Chapter 11. Denali and Denali Highway
(Bert) Heading north from Anchorage on the Parks Highway, we start another
leg of our journey. A beautiful day, absent of rain, is filled with sunshine,
and warm enough that most of the day does not require a jacket over my T-shirt.
At Willow Creek we can see Mt. McKinley shining through a shroud of clouds. It
is so high up in the sky that one could easily assume it is part of the clouds
and, amazingly, we are 166 mi. away. When we stop at Kashwitna Lake, only a
sliver of the mountain pierces through its increased cloud cover. Yet almost all
of the rest of the sky is cloudless, as Mt. McKinley creates its own weather. A
Common Loon calls from across the lake, soon to be drowned out by the roar of a
float plane first circling the lake and then taking off into the wind.
(Shari) This is an S.O.B. day. Bert does not argue; we have to keep the guests happy, you know. We drive to the cute touristy town of Talkeetna, making only one birding stop along the way. The traffic is horrendous and not at all like previous years. I think all Alaskans are traveling this weekend and dozens of tour busses have found Alaska. The day is also picture perfect. Our first order of business is lunch. Here we eat at West Rib Café & Pub, noted for their 5 lb. burger. We would need more than five people to share the hamburger with us, so have to pass that delicacy up. Instead, I have two caribou tacos. After lunch we peruse the gift stores. Kay buys the cutest things for her grandkids, making me wish I had three little girls to buy for. We sign a petition to stop the construction of a dam that the politicians want in the valley on an earthquake fault, for heaven’s sake. Everyone but me wants ice cream so that is the next stop. We go into the cutest little restaurant called the Roadhouse and I wish I could eat two lunches. The bakery here is to die for. We walk around the little artsy-craftsy market before realizing it is time to move on. It is time to get out of the crowds anyway. The cruise ship people are here by the busload.
(Bert) We take a side trip to Talkeetna, known as the take-off point for hikers on Mt. McKinley. Planes equipped with wheels and skis, both retractable, take off from here and fly to a broad basin in the snow-covered mountain and from there the hikers make their ascent. The small village has become a haven for gift shops and restaurants. The cruise ship lines have found the town and a half-dozen buses are unloading passengers and a train awaits carrying more to Denali.
(Shari) After getting situated at the campground, I make coleslaw for the potluck at our high school friend’s house before I squeeze in a 30 min. nap. We cannot find the directions to her house and I think she probably does not have cell phone coverage so we have to wing it on my memory. When we come to a dead end, I realize my wing is broken and I call Kathy. Luckily, Rick answers and we have only gone a mile out of the way. We retrace our tracks and arrive at little after 5 to find we are the first ones here. Kathy lives on a beautiful 35-acre parcel of land. It is not her first house here in Alaska but has been home for the past 30 yr. She and Rick built the two story structure and it reminds me of Heidi’s house in the movie of the same name. Everything is so green and Rick has started the grill in a patch of mowed lawn and I see tables and chairs set up at another patch. Two huge gardens front the road and tall ferns surround the property. When I have to use the rest room, I am surprised that it is an outhouse quite a distance from the house. On top of that, it has no door. Now I wonder how this works out in the winter or worse yet, if a bear comes by. It does have a view though. A bunch of their friends come over bringing goodies and we spend the next few hours eating grilled salmon and steak, salads and Kathy’s famous German potato salad, all washed down with various Alaskan beers and a variety of wines.
(Bert) We park in a campground at Trapper Creek and just before 5 PM we drive a dusty road to the home of Kathy, our school classmate (me for 12 years, Shari for high school only). Rick and Kathy have invited some of their friends, mostly birders also, for a potluck dinner and Rick has grilled salmon and ribs for all. In the conversations we discover almost all of us have visited Nome this spring for birding. The one other person I have met before is Dave, who is a birding guide in Nome. We also meet George, who is Charlu’s brother. Charlu and Tom accompanied us on many Mexico and Central America birding caravans. Besides birds, we talk about local politics, a controversial dam being proposed, and how they came to Alaska. All of them are our age and came to Alaska when they were young, fell in love with the state, and never left.
The meal follows with a game of severe croquet. The course, if that is what you choose to call it, is laid out on a grassy and uneven patch of ground, hewn from the woods, grass chopped down to about 4 in., with islands of tall wildflowers left intact. Getting a croquet ball to roll in this terrain is unpredictable and hilarious. So many of us are playing, interspersed by wise cracks, laughter, and rule challenges, that we only complete half the course before we decide it is time to break for homemade ice cream. It is nearly 10 PM, still bright sunlight, when we help Rick and Kathy move dishes and leftovers into their house, a two-story cabin that in my imagination is the house where Heidi lived in storybook times. As we leave, we pass the Sandhill Crane refuge across the road, a recently designated preserve that Kathy has told us about. Just then two cranes glide down from the sky to join 30 others already on the field, all cranes rusty brown. Behind them arcs an evening rainbow.
