Bert and I use this day for catch up. I have gobs of pictures to download and print for my album. Bert has bird sightings to enter into the computer. At 2 PM we take a break and Bert accompanies for an hour geocaching. We drive the Otter Lake road, one we have not traveled before, and May leads us to a spot. The hint tells us to look for a fallen log with natural bark. There is one pretty close, but no ammo case. We widen our search. Bert goes one way and I go the other. Ever widening circles we search. “I found it”, Bert announces about 100 ft. from me. Sure enough there lays a black ammo case between branches of a dead log. It is a tiny tiny log with no bark on it and not at the coordinates listed. We were looking around the big mammoth log still covered with bark and moss closer to the coordinates. The information on the cache says that it has been vandalized in the past. I wonder if it has been moved. Nevertheless I write down our names in the log book and contribute a golf ball from the one I had picked up while looking for the cache. Bert picked up 17 of them. This site is across the road from a golf course and apparently people do not go into the woods to retrieve their balls. Next we drive to another site, listed as in poor condition and not found on the last try. We search quite awhile but eventually give up. When I get back on the computer I find that the site has been archived due to an accident and guard rails redone by the state. Bert wants to quit and I want to continue but since he is driving we head home to more computer work. Our group comes back and Joann tells me about their bus trip into the park. Good sightings of a lemming, two grizzlies, Dall’s Sheep, Gyrfalcon and Great Horned Owl through muddy windows. The morning’s weather was apparently very bad but cleared in the afternoon. I remember our first trip into the park was similar and added to the complete wilderness experience and slight anxiety about the bus staying on the road on the narrow curvy sections.
(Bert) Most of the group is on Denali bus trips to the interior of the park. My hiking trip is not until tomorrow, so I use today to write journals and enter a backlog of bird sightings. In mid afternoon I accompany Shari on a geocaching search. As we enter a wooded area next to a lake she says I should look for an ammo box, although I’m not sure what one looks like. I find a golf ball instead. When I find a second one I recognize I’m across the dirt road from a golf course. With May she has narrowed the search area to a dozen feet and tells me it is near a fallen log. We prowl the ground and many fallen logs for 15 min. before I spy the box 20 ft. away from our search area. By the time I get back to the parked car, I’ve found 17 golf balls. Late in the afternoon the bus trippers return and we hear of the fogged and dirty windows that made mammal and bird sightings difficult, but we also hear of the Ermine carrying a baby hare (or perhaps pika), the grizzlies, sheep, Great Horned Owl, etc. My turn tomorrow.
(Bert) Six able hikers within our group are tackling a more adventurous route in Denali National Park today. Accompanying me are Bent, John, Bill, Steve and Nancy. We board one of the brown painted school buses from the Wilderness Access Center and are barely started when we have our first good find, a moose, and then a few minutes later and even better find. A wolf is hidden in the dense brush along the roadside, apparently being seen by passengers of a bus and several cars ahead of us. We wait impatiently until other vehicles move on and then we see the wolf too, just as it trots slowly across the road and then across a gravel riverbed. Although I’ve seen wolves before in Alaska, this is my best and longest look at one relatively close up.
The intermittent rain of the past few days has flushed from the skies, leaving them clear and blue. We have high hopes of seeing Mount McKinley and it doesn’t take long before we do. Frequently the road turns to give us a straight shot at the white mountain 60 mi. away to the southwest. The bus takes us 61 mi. west into the park, with McKinley still 40 mi. off, and stops to let off the group of 11 participating in a Discovery Hike. Waiting for us is Danica, a recent college graduate and the park ranger who will lead the group. Stony Dome looms ahead of us and Danica explains our hike will take us along a mountain stream to a pass behind Stony Dome, up through the snow-covered pass and back down to another stream that will lead back to the road. John and the rest of us are still keen on finding a nesting Surfbird and have learned that they are sometimes found on this mountain. However, during the first few hours of our hike the only bird we see or hear is a White-crowned Sparrow. Much more frequent are the Arctic Ground Squirrels that chirp at us and scurry up and down the scree. We also find tracks at the edge of the steam, mostly of caribou but also all four large prints of a grizzly.
While wildlife may be sparse, the scenery certainly makes up the difference. From the bus windows we get a view of the enormity of Denali, but hiking around Stony Dome gives us close up and personal contact. The mountains take on new meaning when climbing up a steep slope or trudging through snow not yet melted or trying to maintain balance when edging a steep mountainside while hiking through scree. The force and chill of mountain streams are more real where I need to judge the depth for the best crossing spot. The wildflowers gain intricate appeal when I lean down and photograph them inches away. Arctic Ground-Squirrels are more alive when I hear their sharp chipping warning calls. The unseen presence of large mammals is more obvious and perhaps threatening when we find scat and tracks.
