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 4

Day 8:  September 13 

It was raining when we got up in the morning.  A white-footed bunny rabbit was hopping around among the cabins; I stalked him to get a photo.  We later learned he was a snowshoe hare, and his white feet marked the beginning of his coat turning pure white for the winter.  We had delicious non-sourdough wild blueberry pancakes for breakfast at the café.


     The clouds started to lift a little, showing occasional patches of blue sky.  We drove up the Denali Park road once more; there wasn’t much wildlife about, but we got a view of Mt. McKinley again, bright in the morning light.

     Our plan for the day was to hike Mt. Healy , a sizeable mountain right on the edge of the Denali National Park .  This hike was listed in our guidebook and had also been recommended by several local people, but rather than the more conventional access from the park entrance, we were taking the back route up, from Bison’s Gulch.  
Our directions said to take the trail up from the little car park by the road, but we were immediately faced with a choice of three trails.  We chose the left hand path, which seemed the clearest; it wound through dense willow thickets before merging with the middle trail and coming out alongside the creek.  We surmised that the trail would follow the creekbed for a while before climbing up to the right to traverse the top of the ridge, so we should be on track.  But the path out of the creek never appeared, and by the time we figured out that we weren’t really on the Mt. Healy trail at all but instead just scrambling up the stream bed of Bison’s Gulch, we had come too far to want to turn around.  We carried on up the creek (pun intended).  If we were looking for the ‘road less traveled’ then we had certainly succeeded; we didn’t see another soul for the entire hike, nor indeed, any sign that anyone had ever come this way before.   
Though the creek itself was small, the rocky streambed was fairly wide; we had no doubt that during spring snowmelt a raging torrent must come roaring down through the gulch.  We clambered up over the rocks, crossing the stream many times.  Our progress was slow, but we kept moving steadily forward, ever climbing.  Every so often we paused and looked back; we could catch glimpses of the valley we had left below, and we were amazed by how far we had come.  Ahead we could see steep mountainsides towering above the creek bed, and Dall sheep high on the slopes.
We climbed for what seemed like forever.  The higher we went the steeper our path became.  In places the gorge narrowed and the walls were sheer.  We scrambled up the watercourse, the rocks wet and slippery in places, and often unstable under our feet.  As we gained altitude the going was much rougher, and the wind became very strong.  Looking up from the gulch, we saw that we were much closer to the sheep now.   
We came across a pair of horns from a Dall sheep; they seemed to have been left there just for us to find.  How long had they lain there by the creek, waiting for some passerby?  We never did find out how the horns came to be so conveniently in our path, but we decided they represented “the spirit of the ram” and would protect us from harm.  We took them with us, Jineen carrying them on the back of her pack.


     The creek narrowed as we followed it to its source high on the mountainside.  We were level with the sheep that grazed on the steep slope on the other side of a ravine.  The streambed split; exploring the right hand side and finding it impassable, we took the left fork and continued upward. 
Soon we had climbed well above the start of the creek, and there was no longer a clear route to follow.  We tried to pick the path of least resistance, but our course was becoming more and more difficult.  We weren’t sure if it was possible to get to the top, but having come so far, we were determined to give it our best try.  "Because it's there" said George Mallory about climbing Everest.  Whatever was he thinking!?!

     The final slope was seriously steep.  We scrambled up over the rocks and loose scree, using our hands as well as our feet, our hearts pounding and our legs trembling with fatigue.  We were barely able to keep our footing, and we worried about how we would get back down.  The wind was gusting so strong that we feared it would blow us off the mountain.  We were now looking down at the sheep. 

     The last fifty yards about killed us.  Finally we made it to the top on legs of rubber.  We came out on an open expanse on the ridge, where we were rewarded for our effort with an amazing panoramic view.  We sat on the shoulder of the mountain and looked out over the valley lying serene below us, and the majestic mountains rising beyond.  It was an almost spiritual experience.  We looked down on creation.  We had climbed Mt. Healy by a unique route, and we wondered how many people before us had ever come that same way, and if any of them had ever stood just where we stood and looked out on the very same view.

      The wind was relentless and the air was cold, so we couldn’t linger at the top for too long.  We were apprehensive about making our way down that final steep slope, but it proved to be easier than we  thought; we carefully traversed back and forth until we were on less treacherous ground.  Presently we came to the source of the stream and started following the creekbed back down.  We surprised a pair of ptarmigan, their mottled feathers in the process of changing from grey to white, affording them a perfect camouflage among the rocks.  We found an indented place under a cliff that was somewhat sheltered from the wind, and had a brief picnic of bread and cheese from our packs.    