(Shari) We play a game of combat croquet. Just about everyone plays, including Kathy’s really neat 16-year-old granddaughter who is here for the next two weeks. Doug serves as wine caddy, holding glasses while others take their turns at playing. Kay and Bert are ahead when we stop for homemade ice cream. By now it is late, mosquitos are fierce–although the “natives” seem to take it nonchalantly–and we help clean up by carrying in plates and leftover food. It is after 10 when we get home but the sun is still quite high in the sky. It has been such a treat to meet and get to know people who homesteaded Alaska in the early 70s. I thank you, Kathy and Rick, for inviting us.
(Shari) Happy Father’s Day everyone! We start the day by going to a local nondenominational church called River of God in Trapper Creek. The church will accommodate 40 people on comfortable chairs but only twelve are in attendance and that includes the four of us. We have a nice chat with the others before service and learn that the minister has only been here for the past ten months. We meet the former minister who is visiting and started the congregation 22 yr. ago. I wonder if members left when he did as I sure can’t see how, with so few people that don’t look wealthy, the congregation can afford to pay the utilities on the nice structure, let alone the salary of a preacher. The service begins with the preacher’s wife leading us in three praise songs while the preacher himself plays the drums. The sermon starts out with a brief synapse of father’s in the Bible and then segways into a personal revelation of the minister: how he took a leap of faith by coming to Alaska, giving up a comfortable job in Texas. He got out of his comfort zone when God called, just as we should also.
(Bert) The preacher starts out slowly, almost stumbling over words, halting awkwardly. As he moves to the theme of his message, especially when his words become personal, he gains his stride and the sermon becomes more powerful. He took a leap of faith when he left his good-paying job as a welder in Texas, left his familiar friends, and with his soon-to-become pregnant wife, he drove to rural Alaska to become pastor of this tiny church and to seek supplemental employment. So also he challenges the congregation to take a leap of faith.
Just like last night, this morning we are meeting local Alaskans that most tourists miss in their travels. The new pastor and his wife follow a pattern of uprooted people who find their way to Alaska and never leave the lure of the wilderness. A cute little girl comes with her grandmother, the man who started the church decades ago is here, a Native American lady comes with an elderly man in a long shaggy beard, a young girl walks to church alone and relates that her grandmother doesn’t sell flowers anymore because her greenhouse collapsed.
(Shari) After service we eat at a favorite rest area stop of Bert’s before taking a small hike. Here we get a good view of a Hairy Woodpecker and I find some logs for a campfire tonight. We hurry onward to Denali, getting to the bus registration in time to gather information and sign up for our campground. Bert and I comment on the fact we had never seen the parking lot so empty and also notice that the bus trips for tomorrow are almost all available. That never happened in our other five visits to Denali. Usually we register for the day after the following day to get the early morning buses into the park. We keep hearing how tourism is down all over Alaska. We learn we must drive to the visitor’s center to register for the ranger hikes. Unfortunately, we find out that we cannot register more than two days out and the hike everyone wants to take is three days out. We will come back. At our campsite, my plans for an outdoor campfire are cancelled as it starts to drizzle. Happy hour is in our rig tonight.
(Bert) We leave the church and head north to Denali under sunny skies that darken as we approach Mt. McKinley’s weather. Rain comes down in buckets and then switches to eye droppers. We attempt to register for Denali hikes and busses, but find we cannot schedule the ranger hike until tomorrow morning and we cannot schedule the bus until we arrange the hike. So, instead, we head to our campsite at Savage River. We intend to sit outside for a social, but intermittent rain encourages us to meet inside our RV.
(Shari) Denali is viewable again this morning as we drive the short distance to Savage River. It is a perfect morning for a walk on the 2-mi. loop path along the river. Even if we see no birds, the walk is worth the effort. We are 17 mi. into the park, as far as we are allowed to drive our own vehicles. I forgot my walking stick so Doug lends me one of his. I am grateful since the trail is rockier than I had remembered and I use the pole often for extra footing. Many times, we stop to admire the scenery and enjoy the solitude. Not many people are hiking early in the morning. We keep our eyes open for wildlife always mindful of bears, especially since we have heard of recent bear attacks on paths we traveled just two weeks ago. I hear the jingle of Doug’s bear bell as he walks behind me. We talk a lot and scan the hillsides. Another hiker tells us of a three-legged bear that crossed the path we just traveled minutes ago. Oh my gosh!
(Bert) Only a short distance from our campground is the Savage River loop trail, one of my favorite trails in the world. The river slices a severe cut through the mountains, separating steeply sloped Primrose Ridge on one side and jagged rocky cliffs with flower-strewn slopes on the other. Moss Campion, Pink Plumes, Mountain Avens, and Chiming Bells are in profusion and in the more rocky soil, mats of Netleaf Willow grow to an inch or two, with fingers of very short erect, reddish catkins protruding. The gambelii subspecies of White-crowned Sparrows surround us with their song and show themselves among the branches of waist-height dwarf Black Spruce. Near the bridge, the river spreads out in a wide, braided, shallow gravel fan, forming tiny islands where Mew Gulls rest on ill-prepared nests and Harlequin Ducks relax between feeding sessions. Downstream, the water narrows in the gap to a churning turbulent river. Frequently, we hear Arctic Ground Squirrels chirping and sometimes their curiosity lures them surprisingly close to us. On the extremes of the rocky cliffs I spy a Hoary Marmot, as comfortable in climbing the formidable rocks as we might be walking downhill on a smooth surface.
