Off Into The Wild

So there has been a lack of posts for the last few days because of two main things: no time and the internet is a bit hit or miss. In fact the Internet is dead right now for miles on end with no estimated time of when it’s coming back. So I’m using the time to write this post in advance. As for the lack of time, I seemed to have booked activities that had a start or pickup time before 7:45AM which has meant a lot of early starts every single day. Yesterday we had to make a 7:20AM bus, today a 7:45AM pickup and tomorrow a 6:00AM bus. Last night we had to crash 9:30PM. It’s the most sleep I’ve had probably since we left Australia!

First let’s have the pics from College Fjord that I didn’t have ready last time:

College Fjord has many tidewater glaciers, here's 2 of them
College Fjord has many tidewater glaciers, here’s 2 of them
Floating ice, nothing Titanic style
Floating ice, nothing Titanic style

Anchorage
But now let’s go back a few days to Anchorage. Anchorage is the most populated city in Alaska (but it’s not the capital). In fact it use to be the busiest air cargo airport in the world, back when planes were tiny and they had to make a stop between Asia and the lower 48. In Anchorage we stayed at a B&B – 11th Avenue Bed and Breakfast. It was our first stay at a B&B, and it left us impressed. I have a feeling most other B&B’s aren’t as nice. 11th Avenue had different rooms all with their own private bathroom – we booked the cheapest room so our’s was just across a hall. There was even a friendly daschund. In the morning the host Marilyn put on a feast for breakfast – there was fresh fruit, yoghurt, muesli and the home made halibut quesadillas with a side of scrambled eggs. Juices, tea and coffee as well. On the day we were driving to Denali we were leaving before breakfast time so Marilyn put together a breakfast to go bag for us – hard boiled eggs, apple, cheese, trail mix, muesli slice and water. We were impressed. If anyone’s ever in Anchorage definitely check out 11th Avenue Bed and Breakfast.

We spent our full day in Anchorage not actually in town though. We we didn’t do any actual glacier activities whilst on the cruise – helicopter rides onto a glacier cost a lot of $ – so we made a drive out to Glacier View where there is the Matanuska Glacier. This glacier is on state land but the only way you can actually access the glacier is over private land. So there’s a $20 glacier access fee per person. You can drive down yourself but we chose to go with a glacier hike operator. Firstly the drive down is really crappy pot-holed dirt track and you’re not supposed to take hire cars down them. Secondly, hiking on a glacier that you don’t know isn’t exactly a smart thing to do. There’s ice to slip on and holes to fall in, no natural selection happening here. After checking in, getting gear allocated it was time for u to get over to the glacier. Down the bumpy road we went, spotting a moose and her two calves along the way. I’ve been to Yellowstone and Glacier NPs and never spotted a moose, so I was very happy to see moose in the wild. It’s the only ‘big’ animal from the US parks that I had not seen.

Moose and 2 calves
Moose and 2 calves

After parking and helmet-ing up we walked out the first bit till it started getting icy. Then it was time to crampon up. Crampons are things you wear under your boots that have sharp edges so you can dig into the ice. We did see a few people out there without them, but it probably wasn’t a smart move. A slip on the ice and your head was probably going to get sliced open on rock. We made our way over to the ice fall part of the glacier which was really pretty. The tap water I’d filled our water bladders up with tasted very chlorinated so the chance to drink melting glacial water was really nice and refreshing. Then after hacking out a place to stand with his ice axe our guide took us to a spot to look into a crevasse. Don’t want to fall into one of those!

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Matanuska Glacier
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Had to walk on grates over the mud. Sort of like quicksand it wobbles and can re-liquify
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Making our way across
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Drinking water off the glacier
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Ice fall area of glacier
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Looking in to a crevasse

Driving back into Anchorage we were feeling tired, it was a 2 hour drive each way and the next day we had a 5-ish hour drive up to Denali. It was basically dinner, shower, pack, sleep. Normally we try to be on the road before 7AM for long drives, but this time we decided to sleep in till 6:45AM. If you can even call that a sleep in – that’s the time I usually wake up on a work day. Oh speaking of sleep, because we’re so far north the days are almost endless – we had to sleep with eye masks because there were no blackout curtains.

Denali drive day
So the 4-5 hour drive turned out to be more like 6 hours. As the summer season is really short up here now is the time to get all the road maintenance/work done. It can take multiple seasons before a particular piece of roadwork can be completed. It’s been similar in various other parks we’ve visited in places that get snowed in come September-October. The first half of the trip has pretty much no road work, but the later half had quite a lot. There’s pretty much nothing on the drive up. Just a few very small towns where there’s a gas station to refuel and take a break.

