Chapter 3.  Denali, Alaska

Bert & Shari Frenz, 1998 All rights reserved.

Day 32 - June 12, 1998 - Milepost 4762 (113 today) - Tok, AK

(Bert) Slowly I pull out of the tight RV site with aisles too narrow. Then I feel resistance, like I’m pulling a mountain behind me. I stop to inspect and see that my Pace Arrow wheels are headed right while my Pathfinder wheels are turned left, pushing hard against a concrete support. No wonder I’m not getting anywhere! With Don’s guidance I back up a few feet and ease my vehicles out of the jam. Then I drive a hundred yards to the dump to meet my second challenge for the morning. No sooner do I pull the plug to dump the black water, when the sewer backs up to ground level creating a mess you’d rather not see or smell. I quickly push in the plunger to stop the flow and then spend the next 15 minutes cleaning up the mess and head to the other side of the RV park to use the alternative dump. I’m not off to a good start this morning, but worst of all, I lose my starting position to Jim and Don in our caravan. The problems are quickly behind me when my day brightens by the presence of a gorgeous graceful Trumpeter Swan floating in a marsh pond between the Canada and U.S. border stations. The swan allows closer approach then usually and I shoot a half-dozen photos as it poses for me. Then a few miles further down the road I set up the tripod to take a group photo of the six of us sitting on the stone steps in front of the Alaska welcoming sign. After more than a month of travel and 4700 miles we cross the border into Alaska. Our first views of our 50th state are through Tetlin National Forest. In good road conditions, the ALCAN follows a path cut along the side of a swallow mountain ridge on our right with an extensive view of lowly vegetated muskeg sprinkled with Black Spruce and aspen, slowly flowing rivers and shimmering lakes on our left. Forty or 50 miles in the distance the marsh climaxes in ridges of higher mountains painted a dozen shades of purple. Our arrival in Tok begins a flurry of activity as we collect our mail, which to our surprise is at UPS not USPS, wash our filthy vehicles, vacuum our RV, get Alaska fishing licenses ($100 for annual, out of state) and a half-dozen other errands.

(Shari) Don proudly proclaims to be the first one to arrive in Alaska and says, "And you can put that in your e-mail!" He got ahead of us this morning because Bert and Jim stopped to look at and photograph yet another bird. This one was a Trumpeter Swan and under normal circumstances I would have at least gotten out my binoculars to take a peek, but it was too early in the morning and all I could mumble to Ermine on the CB was that it was going to be a long day. We stop at the Alaska/Yukon border and, along with 600 other people who have the same idea, we take our pictures in front of the carved wooden Alaska sign. A bus load of people beat us to it and the poor driver seems to feel obliged to take pictures of the whole group with everyone's camera individually. After that stop, the road was good and we encountered very few cars along the way despite the later hour of departure. We decide to stop in Tok for the day and just catch up on errands. Our daughter Missy sent our mail via UPS instead of US Postal Service and so all we get when arriving at the post office is a post card with poor instructions on how to get our mail. After some contortions, worry and help from the manager of Sourdough Camp, we finally get our news from home. Luckily the campground manager knows everyone in town, knows who delivers UPS out of Fairbanks and knows where he eats his lunch, so she tracks him down in short order. All is well that ends well and mail is here. The darling pictures of my granddaughter in her new swimming suit erases my frustrations and tears of homesickness well up in my eyes. We gas our car at the Tesoro station a mile out of town and take advantage of their free car wash. Car washes at the campgrounds in Tok use lots of quarters, so this is a great deal. Plus, we get a volume discount of 7 cents per gallon on our gas (now it is $1.42 with discount) and a bonus card with more discounts if we use Tesoro at other locations in Alaska. We drive to the visitor's bureau and arm ourselves with literature about the various places of interest throughout the state. We travel to the sporting goods store and purchase our fishing licenses with $100 and a lot of optimism. After supper we attend the free nightly slide program about Alaska and listen to 83-year-old Mary Lou Warbalo tell of her life as a teacher in the Alaska bush during the late 1940s.

 