Doug shouts to us and points to the opposite slope. Kay has spotted a Gray Wolf and it takes only a second to see the carnivore trotting across the mountain. I swing my camera into place and through the lens I can see that the wolf wears a radio collar. I continue to snap photos as it moves across the mountain slope and my camera tells me we watch this rare treat for 4 min. We reach the short bridge that takes us to the opposite side of the river and head back, spreading out along the narrow path. I call to the others when I see a Golden Eagle soaring above Primrose Ridge. Even though it could be more than a half-mile above us, its distinct profile cutting the clear blue sky is easily recognizable.
(Shari) We are treated to a sighting of a wolf scampering halfway up the hill above us. We see a marmot and ground squirrels, but no bear until we get into the car. Bert shouts bear on the river flats and Kay hops out of the back seat of the Earth Roamer faster than a jackrabbit. We watch the bear cross the river and come up the bank. We walk the bridge to get a closer look but when the bear starts to run, we hurry back. The rangers are all on alert in cars and in the check station watching what the bear will do next. We watch for quite a while as the bear lumbers up the hill and out of sight. Gee, what a treat!
(Bert) We finish the loop, climb back into the Earth Roamer and leave the parking lot. Just then I yell, “Bear.” Across the road, on the Savage River gravel flats a quarter mile ahead of us, is a blond Grizzly Bear. In seconds we jump out of the RV and point binoculars and cameras toward the bear as it crosses the shallow river, and jumps up the 2-ft. embankment. Only its back protrudes as it wends its way through the willows. It reappears as it swims and bounds across a deep branch of the river. We have by now moved to the vehicle bridge and we have a clear view of the whole bear as it crosses open ground, then jumps up the embankment, chasing out a Snowshoe Hare. The bear passes behind the stop sign and two stopped cars, crossing the paved road. It passes the ranger checkpoint with people huddled inside, and then continues up the slope of Primrose Ridge. I continue to photograph the bear half-way up the slope, until its image is but a dot on my shot of the upper half of the ridge. Camera recording time is 10 min. Yet, if I had attempted to travel the same path as the bear took, I suspect it would have taken my three-fourths of an hour and I would have been short on breath.
(Shari) We check out of our campground and drive to the visitor’s center to pick up tickets for the ranger hike. Good thing I had decided not to go as there are only three spots left on the hike. Doug treats us to lunch at the neat Morino’s Grill next to the visitor center before we board a bus to view the dog sled demonstration. The demonstration is 10-fold better than the last time I went in the late 90s. Dogs now have 5-star accommodations. A circular race track has been built around a grove of trees, with a three-tiered viewing platform fronting the finish line. Self-guided signage allows the reader to discover the history of the dogs and a little about each one.
After the demonstration we move to the Riley Creek Campground in the park and get ready for our dinner show. Cabin Nite Theater is much as I remembered, with a great meal of salmon, ribs, corn, potatoes, beans, rolls, salad and berry cobbler. The waiters are also the performers and take turns singing while we eat. The show is entertaining and a bit different than the show I saw four years ago, though still retaining the Robert Service sketch of The Shooting of Dan McGrew. The only criticism I have concerns the noise level. I could not hear Kay and Bert talking to me unless they talked in my ear. It certainly was a strain to carry on a conversation, so I mostly sat like a dummy with a smile on my face and nodding my head.
(Shari) It is a shame that we have to waste this precious day to do wash and catch up on sleep. This is probably the best day I have ever seen in Denali. Total sunshine and blue skies. The ranger walk should be today, though the weather report shows the same low 20% chance of rain for tomorrow. We eat a late breakfast, do the wash, dump and refill with water and take a short walk before seeing a movie at the bus check-in station. The history of the park starts in the 1920s and visitors would come by train, pay $25 to get transported 90 mi. into the park. This included three meals and a night’s stay. But at that time a loaf of bread was 5 cents, so $25 translates to $400 today. Needless to say, only the wealthy did the trip. Since we skipped lunch we eat an early dinner of buffalo burgers, beans and salad. Bert starts a campfire and, after a nap, I join him. Doug and Kay join us later after their day of relaxation.
At 7:30 we walk the short distance to the amphitheater and listen to the ranger talk on squirrels. There are four species of squirrels in the park: red, arctic ground, flying, and marmot. I did not know marmot was a squirrel. If Bert did not plan on doing the ranger hike tomorrow, I bet he’d get up during the three minutes of darkness tonight and look for a flying squirrel. He’s never seen one.
