I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Sunday, August 31, 2014

More from the train

View from the train

I wasn't up to taking many pictures, or dealing with the annoying window reflections. But after days of mountains, suddenly the views were of trees and winding rivers, one full of skinny red wriggles of wild salmon.

Train to Talkeetna

We had to wait an hour on the platform for our train. It was cold, but I was too miserable to do anything but hunker down where I was and stick it out.

I haven't really written much about the group on this trip yet, but they proved to be not only smart and interesting and funny, wonderful companions at the dinner table or on a hike, but also incredibly kind people. Our tour managers and guides took excellent care of me of course -- giving me cold medicine and hot coffee and helping with the heavy camera equipment I was lugging around -- but so did my fellow travelers. I got tea and cough drops and extra jackets to throw over my lap to keep out the chill.

I don't know what I would have done on that interminable train ride if not for them. Not least because halfway through the ride Mark and Eileen insisted I take some of their Dayquil. I had resisted up to that point; getting by on sudafed and will power, but by then I thought, "Why not? I can't feel any worse."

And within half an hour I felt so much better I was kicking myself for not having taken it sooner. I still had a cold, a bad cold, but I no longer felt that death was imminent, and would possibly be a change for the better. Eileen then walked me to the dining car and insisted I eat, and after a sandwich and tea I felt better still. Food and medicine -- who knew?

So let me say thank you again to everyone on this trip, and especially Mark and Eileen. Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Here comes civilization

The bus ride was fun, even though I was so sick, but I was still ready to get off. I was not, however, ready to leave Denali, so it was with mixed feelings that I saw we were heading back to paved road. This meant we were almost at the train station.

Another look

As we followed the same road leaving Denali as we had going in, a lot of the pictures I took ended up being very similar to the ones I'd taken a few days earlier. But the different time of day, different weather, and different light made some of the places we passed look completely different. The snow-capped mountains in the distance in this picture, for example, weren't visible at all on Thursday.

Mountain melodrama

Here are two shots of the Alaska Range mountains I took while we were stopped at the Eielson Center. The combination of early morning light and heavy clouds (and a photographer incapable of clear thought) produced mostly shaky, badly framed and seriously overexposed shots, but these two were worth saving. The digital processing turned not very good pictures into something that perfectly expresses how I felt at the moment.

Eielson Visitor Center

First bathroom stop. I like these handrails on the stairs -- they looked as tipsy as I felt.

No external hard drive

Most of the wildlife we've seen in Denali has been at a distance, which I suppose makes sense in this place of vast distances. It's a tough place to make a living, and each animal needs acres of tundra and taiga to support it.

But this grizzly out enjoying the early morning got much closer to us than any of the bears we'd seen before. There was some argument about whether it was a male or a female -- some of the guides said male, but the females in Denali are mostly blonde for some reason while the males are darker. Then Jason announced that he'd looked back as the bus came around behind the bear and "there was no external hard drive visible."

That cracked everyone up, and became one of the jokes of the trip, along with, "Is that a moose, or a bear in a party hat?" "Summer camp with alcohol" and "Two thumbs up, God!"


We stopped to watch the sun rise on the flanks of Denali. I took pictures, but I like this one best: I rubbed away the condensation on the window and shot the mountain peeking through the blur.

Leaving Denali

Wonder Lake, one last time, just before the sun rose.

Our wakeup call was at 5 am today – we had a five hour bus ride to the train station, then a four and half hour train ride to Talkeetna – and I woke up sick, sick, sick. The cold I’ve been fighting for the past few days has bloomed like – I’d say the tundra in June, except that’s far too pleasing an image, and there’s nothing pleasing about how I look today. I only managed to eat a few spoonfuls of yogurt, and make a cup of hot tea for the road, before staggering my way to the bus. I’d like to say I spent the long ride sleeping like a sensible person would do, but I took almost as many pictures on the park road coming out as I had coming in.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Really, no more after this


Obviously there are a lot more pictures I could post, but I'll never get to the rest of Alaska if I don't stop. So here's one last shot, showing some of the details we were able to see being so close to the side of the mountain. A recent thaw had melted some of the snow, which quickly refroze in the form of icicles.