Day 33 - June 13, 1998 - Milepost 4979 (217 today) - Tangle Lakes, AK

(Shari) Richard, the cook at Sourdough Camp, gives me at least two cups of sourdough starter and tells me to keep it away from metal. I am anxious to try making some bread. This starter is from their original batch kept since the early ‘50s. Or was it ‘20s? He makes sourdough pancakes for the campers every morning and I can attest they are delicious, especially with reindeer sausage on the side. It is off into the wilderness for us today. We travel down the Richardson Highway from Delta Junction and again Ooh and Ah over the scenery. How many times can we say this is marvelous? Every time it is gorgeous, spectacular, etc. and yet those same few words have to describe so many scenes. Today we seem to be a part of the mountains because we are down close and personal with them as we drive in and around the curves. We see layers of colors that are greener than green and browner than brown. We turn a corner and there is turquoise Summit Lake just losing its covering of ice. I can just read the headlines in the local paper describing one of our stops, "Crazy bearded man in purple sweatshirt and jeans is hit by a car as he gallops to take a snapshot of a loon." Around another bend we see clouds caressing the charcoal mountain tops. Still another curve shows three of the largest peaks in Alaska resplendent in their sparkling snow cover. We unhitch the car at Paxson anticipating a long steep climb up the Denali Highway. Stopping at the turnout on the summit above the tree line, we walk the tundra and comment how squishy it feels under our feet. It looks so barren and harsh from the motorhome but upon closer inspection it’s loaded with wildflowers of varying colors, shapes and sizes. We reach Tangle Lakes just as the pavement turns to gravel. This primitive campground will be home for a couple of days while Bert and Jim hunt for the elusive Arctic warbler (a bird Bert never could find in 1996). This place is somehow beautiful in its ruggedness. We park RTENT so as to face the lake on the left and great big mounds of green hills to the front and right. Way off in the distance are snow-covered chocolate mountains sometimes hiding in the clouds and other times saying, "Look at me, here I am." The ground has brightly colored yellow patches of a flower I’ll have to ask Ermine and Jean about. Don is fishing and I am waiting for him to catch something before I get all my stuff out. Ermine on the other hand is waiting until I catch something before she even buys a license. Any bets when that will happen?

(Bert) I eat a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, sourdough pancakes and reindeer sausage at Sourdough Campground before we caravan 115 miles northwest from Tok to Delta Junction. Here we stop for a few last minute items before we head into the wilderness. Jean comes out of one store with an enticing ice cream and I can’t resist. I head to the store to get myself a double-decker cone. The one thing I miss while RV traveling is ice cream. Our little freezer is jammed full of food, not enough room for ice cream, so finding an offer like this is irresistible. From here we head south along the Richardson Highway through an uninhabited area of muskeg, small lakes and eventually tundra as we climb to higher elevations. The morning is bright and sunny; large ragged clouds eclipse the tops of snow-covered peaks. The adequate, but narrow, road is lined with Alpine Arnica, dandelion, lupine and myriad unnamed flowers. We pass Donnelly Dome bulging out of the flat valley like a tundra coated Rock of Gibraltar and then view distant peaks that reach heights over 13,000 ft. Nearer, we follow above ground sections of the Alaska pipeline. Skirting the mountains, culverts under our road let mountain streams pass, the water tumbling gray with silt. Now we follow a wide gravelly river bed still edged with crusty snow-covered ice. The narrow stream of ice water flows willy nilly through the river bed. Next we come to Summit Lake, still half covered in ice. But mergansers and a Red-throated Loon swim in the open sections of water, Mew Gulls perch on the ice floes, and Arctic Terns circle overhead. The last time we visited this lake was June 28, 1996 when the ice was all melted. At Paxton we unhitch our tow cars and drive separately up the steep easterly section of the Denali Highway. This makes the climb easy for our motorhomes, but even then I slip into second gear and slow to 35 m.p.h. on the steepest inclines. From our lofty perspective we can see for miles across tundra toward distant snow peaks: a top-of-the-world experience. Patches of snow still hide in crevices between the tundra fields and dime-sized and quarter-sized ponds are liberally spread through the lower spots. Twenty-one miles along the road we reach the end of the pavement and turn into our campsite at Tangle Lakes. From our site we have a forward view of a marsh surrounding a rapidly flowing Tangle River, a side view of one of the bigger lakes, perhaps a mile at its widest and a rear view of tundra-covered hills: an overwhelmingly beautiful campsite in the wilderness.

 

