Part 2 of a 6-part series
Following our day in Fairbanks, Jerry Evans of Explore Fairbanks drops us off at the Fairbanks Depot to board the Alaska Railroad for our trip south from near the Arctic Circle to deeper into Alaska’s Interior.
Victoria and I find our seats in GoldStar Service and begin to learn about the vaunted Alaska Railroad, a dream project to link the infant port town of Anchorage with Fairbanks in the north and ports of call along the way.
And, perhaps most importantly, to bring visitors to Denali.
It’s a miracle of engineering in some of the world’s toughest terrain, stretching from here in the north 482 miles south to Seward, roughly the same distance as that between Washington, D.C., and Augusta, Maine (remember, Alaska is a big state!). This was once unconquerable terrain, but thanks to ingenious planning and execution, the spine of Alaska was opened up to greater exploration with the railroad opening in 1923 after only nine years of construction.
Our fare class entitles us to both breakfast and two drinks. By rows we are ushered downstairs from our bubble-topped car to the dining area, where you are seated “festival style” four to a table — meaning you could, and should, share a table with strangers. Victoria and I wind up seated with a pair of ladies from Eastern Europe, who speak enough English to converse during our breakfast of eggs and reindeer sausage.
Yes, reindeer sausage. This really is a thing here, and it must be tried. Its taste is both smoky and lean, boasting a freshness that is as much in evidence as the clean air about us.
(You may want to bring along snacks for the train, no matter your fare class.)
As we sojourn 100-plus miles from Fairbanks, train staff gleefully inform us of natural and man-made sights to watch for. At one particular river crossing, we are informed of the Nenana Ice Classic, an annual sweepstakes in which the locals bet on the exact date each year’s ice bridge will finally become too unstable to cross, with the closest estimator taking home the pot.
Make sure to walk outside of the train car to the observation platform, where you can better take in the scenery that once took days or even weeks to transverse but now is negotiable in but hours. Bring a coat with you out here, as the brisk air will cling to the skin in conjunction with the rain.
The farther south the train rumbles, the more and more does the terrain begin to resemble what I’ve always imagined the state to look like. Tundra and flatlands give way to pine forests and rolling hills resemblant of Scotland that soon grow into granite crags bisected by rivers visible from the high bridges the train crosses.
Suddenly hikers are visible by the side of the tracks. We wave at them, not even realizing we are slowing down ahead of arriving at the Denali train station. Disembarking, we walk through some rather insistent rain to the hotel shuttle buses.
Denali isn’t an especially provisioned area, and what infrastructure there is exists to support the summer tourism, which operates in a small May-September window when the snows and extreme cold temporarily vacate. One of the few places to stay here is the Denali Bluffs Hotel (238 George Parks Hwy, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, 99755, 907/727-4018), a collection of individual buildings each hosting several floors of rooms.
Our room is in a wing completed in June, with fine new wooden furnishings, small room fridge, chair and ottoman for writing (or relaxing) and, best of all, an outdoor patio in which to contemplate the surreal mountains and forces of nature well beyond the power of man.
But here’s one thing you should know about Denali: There are very, very few cars here if you didn’t drive yourself, and shuttles between the hotels and Denali visitor centers run only every 40 minutes from about 5 a.m. until 6 p.m. There is one taxi service in town and no Uber coverage at all. (Like at all at all.) I say this not to dissuade a visit but rather as a nudge to do your research ahead of time and plan beforehand. Victoria and I discover too quickly we didn’t do as much of this as we should have, not realizing we are stuck for nearly an hour after missing a bus to the visitor center, and the final shuttle back isn’t far off.
(Furthermore, only the first 13 miles of Denali National Park itself are open to private vehicles, and official bus tours are the only way to see the interior of the park from there.)
With the little afternoon time we have left, we take the shuttle to the visitor center for a primer on Denali’s natural history and how its name came from an Athabascan word, “Diinaalii,” meaning “the tall one.” An enterprising Alaskan decided to call it Mount McKinley to honor the Ohio governor running for president in 1896, and the name was seen as either a slap in the face when it replaced “Denali” or a slap in the face when President Barack Obama switched it back in 2015.
Everything is political.