Denali closeup

I was shooting through a small window that I had to be careful not to hit with my camera lens; you can see my red jacket reflected in some of the pictures. I was twisting and stretching and contorting in the little seat, and I was surprised to find myself out of breath, as though taking pictures was an aerobic workout. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that it was the altitude – no pressurization in that tiny cabin, and we were at 10,000 – 12,000 feet.

Location, location, location

The neighborhood is also rather impressive. As always, click to enlarge.

Wow. Just wow.

I hadn't known just how impressive this mountain is. Measured from base to peak, it's actually much taller than Everest. It erupts out of the tundra at an elevation of only a couple thousand feet, whereas Everest sits on the Tibetan plateau, so it's at an elevation of 13,000 to 17,000 feet before the actual mountain even begins. Denali has two summits, several subpeaks that are sometimes listed as mountains in their own right, and five large glaciers. It also has its own weather system, which is part of the reason it's so often invisible.

God is my co-pilot

Although technically I was in the co-pilot seat, I was warned in detail about which knobs and buttons I should be especially careful not to touch. (I decided, for simplicity's sake, to avoid all of them.)

After a safety briefing, and instructions on how to use the microphones attached to our headphones, we were off. Apparently I was really going to do this. And since planes the size of large Pomeranians only have to taxi a few feet before taking off, I only had a second to think, "Jesus Christ, I'm actually doing this," before we were in the air.

The airstrip was just down the road from our lodge, at an elevation where there are still some trees, but the land we flew over thinned out quickly into mostly flat tundra, bisected by braided riverbeds. The mountains begin abruptly – no gradual increase in elevation, few foothills. It’s perfectly flat, until it isn’t.

One more

I am not making terrific progress in getting these blog entries finished and published, because I keep finding new pictures that I really, really need to include.

This, for example: on the other side of the road from Wonder Lake, an explosion of fall colors.

Denali again

Denali, seen from the road to the lake.

More Wonder Lake

I could post a dozen more equally stunning views. Click to enlarge.

Wonder Lake

And there it is, the elusive celebrity mountain, Denali, the "High One" in Athabascan. (Everyone uses  "Denali" for the park name but most people seem to use "McKinley" for the mountain. Since McKinley never even saw his namesake mountain -- it was named before he was even elected president, by Alaskans who for some reason liked his support for the gold standard -- I decided I like Denali better.)

The lodge arranged for us to do an abbreviated Wonder Lake hike before our flight. It was, simply, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.


Change of plans.

There's a board in the main lodge, with signup sheets for all of the available activities for the day. I signed up for the morning hike at Wonder Lake, just down the road in the park. My fellow hikers were  a family of four who were also staying at the lodge. While we waited, they asked the manager if it was still possible to book one of the flights around Mount McKinley.

He checked, and the pilots were willing to do an extra flight over their lunch hour because it was such a spectacular day. "There are four of you? There's still one more seat. Do you know someone else who wants to go?"

Four heads turned simultaneously in my direction. I hadn't even considered doing a flight -- scared of small planes, so not my thing, too expensive, etc., etc., etc. -- but I know when I need to forget all of the reasons to say no and just go for it.

So I said yes.


This was the view from my window when I woke up this morning. We will all be joining the lucky 30% today.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Alaska night

This picture was just a test -- I was setting my camera up for a long exposure to capture the Northern lights in case they were visible. The aurora never showed up, but I was definitely ready -- the night sky and the creek, barely visible to my eye, showed up nicely for the camera.

I liked the result so I'm keeping it, even if I would rather have a gorgeous capture of the aurora.

Gold rush

I'm coming down with a cold, so obviously the intelligent thing for me to do was to spend the afternoon standing in a frigid stream learning how to pan for gold.

There was a flood that washed out the road here a couple of months ago, and that allegedly brought more gold up to be found, but I had nothing to show for my efforts except frozen fingers. I didn't even find fool's gold.