Day 34 - June 14, 1998 - Milepost 4979 - Tangle Lakes, AK

(Bert) For Jim and me the Denali Highway is a key destination of our Alaska adventure. To see new birds, or wildlife in general, we have to find new habitats such as the tundra along the Denali Highway. If you put Jim’s disposition on a scale of 1 to 10, his rocketed from 2 to 9 as soon as he reached Tangle Lakes, near the start of the Denali Highway. Within 24 hours he ticked off six or eight new birds for his life list, including Long-tailed Jaeger, Wandering Tattler, Common Redpoll and Red-throated Loon. For me, I’ve already tallied these on my life list and the one I’m after is Arctic Warbler. When we came to Tangle Lakes two years ago, I tried finding it, but heavy rain stymied me and I left unsuccessful after six hours of trying. Today Jim and I start hiking at 6 a.m. along the Tangle River. The roadway overlooks the swift shallow stream as it babbles over rocks. A moose tramps through the aspen, foraging on the tender grasses growing along the stream side. She is followed by twin calves, a rarity I’ve only seen once before. We hear lots of songsters, but the strong winds keep them secluded in the short trees and bushes edging the stream. So we take Jim’s truck and backtrack on the Denali Highway to several other sites that reportedly hold specialty birds. With the thermometer at 42 degrees, the 40-m.p.h. wind gust feels like a bone chilling knife penetrating five layers of clothes. At milepost 17 we park beside a small lake and hike across the tundra in search of the elusive Smith’s Longspur. Walking on the tundra reminds me of what it must have been like for my granddaughter Maddie to walk across her backyard lawn on her first birthday. Every step turns feet to a destabilizing angle and I struggle to keep my balance. Here the tundra grows ankle to knee high in spongy clumps, not wide and level enough on top to support my foot, but clumps too closely packed to walk easily between them. Near the lake, water seeps between the tundra and chest level bushes with rigid red branches grown in abundance; I’m glad I have knee high boots as I slosh through the water, using my arms to push aside the stiff branches. But it’s really the wind that defeats us again. The longspurs do not make a showing and are presumably hiding in the tundra. Next we try milepost 10 for Northern Wheatear and Rock Ptarmigan, unsuccessfully. Fortunately, the winds do not prevent us from finding Oldsquaw on the lake and Bald Eagle soaring above. In an abandoned building we find a pair of Say’s Phoebes using the shelter by entering through a broken window. Jim hikes down into a shrubby depression, sheltered from the wind, while I stand on the road where I have a clear viewpoint of the tops of the shrubs. I spot a greenish gray backed bird, white below, with a dark eye line and white eye stripe. That’s it! I got my lifer! An Arctic Warbler! It’s not much to look at, a bird non-birders would dismiss as drab and uninteresting. Nevertheless, it has an unusual characteristic. Almost all of the migrating birds in North America come north from Central and South America. Instead, the Arctic Warbler is an Asian bird that migrates across the Bering Sea to summer in Alaska. We double back to the longspur site and this time we see another group of birders searching the tundra on foot. We again trample slowly across the tundra and when we cover half the distance we hear a woman shout, "I’ve got it!" We now try hurrying across the uneven terrain: an impossible attempt. When we catch up with them they are all staring at the same spot, but no one actually sees the bird. A man identified as Dave is told to circle the area and walk toward the spot to push the bird from the higher vegetation toward the shorter area where we are gathered. The technique works and the bird takes flight, only to dive for cover once again. The process is repeated and this time I can see the white-edged tail feathers, a sign that this is one of the longspur species. After several more attempts the longspur finally lands on a high point and we can get a good view of its buff body and conspicuous black-and-white facial pattern. Another lifer for all of us and we have to control ourselves not to let our excitement scare away the bird. The others, having accomplished their goal, quickly disperse. I take out my camera and replace the lens to get a closeup shot. Jim stays to get a better view and together we move closer to the longspur as it scurries through the tundra. I take a half-dozen shots of the partially hidden bird and hope one of them is clear. Our morning is a success in spite of the inclement weather.

(Shari) Can you believe there is ice still on the lake? Yesterday the floating stubborn ice was hidden behind the bluff on the north side of the lake. Today's wind has blown the ice to the visible south side. I hate to mention this to all those sweltering in the Texas heat, but the temperature at noon today is 56 degrees. It was a cool 46 degrees when I woke up. (We will not mention what time that was.) I am enjoying this day of complete freedom without an agenda to get somewhere for the night or go some place to sightsee. Don is fishing and has been all yesterday afternoon and this morning. He has caught nada. Not even a bite or nibble. This is supposed to be a good place for Arctic Grayling and Lake Trout. We are either too early or too late, the spring is too early or too late or the water table is too high or too low or the wind is too strong. There is always some reason to justify lack of success. Bert and Jim are faring better and have been stacking up life birds on both their lists. Bert finally found his Arctic Warbler: one we spent all day in the rain in 1996 seeking. This location was so peaceful yesterday with sunshine warming our bodies and throwing shadows on the landscape. Today it is cloudy, windy and harsh. It is strange how the weather can affect one's perceptions of beauty and serenity. It is a good day however to have a chili cook off. Jim has Texas chili, I have Wisconsin chili and Jean has chicken chili. We taste all kinds and decide they are all winners. I know things are bright when I cut the deck of cards exactly to the deal for our game of Canasta. We beat the men in only three hands. We are the winners in ALASKA.

