Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Alaska - Day 1 - Anchorage & McKinley 5/18/2011

We set the alarm for 3am in order to be ready by 4:15 for our shuttle pickup. We had a 6:30 departure and wanted to be sure we allowed enough time for breakfast and security processing at the Sacramento International Airport.

We decided at the last minute to be sensible and not try to pretend that our luggage would meet the Alaska Airlines carry-on specifications. This was a $20 hit for each of us; but, in retrospect it saved us a lot of aggravation. I am trying to be more comfortable, reasonable and less cheap despite the specter of living on a fixed income these days.

The only annoying part of the process was the very thorough manual screening occasioned by my Velcro-and-metal boot—I had been diagnosed with posterior tibial tendonitis a week before departure. The cure was to immobilize my ankle with the boot, use my orthotic foot insert, and take ibuprofen as needed.

Breakfast was a scone and coffee. The Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage, unfortunately, was not direct. We had a layover in SeaTac and did not arrive in Alaska until 1:34pm. By the way, Alaska, our 49th state, has its own time zone—an hour earlier than Pacific Time.

We were met in the baggage area by the Diamond Princess staff, who directed us to the buses that would take us to our final destination for the day: The McKinley Princess Lodge.

It may provide some perspective to understand that the 3 largest lower states--Texas, California and Montana--would fit inside Alaska, The Great Land! There are 39 mountain ranges and 3 million lakes! There are 15 National Parks; Denali alone is half the size of Rhode Island. The government ("the people") own a large proportion of the land; over 54 million acres are administered by the National Forest Service. In addition, Native peoples have been granted large tracts of land and have formed Native corporations to administer them.

We arrived in Anchorage and were soon ensconced on buses taking us from the airport to the McKinley Princess lodge. Just outside town, we saw a moose drinking out of the river. At the edge of town, we saw gas listed at $4.15 per gallon; within 10 minutes, farther from town, the price raised to $4.25. Despite the existence of the oil pipeline, there is no refinery in Alaska; so, gas is delivered to tankers and taken to the US mainland for refining and then sent back with shipping fees tacked on. Because of taxes on oil, each citizen in Alaska receives $1,000 each year from the government. Many goods in Alaska are imported and consequently expensive.

Anchorage is fairly surrounded by mountains and, thus, almost sits in a bowl. A lake on the outskirts is home to numerous seaplanes--Alaska has more per capita pilots than any other state, 1 for every 58 residents.

Alaskan Highway

The coach soon drove through Wasilla, Sarah Palin's residence. We could not see Russia from there and it had no snow--though we did see a fair amount of snow by the time we arrived at McKinley Princess Lodge. This town used to mark the start of the famous Iditerod dogsled race; but, the lack of snow caused it to be moved to Willow. As of a few years ago, Wasilla now has a Home Depot, a WalMart, Wendy's, Burger King, Subway and other "Outside" stores. This WalMart store sells more duct tape than any other store anywhere in the world franchise--apparently, Alaskans are ardent do-it-yourselfers.

The next town we passed through was Houston, notable as a combustibles town--we passed 5 fireworks stores in 3 blocks. At several places along the way, we noticed people in T-shirts and shorts; we were in our parkas and long pants.

Tongass National Forest

There were almost constant forests along the way; but, the trees are fairly small, due to climate and, sometimes, altitude. There were none of the gargantuan Redwoods that Californians accept as part of their heritage. The roads originally cut through the trees; but, they were left so close to the road that visibility was reduced and animals were frequently being run over by vehicles. Now, they have cut the trees back from the road to increase visibility and reduce the hazard.

We came to the town of Willow, notable to us as the location of the cabin of our friend Tai Sines' dad and the current start of the Iditerod; we waved, but no one took notice. There was a flea market in process.

There are a number of construction equipment rental companies along the way and quarries for producing building materials. And not much else.

We were slightly surprised to see a number of campgrounds and camper rental companies. We passed many campers motoring around the roads we were on. By the way, there are very few roads in Alaska and when they exist, the often run parallel to both the rivers and the railroad.

We stopped along the way for restrooms, a leg stretch and a chance to buy snacks. There were at least 8 restrooms, which sped up the process; but, I was not willing to wait in line for the overpriced ice cream cones, coffee and snacks. But, the fresh air was most welcome. I noticed that when the coach came to a stop at railroad crossings, the AC was turned off; I assume this allowed the driver-guide to listen for trains.

Because of the sparse population and few roads, Alaska has a very rural feel. There are, frequently, unpaved roads. Yards often are filled with "treasures" that may prove useful one day. People here tend to love the outdoors and often attempt, partially, to live off the land. They eat the tops of fiddlehead ferns, either cooking them or using them in salads. Devils club can be used for relief of arthritis pain. Syrup can be obtained from the sap of birch trees. Fireweed can be made into jellies and is used as a candle scent. Willow trees can provide "aspirin" effects.

Nearing the lodge, we passed through Talkeetna, site of several optional excursions, tomorrow." The owner of the Trapper Creek general store there has a motto: "If I don't have it, your probably don't need it." There was also a bar and grill and a motel in the settlement.


Mount McKinley (aka Denali), at 32,320 feet, is the highest mountain in North America and is part of a range so large that it makes its own weather. Last year, there were 38 consecutive days of rain, here. It is so overcast that the mountain is only visible 1 of every 3 days. We felt so very fortunate to have been able to see it so clearly on our first trip here. There are actually 3 peaks here: Father, mother and child. Whether the main peak is labeled "he" or "she" depends on the culture making reference to it. We call it McKinley, but natives call it Denali, the High One. It is one of the 7 must-climb summits in the world for elite mountaineers. The difficulty is more in the weather than in the technical climbing.

Here are some comparisons with Mount Everest. Denali's base starts at 2,000 feet and has a vertical elevation of 18,000 feet; Everest has a base of 17,000 feet and a vertical elevation of only 10,000 feet; so, Denali has more mountain exposed than Everest. In 2010, Denali had 1,222 climbers and 55% were successful.

Alaska has 17 of the 20 highest mountains in North America.

The reason we in the Outside don't call it Denali is because President McKinley was from Ohio and an Ohio Congressperson always ensures that there is a bill submitted regarding the attachment of McKinley's name to the mountain; since the National Park Service has a policy to never change a name while there is pending legislation on the matter, the name never changes. That's politics for you--at least it's not the down-and-dirty type we are used to these days.

McKinley Princess Lodge - Outside

We were warned that we were the first visitors to the lodge this season and that we might have to be tolerant as the kinks were worked out while the new staff transitioned from training to service mode. Almost without exception, staff were courteous, competent and eager to please. There were 3 restaurants and a theater for nature presentations here. I tried the Kodiak Nut Brown Ale and loved it--"Give me the darkest draft you have."

McKinley Princess Lodge - Inside

Breakfast at Starbucks at the Sacramento International Airport was $15 for 2 lattes, a yogurt fruit cup and a scone. Lunch at SeaTac was $17 for 2 soft drinks and two sandwiches at Quiznos. Dinner was $44, including tip, for a hamburger, soup, veggie burger and 2 beers at the McKinley Princess Lodge.

To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. ~ John Muir