Trip Report and photos from Phyllis Dawson's travels in Alaska, 2008.  Go to the Home page to learn about her Virginia Eventing horse farm, Windchase.


What the Road Passes By
September, 2008
Part 3

Day 5:  September 10
When we got up the next morning it was raining hard.  Jineen was feeling a little bleary eyed after tending the fire every few hours all night.  There was more snow on the mountaintops than the day before.
We had an excellent breakfast at the McLaren Lodge, though of course there were no sourdough pancakes.  Because of the rain we were not in a hurry, so we ended up spending several hours talking with the owners, Alan and Susie, and with some of their guests.  We had a great time hearing their stories, and learning about life in Alaska .
Most of the guests at the lodge were hunters.  In general I am not a fan of hunting for sport or to hang a trophy on the wall; I just can’t identify with people who see a beautiful animal in the wild and simply want to kill it.  But this area was only open to ‘sustenance hunters,’ Alaskan people who come to the area and kill a caribou or moose to provide their family with meat for the winter.  They are allowed to hunt for food only, not trophies - I have no problem with hunting on that basis.  
Alan told us that many tourists come to Alaska with unrealistic expectations; because they have read about the large number of animals in Alaska , they expect to see them everywhere.  But they don’t take into consideration how vast the state is, so they don’t realize that one will probably see more animals per square mile at home in the ‘lower forty-eight.’ 
We talked to several hunters who were trying for a moose; we told them that we were also, but to photograph, not eat.  They generously offered to loan us a gun to take along, in case we changed our minds.

     We were surprised to see a team of sled dogs go down the road, hitched to an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), driven by our host John from the Crazy Dog Kennels.  We asked Alan if the dogs were actually pulling the ATV or if it was going on its own power; he laughed and told us that not only were they pulling it, but that John probably had the brakes on hard.  Apparently sled dogs are very keen about their work, and this is how they train when there is no snow on the ground.  The Denali Highway is a very popular location for training sled dogs.
We found that dog sled racing, or mushing, is a bigger deal than we had realized.  It is the official state sport of Alaska .  (We didn’t know that states even had official sports)  Like everyone, I had heard of the Iditarod, but other than that I didn’t know much about what mushing entails.  In addition to the Iditarod, the other big race in Alaska is the Yukon Quest; both of these are over a thousand miles long, through extremely remote areas and harsh conditions.  To participate, a musher has to complete four qualifier races, at distances of 200 to 500 miles, with checkpoints and mandatory layovers.  There is a list of required equipment they must carry, including camping gear, and food and straw bedding for the dogs.  The temperatures are often double digits below zero, with severe winds and blinding snowstorms.  The rough conditions and hardships these mushers and their sled dogs endure are daunting.  
While on the trip I was reading a book by Jeff King, one of the all-time greats in sled dog racing and winner of multiple Iditarod races, entitled “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.”  It’s a fascinating read, and provides a great insight into the world of dog sled racing – it was interesting to be learning about the sport while traveling through the area where they train.
It was fascinating to learn about what it is like to winter in such a remote place as McLaren.  Most of the people in the area go to Anchorage for the winter, or even to the Lower 48, but a few hardy souls stay out on the un-maintained Denali Highway year round.  Alan and Susie keep the McLaren Lodge open all year, and dog sled mushers are their main winter customers. 
We asked Susie how they buy groceries in the winter; she described the process, a two-day undertaking.  First, they ride a snowmachine (Alaskan for snowmobile) 42 miles to the tiny town of Paxson , where they will have parked their trucks before the snows set in.  After heating up the vehicles so they will start, they drive to Fairbanks (210 miles one way) and stay over night.  In the morning they buy the groceries, drive back to Paxson, then snowmachine home to McLaren.  All this in conditions where the snow might be a dozen feet deep, the temperatures can be as low as 40 below zero, and it is light for only a couple of hours each day.  You have to really want it!
We belatedly understood that there is no electricity anywhere along the Denali Highway at all; the only power is from generators.  Wood stoves would be the standard heating method.  After this realization we started to feel a little more charitable towards the amenities at the Crazy Dog Kennels.   

     The rain diminished to a light drizzle as we set off to hike the McLaren Summit Trail.  We drove up to the crest of the mountain and parked by the road.  The path stretched before us, winding along the top of the ridge, overlooking the valley and the McLaren River far below. 

