Our flight to Alaska had some mechanical problems and right before take-off we had to taxi back to the terminal and change planes. After a two hour delay we were finally boarded on a Disney plane.
I had always thought Alaska Airlines to be the airline with the best service but the terminal attendants were very subpar and businessmen on our plane were complaining about the many “mechanical issues” that the flights they had been taking with Alaska Airlines had had lately. When we arrived in Anchorage, the change in temperature as we left the airport was shocking to me but Alaskans walked by in short sleeves. A van from ABC Motorhomes, from whom we had rented an RV, picked us up and drove us to their facilities. Our RV wasn’t ready yet so they lent us a car and we drove to Wal-Mart to get our supplies. We were able to buy winter gear here at very reasonable prices so we felt a bit more prepared. We stocked up on dry goods and incredibly expensive fruit and headed back. All through our drive the boys had been constantly asking how big the RV was going to be and we kept answering: “not big at all”, so they were overjoyed when our RV turned out to not be as crappy as they were expecting. Parenting tip: lower your kids’ expectations and they will be happy. In fact, the RV was nicer than we all had expected. It is the smallest we could get at 21 feet but it has two double beds and a couch which turns into a bed if need be. The boys laid claim to the over-cabin bed and we took the one in the back with the thermostat, not a bad arrangement. The bathroom is terribly small but then again it’s not like we’re spending much time in there. We’ve got a stovetop, microwave, coffeemaker, sink and all the kitchen accoutrements. We’ve even got a flat screen TV and DVD player which we haven’t even turned on yet.
We got a very late start on our first day and only made it a bit past Wasilla where we stopped and checked but, to our disappointment, couldn’t see Russia.
That first night we made camp at Big Lake State Park. It is a bit off the road so we were the only people there and had the pick of the lot to set camp in. This is the view we literally woke up to since the window from our bed faced this way.
We hated to leave without enjoying the park but since we had reservations at Denali National Park we didn’t want to be late. The drive to Denali is beautiful with constant views of Mt. McKinley, or Denali as it was known to the Native Alaskans.
We made it to Denali at the same time as everyone else it seemed.
While the park is federal land, the campgrounds and tour buses are run by a private company and they have only one check-in point which turns into a bottleneck and that made the attendant cranky as she tried to hurry us along without answering any questions we had. And we had plenty. This is a constant throughout the park: while park rangers are incredibly nice and always willing to answer questions and provide explanations, the private company people are sometimes downright rude. They probably get fed up with the hordes of tourists asking them questions but it’s their own fault: their uniforms are almost exactly the same as those for the park rangers, what did they expect?
We had made reservations to camp at Teklanika Campground which is a bare minimum campground.
Only people staying at Tek (as it is known) are given a special permit to drive this far and once you are in you are not allowed to move your vehicle unless you are leaving. This is so far in, that reservations are three nights minimum and although there are some outhouses, there is nothing much else here. We made sure to fill up our water, gas, propane, and even the refrigerator before coming in. We have been very vigilant at conserving water and only running the heat in the wee hours of the morning and we’re barely going to make it out tomorrow. We’re running low on “real” food but we have plenty of snacks left yet. The reason to stay at Tek instead of at some more “civilized” campground near the entrance is that Denali is a huge park and vehicles are not allowed in. There is a complicated bus system which takes visitors into the park in order to conserve the wilderness intact. The conservation effort is commendable but on the other hand if you want to make it in as far as Wonder Lake, it is an 11 hour bus ride! By staying at Tek we were about a third of the way in already and thus had a shorter bus ride. Guests staying at Tek are sold special Tek Passes for the bus and can get on and off at will. The buses will stop at any point on the road to pick up hikers or view wildlife.
Our first day in, we saw a caribou standing by the river and stopped to take some pictures.
That afternoon we set up camp near the river and spent our time exploring it. The river is not actually a river but rather the footprint of the glacier which is long gone. Streams of water make their way down this footprint and wildlife comes down to drink from it and use it as a road to traverse the park. The boys were intent on crossing the river to get to the pine forest on the other side and even waded into the icy cold water to do so.
Our plan was to take a morning bus all the way down to Wonder Lake on our next day but our campground neighbors (who had been at WL the day before) advised us to go to Eilson Center instead and take a hike from there. When we got on the bus the next morning we found it to be halfway full with people who were coming from all the way at the entrance and we were glad we hadn’t needed to do that. However it was also a bother because all the window seats were taken and we even had trouble getting people to remove their backpacks from the empty seats so that we could take those. As I pointedly looked at a lady, she told me she had no other place for her backpack. I almost answered in New York style: “put it on your lap then” but restrained myself. I was quite annoyed though when I noticed her husband was taking another two seats himself. It wasn’t the most enjoyable bus ride since it seemed full of wannabe professional photographers and whenever we stopped to look at an animal, they would all get their cameras out and shove their huge lenses in each other’s faces. The soundtrack of the video I took is camera shutters constantly going off. It was probably the best bus ride we took as far as animal sightings are concerned though. We saw several caribou groups and four different mama bears with two cubs each.
The bus driver would stop as soon as anyone exclaimed they saw something and although we had a couple of rock sightings, for the most part they were accurate. I was surprised that the bears walked so close to the road and didn’t even bother to look up at us as we were all clicking away at them. To give you an idea of how close we were, most of these pictures were taken with our phones, we didn’t have any sort of special equipment.