We arrived at Denali in the afternoon. First stop the visitor centre to get an interagency annual pass. I’d worked out we could make a saving as the annual pass is $80 and all up we’d have to pay $75 for individual parks in the lower 48. As we had bus tickets booked for Denali we could then get a $10 refund per ticket. So after getting the annual pass it was time to pick up our bus tickets from the Wilderness Access Centre and get a $40 refund. What’s this bus ticket thing though? Denali has one road through the park – the park road that goes out 92 miles to Kantishna, a former gold mining town. In order to help preserve the park after about mid May to end of the season (some time in Sept), if you want to venture pass mile 15 you need to catch a park bus. Unlike some other parks that have mandated shuttle/bus transport (e.g. Zion), the buses here aren’t free. You buy a ticket and the ticket includes park access. Since most people will catch a bus there’s no actual gate to the park. Along with the park buses, there’s also a few of tours you can book. They’re a bit different to the buses as they’re narrated. We had one tour and one park bus ride booked.

Then it was back up the highway to check-in at our accomodation. Travelling for this many weeks gets costly, especially with car hire, so where we can we’ll try and save some $. Often this will be in the form of staying in RV parks but instead of lugging tents and all we’ll stay in the cheapest cabin and used shared facilities. The cheap/smallest cabin this time was Cabin T, a cute little cabin with a sod roof:

Kantishna Experience – the 12 hour bus tour
Our first full day in Denali was spent on the 12 hour Kantishna Experience tour. 12 hours on a bus. Yes it really does take a long time to get further into the park. The KE tour went all the way to the end of the road, and we made stops at a few key places. Riding the bus you can understand why there’s no cars allowed. It’s dirt track on windy road with barely any passing room on some corners. There’s also the stopping for wildlife watching. If visitors could drive their cars in the road would get damaged a lot quicker and there would be ‘animal’ jams. We did get to see quite a lot of animals – 8 grizzly bears, multiple moose, too many caribou, dall sheep, various birds. There were a group on our bus who we’re like lecturers (or researchers?) in animal sciences who were really good at animal spotting and one guy in particular seemed an avid bird person so we got to see quiet a number of birds actually identified. Not many animal pics though as my zoom lens doesn’t zoom that far. Cute animal spotting of the day – mother grizzly with 2 cubs sleeping in a field.

An also awesome thing about the day was that it was sunny enough for Denali (Mt McKinley) to make an appearance. Apparently it’s only visible 2 out of 10 days in the summer whilst in winter it is almost always visible.

Caribou
Caribou
Grizzly bear
Grizzly bear
denali-polychrome
View from Polychrome Pass
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View from Eielson. That’s Denali (Mount McKinley)
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View from Eielson
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View of Denali from Wonder Lake reflection pond
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The end of the road

After we got back from the epic day, we bought Subway for dinner drove back and ate, showered and went to bed at 9:30AM. Another early start for the next day as we we’re going ATV-ing.

ATV-ing
ATV day was meant to be a ‘rest’ day except I forgot I’d booked it for a 7:45AM pickup. We got to sleep till 6:30AM at least. ATV-ing was fun. We’d decided to go single rider ATV, because why share driving when you can both ride yourself? For the first half we rode a bit more slowly. I’d never been ATV-ing before and as it was more a 4wd style track I was handling the embankments more carefully. Nothing like rolling an ATV to break a leg or kill yourself. The trails and river bed we rode on are just outside the park boundaries as it’s not allowed within the park. Whilst it was super fun, I can understand why – it kind of destroys the paths as the wheels cut out tracks in the trail. By the end of I was covered in a dirt all over. The last time I was covered in this much dirt was crammed in the back of a ute in Cambodia.

Post ATV-ing it was a food stop then we headed back into the park to properly check out the visitor centre and walk a short trail.

Hike Day
Today we were catching a bus back to Eielson to go hiking. Or at least that’s what we had planned to do. We had a 6:00AM bus booked as it takes about 4 hours to get out there so we had picked the early bus to make the most of it. When we woke in the morning it was quite cold and socked in. It looked like it had been raining since some time the evening before. That’s okay we thought, we’ve got rain jackets and pants. Ain’t nothing going to stop us. Except as the bus made it’s journey through the park road it became clear that more than just rain had fallen overnight. All the mountains and plains we had seen just 2 days earlier we’re now covered in snow! And as the bus made it’s way further in it started snowing. And kept snowing. By the time we got to Eielson everything there was covered in a good 2-3 inches of snow. The flags were even out for the start of some trails. So our original plan was kind of scuttled as we had planned to just hike uphill to wherever we wanted to. With all the snow it wasn’t really possible. So we had a quick walk about the Tundra Spur Trail, checked out the visitor centre then headed on the bus back. Whilst there was no hiking done, it was cool to get to see everything covered in snow. The weather here varies quite a lot – rainy on one side, sunny on another, very windy elsewhere.

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Just a light dusting of snow. That’s still hike-able right?
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What greeted us at Eielson…
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Don’t think there’s much hiking going to happen. The flags were out for the spur trail though.

So since we made it back earlier than we thought – it was still 2PM though – we made it over to the sled dog kennels for the 4:00PM talk. Denali has kennels, and the dogs here are actively used as a canine ranger unit. Summer is the dogs holiday time though, as in winter they go out on trails patrolling the park, as well as so maintenance work can be performed. These dogs are workhorses – larger and very lean. When the 5 dogs were getting brought out for the sled demo all the other dogs suddenly became very active, as if they were saying ‘pick me, pick me’.

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