     There were impressive views in every direction.  To our right, half a dozen silver lakes were surrounded by open rolling slopes, with snow topped mountains receding into the distance.  The landscape was somewhat barren, consisting of rock and tundra covered with small shrubs; there were no trees on these high slopes. To the left we looked down over the steep descent to the valley below, where the river lay glistening in serpentine curves.   
We hiked for about four hours along the ridge without seeing another soul, except one caribou, an artic ground squirrel and a few birds.  Our rain pants did their job; it was 42 degrees and raining intermittently, but we were comfortable.  We crossed the tundra to the nearest lake and lingered by the shore - it was very quiet, serene.  Occasionally the mist and clouds lifted long enough for us to catch a glimpse of the McLaren Glacier in the distance. 

     The tundra was a palette of gold, red and stone.  At this elevation it was probably a week past the peak autumn colors; the branches of the bushes showed black through the thinning leaves, and the only green we could see was in the spruce trees by the river far below.  Occasionally the sun broke through, and when it did the tundra glowed golden. 
Twice we heard a sudden crashing boom; we could not imagine its source.  It was way too loud to be a hunter’s gun - it made the ground shake.  We looked to see if there was a mushroom cloud forming over what had once been Anchorage , but we saw nothing.  (We later learned that the sound came from military jets on practice maneuvers, breaking the sound barrier.)  
We enjoyed the solitude as we traversed the ridge.  Eventually the trail climbed over a series of knolls and hillocks, and finally petered out to nothing.  We picked our way across the trackless tundra for a while, but having covered almost four miles, it was time to turn around and head back. 

     We returned to our car, which was by now extremely dirty – perhaps the Dollar people wouldn’t notice the thick coat of grime and gravel residue cemented to the fenders.  It could have been worse though; on the way down the mountain we saw a car that had gone over the edge of the road, and was hanging precariously balanced on a steep slope, with only some small willow bushes preventing it from rolling over the precipice.  We went back down to the McLaren Lodge for some hot tea and conversation; plans for retrieving the car from the cliff were under way.  We drove east again to Tangle Lakes to fill our tank with gas.  Then it was time for some serious moose hunting.  

     We headed west again, checking every pond and thicket for moose along the way.  Nothing.  We went past McLaren and out to 50 Mile Lake - not a glimpse.  The Milepost said to watch for moose around mile 58.8, so we continued on west. 
Sure enough, as we neared milepost 59 we were driving along slowly, scouting for wildlife, when we looked to our right and saw a bull moose eating willow shrubs about 100 yards from the road.  We stopped and watched, expecting him to run off at any second.  Incredibly, he moved closer.  He grazed his way over toward us - before long he was less than 50 feet away.  He was about to cross the road when at the last moment he saw us; he stopped and stared - surely now he would bolt!  But instead he turned away and started rubbing his wide flat antlers (called paddles) on a post. 


     He amused himself this way for several long minutes, and then he turned back towards us again, walked delicately down the bank, and ambled across the road not 30 feet in front of us.  We were both out of the car taking photos like mad; he stopped and posed in the middle of the road, giving us a perfect profile.  He stood while we got our shots, making sure we got his best side; then he turned and came even closer.  He was no more that 15 feet away, and I was just starting to wonder if perhaps I should be scared (all the guidebooks say that more people are injured by moose in Alaska than by bears), but then he veered off the roadway and quietly disappeared into the willow thicket.  What an unbelievable moose sighting!  We couldn’t believe our luck.

     We could hardly wait to get back to the McLaren Lodge at dinnertime and tell the hunters about our encounter.  “We got one, we got one, we bagged our moose!” we bragged to them as we came into the lodge, and showed them the photos on our camera screens.  They were impressed; it seems they had hunted all day with nary a sighting.  Of course, we didn’t tell them exactly where we had seen him . . .     
We had a great dinner with plenty of good talk; we were getting extremely attached to the McLaren Lodge and the people there.  We felt like we had gotten a great opportunity to experience the ‘real Alaska ,’ rather than the tourist one that most visitors see.  Then it was back to the Crazy Dog to struggle with the wood stove damper.