(Bert) A free day, with no specific plans, I sleep in until 8 AM and then turn on the generator to recharge our house batteries. A bit later a moose walks by our campsite. In the afternoon, Shari and I watch a film at the visitor center. It uses old footage to show what the park was like in the past 100 years. It has been a tourist site all of that time, although until the railroad extended from Anchorage and the park road was built, access was limited. Visitors stayed in large tents near Savage River, where we camped night before last.
At 7:30 PM, we walk a short distance to the park amphitheater to listen to a ranger talk. Conducted by a young woman ranger, she talks about the four squirrel species at Denali. I am intrigued at the start, since I would have only expected two species: Red Squirrel and Arctic Ground Squirrel. I did not recognize that Hoary Marmot was considered a squirrel, albeit a large one. Nor did I know that the range of Northern Flying Squirrels extended all the way to Denali. She tells us that although they have found evidence of the flying squirrels, especially tracks in the snow, no one has reported one at Denali in at least five years.
In an amusing presentation, she uses body movements, hand puppets, and imitations of ground squirrel calls–different warnings for 2-legged creatures, 4-legged animals, and flying raptors–all sprinkled with surprising facts. Did you know a Red Squirrel has a territory the size of the football field and that it consumes 15,000 spruce cones each year by peeling off the cone-scales one by one, like we eat artichokes? It creates a large midden where it store cones and leave the remnants. In early spring, the squirrels also eat Snowshoe Hares up to two weeks in age and are the biggest threat to hares. I also learn that Northern Flying Squirrels dig up mushrooms, store them on the top of trees until they dry out, and then eat them. Her favorite animal is the Hoary Marmot which hibernates from September to May, eats until it is stuffed, sunbathes to aid in digestion, and then sleeps. Eat, sunbathe, sleep, eat, sunbathe, sleep! What a life!
(Bert) As we hike, Doug keeps making suggestions on how I should write today’s blog: how we fought our way through formidable tundra, forged raging streams, endured downpours of rain and even hail, and encountered ferocious bears. Well, it is true, in a way, but not quite as dramatic as that choice of nouns and adjectives suggests.
Not one to enjoy the confining green school buses that transit the restricted road through Denali National Park and only let passengers out at toilet stops mostly devoid of scenery, I have opted for the ranger-led Discovery Hikes. This year, Doug and Kay join me on the Discovery Hike to Big Stony River, led by Ranger Dianne. Still, we do ride the bus for 60 mi. one-way, as Stony Mountain is that far from the Denali entrance. Wildlife is a bit sparse this morning and our mammal sightings are restricted to a Snowshoe Hare, a couple of Arctic Ground Squirrels, one caribou nicely photographed, and about a dozen Dall’s Sheep high up on the mountains. Near Toklak River we watch two soaring Golden Eagles, but the bus does not stop. At the bridge at the foot of Stony Mountain, the bus drops off our group of a dozen hikers. The adventure begins.
By now I’ve put on my Neo overshoes, rain pants and coat, and have more stuff in my backpack. Dianne gives us the rules about how to react to bears and moose, a lesson we now have been taught a dozen times, and then we begin our hike across the tundra. In the restricted area of Denali–which is most of the 6 million acres of the national park–no hiking trails exist and Dianne reminds us not to make one now. So, instead of walking in a single line, we spread across the tundra, hiking over clumps of grass, stumbling through dwarf birch, balancing on rocks, and avoiding holes. Progress is slow and we stop often, which is fine with me, as my Neos transform my feet from horse to elephant in size and weight.
We stop to smell the flowers. Literally! Dianne has us playing a game of sorts where each of us is to find an article of nature and study its features. The flowers are alpine, which means they are only a few inches high and to smell them means getting down on all fours and nearly kissing the ground. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled flowers that low to the ground and I am surprised how fragrant they are. One in particular, Frigid Shooting Star, has the unexpected smell of Welch’s grape juice. We find Lapland Rosebay, Rock Jasmine, Purple Cress, Valerian, Bear Flower, and a dozen other wildflowers. I know the names of half the flowers we find, but Dianne knows them all instantly.
Doug must have told Dianne that I am a birding guide, so she turns to me when we find scat on the ground. I’m not knowledgeable on identifying birds by their scat, but I know this one. It looks a bit like corn curls and it is from a ptarmigan. She also asks me to identify a couple of birds by song and I announce Black-billed Magpie and White-crowned Sparrow. She has a mnemonic for the sparrow song and asks me mine. I repeat the one that non-birder Shari–at least she used to be a non-birder–has for the sparrow when it wakes her up in the morning: “I want to ring your neck!” Dianne’s mnemonic is more welcoming: “I so like to see you dear!”
The stream we have been following is closing in on a cliff, so to continue we will need to forge the stream. We look for a place where it is wider and, therefore, shallower. Still, the fast-moving stream tumbles over rocks and is deep enough that some pours into one of my Neos as I try to maintain my balance on the slippery rocks.