There are exhibits on the early white explorers who came here intent on not only preserving Denali’s magnificent natural views but also to protect its native wildlife from exploitation by poachers. Congress agreed, and Mount McKinley National Park was signed into existence on February 26, 1917. Its borders have been stretched in the decades since, to where it is now nearly the size of the entire state of Massachusetts, encompassing some 9,492 square miles.
The last time I was on horseback was on 2010 ride in Glacier National Park in Montana, so it seems fitting to once again mount in similarly magnificent nature at Denali Horseback Tours (Killian Street, Healy, Alaska, 99743, 907/322-3886). I seem to be the only adult who has booked a ride today, so my guide Kara, a fellow native of New Jersey, offers up a personalized tour and is ready to answer all of my questions — which are always numerous.
Taking stride upon Bismarck, I follow Kara atop her steed Marble, and we set off from the stables into backcountry abutting the extreme eastern side of Denali. Bismarck’s ears perk up occasionally as moose rut through the brushes, and I do my best to assure him he is safe. Remember, horses, like other animals, can sense human fear, so it’s paramount to project a sense of confidence when riding an animal that weighs over a ton and can throw you to the ground if it so chose.
Kara tells me that she lives in a yurt with no power and running water — this after various stints in China, Europe and elsewhere. But always the horses have been part of her life. She graciously dismounts at a particular clearing to take photos of me astride Bismarck, with the amazing mountains infantilizing us mere mortals in foreground.
The leisurely two-hour ride through the bush allows for some meditation and the forgetting of certain D.C.-related stressors, but if there’s one thing I can say about riding horseback, it is that you must keep your wits about you. The natural vistas and the rhythmic clomping of the steed beneath you can indeed be lulling, but then suddenly Bismarck gets spooked by something and jerks and neighs. I have to hold the reins and remind him it’s OK, I’m in charge, and no harm will come to him. (Kara has firearms anyway.)
At the conclusion of the ride, Kara brings me by the Denali outpost of 49th State Brewing (Mile 248.5 Parks Hwy, Healy, Alaska, 99743, 907/683-2739), where I converse with locals and seasonal workers over a Golden Dahl, a Belgian-style tripel. Many of the regulars won’t be here for many weeks longer, as Denali is beginning its brisk march toward wintry slumber.
With muscles pleasantly aching and fine beers in my belly, I meet Victoria back at the hotel and drift promptly off.
After buffet-style breakfast at the Denali Bluffs’ Hotel Mountaineer restaurant, Vicky and I take the shuttle bus down to the Wilderness Access Center to book a bus tour into the interior of Denali National Park.
I’m going to re-emphasize here the importance of making plans ahead of time as day tours sell out early, and the later in the day you show up to purchase tickets, the fewer are your options.
Remember, there are absolutely no civilian vehicles allowed in Denali past mile 13, so you must book a tour bus to see the great wild interior. The one and only park road stretches 91 miles deep into Denali, with almost all of that unpaved, narrow gravel expanses requiring slow, steady, careful progress by any driver. We book the six-hour excursion to the Toklat River stop, 53.1 miles in, and grab a quick lunch. (Bring snacks with you on your bus tour as there is none — repeat, none — to purchase inside the park’s wild interior.)
Before heading out we take a loop hike to Horseshoe Lake, descending from a path near the railroad tracks. It’s an easy, invigorating walk, punctuated by a pair of astute hikers who wave us over to point out a caribou mother guarding her calves not far off the trail. Various outlooks afford us the chance to cozy up by the edge of the frigid Nenana River, to take in the stratification of the formations along Horseshoe Lake, as well as the volcanic rocks forged from the furnaces deep within the earth and thrust up and outwards over eons.
On our way back to the Wilderness Center, we pass by a gentleman walking a dog, to whom is attached a radio antennae should the pooch wander off around here. The man provides helpful guidance on things to see and do if we have “more time,” which, sadly, we do not.
Vicky and I then board our bus to head into Denali National Park itself. Our driver Darren is a hoot — a bloke from Buffalo, New York, with jokes that don’t seem at all stale, as well as a thorough knowledge and enthusiasm for imparting tales of Denali to his charges. One such includes camping out with his mates along a creekside to fish for salmon when a grizzly came upon them. They successfully scared away the creature, but not long after, Darren’s buddy inadvertently busted their canister of bear spray, leading to no small amount of coughing, hacking and discomfort for the entire party.
Sure, they also laughed about it then and later, but ouch!