Day 6:  September 11
We woke up early to more rain.  The snowline up on the mountains had moved further down – it was a little lower each day.  We said goodbye with some regret to everyone at the McLaren Lodge, and headed west again on the Denali Highway .  
We had been given information on several good places to hike, but it was perhaps the most miserable weather on the trip so far, a soggy 35 degrees, so we decided to keep driving.  
We paused to watch a moose in the water at 50 Mile Lake , along with the usual assortment of waterfowl.  But by now, having enjoyed good moose and caribou sightings, we were set on finding bears.
Soon we were passing through countryside we hadn’t yet seen.  The elevation was lower, and the valleys were thick with spruce trees and willows.  Here the vivid autumn colors were still at their peak; red, gold and green covered the landscape as the mountains faded in and out of the lowering mist.  The Milepost told us to watch for bears on the steep mountainsides along this stretch of road – we stopped often to glass the rain washed slopes carefully, but no bears were in sight.


     We turned off on the Valdez Creek Mine road, which wound through a series of long valleys up into the mountains.  This little gravel track crossed several open water fords as it paralleled the river between steep-sided slopes; it was very secluded and quite beautiful.  After about ten miles we came to a creek crossing that was too deep and swift to attempt, so we turned around and returned to the highway. 
In the afternoon it warmed up to a temperate 46 degrees.  The clouds lifted a little, revealing an occasional patch of blue and a few rays of sunshine.  We saw three caribou in the Susitna River valley, as well as plenty of swans and a few ducks.  No bear though.
We stopped for a Coke at the Gracious House at mile 85, the first lodge or store since McLaren.  We found its overblown cutesy country décor vaguely disturbing and a bit creepy, and were glad we had not roomed there.  The restaurant was surrounded with plastic flowers and tacky knick knacks, but the lunch counter was occupied by a rough looking crowd.  We were able to fill our rental car with gas, though it was covered with such a thick layer of mud and grime from the road that we could barely find the gas tank cap.
As we proceeded west the highway became very rough; we bounced and rattled our way over long stretches of washboard road pitted with huge potholes.  We couldn’t imagine why the Dollar Rental Car people didn’t want their vehicles on these gravel roads!  But presently we came to the end of the Denali Highway , at the town of Cantwell (population 204), near the Denali National Park .

     The Denali National Park is the most famous and popular park in Alaska , and one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions.  Denali is known for its spectacular scenery, its abundant wildlife, and for Mount McKinley , which at 20,320 feet is the highest peak in North America .  The park encompasses six million acres of wilderness, and is accessed only by one 90 mile long road.  We had been told that the park was a ‘must see,’ but the problem is access.  Visitors are not allowed to drive their cars through the park past the 14 mile mark; to go any further you must ride the bus.
Now both Jineen and I happen to have an aversion to buses.  We also don’t like crowds or ‘touristy’ places, so it seemed it would be best to avoid Denali National Park .  But everyone we talked to told us that the park was fabulous, and that it was an experience not to be missed.  They said riding the bus was our best way to view wildlife, and that we would almost certainly see bears.  We studied the guidebook; the park buses run continuously, and you can get off wherever you like to go hiking, and then catch another bus later to return.  There is no hunting in the park and the animals are used to the buses and tourists, so they become quite unafraid, and often can be seen close to the road.  So after much deliberation, we decided to suck it up and ride the bus through the park.  In fact, once we made that decision, we became quite excited at the prospect - we could hardly wait.  Denali bears, here we come!
It was evening when we arrived at the Denali National Park visitor center to buy our bus passes for the next morning – only to find that we were too late!  That very day had been the last that the buses ran through the park for the year.  We learned that there had been a lottery held in July, where 400 cars were chosen to be allowed to drive the park road for the next three days, the last days of the season, after which the park would be closed for the winter.  We were disappointed; having finally convinced ourselves that we did indeed want to ride the bus through the park, now we were unable to do so.  

But what we really wanted to do was drive our own car through Denali ; we wished we had known about that lottery!  We discussed several scenarios involving hitchhiking, lottery ticket theft, kidnapping, and carjacking, but in the end we settled for driving the first 14 miles of the Park Road , which was open to all traffic. 