Our walk has become quite educational. Although I like to identify flowers, I have not tried much to identify lichens. An odd species Dianne identifies is Deadman’s Fingers, a creepy lichen that distinctly looks like a dozen gnarled and wrinkled fingers reaching up as if to escape from the soil. We also study more scat, finding caribou, bear, and ground squirrel. One of the bear scat piles shows the hair of a ground squirrel. Kay finds tufts of white hair we identify as Dall’s Sheep. We find bone fragments: the collarbone of a caribou, the vertebrae of another, and the gnawed bone of something smaller. Then also are the footprints of sheep, caribou and bear. Arctic Ground Squirrels are everywhere here and we examine their burrows, some of which are violently ripped apart where a bear tried capturing a squirrel.
We have been ignoring light sprinkling rain. I’ve pulled my raincoat hood over my head, wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and placed it in my backpack, and tried unsuccessfully to put another plastic bag over my backpack. By the time we have hiked well away from the road and it is lunch time–we know because Doug asks “Where is McDonald’s?–the rain has become a deluge. Even a few hailstones hit us and fall to the ground. With no chance of finding a dry place to rest while eating our packed lunches and no trees to shelter us, some sit on plastic bags, but most of us stand in the downpour while eating. My backpack has become drenched–I should get a waterproof one, as this has happened to me before–rain has crept down my neck and into the tops of my Neos, so now my back is wet and both boots contain water down to my socks.
We start making our way back. The rain has stopped, so we study an alpine slope. In another of Dianne’s “games”, we extend a string in a small 1-ft. diameter circle and count the number of plants contained within the circle. Each circle contains 8-14 different species of plants, a tribute to the diversity of alpine habitat.
Half way back to the road, I spy three bears on the mountain top. Dianne sees two of them just before they dip into a depression. I don’t think anyone else saw them, so we wait expectantly for them to reappear. Fortunately, they are so far above us that we are not concerned about being too close. After almost 10 min., the bears are not seen again, so we continue hiking. Later, with a new perspective on the mountain top, the bears are in view again. Now we can see it is a sow with two cubs and we are entertained by the cubs as they play-fight, wrestling, tumbling, and rolling down the grassy slope. The cubs are getting close enough that Dianne suggests we keep walking. We turn periodically and continue to watch the playful cubs and the mindful parent, until we reach the road and are soon picked up by a bus heading eastward.
So, Doug was right. Today we fought our way through formidable tundra, forged raging streams, endured downpours of rain and even hail, and encountered ferocious bears. What a great day!
(Shari) I hear the rain and I think, “Oh, no! Those poor guys taking the ranger walk today.” I turn over and go back to sleep. It is still raining when I get up and I attend to writing journals and entering receipts that are over a month old. At noon the weather clears and I decide to take the 1-mi. walk to the visitor center. I wear a raincoat just in case. I hear the water rushing before I see the river. Unfortunately, I do not hear the moose before I see it. I come up an 8% grade and detect movement with my right eye. A moose has raised its head and looks alarmed. It is about 40 ft. from me and I quickly look around to see if I am between it a baby or two. I see none and continue walking and talking to the moose telling it I am no threat. I give the animal a wide berth and take a slightly longer route to my destination. The moose then puts its head down and eats. I know I am safe. Oh, that was close!
I peruse the nice museum learning about the inhabitants of Denali, including the plants. I watch a film on the park that covers all four seasons. It makes me want to come back in the winter for sure. I need to be younger. I stop at the bookstore and buy a book Kay told me about. The author has taken the yucky things in nature and explains them in a humorous way to appeal to kids. I think my grandson will get a kick out of it. I buy him two pieces of preserved moose poop to go along with the book. By now I am hungry again and buy myself a bowl of seafood chowder before walking back. After passing the same group of people twice I realize I am lost and ask for directions. I turned left instead of right. I get home quite tired and take a short nap before starting dinner for us all. When the hikers get back they will be hungry and tired. I get worried about 6 PM when they have not showed up yet. Finally, they pull in close to 7 and, yes, they are hungry and appreciate a meal. Another nice day is over too soon and we say goodnight after making our plans for tomorrow.
(Shari) We get a late start this morning. We all have chores to do: wash, Internet, dump and get water, buy bread, send a fax, and fuel up. We finally get to the start of the 100-mi. gravel Denali Highway at noon. This is a birdy road and we stop and start numerous times. Today is the day yesterday should have been. It is gorgeous! I do all the driving so Bert can then focus on spotting the birds and I can concentrate on the road. We drive 40 mi. of the highway and don’t pull into our campsite for the night until 5. How can it take so long? You have to be a birder I guess.
(Bert) We leave Denali National Park, drive to Cantwell, and then east on the Denali Highway which almost immediately becomes a gravel road. The weather is so incredibly comfortable and nature’s colors so soothing, that our day slows to a relaxing pace and we hang on to each fragment of time to absorb life to the fullest. We are only one-and-half miles along the road when we stop to bird along a small, but fast moving, creek. Saturating the air are the bird songs of robins, warblers, sparrows and finches. I hear a familiar song from Nome, but one we did not hear on our earlier travels with Doug and Kay. I locate the singer and point out Gray-cheeked Thrush to them. Pushing its way upstream is a female Harlequin Duck, drab compared to her mate. It pokes around the submerged plant life, ducks its head beneath the surface, and goes about its daily life oblivious to us watching in close view.
