Date: Sat, 29 Jun 1996 11:16:34 -0400
Copyright (c) 1996 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 23 - June 8 to June 20 Mosquito Lake, AK to Denali Nat'l Park, AK - 8502 miles cumulative
Problem no. 1: Alaska is big, huge, enormous. It's as big as 1/3 of the lower 48. As big as California, Texas, and Washington put together. And only a tiny portion is serviced by roads. A loop covering about 1/3 of the state from Tok to Fairbanks, Anchorage, back to Tok. Yet all distances along this loop are still long, long, long. We're talking 2 weeks just to ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage.
Problem no 2: It's hilly, difficult riding. Every road will require climbs of some sort. Either long passes, such as the climb over the 3400 ft Chilkat pass between Haines and Haines Junction or undulating rollers that go for miles and miles. And many roads are not paved. Our Alaska bicycle guide book tells us that 20 miles in Alaska is essentially equivalent to 40 in the lower 48.
Problem no. 3: Summer is too short. To guarantee we'll be back to California before the October storms hit the Oregon coast we need to leave Whitehorse early in August. This leaves a mere 8 weeks to ride as much of Alaska as we can, spend a week hiking in Denali, and visit my cousin, Eric, in Anchorage.
Problem no 4: Denali in July and August is a zoo. We hear the crowds rival anything we've seen in Yellowstone and Yosemite or Disneyland for that matter.
So sitting in Haines Junction we wondered just how we could ride all this distance over these difficult, hilly roads with such a short period of time available and still manage to see Denali before the crowds become unbearable.
Solution: Change our plans. We have discovered that the one rule that keeps bike touring a pleasant mode of travel rather than turn it into drudgery and a chore is flexibility. If one plan doesn't look like it will work or you're really not having fun, do something else.
So after taking a nice 4 days to ride the hilly, but beautiful Haines Highway to Haines Junction we decided to catch a bus to Fairbanks. We would spend a day or so in Fairbanks and then ride straight to Denali hopefully arriving before the peak crush of crowds arrive.
But, this meant spending about a day and a half in Haines Junction. The one and only reason Haines Junction exists is to service the traffic on the Alcan and Haines Highways. It also happens to be the location for the visitor's center for one of Canada's newest parks, the Kluane National Park. It has gas, groceries, a couple hotels, cafes, and visitor information. But, before the creation of the Haines Highway in 1944 the town simply did not exist. So, people generally stop there for no more than a few hours to fill up, gas up, empty out, and go. Sitting on a picnic bench at the corner we watched RVs of all shapes and sizes, covered in redish, brown dirt from the road, drive up from the Alcan, turn right at the junction, and continue. Brian nudged me and said, "You know where they're all going. Denali."
That's not to say there aren't some nice people in Haines Junction, though. A pleasant lady with long straight black hair and a white dress covered with small spring flowers tried so hard to help me access a URL address on the WWW while we were visiting the library. And another small, oriental looking girl in her very early 20s gushed with excitment about spending a lifetime traveling. She's all ready to pack some clothes into her car and head off to explore Canada. I suppose in early spring, after being cooped up all winter, the onslaught of tourists is a nice change of pace. But I wonder how things will be later this summer on our return trip. Do you suppose folks will be a bit tired of the tourist traffic by then? We'll see.
At a bright and early 5:45 AM we bounded out of the tent ready for a long comfortable ride in a big, big bus. So at 8 AM up rolled, not the big Greyhound type bus we were expecting, but a small 9 passanger van. To our complete dismay, it was already packed with luggage and passengers. The bus driver was less than anxious to squeeze us in. Evidently he hadn't been told that there would be two people with bikes waiting at Haines Junction. Brian hit the roof. He was ready to report this bus company to every possible consumer group he could find. We had made reservations, we had confirmed the reservations, yet now there was no room. It is amazing what response you can get when you push a little. With some repacking, somehow, I'm still not sure how, we all managed to pile in, including the bikes.