     The scenery was absolutely stunning.  The tree-clad slopes were brilliant with autumn foliage, and the rugged mountains beyond were topped with snow.  We saw several moose in the distance, and there were Dall sheep high up on a very steep mountainside.  It was getting on toward dusk as we drove slowly through the park, pausing often to admire the scenery and glass for animals.  We kept a close watch for bears, to no avail.  It was dark by the time we turned around at the river bridge at mile 14. 
A cluster of cars were parked by the road, so we stopped to see what everyone was looking at.  In the fading light we saw a huge bull moose, not too far from the road.  The size of his paddles was incredible; we wondered how he could even lift his head.  We drove back out of the park, went south on Highway 3 to Carlo Creek (population 54), and checked into our lodging for the night.  
We were staying at the McKinley Creekside Cabins, which boasted nice cozy private cabins and an excellent restaurant, the Creekside Cafe.  The menu looked great, but upon ordering we found that they were out of most of the
entrées; this was because we were in the very last days of the tourist season, and they were getting ready to close for the winter.  For most of the lodges and restaurants in this region, September 15 was the cut-off date, when everyone closed shop and went somewhere warmer for the winter. 

Day 7:  September 12 
It rained all night - at times we could hear it pouring - and we woke up to more rain.  But before long the clouds started to lift, and we could see some promising patches of blue.  
We drove past the park entrance and north to the town of Healy .  The places we had visited so far on this trip had been beautiful, but the area around Denali was in a whole different class.  It was breathtaking – we could see why they picked this place to make a national park.  Shafts of sunlight broke free of the clouds and illuminated the mountaintops.


     We noticed that our rental car was driving much better now.  It had stopped pulling to the left, and it no longer shimmied when you reached 55 mph.  It also seemed to have more power up the hills than at the beginning of the trip.  Apparently our long trek over the rough gravel roads and rocky wilderness tracks of Alaska had fixed it!  Perhaps we should send the Dollar Rental Car people a bill.

     We had booked a half-day ride at the ‘Denali Saddle Safaris’ in Healy.  Our guide was a 20 year old girl from Fairbanks named Lonnie.  The horses lived in a muddy lot with no shelter; they were very hardy types, bred to withstand the harsh conditions of Alaska .  As we waited while the western tack was put on our mounts, we read the large sign posting the rules; I particularly liked Number 5:  No screaming.
My horse was a big grey Percheron cross named Lonesome, and Jineen was given a Belgian cross called Skeeter.  Since it was just Jineen and I on the ride, Lonnie talked her boss into letting us go up the mountain, a route they don’t usually take clients on.    
The day had turned nice, with mixed clouds and sunshine; probably the best weather we had seen since the very first morning.  We set off across the tundra; it was incredibly wet and deep, and the horses were sinking in over their knees and hocks.  We proceeded slowly through the treacherous footing - the horses knew how to pick their way through the boggy tundra and avoid the sink holes.  We felt kind of sorry for the horses; Lonesome kept trying to turn around and go back.  There is no way our own horses at home would have made it in this going – they would have pulled their shoes and probably their tendons in the first five minutes. 
After about an hour of crossing the soggy tundra, we finally reached higher ground.  Our path became firm and rocky as we started up the mountainside.  Once we were out of the bog and on better ground Lonesome started to show more enthusiasm for the ride.  In fact, the horses seemed to really enjoy the mountain trail; Lonnie told us they don’t get to go up there often.  
All the way up the scenery was beautiful.  The higher we climbed, the more the vistas opened up in all directions.  Looking back the way we had come, we could see the barns and buildings where we had started, tiny dots far below us. 

     Finally we came to the top of the ridge and dismounted.  We stood looking out, a strong wind in our faces, the sun on our shoulders, and the world at our feet.  I felt like I could fly - no wonder eagles soar the high places.  It was extraordinary.  We looked down over the river valley on the far side; there was no sign of civilization in that direction, just wilderness.  Mountains surrounded the pristine river valley, with tall snowy peaks in the background.  One of the great things about Alaska is that you can still visit places that few people have seen.  I wanted to head down across that valley and just keep going, to ride forever, exploring.