(Shari) Tonight I am thankful for our high spot on the road as the mosquitos today have been numerous. Brushkana, where we have camped one other year, is full of them and I don’t even get out of the car. There is a nice breeze where we are tonight. The afternoon clouds look like they might bring rain so we eat our chips and salsa, and sip margaritas standing up just in case we might need to dash for cover. We see rain approach but it bypasses us to allow an uninterrupted dinner of vegetarian tacos and refried beans. Kay is full of the dickens tonight and Doug says we are getting to know the REAL Kay. We have called her “The taco queen”, “Twinkle toes” and “Trigger” but no matter what she is called, she is a sweetheart. She forces her way into my messy kitchen after dinner and grabs as many of the dirty dishes she can find and takes them back to her rig to wash. She comes back with clean dishes and takes another load. Finally I get all the stuff put away and thank her for her help. It is late–almost 10–and I think it is the longest day of the year. But I am too tired to find out when the sun sets.
(Bert) Climbing in elevation, our vista stretches to a distant range of snow-capped mountains as we stand on an esker and between us is a vast valley filled with streams, pothole lakes and marshes. Two moose wade in water up to their bellies and a pair of Trumpeter Swans floats nearby. We camp at a high point in the road, an overlook of the valley beneath us. It is the most incredible of all campsites we have visited in North America. And, coincidentally, we are here on the longest daylight of the year. Our viewpoint encompasses mountains, glaciers, valleys and a lake. The three tallest peaks in the Alaska Range before us are Mt. Deborah (12,339 ft.), Mt. Hess (11,948), and Mt. Hayes (13,832). Between them lie West Fork Glacier and Susitna Glacier. I build a campfire and we gather for a Mexican meal prepared by Shari. I propose that we stay up till midnight, but naysayers compromise to 10 PM. The sun is still high in the western sky and I retire to my bed for reading, wildly awake until 11:15 PM. By now the sun has nearly ducked beneath the western horizon and is moving northward. Shari awakes during the night at different times than I do and both of us take photos. At 2:45 the sun–still below the horizon–is nearly north and its orange glow backlights the glaciers and snow-covered peaks, illuminating them in blue-gray shades.
(Shari) I have trouble sleeping tonight and end up taking pictures of the sunset/sunrise at differing hours. I have the sky in oranges and reds and yellows at 1:45, 3:45 and 4:30. Never was it dark. When was sunset? I must finally fall asleep because the next thing I know it is 8:30. We are supposed to depart at 9. Boy, do we scramble to get ready. Luckily we plan to eat breakfast at Gracious House. Breakfast gets late as we notice Kay and Doug not following behind. The last I heard from her was they were being flagged down by another couple on the side of the road. We past them too but they did not stop us. I figured they had just camped there last night and were putting their tent and ice chests back into the car. We wait for about 15 min. before we turn around. Good thing we only have the puptent as otherwise we would have had to unhook the car. We find Doug helping the man change a flat tire. This man looks stressed and tired and seems thankful for the help. There is not much Bert and I can do, but we hang around talking to the wife.
(Bert) We leave our beautiful campsite in mid-morning with intentions of eating a late breakfast at Gracious House. Our progress is slow because we keep stopping to enjoy the birds and the scenery. Most stops include Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Blackpoll Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows and Common Redpolls. Some of the redpolls are as bloody red as House Finches as they dine on willow catkins. At one stop, while watching Long-tailed Ducks, I notice a pair of Greater Yellowlegs is accompanied by a fist-sized chick wading through marsh water.
When we lose radio contact with Doug and Kay, Shari turns around the RV and we find them parked next to a vehicle resting on a jack. One wheel is removed and Doug is struggling to help the frustrated man in mounting the spare. Part of the jack is broken and the difficulty lies in raising it far enough to get clearance for the inflated tire. With effort the task is accomplished and we continue along the road.
(Shari) Finally we depart and head to Gracious House, pretty starved. We get there and read a sign “Café Closed.” Oh, no! No breakfast! I depart the lot and then realize that they had a sign “Pies for Sale.” I wonder if they will sell us one of their delicious pies? Kay is talking to a man and finds out that he does just as I get back to the parking lot. We buy a pie to eat later. They are proud of that pie ($30) but we get the story on why he has closed. He could not make money as the tour buses stopped coming and just wanted to use his restrooms not allowing the people enough time to buy anything. So he was forced to close about 3 yr. ago. Too bad, as we always enjoyed breakfast there. We go to Plan B and end up eating lunch on the side of a road near a river.