We climbed in the rear most seat and headed off on a 14 hour, incredibly bumpy, jolty, ride across the "flats" of the Yukon and Alaska. The Alaska highway wanders along the valley just inland of the coastal mountain range. It's fairly flat, still has some pretty good curves, and travels along black spruce forests for miles and miles. Each year major sections of the road are torn up and repaved as the freezing and thawing of each winter causes these huge roller coaster bumps known as ice heaves. But, this year's construction is a little different than most. Over the past couple years they've been working to widen the road and take out some of the worst curves. Consequently the construction was far more major, blasting away whole hillsides, scraping ground and building whole new road beds. 150 miles of the road between Tok and Haines Junction was a gravel, muddy, dusty nightmare. Perhaps taking the bus was a good idea after all. We may also take one on the way back should the construction not be further along.
A 14 hour bus ride, just what does one do to pass the time, get to know your seat mates. I got the pleasure of sitting next to Marg, a 55 year old recently retired teacher with short black hair and a fairly substantial girth. She wore black pants, a black long sleeve shirt with a pink pullover, and very teacherly styled, round bifocal sunglasses. Divorced, mother of four, and currently calling Lompoc, CA her home when she's there, she's a habitual traveler which the teaching profesion allows. She told us she's the kind of person who upon deciding to go to Australia will add New Zealand, Fiji, Thailand, and Malaysia simply because they're in the same general area. She's hiked mountains in asia, backpacked through most of Europe, seen the Himilayas, and basically "been there done that" Now that she's retired she's all hot and ready to go. We admired her spirit and enthusiasm. It was a great 14 hour bus tour with our new friend Marg. We hope to meet once again when we ride through Lompoc.
We also stared at the strange forest passing by the window. Pine trees ranging from 5 to 15 ft height litteraly looked like someone had placed thousands of tall sticks in the ground and then let the moss grow. Scrawny little twig-like trees called Black Spruce grow only in areas where there's permafrost (ground about 3 to 6 feet down that is always frozen). We were told that if you see an area with Black Spruce you don't want to build a house unless, of course, you don't mind frozen sewer and water lines.
We stumbled out of the bus into the Chena River State Campground at about 10:30 PM. But ... It wasn't dark. It's true. Summer in Alaska is never, ever dark, true dark with stars in the sky. The sun does set as long as you're south of the Artic circle. But the night simply has a twilight for a few hours, then the sun comes up again. You can litterally see the red glow of sunset and sunrise at the same time.
Getting into this land of never ending light in just a few days caused us some trouble with sleeping. At first we just tossed and turned, waiting for someone to turn out the lights. We finally got so tired, we could sleep anywhere. It took about a week for us to finally get used to this continual light. Although, I still have this very strange feeling climbing into bed when the sun is still in its 5 O'clock PM position. Locals tell us they just get used to it. They're in the dark for so long in winter they appreciate the 24 hour light of summer.
There are many interesting things to do in Fairbanks and choosing which to do in our short 2 day stay was difficult. There's the Artic Circle a mere 160 miles or so north. But, getting there is a bit of a challenge. You can't rent a car, they have a $250 fine if you head up that road and you are responsible for all broken windshields and ruined tires. Riding is possible, but it would take a week to complete and we heard the road was shear murder, gravel all the way with incredibly steep slopes. Or you could take a tour bus. But at $99 per person it was a bit beyond our budget. So we left the trip to the Artic circle for another time.
There's also a great museum on the campus of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. We peaked inside while roaming through the campus and it did look well worth the $4 admission. But, we'd been spending hours and hours in museums ever since Ketchican and we were museumed out. Enough is enough. The brain can absorb only so much.
So there was something called Alaskaland. With free admission we thought we'd check it out. Unfortunately in this case we got our money's worth. Alaskaland is an area where they've relocated several old Fairbanks log cabins, added the rail car ridden by Harding back in the 1920's when he hammered in the golden spike to finish the Alaska railroad (he died of a heart attack about a month later in San Fransico), some old mining equipment, a tiny aerospce museum with a few 1920s bush planes, an Indian fish camp replica that was in bad need of renovation, one of those small town museums that look more like someone's attic, and the crown jewel of the park, the Nenana stern wheeler. The museum did contain some interesting photos of the fateful flight in which Will Rogers was killed. They had stopped by Fairbanks as their second to last refueling point before the accident.
