Friday, May 20, 2011

Alaska - Day 3 - McKinley to Denali 5/20/2011

Clear View from the Motor Coach on the Way to Denali

On the Way to Denali

More of The Drive to Denali

Today we drove from McKinley Princess Lodge to Denali Princess Lodge, a bus trip of 2.5 hours. Along the way we saw a beaver lodge in the middle of a stream. We also saw the largest “igloo” in the world. Built as a hotel with pie shaped rooms and no fire escape, it was never used; and, it will probably never be torn down due to the use of asbestos in its construction and the expense in complying with environmental laws in removing it. What a pity it cannot be used.

World's Largest Igloo

Along the road were power lines that stand idle. They are only for emergency use by either Anchorage or Fairbanks in case of emergency—devastating earthquake, for example. They were constructed after an emergency left one of the towns without power a number of years ago.

Some of the roads here were originally built for the Military in WWII; many airfields were constructed at the same time and for the same reason. Afterwards, they were mostly turned over to the civilian government. I seem to recall that military preparedness was a major motivation behind the construction of the Interstate highway system in the Lower 48. You probably didn’t know, but 2 islands in Alaska were invaded by the Japanese during the Second World War.

Inside Denali Princess Lodge

Due to harsh weather and the need to travel under severe conditions in Winter, remote cabins are left unlocked—to allow life-saving access by those who would otherwise be stranded, vulnerable to the elements. By the way, we were unprepared for the relatively mild weather we encountered during our trip—we overpacked and, often, overdressed.

The Sleeping Rooms at Denali Princess Lodge

We were surprised by the number of e-books we encountered among the tourists up here. Maybe they are really catching on. Lots of iPads, too: gives you an e-book and a computer in one package.

In Denali National Park

We went on a 5 hour nature drive, with many stops for pictures and to see wildlife. Denali National Park is the 3rd largest in the US. It was originally designated to protect Dall sheep. Having a range of elevations, there is a variety of vegetation zones. From lowest to highest, there is low brush bog, bottomland spruce-poplar forest, upland spruce-hardwood forest, moist tundra, and finally the highest of elevations, alpine tundra. By the way, the US was the first country to have a National Park system—thanks first to U.S. Grant (Yellowstone), then to Teddy Roosevelt, with a little help from John Muir and other naturalists.

Driving Along in Denali Park

Ptarmigan, the Alaska State Bird, with its warm, furry feet

We saw several ptarmigan, the state bird, along the way. Actually, we were also told that the Alaskan mosquito was the state bird. John McPhee, in his wonderful book Coming Into The Country, describes how someone in his party slapped his leg, once, and killed dozens of them. We also saw Dall sheep, moose, porcupine, seagulls and sled dogs—these were being led along the road on leashes by volunteers.


Although we saw no bear, we were told the park has a population of 300 and that the grizzly bear is actually the brown bear—I had always believed them to be quite different. You should know that they can outrun you and they also can climb! They are not true hibernators in winter: they give birth and nurse their young. However, in preparation for this period they are voracious eaters, consuming 250,000 berries a day. One bear had, among other things, remains of 400 arctic ground squirrels in its stomach. And these tiny squirrels go from 80 beats down to 1 beat per minute as they transition to winter preparedness. Wood frogs are true hibernators; their internal fluids turn to gel and they cease to appear alive; by the way, these are the only amphibians in Denali, other than planes.

Denali Park Ranger in Old-Time Ranger Uniform

The Original Denali Park Superintendent's Office

At the end of our journey down the park road, Carol, an Athabaskan, told stories of her people, her relatives and the area. This native group is related to the Navaho in the Lower 48. I was surprised to read this, recently, reading James Michener’s novel, Alaska, in preparation for the cruise. I was astonished to learn there are 6 Native groups throughout Alaska and upper Canada: Aleut, Athabaskan, Eskimo, Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian. Other than English, 20 languages are spoken; but, 15 are virtually extinct.

Carol, The Athabaskan Storyteller

Breakfast $26: skillet omelet, oatmeal, fruit. Lunch $31: portabella mushroom burger, prime rib. Dinner: $11.95 ice cream and shared sandwich.

Our driver recited a portion of the the famous Robert Service poem, The Spell of the Yukon, during a stop near the end of the trip. It was quite compelling.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will.
~ Robert Service, The Spell of the Yukon