(Bert) By the time we reach Gracious House, our planned breakfast will be lunch, but even that does not happen. We find out they no longer serve meals–not enough business–but, fortunately, they still sell their delicious pies. We descend to the Susitna River and cross its formidable bridge, stopping at the opposite side to bird and break for lunch. A road crew has assembled and we find our timing is fortunate as they are about to close the bridge for an hour as they conduct their semiannual structural inspection. Birding in the marsh adjacent to the river is quite good and I list 15 species, including Red-necked Phalarope, Bohemian Waxwing, and Rusty Blackbird.
At a pond at mile marker 63, we again stop for Long-tailed Ducks, but the real surprise is when I hear an Arctic Warbler and we find two of them. This is the farthest west on the Denali Highway that I have found them in the years we have visited here. Now we hear and see Arctic Warblers at most stops as we continue eastward. By midafternoon the temperature has reached 72º and it is unusually warm for the Denali Highway. I don’t remember it ever being this warm in the Denali area of Alaska before. I keep on my jacket, though, to ward off pesky mosquitos.
As we reach the lakes area near Maclaren River, I start studying the Trumpeter Swans in hopes of finding a Tundra Swan among them. While there, I discover a Golden Eagle resting on a muskrat house. When I call to Kay to come and see, I notice she has found another Golden Eagle and this one is pulling meat from a skeleton of a moose or caribou that is partly submerged in a pond. We align our spotting scopes on the action and draw the attention of two French ladies driving by. I invite them to view the scene through my scope and they are surprised how large the eagle is. A bit later when we park our RV’s at a camping spot for the evening, we get an even closer view of an eagle. This one is an adult Bald Eagle and it gives us a surprise when it swoops a short distance above us and we can easily see the fish it holds in its talons. We eat dinner at the Maclaren Lodge and then sit around a campfire I built on the embankment of the Maclaren River. From here we can see the mountains and the Maclaren Glacier which seems to have significantly receded since our visits in prior years. This evening when I awake from my sleep around midnight I notice the sun below the horizon in the north, adding an orange glow to the glacier.
(Shari) The rest of the day is spent stopping and starting, stopping and starting, with me at the wheel. Finally we get to Maclaren River bridge and park for the night. It is 5 and we have traveled all of 40 mi. all day. We are starved, so off we go to the lodge to enjoy a hamburger and soup. Bert starts a campfire and we have the strawberry-rhubarb pie while we enjoy the scenery and try to solve the problems of the world over glasses of wine.
(Shari) All except Kay go to the lodge for breakfast and it is delicious and filling. Later at the pond by the lodge, Kay does a new dance. She has seen yet another life bird, this time the Tundra Swan. Every cell in her body is overjoyed. Doug and I just look at each other shaking our heads. Bert understands, but I have never seen him dance when he gets a new bird.
(Bert) After an enormous and delicious breakfast at Maclaren Lodge, I set up my spotting scope to get a close up view of the bill of a swan in the adjacent lake. It’s a Tundra Swan! Strangely, an American Wigeon behaves as if it is its mate or, at least, its closest buddy. It parades around the swan, never venturing more than a swan-wing’s length from the much larger bird.
(Shari) By the time I get out of the rig, at another stop Kay is again dancing, this time singing Hallelujah chorus. She and Bert are discussing whether she sees a Snowy Owl. She tells Doug to bring her scope and Bert says don’t bother. Then she says “Shari doesn’t listen to Bert, why should I?” So Doug gets the scope. Soon she has Bert wondering if that is a Snowy Owl or now maybe a Lynx. It is pretty far off but all of us swear we see the head move. We must watch that thing for over half an hour and by now all of us are getting doubtful except Kay. Another birder comes along and looks in the scope and he too is doubtful. Finally we admit, it must be a rock or a stump since no animal would sit still THAT long. But it sure is realistic.
(Bert) Back in our RVs we start the climb up toward Maclaren summit. We stop for five Buffleheads, Mew Gulls sitting on nests, and more Arctic Warblers. At the pingo we watch Bank Swallows flying in and out of burrows, a nesting site that must have been in existence for decades. At the small pond in front of the pingo are a pair of Long-tailed Ducks and two pairs of Red-necked Phalaropes. As we continue the steep climb, I am surprised we do not find a single ptarmigan and when we reach the 4086-ft. summit Doug and Kay join me in a hike along Osar Lake Trail to search for ptarmigans, but find none there either. We do, though, have a 20-mi. view of the Maclaren Valley and in the web of streams and small ponds I count a dozen swans.
We stop frequently along the road, finding much the same species, including more Arctic Warblers. Our last easterly site to hear Arctic Warblers is milepoint 25. I am amazed at how often we found this species and the wide extent of its range–38 mi. by my count–along the highway. Perhaps the difference is that in other years we birded the highway about 8 days earlier in the season and the warblers were just arriving in the Maclaren River valley.
We arrive at Tangle Lakes and are amazed at how this place has transformed from a large empty lot to a well-designed BLM campground with one-way roads, signage, numbered level sites, fire pits, picnic tables, and clean pit toilets. Although still lacking electricity, dump, and easily accessible water, it is quite modern in every other sense. Alaskans and visitors have found the campground as well, and we take the last campsites available tonight. In mid-afternoon we run our air-conditioner for the first time since leaving Texas.