About the only thing worth seeing was the Nenana. Three levels high, painted in the usual white with black trim and red stern wheel, it housed cargo and the engine room on the ground floor, about 50 state rooms, a viewing room, and galley on the second, and crews quarters, radio room, map room and other ship's business type rooms on the third. Oh and the large wheel house sat atop the whole pile like the top of a big white wedding cake. This sternwheeler was built in the late 1800s, plied the waters of the Nenana and Tanana rivers, was converted from wood to oil buning fuel, finished its service in 1955 after which it saw various uses including restaurant and bar, then it was left to rot. In the 1980s a group purchased it, moved it to the park, and started rennovation. A video shows details of the rennovation from initial purchase to completion. It is unique in that it includes actual film footage of the Nenana steaming up the river with boats and airplanes following along.
The cargo hold is now being converted to a display of dioramas of each town serviced by the Nenana at different periods in history and different times of year. The dioramas were just under construction, not behind glass as yet, affording a unique opportunity for a closer than normal look. The detail was breathtaking. Itty bitty cats curled up on the front porches, tiny ladies tried to hide their private parts in the bathrooms, cranes with the most delicate chains lifted logs only slightly longer than toothpicks, tiny men kissed their equally tiny sweethearts as itty bitty dogs barked all around. Copies of old photos being used to recreate the town were scattered around to compare the building in the diorama. Few, if any mistakes were to be found which may also be an indication of the not finished state of the display. What fun to work on something like this. To see a miniature village pop up in such short time under your own eyes.
Another Fairbanks visitor attraction is a 4 hour ride aboard the brand new sternwheeler, Discovery III. The Discovery tourist cruises have been produced by three generations of the Binkley family. At the end of the great sternwheeler days, in the late 1920s when the railroad arrived, old Grandpa Binkley, also Captain, stayed at the wheel and started a tourist business. In the 1950s he bought Discovery I, 150 passengers. This was replaced by no. II, 250 passengers, and now no. III, over 500 passengers. Just based on the number of passengers that climbed aboard the boat with us we'd have to say the Binkley family is doing quite well indeed.
The paddle wheel ride had some of the usual trouisty features, lots of gifty shops at the dock sporting the usual Eskimo dolls, T-shirts, ceramic polar bears, stuffed dogs, eagles, and whales, post cards, another gifty shop on the boat, a somewhat canned presentation with well timed events and stops along the way. But there were some real interesting features as well. One was getting to see Susan Butchart, four time winner of the Iditerod dog sled race. She's the only racer ever to win four times, her and her fabulous dogs that is. Taking a leave from racing to have her family, she now spends summers in a small cabin on the Chena River breeding race dogs and chatting with the Discovery III twice daily for about 15 minutes. Her husband later brings several dogs around to the one stop to give a demonstration and discuss dog mushing a bit more.
There was also a demonstration of salmon carving done by a native Athabascan. With a quick whip of the knife she removed all the guts and bones, cut off the head, and ended up with the two halves of meat connected at the front, perfect for hanging on a drying pole. Dixie, the demonstrator's name, recounted her own experiences with her parents and grandparents going to their own summer fish camp where their fish wheel would haul in anywhere from 500 to 1000 salmon each day. They'd work many, many hours getting as many fish prepared for smoking as they could. Dixie said, "The fish wheel is so efficient there were times my father had to turn it off so everyone could catch up." This was not a Disneyland experience. These were real memories.
The tour took us out of the dark green watered Chena River into the brown glacier silted Tanana River. Beautiful handbuilt log homes lined the river, very, very expensive homes. Many trees and banks showing the undercutting wear of the water's current attested to the speed with which the Tanana flows. Water temperature, a sizzling 42 degrees. Our comentator told us how the kids are so tough they'll even swim in this frigid water. "When they turn blue we pull them out and put them on a hot rock. When they're thawed they go right back in." He was complaining that he couldn't even complain to his kids how tough it was when he was growing up. "I grew up in Washington D.C. where if there are a few flurries they close everything. Here even in 50 below they trot off to the bus stop, waiting for the school bus with its strobe ice fog light. These kids are tough." Somehow tromping off to school in 50 below doesn't sound appealing at all.