Danica originally planned for our lunch stop at the highest point of the pass, 2.4 mi. from our roadside start and an elevation gain of 1140 ft. according to Steve’s GPS. The cold winds are blowing through the pass, so Danica leads us a hundred feet lower to a grassy spot out of the wind. When we resume, it is more scree hiking and yet more dramatic views of mountains, valleys, streams and eventually the gravel road in the distance. Periodically throughout our hike we stop to rest and listen to Danica elaborate on a theme of “Fragile and Resilient”, contrasting how the things we see here in nature can be both delicate and easily destroyed and yet can also be sturdy enough to endure the harsh cold climate and barren environment. Her last chapter is how mankind has been resilient in managing the climate, subduing and conquering the variances with machines to make it fit our desires, and yet we have reached a point where the fragility of our environment is apparent and we now live in a world where we may become the fragile ones trying to survive.
On the hike back we hear an unfamiliar shorebird call. Mark, who lives and works here at Denali, thinks it may be Wandering Tattler and I follow the sound to the stream just in time to see the tattler rise and fly upstream. Not far from the road we find the huge rack of a caribou, still attached to the skull. Steve and I maneuver to take photos of the display in front of a backdrop of the mountains. After 4.6 mi. of hiking, we reach the road again. Steve’s GPS says we hiked for 2.5 hr. and rested for 1.5 hr. It feels to me that it was 3.5 hr. hiking and 0.5 hr. resting. While waiting for a return bus, a Northern Shrike stops to rest on a nearby willow bush, our first shrike of the trip, and stays long enough for us to study how it is different from Loggerhead.
It takes five buses, some specialized and not accepting passengers and others with only a few spaces, before we are all picked up. What you see from a bus often depends on the driver and some are better at spotting wildlife than others. We luck out and our driver knows her birds and mammals and the hillsides that Grizzlies favor and the valleys where caribou browse. Best for us birders, though, is she knows the favorite perch of a Gyrfalcon. It takes me a long minute to see the Gyrfalcon in the direction she describes and when I see the stone-colored falcon it seems to look almost identical to the other stone peaks atop the cliff. For the benefit of the other passengers, she explains how rare is the Gyrfalcon, saying there probably are only six or seven pairs in Denali National Park. That may seem like a lot until she also tells us that Denali is larger than the State of Massachusetts. That captures my attention since I also know that Massachusetts is bigger than the country of Belize, my favorite birding place and one where you can easily bird for several months without running out of interesting birds and habitat.
As the sun lowers toward the horizon at our backs the mountains glisten, and although only one is called Polychrome, many display rainbow colors. I total up my mammal counts and tally 5 Grizzlies, 1 Gray Wolf, 14 Arctic Ground Squirrels, 32 Snowshoe Hares, 5 Moose, 13 Caribou and 47 Dall’s Sheep. It is more than 12 hours before we return to camp and I award this day as my best in Denali of the 20 or so days I have visited the park in my past five trips.
(Shari) Meeting Carol and Ginny at the Visitor Center at 11 is a perfect time for me. I got to sleep in and I get to do “lady” things. We watch a terrific movie about Denali and then decide to eat lunch in town. While we wait for a train to pass, Ann tells us that the mountain is out. We turn our car around and drive 9 mi. to the lookout but the mountain can now only be seen through binoculars. The clouds and the mountain look alike and only watching through magnification can we see stationary white behind moving white. We drive back to town and eat a fantastic lunch chuckling to ourselves that our men only have snacks and peanut butter and jelly. After our lunch we go shopping looking at all the gift stores on this row of what is called Glitter Gulch. One side of the highway has two fancy hotels and the other has a “strip mall” of log cabin shops threaded together by a wide porch. The beer I had for lunch has made me very tired and when I get home I take a nap before our social. Chris has made spring rolls and those along with Carol’s shrimp dip and Marlene’s pound cake with a rhubarb sauce make a meal. Bert eats the plate I fixed for him, but not until he returns at 9 PM. I hear his day was pretty spectacular too.
(Shari) Mt. McKinley looms over the landscape today as we drive south. Just one other year on my trips, was the day as clear as today. Bert and I stop often to take pictures, none of them doing the scene justice. At one stop, I take out my fishing rod and try a few casts. Bert snaps my picture with the mountain in the background. It hardly gets better than that. The only thing to make it better would have been a fish. But alas, no strikes or bites for me. While Bert fuels up in Anchorage, I get groceries. He tells me diesel is now 10% higher than it was the last time we got it at the same Anchorage station a couple of weeks ago. At this rate we may not be able to afford to come home.
(Bert) After having such clear views of Mt. McKinley yesterday I do not expect to see it today. After all, the odds of seeing the mountain are less than 1 in 5 in June and our bus driver yesterday said that one recent year the mountain was not in view for all of June. So, I’m surprised and delighted that we can see McKinley at every stop today, from near Denali State Park all the way to Kashwitna Lake, 170 mi. south. We stop for many photos, the best being one of Shari casting her fishing line into Kashwitna Lake with Mt. McKinley (20329 ft.) and Mt. Foraker (17400 ft.) standing white in the background of a broad blue lake.
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