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
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
with unrealistic expectations; because they have read about the
large number of animals in
, 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.
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
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.
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
. (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
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
for the winter, or even to the Lower 48, but a few hardy souls stay
out on the un-maintained
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
, where they will have parked their trucks before the snows set in.
After heating up the vehicles so they will start, they drive
(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
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.
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
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
, 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.
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 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
- not a glimpse. The
Milepost said to watch for moose around mile 58.8, so we continued
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
,’ rather than the tourist one that most visitors see.
Then it was back to the Crazy Dog to struggle with the wood
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
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
We paused to watch a moose in the
water at 50 Mile
, 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.
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
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
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
, at the town of
(population 204), near the
is the most famous and popular park in
, and one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions.
Denali is known for its spectacular scenery, its abundant
wildlife, and for
, which at 20,320 feet is the highest peak in
. 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
. 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.
bears, here we come!
It was evening when we arrived at
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
; 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
, 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
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
(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.
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
. The places we had
visited so far on this trip had been beautiful, but the area around
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
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
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
named Lonnie. The horses
lived in a muddy lot with no shelter; they were very hardy types,
bred to withstand the harsh conditions of
. 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:
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
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
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
, 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
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
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.
We were lucky; from the park road we
got a rare view of
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.