We had one stop at a makshift Athabascan Indian village where our four pretty, young, and quite ambitious lady Eskimo guides told us about furs, tanning, and Indian life before the arrival of white man and after. Know the difference between a reindeer and caribou? A reindeer is domesticated. In fact, leave the fence gate open and reindeer quickly revert to being caribou. We also saw some beautiful beadwork done by our fish skinning demonstrator, Dixie. During the summer she actually lives in the makeshift village with her two young children. They grow award winning veges, greet the boat tourists, and Dixie makes some of the most beautiful beaded Athabascan clothing. Coats, dresses, and belts made from the skins of wolf, caribou, and mink with blue, white, red, pink, and yellow beaded designs of Alaska forget-me-not, blue bells, and yellow daisies. With the exception of hunting the animal, Dixie does everything herself including the tanning. Well, maybe she does do the hunting afterall. I didn't ask. In the winter she travels throughout the country giving workshops and demonstrations. How I would love to attend one of her workshops.
All in all we'd have to say the Discovery III tour was a reasonable value. We had plenty of time aboard the boat, saw interesting things along the way, got free coffee, tea, donuts, and a taste of their special salmon, and got to enjoy the scenery of the river. A bit touristy, but still worthwhile. Although, I don't think it's a trip I'd do more than once.
Time to pack the bags and head for the main destination point for all travelers to Alaska, Denali National Park. First established in 1917 and named McKinley National Park, it is perhaps one of the largest and most wild of our nations National Parks. Originally it was established as a game preserve and included only part of North America's tallest peak, Mt. MckInley. Expanded in 1980, it now includes the entire peak and all of the migratory realm of the caribou. There's one and only one 96 mile, dirt road into the park. Cars are permitted only on the first 28 miles. Tour busses supplied by a consessionar, hikers, and bikers are permitted on the rest. There are only 4 campgrounds down the road, two having only 7 sites and 1 with only 28 and only one that is car accessible. Three campgrounds are by the entrance, one of which is reserved for folks arriving without motorized vehicle. Due to the extremely limited public access, wildlife viewing is unparalleled in any other park. Within just a few hours of our arrival at the backpacker's campground we were treated to the sight of a momma and baby moose grazing their way across the campground. We're convinced this is an excellnt way to run a park. It may mean a bit of a struggle getting reservations for the bus and the campgrounds. But, the overall experience on the whole is excellent. If only Yosemite and Yellowstone would do something similar.
The ride from the park entrance to Wonder Lake campground takes about 6 hours over a reasonably well mintained dirt road. It climbs rapidly out of the forests of that funny looking black spruce into the region of tiny tundra plants. The camper bus, being the one for backpackers and us bikers, is not a tour bus. In fact the driver even strives to keep the folks whose, "idea of camping is leaving the TV guide at home" off the bus. There was no constant bable over a loud speaker system, but lots of suggestions on where back packers could start their trip. Unlike most National parks, there is no established trail system in Denali. You get your permit for a specific area of the park and the rest is up to you.
Hiking in the Alpine country could be fairly easy, with the exception of steep slopes covered with loose rock. But the plants are small, I hate to step on them but you have no choice. Below about 2700 ft you're below the tree line and in areas that are mostly bogs, swamps, and pine tree covered. The bogs are strange to walk through. Soft in some spots so you have to really lift your foot, mounded in others so you feel like you're "walking on basket balls" as our book describes. It takes a lot of effort to break a trail through these areas. Don't expect to make record mileage.
Wonder Lake (AKA mosquito ville) is in one of the low lying bog areas. Mosquitos abound, forming black clouds as they converge on the unfortunate camper who happens to stop moving for more than a few minutes. Mosquito head nets are a must. At night the campground gets real, real quiet. No cars, no kids, no trains, planes, busses, or anything to create noise. People sauntered around in a rather slow, motion pace all wearing these draping gray or green mesh like head covers. I couldn't help but think we all looked like creatures from some B grade horror movie, Netted swamp creatures invade Wonder Lake campground taking over bodies of unsuspecting campers covering them with smelly perfumes and green swamp stuff. It was so tempting to giggle every time we came across another green clad camper.