By the time we made it to the Eilson Center we had had enough of the bus and decided to stay there and go for a short hike. It was only a mile long, one mile…straight up. The boys ran up the mountain but I had to stop every five paces to catch my breath, it was so steep my heart hurt.
These trips are teaching me that I need to seriously begin endurance training before we go on them. Waiting for retirement to travel doesn’t seem like a good strategy either. It took me about an hour and a half to get to the top but in my defense I will say that only about a fourth of the people who started the hike were able to make it all the way up.
The views from the summit were so amazing that it was completely worth not being able to feel my legs on the way down.
We are very glad we decided to do this since it was a beautiful clear day and we were able to see Denali up close. We hung around the Eilson Center some more and then caught a bus back to Tek where we listened to a Park Ranger give a talk on the adventures of early explorers of Denali, made a huge fire and enjoyed the solitude.
The morning woke us up with a constant drizzle and we decided to stay in and have a hearty breakfast in preparation for the day. We caught a later bus which was mostly empty, no serious photographers and had a lovely ride with a relaxed guide who took the time to answer all our questions. We saw another bear,
some Dall sheep, and even a caribou standing in the ice of the permafrost trying to rid itself of mosquitoes.
When we stopped at an overlook we decided to stay and hike from there. Once again the boys ran up ahead of us and we rounded a corner to find them waving us down trying to get us to be quiet.
We had happened on the resting place of a Dall sheep who looked at us with curious eyes.
We sat down and settled in. When the buses would come around the bend in the road they would stop to photograph the sheep high up on the mountain; with us by its side, I imagine we made it into some of those pictures too.
When we had had enough we hiked down to the river to have some snacks. While we were sitting there we watched a group of three caribou walk by and a mama moose with her calf come to drink water.
The moose was a bit far away and we were glad for that since the rangers have said that moose are more dangerous than bears given that they are territorial and so big. The boys hoped to run into a bear but I was glad we didn’t. I sang all though-out our hike to alert any bears that might be startled by our unannounced approach and the boys are sure that I scared them all away with my lack of musical prowess. When we were done, we made our way back to the road where we flagged down the first bus we saw and rode it back to a rest area near our camp. We got off there and hiked on the river bed back to camp with no incidents
although we did see some fresh caribou tracks.
Denali is set in the center of the state of Alaska and I was surprised by how dry it is. I had never been to the tundra before and having dust storms crop up suddenly was a big surprise. The landscape is very desolate but you can find tiny little forget-me-nots (state flower) in the unlikeliest of places. While hiking, you can see for miles since vegetation tends to be short except where water runs through. Being able to see that far is a plus since the best advice for avoiding a bear encounter in the first place is to make sure to stay where you can see and be seen. Denali has two different kinds of bears: Grizzlies which stay mainly in the open tundra and Black Bears which like the cover of the forest. All the bears I saw were grizzlies. The boys saw a black bear though as were driving past a stretch of forest. My eyesight is simply not that good anymore. These mainland bears are mostly vegetarian and pack on the pounds eating berries as unbelievable as that sounds. We were about two weeks early for berries though and thus the bears we saw were mostly scratching the earth digging for roots.
We were all in our pajamas and ready for our last night in Denali. It was drizzling a bit and the temperature had dropped. We still had enough propane left so I figured why suffer and turned the heat on. Only cold air blew out and a strong smell of gas impregnated the RV. The alarm began blaring. We had to turn everything off and open up all the windows. We tried burning the residual gas off by turning the stove on which did what it was supposed to do but the smell lingered and the alarm would keep going off every time we reset it. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere with no cel phone signal and about an hour and a half from the park entrance. Did I mention how exhausted we were from our day spent hiking? How I wished we had had our tent with us so that we could have huddled in it and waited until morning. We didn’t so the best idea we could come up with, was to drive around with the windows open to try to aerate the RV. Driving around is not allowed but since it was close to midnight there were no more buses running and it was a while until we ran into a park ranger. She stopped us to let us know we weren’t supposed to be doing that but she took pity on us once she smelled the inside of the RV and radioed back to the nearest town who then called the emergency RV number for instructions. We followed them all, burning the residual gas, airing out the RV, turning everything off, resetting the alarm. The last bit of advice the RV person had was to pull out the alarm fuse so that it wouldn’t go off anymore and ignore the smell since he was certain there was no way there could be a leak. All of this conveyed over the phone, over the radio and from several hundred miles away. We didn’t feel very safe. The park ranger advised us to leave the windows open if we were going to do that. We drove back to our campsite and by then we thought the smell was gone. I was still feeling quite anxious about it so Fernando and I went for a short midnight stroll. Once we got back, as soon as I opened the RV door, the smell of gas was so overpowering to me that my eyes watered. We took the determination not to follow that advice but instead drive out of the park and hope to find a hotel outside.
We were so sad to have to leave Denali a night earlier than we had planned for but there was nothing else we could do. We drove for over an hour with the windows open and bundled up in blankets until we reached the park entrance. During the summer, Denali has 24 hours of daylight and thus the drive wasn’t as bad as you could have imagined. Furthermore, the cold of the night makes the clouds drop and Mt. McKinley is seen in all its majesty. I took this picture as we were heading out.
As we reached the park entrance, once more we thought the smell was gone and to make sure we took another short stroll. When we returned, the RV didn’t smell like gas anymore and since by now it was almost 2am and we were dead on our feet we decided to sleep right there in the parking lot keeping the windows open just in case. We were woken up early with the noise of new arrivals to the park and tiredly began the 5 hour drive back to Anchorage to get our RV exchanged.