 

Day 35 - June 15, 1998 - Milepost 5000 (21 today) - Maclaren River, AK

(Bert) Our view today is one that leaves me at a loss of words. Jim summarized it by saying, "Bring your own chair." Ermine calls it sensory overload. To Jim the Denali Highway today is the best place in the world. Shari’s views are often clouded by overcast skies, so I’m anxious to read how she records today in her journal. We get a late start today, first because the rain keeps us indoors and second, because Jim, Ermine and I bird until noon. We part company with Don and Jean, a sad story I’m sure Shari will relate, and slowly head west on the Denali Highway. Shari drives the Pathfinder, I’m in the Pace Arrow and Jim and Ermine travel together towing their 5th wheel Automate. Averaging 20 m.p.h. we slowly creep along the gravel road, partly because of its condition, slick but occasioned by small potholes, but mostly because Jim and I are searching for birds and other wildlife. The first 15 miles show us dry brown tundra stretching endlessly to the mountain barriers. We stop for a Gray Jay, a few warblers and sparrows, but otherwise the scenery is sterile and reminds Jim of Big Bend on the Texas-Mexico border. When it’s dry, sagebrush and tundra share a drab appearance. Then we creep over the crest of Maclaren Summit (4,086 ft.), the second highest highway summit in Alaska. The view below us stops us in our tracks. We park in the middle of the road (there’s no traffic anyway) and climb out to get a better look. Even under overcast skies the view is incredible. I don’t know how to describe it adequately. Try to imagine a golf course 100 miles wide and 25 miles across, with rolling grassy knolls, dozens of lakes, a swiftly flowing stream. Add wildlife such as a moose every mile, a cluster of caribou resplendent in graceful antlers, an Arctic Ground Squirrel or two, a dozen Tundra Swans, some on nests, some honking as they fly by. Put in a couple Red-throated Loons and brightly colored Wilson’s Warblers. Add the sounds of Gray-cheeked Thrushes and Arctic Warblers. Then surround this incredible valley with hillsides a thousand feet high. Put snow-capped peaks at the horizon, complete with a glacier named Maclaren that swoops down from the mountain tops and glides into the valley to drop water into the Maclaren river. Then top it all off with a rainbow. Not just an ordinary rainbow, but a rainbow with an extra band of purple and a second rainbow arcing a half mile further in radius. Centered in the valley, we find a level spot next to the bridge over the Maclaren River and park our RV’s for the night. The view outside our front window is of the glacier, the river and a broad valley alive with wildlife. Words cannot describe the splendor - bring your own chair.

(Shari) I miss Jean so much. I miss Don so much. I feel like a mother saying goodbye to her teenage daughter as she embarks on a college career. At the beginning of the trip, Don's water pump ran all the time, until finally one astute mechanic found shavings from the original construction in it. Now it continually blows fuses. Jim suggests using a bigger fuse, which seems to solve the problem for a little while, until the pump overheats and shuts off. So Don is fed up with it and just wants to get it fixed. He drives to the lodge a few miles down the road and calls Fairbanks RV Service to make an appointment for Wednesday. We sadly say goodbye as they head to Fairbanks and we head further into the wilderness on the Denali Highway. "Highway" is a misnomer. Actually it is a gravel road through uninhabited wilderness. Jim takes the lead and thankfully travels between 15 and 25 m.p.h. I am next in the car and Bert brings up the rear in RTENT. The road is in much better condition than either I anticipate or The Milepost indicates. It is early in the season and the road has not yet developed washboard, ruts and potholes. In fact it is much better than some of the gravel patches on the road we traveled getting up here. We stop at milepost 42 traveling just 20 miles today. It is across the road from Maclaren River Lodge, also a misnomer, and up the bank from the Maclaren River. The "lodge" - actually a wood building with some shacks surrounding it and a motel-type structure that looks like four outhouses side by side - has a notice of foreclosure on its sign. For a mere $120,000, which is the principal and interest due on the note, we too could have this place in paradise. Thank-you, but no thank-you. I do not fault the scenery however. The view from RTENT is of snow capped mountains, of green tundra meadows rolling into the gently flowing river and of the Maclaren Glacier in the distance, appearing as a snow-covered road some twelve miles ahead. God seems to put his stamp of approval on this place for one of the most fantastic rainbows I have ever seen appears over the mountains to the east. Just as the flowers up here have more vivid colors than those in the Lower 48, so does the rainbow. The red is so bright it almost glows. Yet, at one rainbow end the mountains can be seen behind it, like looking through a red glass plate. We try to drive the river road but it is too primitive for my blood. While on it we do see a Willow Ptarmigan flapping its tail and making a chortling sound to lead us away from his nest and his wife. Down the road we see four caribou sunning themselves beside a small lake. The male caribou has a fantastic rack of antlers, still in the velvet stage. We see Tundra Swans and moose at two different locations. This is the Alaska of the picture books, beautiful in its wide-open spaces, serene in its quietness and majestic in its mountains. Nevertheless, I miss Don and Jean and think of them often wondering where they are for the night and if everything is ok.