Our second day we decided to get out of Mosquito ville and head for the high country of the Eilson visitor center at about mile 65 and try some hiking. Located at about 2000 ft higher than Wonder Lake, it overlooks beautiful rivers, mountains, tundra landscape, oh and occasionally Mt. McKinley pops out its peak from it's very own storm system of clouds. At 20,320 ft, Mckinley is the one of the tallest mountain in the world behind Everest at 29,028 and Aconcagua 22,834. Its vertical height from the valley is about 18000 ft making it the one with the most vertical rise from base in the world. Everest rises a mere 10,000 feet from its base. Its extreme height and location makes it one of the most difficult to ascend.
There are two peaks to Mt McKinley. The north peak, shorter by about 820 ft, was first scaled by three incredibly brave, or stupid, depending on how you look at it, Alaskan men. They decided that the mountain should first be conquered by Alaskans. So with a bag of donuts, thermos of hot chocolate, and one 14 foot pole Peter Anderson, William Taylor, Charles McGonagall headed out on April 3, 1910. They climbed to the north peak and back down in 18 hours. Now, most people carry loads of gear and take about 3 weeks to complete the trek. Over 1,000 people try the climb every year, only about 35% to 45% make it, and 1 in 200 die. These three guys did it with no gear in just one day. I have to admire them. Too bad they mistook the north peak as the tallest.
While wandering around the visitor center we encountered another one of those strange coincidences that seem to be becoming more and more common place during our journey. After climbing down and back up from the river's edge we encountered Marnie and Allyn, from our Juneau experience. We had met them again in Fairbanks, on the road to Denali, and now at the visitor center. They also are camped in mosquito ville, right next to us. They put up their tent and proceeded to find a way to escape the bugs ASAP.
But, that's not the only coincidence. As we stood talking to Marnie and Allyn, this woman walked up who looked awfully familiar. I turned and faced one of my former work peers from SDRC, Gareth. I had been looking at his wife. What a shock. Of all the people, of all the places, of all time we should meet at a National Park visitor center 65 miles from the nearest town, accessible only by bus. If these keep happening I'm going to find myself continually looking over my shoulder for someone else I know.
Wonder Lake is located 86 miles out a rugged dirt road extending like a fragile life line into the heart of the Alaskan wilderness, accessible by only bike, foot or bus. Igloo Creek, by comparison, is essentially right in the suberbs, a mere 34 miles down the road. And what a world of difference those 52 miles make, at least as far as the mosquito population goes. A tiny campground of only 7 sites, for tents, bikers, and hikers, it sits right on the rather frigid igloo creek, which came in handy a little later on. We moved in and immediately made acquaintances with our new neighbors, Henry and Henrietta the cutest couple you ever did see. Standing at a whole 6 inches height, covered in mottled brown fur, with bushy tail and beady black eyes, they squeeked a big hello to us (it was either hello or give us some food we're not sure which). These two little ground squirrels greeted us morning and night while we resided at Igloo creek.
we did have a human neighbor who had also been our neighbor in Wonder Lake. Jerry, a man in his 60s trying this back country living for the first time (he's used to hiking in France where huts along the way provide food, bed, and warmth) gave us great conversation for an entire day of our stay. A fascinating man, quite tall, with a propensity for obesity that he seems to keep under control ... mostly, and very, very buck teeth that tends to give him a bit of a comical expression. Born in Manhattan, hard to believe anyone is actually born in Manhattan, he's led one of the most interesting lives we've heard so far. His major in school and subsequent career were in marketing. After leaving school he went to work at Westinghouse under some special training position. For some strange reason they were trying to give marketing folks some engineering background. They actually wanted him to solve a plastics flow problem and he did.