Respect for nature is paramount here. Accordingly, Darren asks that we not lean out of the windows to take photos, nor, of course, approach any wildlife. He relates another tale of a biker who, upon encountering a bear, took off, and was able, only via technology, to outrun the creature. (The conventional wisdom, at least with grizzlies, is to play dead.) There are only a few pulloffs to get off the bus for photos, and this is purposeful on the part of the park’s administrators.
Suddenly, we round a curve … and it is there. Denali, all 20,310 feet of it, pokes out from its self-generated clouds adorning its various faces, to say hello. Darren says only 30 percent of the park’s visitors ever actually see the highest mountain in North America, so we are indeed lucky this day. Tourists throughout the bus hurriedly snap photos as the clouds mushroom and, just as quickly as the old man came out from hiding, disappears once again into obscurity.
We have indeed been crazy lucky.
Darren pulls over at various points so we can observe caribou and, via binoculars, Dall sheep up high on the rock faces, far out of the reach of predators.
An eagle-eyed young girl on the coach shouts “bear!” and sure enough, along a riverbed, a grizzly and her cubs amble through the wilds nearly a mile from the bus. With my camera zoom, I am able to capture one bearing up on its hind legs. It’s a wondrous sight that can only be done justice with a high-quality telephoto lens — or being there.
The rest stops are infrequent, and food for sale is nonexistent, so you need to bring in your own. But make sure you eat only on the bus itself, as human food can attract bears and other animals, who, once they are accustomed to the smell and taste of people eats, is a behavior that can be nearly impossible to unlearn.
It is somewhat difficult to convey the remoteness of Denali. You might see another tour bus once or twice an hour, but there is almost no evidence of human behavior beyond the stray hikers. Granted, on a bus with dozens of others — and many other unloading buses at various rest stops — it’s somewhat difficult to truly feel the wildness of the wilderness, which may explain why so many intrepid hikers, craving the true primeval experience, opt to hike and camp on their own.
Our point of turnaround today is the Toklat river stop, where there is a small shop (no food, remember) and not much else. Vicky and I take some photos together — and with our Fairbanks stuffed husky, “Indigo” — and soon are on the bus heading back the way we came. Along the return trip we stop to see a male caribou, whose antlers are red due to the rutting, or mating, season. The mammal is chewing on the grasslands and refuses to cooperate and lift its head for a complete body shot. We wait, but the animal, seeming to know what we want, will not bend to our wishes.
It’s been a wonderful day on the bus, but we’re now ready for a “proper” meal. Dee Dee O’Brien with the Denali Bluffs Hotel picks us up for dinner at the Grande Denali Lodge’s Alpenglow restaurant (238 George Parks Hwy, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, 99755, 907/683-5150). The view from Alpenglow, which is situated even farther above our own hotel, is magnificent, with a 180-degree panorama of the mountains marking the entrance to Denali. Dee Dee, a friendly native of the Lower 48 who migrated to Alaska in the 1980s, fills me in on how operating a resort here is a year-round endeavor. The hiring of staff begins not long after the properties close in September, with Skype interviews conducted with applicants the world over wishing to spend a summer in the U.S. on a J-1 work visa. Attracting new visitors is also a never-ending project, but that, she says, is life in the hospitality biz.
I’m digging on the “New Old Fashioned” from the cocktail menu, with its 48th state take on the classic bourbon drink featuring Bulleit, cherry bitters, orange syrup and a bourbon-infused cherry. The blueberry gin concoction is also refreshing after such a busy past few days.
For starters on the meal I go in for the delectable clam chowder and the wagu beef sliders, which are supplemented by wondrous salmon cakes and corn.
Dee Dee tells us that the fish entrees are literally prepared a different way every single night the resort is open during the summer.
While the food options here are indeed plentiful, she says she often has to remind guests that there are no “supermarkets” anywhere for hundreds of miles. The nearby town of Healey has a few shops, but this is rugged vacationing, and, surprisingly, some visitors still sometimes expect the conveniences of home.
The chocolate mousse (not to be confused with the “moose” we saw earlier) is delectable beyond mention, and this I cap with a finely mixed white Russian. The pineapple upside down cake is also not to be missed.
Dee Dee walks us back to our room at the Denali Bluffs, where I enjoy a sunset glass of Ursa Major vodka on our balcony, smiling and all but incredulous at how much we have seen and done in only two days in the mystical Denali.
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