 

Day 36 - June 16, 1998 - Milepost 5063 (63 today) - Brushkana Creek, AK

(Bert) Yesterday’s superlatives reached a crescendo that’s hard to top. Jim and I spend the morning birding in the Maclaren River valley. We backtrack east on the Denali Highway to climb the mountain ridge overlooking the valley. Yesterday the valley was shrouded in clouds and rain; today the rain has stopped and only scattered clouds interrupt our view. I only recall a few places in the world where I have had as extensive a view. I estimate that from our viewpoint we can see nearly 1,000 square miles of land, a view so stunning it’s easy to fall in a trance just staring off into space at the wonder of it all. And the silence is difficult to imagine. There is no electricity humming, no telephones ringing, no gasoline engines churning, no rubber tires singing on blacktop, no people talking, no horns, sirens or bells - just the silence of nature. And high on our mountain perch, even nature is subdued, without wind, without babbling brooks. Almost nothing touches our ear drums. On the way up, Jim and I add a lifer to our lists: Northern Shrike. We see more Willow Ptarmigan, half-dressed in white winter plumage and half in red summer dress, but we continue to search for the Rock Ptarmigan and decide to hike the Osar Lake Trail at the very top of the mountain. No trees grow here and the tundra layer is thin, but spongy and soft like a 6-in. shag rug. In many places the course rocks are laid bare and in this habitat we find our goal: 50 ft. away a Rock Ptarmigan squats chicken-like at the edge of the cliff. While Jim holds back, I creep ahead slowly with my camera pointed at the bird, snapping pictures every few steps. We want to hear the ptarmigan’s call notes when it takes flight, but I continue to get closer while the bird stays stationary. I get so close that my last picture is a full-frame view of just its head. Then Jim approaches and when we are both within 4 ft. of the bird it walks slowly away, clucking as it moves, and stops again at 10 ft. A ptarmigan’s plumage is a perfect camouflage of the rock and tundra where it lives. Its predator is the Gyrfalcon, a bird we see later in the day, and its defense strategy is to remain motionless so the falcon cannot see it. At 11:30 we break camp and continue west along the Denali Highway. Stopping for scenery along the way and a slice of homemade pie at Gracious House, we consume 3-3/4 hours to travel the 64 miles to Brushkana Creek Campground, a Bureau of Land Management site.

(Shari) Today is a tedious drive along the Denali Highway. Although we do not get started until noon, we plan to go 66 miles to Brushkana Campground. The first six miles take an hour because the guys stop for birds all the time. The next 60 miles take three hours. The road is rather smooth and we can travel 30 m.p.h. with no trouble, but we do stop a lot. Bert finds another life bird, but we see little wildlife. I notice the road is much more traveled than it was in 1996. Apparently this road is to be paved and soon will not be the wilderness as we know it. We stop at Gracious House at mile 82, a quaint Quonset looking building with 12 stools facing a U-shaped counter. The speciality of the house is pie and Bert orders a strawberry-rhubarb slice that tastes heavenly. I try my luck fishing the creek at the campground and two other creeks along the road but my luck is "nada." The mosquitos at the campground are fierce and we spend the evening inside, eating our leftover chili and reading a devotion. There are no telephones along this road, much less churches so we were unable to worship Sunday. Our devotion must suffice and is meaningful for a change with just the two of us.

 

Day 37 - June 17, 1998 - Milepost 5116 (53 today) - Denali Highway, AK

(Bert) Today we finish the last 30 miles of the Denali Highway, this section hard packed gravel and easily supporting my average speed of 35 m.p.h. Wildlife is sparse, but scenery continues to amaze. When we finally reach Cantwell, we see our first stop sign in four days and 135 miles. Driving on a modern blacktopped road seems smooth as silk compared to what we have been riding. For those planning a trip to Alaska, I strongly recommend the Denali Highway. But come with an adventuresome spirit and don’t expect creature comforts. Most of the other roads in Alaska are well paved and pass restaurants, gas stations and RV sites. Denali Highway doesn’t offer these, but it can’t be beat for scenery and wildlife. In four days Jim and I saw 63 species of birds (a substantial number for an area where birds are so widely spread out), including six life birds for me and nearly a dozen for Jim. We found mammals: Moose, Snowshoe Hare, Arctic Ground Squirrel, Red Squirrel, Barren Ground Caribou, Red Fox and Porcupine. Dolly Varden and Arctic Grayling never made an appearance; our fishermen went fishless. Ermine tells me she identified more than 20 flower species in full bloom. And the cool temperatures sure beat the 107 degrees our hometown, College Station, had yesterday. We camp tonight at Denali Grizzly Bear Campground, a commercial site just outside Denali National Park. I finally collect and send e-mail, last transferred when we left Tok. The connection takes 15 minutes because so much is transmitted, but mostly because the baud rate drops to 1200 owing to poor phone lines connecting this part of Alaska. We spend several hours catching up on our e-mail messages and then at 10 p.m. Ermine comes over to RTENT and suggests we try to see Mt. McKinley because the sky is so clear tonight. Jim decides to stay back, so Shari, Ermine and I drive back to Cantwell where there is a viewpoint through the mountains aimed directly toward Mt. McKinley. North America’s highest peak towers twice as high as the surrounding mountains. By 10:30 we are there and the mountain view is as clear as I’ve ever seen. Many visitors have come to Denali for a week and gone away without ever having seen the often shrouded mountain peak. Now the peaks are bathed in the intense yellow light of a sun low on the western horizon. Through binoculars the area looks like giant snow drifts with wind torn ragged edges. I take pictures, but I doubt they will reproduce the mountains’ true beauty.