>From Westinghouse he went into the military for a while, back to Westinghouse, then off to graduate school, then to Proctor and Gamble where he became head of their marketing division. He's the guy who was ultimately responsible for those idiodic commercials that try to convince you to buy everything from Tide to Tidy Bowl. We had to ask why they make such dumb commercials, or more sepecifically why they make these commercials geared to appeal to someone with a pea sized brain. He says, "that's what sells." He also said that the people who actually work on the commercials hate them. They do the work for the money only and spend their creative work on books, plays, and other more challenging efforts.
After Proctor and Gambel Jerry started his own business. He made enough money to retire at age 55 and spend the rest of his time doing what he likes most, travel. He's extremely well read, very articulate, lives in a high appartment in downtown Manhattan right near all the theatres, enjoys broadway and off broadway shows, Shakespeare and opera. Yet he's also comfortable dealing with the far East bathroom ediquette that involves wiping your behind with your left hand, sans paper. He's been all over the world with the exception of possibly Central America. He traveled for 18 months at age 27, another 14 months when first married, and continually ever since. Conversations were so stimulating involving so much more than just a discussion of the trials and tribulations of back country experiences. I think we shall meet again, somewhere.
We wanted to hike around the park. But it's far more difficult than we imagined. Sure gives one great appreciation for what the pioneers endured. There are no established trails. You simply pick a destination, and head for it. Out of Igloo campground we wanted to head up to Igloo mountain. After a short hike down the road, we spotted what appeared to be a reasonably well worn path and headed in. Pushing through underbrush, slogging along muddy trails and spongey mosses, following animal paths, swatting mosquitos all the way, we finally managed to make it up to the tundra area. Tiny moss like plants hugged the ground. Itty itty but very spectacularly colored daisies in blue, purple, yellow, and white speckled the green moss. And, best of all, the mosquitos were blown away by the breeze. It was cool, but not cold. As we perched up as far as we could get on the mountainside, right at the line between the mossy tundra plants and the very dangerous looking broken shale we surveyed the countryside of mottled dark and light green meadows, tiny lakes and ponds, and dark green pine forests. The dirt road etched a wiggly but well defined path along the valley. Occasional moving dust clouds marked the movement of the tour, camper, and shuttle busses along the road. We were alone on our mountain, named Mt. Caryl for the day.
Unfortunately during one of our hikes I managed to twist my ankle. Actually I suspect it was during a brief walk up the Igloo creek. Strange thing. I felt nothing when I slipped on that rock. But I sure wondered why my ankle hurt so much that night. It throbbed, swelled slightly, and kept me awake half the night. Fortunately the cool soothing waters of Igloo creek seemed to help, for a while.
Time to leave Denali and head for locations further south. We hopped on our bikes and rode down the 34 miles to the entrance. Part of the reasn we rode this section was in the hopes of encountering some wildlife a bit more closely. But all through this Denali experience we'd been somewhat disappointed. Other's described seeing bear, wolf, caribou, and moose right next to the bus, walking along the road. But, for us, there were merely dots in the distance. The 34 mile ride, had nice scenery of course, but no more wildlife. It was a good ride, just a ride. And it really agravated my ankle.
We set up our tent in the Marino camground right near the park entance and headed off to the Denali Hotel for a hamburger lunch. By the time we'd finished I could hardly walk. I was frustrated. I was angry. Those of you who know my previous experiences with foot problems know quite well I don't like being imobile for more than an hour or so. Drives me nuts to sit and not run, bike, walk, or whatever. But, it appears that I've caused some significant stress to one of my tendons, not a break or sprain thank goodness. Just enough to possibly force us onto a bus once again. We'll see how tomorrow looks.
Appendix A - Route
Haines Highway to Haines Junction, Yukon Bus to Fairbankes, AK Parks highway, Rt 3, to Denali Denali Rd. in and out of park
Appendix B - Camp sites
Million Dollar Falls State Park, Kathleen Lake State Park
Kluane RV Park 2 nights ($)
Chena River State Park 3 nights ($), Nenana RV park ($), McKinley KOA ($), Marino backpacker camp in Denali 2 nights ($), Wonder Lake camp in Denali 2 nights ($), Igloo Creek camp in Denali 2 nights ($), Marino backpacker camp again ($)
($) indicates fee camping
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.