There will be no sightings of Mount McKinley today. It poured rain all morning, and I limited my hiking to the paths immediately around the lodge. I spent some time in this gazebo on the other side of the creek watching the sheets of rain and warblers -- yes, warblers! -- hopping around in the trees outside, unfazed by the chill. I think it's more than time for them to be heading south.

I gave up long before they did, and headed back to the main lodge to while away the morning with hot coffee and a book.

Denali Backcountry Lodge

Technically, we're no longer in the national park; we're in Kantishna, Alaska, an unincorporated community consisting of four lodges, some private homes, and a few seasonal businesses, surrounded on all sides by the park. It doesn't even have a zip code.

It also doesn't have television, cellular service, or wifi, and the electricity is supplied by a generator, so it's a little flickery. This doesn't mean we're roughing it. Although my room continues with the theme of brown, this is the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in. And yes, that's a creek running by my window.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Close call

These aren't very good pictures, but I had to include this last wildlife encounter.

We saw this mother caribou and her calf, and stopped the bus for a few minutes to watch them. The youngster was running around playing while mom ate grass, and they gradually worked their way down the hill closer to our bus.

Then someone yelled "Bear!" and we saw the unmistakable silhouette of a grizzly on the ridge above the caribou. Even though our guides assured us that even a baby caribou can outrun a grizzly, we were all relieved when the bear turned down the other side of the mountain and disappeared from view.

I'm guessing this is seasonal

An apparently inflatable gift shop run by the Park Service at another one of our rest stops.

"White dots with discernible legs"

Also known as Dall sheep. Jason, our National Geographic expert, kept pointing these out to us -- almost imperceptible white specks high up on the mountains. Even with binoculars, a non-expert would have a very difficult time identifying them, assuming he or she could even find them.

So we all got very excited when we found this group -- "White dots with discernible legs!" (You will probably have to click on the picture to discern the legs for yourself.)

Here's what they would have looked like up close.


They weren't close by, but only three hours into our visit to Denali, I'd already seen the two animals I most wanted to see: a moose and a grizzly bear.

Mountains, but not THE mountain

We were told that only 30% of the visitors to the park ever see the namesake mountain. It's so huge it has its own weather systems, and even on clear days it often sits behind an impenetrable cloud.

This was not a clear day.

The long and winding road

Denali National Park has 6 million acres of wilderness, and one road, which extends 92 miles from the park entrance to the former mining town of Kantishna.

Only the first fifteen miles of the road are paved, which is why the trip takes six hours. It's dirt and gravel, mostly one wide lane with occasional turnouts for passing. And no guard rails.

Comfort stations

The bathrooms on one of our rest stops. For outhouses, they're kind of cute.


It may still be hot, humid summer back home, but in Denali autumn has arrived.

The variety of color was astonishing -- reds, greens, golds.

I don't think I really had any idea what the tundra might look like. Stark, maybe. Bleak.

Not this.

The perils of permafrost

The trees, already much smaller than in most coniferous forests, became shorter and sparser the farther we went into the park. The permafrost just a few feet below the surface prevents them from putting out deep root systems, and sometimes the trees grow at weird angles because they don't have the roots to keep them upright.

(The quality of these pictures is not perfect but it's still definitely worth while to click on them and see the enlarged versions.)


This is where it gets complicated.

After a picnic lunch (yes, a picnic -- we had a gazebo with a wood fire burning so it was cozier than you might expect) we transferred into a big park bus for the six hour drive to our lodge. I think we were all more excited about spotting moose or maybe grizzlies than we were about the scenery. I thought we'd see some pretty mountains. I hoped we'd see Mount McKinley, despite the overcast skies.

I just had no idea.

The problem here is strictly editorial -- I could easily post forty or fifty stunning landscapes. The sun came and went; it got darker, then lighter; taiga gave way to tundra; and I was mostly shooting through a bus window while bouncing around a gravel road, and yet the pictures almost -- almost -- do justice to the jaw-dropping scenery around every bend of that road.

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