(Shari) The men have one campground in mind. We women have another. The mosquitos at Brushkana shorten our stay and now Bert has dreams of camping at Jerry Lake, beside nesting swans. I have visions of water hookups and electricity, long hot showers and microwave. We brake camp at 11 a.m. and find the gravel road smooth but dusty. Big clouds of white dust emanate from the back of RTENT forcing me to lag behind in the car or die of lack of oxygen. We travel fast this morning and see little wildlife. The engineers for the highway have taken advantage of the eskars, high gravel stream beds a little wider than a road left over after a glacier receded. Sometimes 50 to 200 ft. above ground, the high road allows us to view great open spaces. We perch above tree line and snap pictures of the myriad shimmering ponds below and mountains beyond. We can see for miles at a time with no manmade plan to obstruct our view. Only six cars interrupt our solitude during the whole drive. I stop at Joe’s Lake, dig out my fishing pole and throw a few casts into the glassy water. The fish are not hungry so we move on. We reach pavement and travel 20 miles north to Grizzly Bear Cabins and RV Camp. Tangle Lakes, and Maclaren Bridge, with their million-dollar views were free sites and Brushkana only cost $6. For the price of $24.08 here, you would think I’d get a scenic extra long pull-through site with all amenities. However I am forced to park the car away from RTENT because the back-in water/electric site (no sewer available) is barely 35 ft. long and only wide enough for one RV after another. Nevertheless, the proprietor allows us to retrieve our long awaited e-mail and we relish the news from home. Intending to do a few loads of wash, I check out the laundry, but quickly decide to let the dirty clothes pile up, as each washer is $2.50 and 45 minutes of drying is also $2.50. The original cost of the load of clothes barely cost that much. It is a good excuse to buy new I think so I check out the gift store. T-shirts on a mark-down table catch my eye, but do not release me from my money. Instead I find a bottle of Merlot for $5.50, after which the dirty clothes will not matter. We spend the remainder of the day luxuriating in the comforts of hookups. I make bread, wash my hair and start the slow cooker for stew. Bert uses the computer without worrying about battery decline. I praise the beauty of solitude but am the first in line to enjoy modern conveniences.

 

Day 38 - June 18, 1998 - Milepost 5125 (9 today) - Denali National Park, AK

(Shari) After a leisurely morning we again empty our tanks and fill with fresh water in anticipation of our 3-day stay in Denali National Park. We drive to the visitor center to complete our registration and find that Don and Jean have not yet arrived. After locating three level sites next to each other I make a sign "Reserved for Don and Jean Mahnke," pin it on a lawn chair and center the chair at the entrance to site 68. We set up the screen room over the picnic table and eat lunch, safe from insect bites. I do not know why we are always so tired but we take yet another nap. At 4 p.m. I worry about Don and Jean and call the 800 message number but find no messages for me. I can only assume all is well and they are on their way here. Just as we are finishing the last of the marshmallows, graham cracker and chocolate bars, Don and Jean pull up. My, oh my, we are happy to see them and we all talk at once catching up on each others past three days. Don got his pump fixed and they saw a lot of Fairbanks. We all walk to tonight’s ranger program chattering like relatives that have not seen each other for months. Traveling like this genuinely makes very close friends, almost family, and we really care for each other.

(Bert) Today’s a day of recuperation. Eventually vacations become exhausting and chores pile up, so now’s the time to clear the backlog. My morning is a flurry of activity as I catch up on e-mail, print hard copies of our journal (neither my mother nor Shari’s father are on e-mail), and handle RV cleaning, emptying and filling. Shortly before noon we drive the few miles from the park’s edge to Riley Campground, just inside the park entrance, and secluded wooded sites without utilities. After lunch beneath our EZ-Up in 68 degree weather, I catch up on sleep and do nothing useful all afternoon. Our anxiety levels begin to climb as we near 6 p.m. and still have heard or seen no sign of Don and Jean. By 7 p.m. we begin to wonder if they will show up at all, so when we see Jean calmly driving up to our campsite in their red Mazda we all clamber to the road to greet her. Don’s not far behind with d’Bus. We exchange news of the past three days as we walk to the park ranger’s nightly program. Then piling into cars, men in one, women in another, we drive further into Denali to Savage River. We find caribou, pika and porcupine along the way, but the highlight is Mt. McKinley. Over the years, June has yielded only 0 to 3 days of skies clear enough to get a perfect view of the snow-covered mountain. Yesterday gave us a good view through partly cloudy skies. Tonight is the first clear view this month and we can see the enchanting mountain from a distance of 70 miles. In 1996 when we stood at this very spot, we had no idea there was another mountain towering above those on our horizon. Now Mt. McKinley stands out like a white ghost exposed by the brilliant white light of a sun still high over the horizon at 10 p.m. The sun will set this evening at 12:21 a.m. and will rise again at 3:33 a.m., but I’ll be long asleep before that happens.