     We held the horses and let them munch on the willow shrubs.  Lonnie had brought granola bars along for a snack - Lonesome got most of mine.  Being on that high plateau was incredible; I could have stayed there all day.  But unfortunately time doesn’t stand still, and after about 20 minutes we had to head back.  Lonesome was much more eager on the way down.
On the way home we followed a creek down through a ravine thick with golden aspen trees.  The footing was wet and slippery, and the horses picked their way along carefully.  Presently we came across fresh bear tracks, so we had to leave the creekbed and go back to the boggy tundra - Jineen and I wanted to stay in the ravine and try to find the bear, but Lonnie would have none of it.  After four hours on the trail, we returned to the home base of Denali Saddle Safaris.  It had been an unbelievably fabulous ride.

     Lonnie had told us that Dragonfly Creek was a good place for a short hike, so we decided to give it a try.  We parked by the road and walked up the creekbed.  The path was small and little traveled; it followed the stream, climbing up over rocks and fallen trees as it wound up the mountainside.  It seemed like a place where bears might lurk, but we weren’t really too keen to meet one here at close quarters.  We returned to the car after a couple of hours.

     Again following a tip from Lonnie, we drove to the end of Healy Road , and continued on when it changed to gravel.  The road wound along by a river, and clay cliffs towered above.  We reached a dead end and turned around, but on our way back we noticed a small side road that we had missed; perhaps unwisely, we turned onto it and headed uphill.  As we climbed, the road became smaller and rougher (there we go again, Dollar people), ascending the mountainside in a series of switchbacks.  Incredible landscapes lay before us at every turn. 

     We crossed several places where the road had eroded away.  Along the top of a cliff, there were large chunks of the road missing, where it had evidently fallen into the valley below.  I hoped we wouldn’t do the same.  I held my breath as I eased the car through a narrow gap where half a road remained between a running stream on the right and a sheer drop-off of hundreds of feet to the left.  
Soon the road was no more than a rough jeep track.  We were starting to realize that this was not a good idea.  We had no choice but to continue up the mountain; there was no place to turn around, and I couldn’t stop for fear of getting stuck.  Soon the track was so steep that I was sure the car would either stall out or roll down the mountain backwards.  We veered back and forth, wheels spinning in the slick mud; I didn’t dare take my foot off the accelerator.  I was clutching the steering wheel white knuckled, sure that disaster was imminent.  How would we explain this to the Dollar people?  No rental cars on gravel roads - could this be why?  
Somehow we finally made it to the top of the ridge – barely – and breathed a sigh of relief.  We got out for a look around; the view was totally breathtaking, and we felt like we were on the top of the world.  The wind threatened to blow us away, but the feeling was exhilarating.  The panorama of high mountains all around us was incredible, and the winding river below shone silver in the late afternoon sun as it snaked its way through the valley.   

     But now we had to get back down.  I sat behind the wheel looking at where the road dropped over the edge – it looked even steeper heading down.  I wasn’t sure if the car would be able to get traction on the slippery road; sliding at all sideways would mean at best going into the ditch and being stuck miles from the nearest civilization in a rental car that is required to stay on pavement, and at worst, sliding over the cliff edge.  This was not good. 

     I asked Jineen if she wanted to drive for a while, but she declined.  Oh well, I thought, here goes nothing!  Breathing suddenly became harder.  I cautiously eased the wheels over the rim, riding the brake hard and barely creeping forward as we headed down the steep mountainside.  But I needn’t have worried; the tires gripped the road and our brave little car went down that treacherous slope like a champ.  Keeping our speed to approximately one mile per hour, eventually we made it to the bottom.  We took back anything negative we had ever said about our valiant little rental car – it had performed admirably.  It was not, however, any cleaner for the experience.

     Before heading back to Carlo Creek and our lodging for the night, we again drove the Denali Park Road to mile 14, as far as motorists are allowed to go.  There were few animals out; we saw only a couple of distant moose, 15 Dall sheep high on a mountainside, and one rabbit.  No bears.
We were lucky; from the park road we got a rare view of Mt. McKinley in the distance, sitting regally in the twilight.  Its snow covered heights rose above the surrounding peaks, and pink clouds shrouded the summit.  Even from so far away, we could get an inkling of how vast and mighty it is.  We felt a little insignificant.  
We returned to the McKinley Creekside Cabins and had dinner at the café.  We reflected on what an amazing day it had been.