(Shari) When we arrive at Tangle Lakes we are surprised at its transformation. Camping is no longer permitted next to the river. The campground has been spruced up with nice level gravel sites each with its own number, picnic table, and fire ring. No longer is parking helter-skelter, nor is camping free. We are afraid we may not get a site, but find two right next to each other, with a view of the lake. On our way in we see another Earth Roamer. Of course, Doug and Kay have to stop to talk to the owners and apparently Doug learns a few things about their own unit (like how to operate the air conditioner). David and Carrie are staying here too, so we invite them over for our social around a campfire. I bring out some vodka I have stored in a honey container since I left Texas. Doug supplies the Bloody Mary mix and the two of us do a good job of consuming both the mix and the liquor.
(Bert) I am wide awake at 5 AM, so I get up to work on my computer. So many birds are singing outside that by 6 AM, I go outside to enjoy the bright, sunny, and warm morning. The lighting is ideal for photography and the singing birds are perched in close view. I photograph singing Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Fox Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, begging fledgling Common Redpolls and an adult on a nest.
(Shari) Last night we agreed on an 8:30 AM start. Bert can’t sleep and leaves the rig at 6 to bird on his own. He says we depart too late each day because so many birds are singing and showing themselves earlier. Oh, well. I think we still get all our target birds and the Arctic Warbler has become a trash bird (bird jargon for a very common bird). It is at every stop, singing its little heart out.
(Bert) We break camp and drive east on the Denali Highway, stopping at a pond
where a floating female Barrow’s Goldeneye is trailed by a string of small
chicks. Our main stop is at mile point 13. We are barely out of our vehicles
when Kay finds a hovering bird–a life bird she recognizes as Long-tailed Jaeger.
She does an enthusiastic war dance in celebration.
(Shari) Bert is having one of his conserving-words days and I have to pry out his plans for us. I often think he is afraid that he only has so many words in a lifetime and if he talks he may use them up. Anyway, I do finally get out of him that we are going to take a hike, but I assume it will be short. He did mention we would climb the hill and should wear hiking shoes, so I take along my walking stick. Never did I think to ask how long we would be gone. It was just a hill, we could be up and back in an hour and get our breakfast. But I forgot we have Kay with us who, along with Bert, can look at every feather in the sky and ground. Now they have added flowers too. So a walk of three blocks can take 30 min.
(Bert) We put on hiking shoes and take out walking sticks for the gradual uphill hike to the alpine summit. While the temperature is warm, the gusty winds encourage us to keep on an extra windbreaker. The winds keep the birds down and when they take flight, identification is tricky as they whizz by. However, we find Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, American Tree Sparrows, and Common Redpolls in flight. Easier to identify is a pair of strikingly plumaged American Golden-Plovers, especially when they persist in their peeping call. Near the summit, we watch a pair of airborne Long-tailed Jaegers battle the winds and, a bit later, watch another jaeger harassing a Golden Eagle.
While the birding has been interesting, the real highlight is the alpine wildflowers. The rocky soil is colorfully blanketed. The ones I photograph are: Eskimo Potato, Dwarf Beauty, Arctic Lupine, Alpine Milk Vetch, Arnica, Narcissus-flowered Anemone, Parry’s Wallflower, Alpine Azalea, Wooly Lousewort, Pink Plume, Frigid Shooting Star, Moss Campion, Alaska Poppy, Moss Heather, and Spring Beauty.
(Shari) David and Carrie catch up with us and join us on our climb. I find some caribou leg bones with hooves attached and think they will make a nice addition to my growing collection of bones. I put them on the path to retrieve on our way down from the hill. I must say, the view is fantastic and we can see for miles. It is cool and breezy, so no mosquitos. Actually, conditions are just about perfect. I do wish I had taken a snack and some water though, as this walk is turning into an excursion. At one point, I sit on a rock intending to wait for the group to come back. Doug joins me in the wait but when the group disappears over the crest of the hill and Kay does not answer her phone, we continue upwards. We get to the top and all are looking at an American Golden-Plover. A pretty bird, if I say so myself. FINALLY we head back down.
By now it is lunch time. We have not eaten much and are famished. Where are those promised Egg McPudgies? We travel a bit down the road, looking for a place out of the wind where we can start a campfire. After much ado, the fire gets lit but one of our two pie makers has broken. So I make five egg McPudgies, one at a time, and we eat in shifts, sort of. The wind starts to blow things off the table and we take cover in the Earth Roamer to finish our fruit salad and cinnamon buns. Kay has the table nicely decorated with fresh flowers and colorful placemats.
Doug talks Bert into driving straight to Fairbanks as he is worried about our battery situation. I am tired and would just as soon stop in Delta Junction. Bert takes over the driving and I try to nap. We arrive in Fairbanks close to 6 PM. Again we are hungry and walk from our campground to the neat restaurant on the Chena River. We enjoy drinks on the patio and all our meals are delicious. It has been a full and wonderful day again.
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