 

Day 39 - June 19, 1998 - Milepost 5125 - Denali National Park, AK

(Bert) By most people’s standards, Jon is a hermit. He lives in a single room cabin hidden in the bush somewhere near Anchorage. No roads lead to the cabin so he hikes six hours from the highway and is 15 miles from his nearest neighbor, which I suspect he never visits. Winters are spent reading, chopping wood for his stove and catching the fish that are his main source of food. He used to hunt moose and even shot a bear once in self-defense, but he tired of dragging the big animals back to his cabin, so now he just fishes. The cabin has no electricity, but he tells me he has running water - outside in the stream that runs nearby. He ventures out of the bush every six or nine months when he gets lonely to talk to someone else, or whenever he runs out of supplies and money. It’s the money that got him to be our driver today on our tour of Denali National Park. Eight of us ride with him in a 15-passenger van and during the 12-hour ride we hear much about Denali and even more about himself. Jon says there are lots like him living in the Alaska bush, but "lots" has no numeric assigned to it, since all escape the U.S. Census. He owns no automobile, no major possessions to speak of, just what he can carry on his back. Even the cabin is not his; he is a squatter, but knows the owner who resides in a nursing home in Anchorage. Jon sums up his life’s philosophy as, "I don’t let anyone rent space in my head." Despite his recluse habits, Jon is an amiable fellow and smiles freely beneath his gray beard. He tells us that Denali National Park is six million acres, larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon combined and about the same size as the state park he once called home in upper New York State. In a former life Jon was a chauffeur for a wealthy New Yorker, drove for popular rock bands in the 60s and 70s, started his own chauffeuring business and eventually burned himself out in bookkeeping, taxes and paperwork. So like others at a crossroad in life, Jon moved to Alaska. He’s been on this job for only a few weeks, but he already is a wealth of information. As we drive through a sparse spindly treed area, he calls it the taiga, a Russian word for northern evergreen forest. Then he tells us about the upcoming ecotone (intermediate zone) that will lead us into the tundra. We travel a smooth gravel road, often one-lane, for 91 miles one-way. The road is restricted to Denali shuttle buses and a few registered vans that escape the ban on vehicular traffic because the vans are owned by residents of Kantishna, a tiny mining town at the end of the road. Sometimes along the valley bottom, other times a thousand feet above, clinging to the edge of the steep Rocky mountains on the northern shoulder, the road winds through pristine wilderness untouched by humans. Our view to the south is the Alaska Range, mostly barren on top and short-cropped tundra below, but snow covered near Mt. McKinley. In Denali, everything appears bigger than anything in our experience. The clear air and high perspectives allow us to see for up to 70 miles horizontally and the dramatic difference between lowlands near Wonder Lake at 2,000 ft and Mt. McKinley at 20,320 ft. yields over three miles vertically, exceeding Mt. Everest in vertical relief. Even the animals are bigger in size and number. My tabulation of sightings comes to 13 Grizzly Bears rotund and playful, 3 Beaver languidly paddling, 26 Arctic Ground Squirrels saluting beside our roadway, 115 Dall Sheep too high on mountain tops to see clearly, 1 Red Fox running in gray fur, 2 Yellowbelly Marmots peering from rocky pedestals, 4 Snowshoe Hares dodging spinning tires and 271 Barren Ground Caribou in herds that remind us of lost eras. Without missing a beat in his cheerful chatter, Jon stops the van for binocular views, fresh breaths and memorable photos. In 1996 we took the Denali green buses; today we take a chauffeured van. On a scale from 1 to 10, the green buses wouldn’t even make the rating in my judgement. [Read about it in our ‘96 journals posted on our web site]. Today’s van excursion I’d rate as 8 and Jon, the hermit, as a 10.

 

(Shari) Oblivious to the sow grizzly and her two yearling cubs, the herd of more than 200 caribou naively grazes eastward. Momma Grizzly gets a whiff of their scent and rears on her haunches to get a better look. She moves toward the herd, as does one of her youngsters. The leading edge of the caribou is just a few hundred feet away from the bears. Now one caribou senses the bear and the whole herd gallops off in the direction from which they came. This is just one of the natural stories unfolding today as Jon, our driver from Alpenglow tours, drives us in a comfortable 15-passenger van (there only being the six of us and two others) along the road to Kantishna Mining District 91 miles on the Denali park road. This tour is 8000% better than the national park bus "tour" we took to Eielson Visitor Center in 1996. Jon is a real Alaskan bush man and used to be a chauffeur for big name rock groups like the Monkeys and Mick Jagger. Eighteen years ago, he got fed up with civilization and now squats in a miner’s shack 20 miles from Seward. He stays in his one room shack eating off the land until he needs some money and then he gets a job. Usually he hires out as a cook at wilderness lodges. This year he chose to drive the van for Alpenglow. We took the national parks bus "tour" in 1996. Then our driver was a cranky old lady who was unwilling to stop for much wildlife and even more unwilling to let her passengers disembark. Jon is willing to stop for anything, including sightings from his passengers that turn out to be rock mammals or misidentified birds. He is a gem and he allows us to get out for pictures and I never feel rushed to leave a spot. It takes us until 2 p.m. to reach the end of the road and by now we are all famished for lunch. We pile out of the van and ride the tail lift up to the bed of an open air truck that then takes us across the rocky bed stream of Moose Creek. We gather our sandwiches, drink, chips, potato salad, fruit and pudding cup and sit down at checkered-covered picnic tables inside an army like tent. After a leisurely lunch some in our group pan for gold, others bird watch and still others just hike and enjoy the scenery. The trip back is a little faster, but not much. Again we see nature unfolding before our eyes. This time it involves three hikers oblivious to another mamma grizzly and her babies. Both kinds of mammals become aware of each other and our hiker friends move cautiously backwards from the direction they came, at all times waving their arms. We watch from our perch on the road with our binoculars first on the humans and then on the bears. The bears decide not to pursue the humans and lay down for a nap. On our day long trip, we see Dall Sheep, fox and marmots and gobs of caribou. All told we saw 13 different grizzlies and fantastic scenery. Our tour cost us $85 per person. The same route with a park’s bus would cost $31. Our tour included lunch and snacks. The park’s bus does not. Our tour stopped for pictures and let us out. The park’s bus rarely did. Our tour had comfortable van seats and big windows to see the scenery. The bus had uncomfortable seats and small windows separated by metal strips that steamed up when closed. When opened 5 in. (as far as they would go), complaints of cold air from fellow passengers could be heard. I continually felt as a prisoner going off to incarceration in the bus. Today’s tour leaves me feeling, if not quite as a participant in nature, at least as part of the audience. Jon and his fellow driver of another Alpenglow van took two hours longer than the published time schedule to give us a satisfying experience. This was two hours of his own time and he genuinely seemed to enjoy it. I find it hard to understand why he never married in his more than 50 years and why he chooses to live alone in the wilderness for long stretches. He truly is a friendly kind of guy and hardly the stereotyped introverted mountain man. He certainly added to our enjoyment of a fantastic day and tour. We arrive home at 8:30, very tired but very satisfied with our day.

 

Day 40 - June 20, 1998 - Milepost 5125 - Denali National Park, AK

(Shari) We certainly lucked out weather wise. Our trip yesterday into Denali had beautiful sunny skies and Mt. McKinley was in clear view. I feel sorry for all those taking a trip today. It rained all night and is still raining. I blissfully slept in this morning. The temperature is 45 degrees as I boil water to defrost the refrigerator in anticipation of all those clams I intend to dig next week. I also make some granola for Bert as he is getting low on his morning supply. Later in the day, Jean, Ermine and I drive to the shopping area and find a wonderful discount store where we each stock up on presents. I guess everyone in the family who reads this knows by now that they will be getting something from Alaska for Christmas. We have cocktails in the screen room, as we plan our itinerary for the next month. Jim and Ermine are going to Fairbanks and Don, Jean and we are heading toward Anchorage. I want to get to Johnson Lake by Wednesday or Thursday as the tide will be perfect for digging razor clams.

(Bert) Dull days often follow exciting ones; such is today. While Shari sleeps, I drive slowly to Savage River, watching for birds and other wildlife, seeing a couple moose, caribou and a Yellowbelly Marmot that poses prettily for my camera. I get yet another view of Mt. McKinley from the road at a point where clouds interfered during our week here in 1996. I add Boreal Chickadee to my trip list (231 species since we left Texas) and to my year list (418 species this year). I catch up on writing my journal and entering my checklists. Traveling in the western U.S. and Canada and Alaska certainly is the place to see mammals. My list contains 37 mammal species since we left Texas (53 YTD). Mid-afternoon Shari asks me to join her on a hike. We no sooner get our gear together and walk 50 ft. when we encounter Jean and Ermine returning from the dogsled exhibition. Jean asks Shari to join them to visit the shops just outside the park. Shari is given a tough choice: to join her loving husband on a pleasant hike, just the two of them, or to join the ladies for shopping. I lose, the women win, I go back to writing today’s journal, they go shopping.

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