       As we made our way down the creekbed, we saw that the Dall sheep had moved lower, nearer to the gully - we figured they sensed our “spirit of the ram” protection, and were therefore drawn to us.  We watched them for a while, until they decided we were unacceptably close and fled across the steep mountainside.  We were keeping a keen eye out for bear signs; we found none, but we did see a wolf track in the wet sand alongside the creek.  
Going up the mountain requires more energy and work, but going down can be harder on certain leg muscles.  Our legs were definitely trembling with fatigue well before we finished the long downhill scramble through the gulch.  Eventually we made it to the bottom, exhausted, six hours after we had set out - four hours to get to the top and two to come down.  We sat in our car at the base of the mountain with a real feeling of accomplishment, looking up at the summit of Mt. Healy far above us, and marveling at the climb we had made.   

     We grabbed a quick dinner at the Creekside Café, and then drove 90 miles south to our accommodations for the night, Mary’s McKinley View Lodge.  It was founded by Mary Carey, a locally famous woman who homesteaded the land in the early 1960s.  She was an accomplished journalist and author who led a very adventurous life, which is now being turned into a movie.  I later read one of her books, ‘ Alaska , Not for a Woman,’ and really enjoyed learning about her history.  We were looking forward to a night at Mary’s lodge, which is now owned and run by her daughter Jean.        
It was late when we arrived, and we were tired.  The lodge did not at all match the image we had of it in our minds.  The website had described it as a charming authentic Alaskan Lodge with a homey atmosphere, and so it probably had been once, but now it was run-down and shabby.   
We were given directions to our room.  We got our suitcases out of the car and lugged them through the rain and up the front stairs, along a narrow cluttered hallway, and through some sort of weird utility room.  There were boxes stacked in the hallways, and the laundry room looked sinister.  We continued down some stairs, back outside, around a corner and up a cold wet hallway - only to discover, when we finally found our room, that it had not been cleaned or made up.  Retracing our steps back to the office, we told the owner Jean about the condition of the room; she vehemently hissed “I’m going to kill her!”  We hoped she was talking about the maid, and not us.  
We were given the key to another room.  We followed the route once more, this time dragging our luggage down yet another set of steps to the basement level – where we found that the key would not unlock the door to our new room.  This was getting ridiculous.  
Back up the various stairs and hallways again; this time we were helped by the guy who worked there, Mary Carey’s grandson.  Muttering something about ‘this hellhole is going to the dogs,’ he managed to wrestle open our door with a crowbar or something, and suggested that we might not want to lock it again if we didn’t want to be imprisoned forever.   
Our room was kind of creepy, with cement walls and ancient Venetian blinds that didn’t work.  The inn was founded in the early 1960s, and it seemed evident that they had not changed the mattresses since then.  Because of the drive we had not yet had happy hour, so we decided to partake there in the ambiance of our room.  We opened the bottle of Wild Rose Honey wine that we had bought on the first day, the only actual Alaskan wine we had found.  It tasted awful, and after a few sips we pronounced it undrinkable; we left the rest of the bottle for the maid who hadn’t cleaned our room - we figured she deserved it.

Day 9:  September 14
When we woke up in the morning it was raining; what a surprise.  This was to be our last full day in Alaska ; we would fly out the following evening.  We had breakfast at Mary’s cafe, which being a favorite lunch stop for the tour buses, was very modern and nice, in stark contrast with the lodging.  Like most of the places near Denali , they were getting ready to close for the winter; the following day would be the last day of the season.
The ad in the Milepost for Mary’s McKinley View Lodge said that there was a view of the famous peak from every room, but this morning we could see nothing but clouds.  There was a huge picture window in the café to view Mt. McKinley when it was visible, which we learned from our waitress was only about 20 percent of the time.  We visited the gift shop, then donned our rain suits and set out to look for bears.

     We had hoped to hike on Kesugi Ridge, said to be a strenuous but spectacular hike when the weather is good, with fabulous views of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range .  But the dense clouds and steady rain made it considerably less appealing, so we decided to leave it for another trip.  Instead, we thought, this was the day to see bears.  We headed to Lower Troublesome Creek in search of them.  
Troublesome Creek is notorious as an area where bears are prevalent, and there were many cautionary signs at the trailhead.  In the past the Park Service has closed off this area to hikers during salmon spawning because of the danger from bears, but recently they have discontinued this practice, and relied on just posting notices reminding hikers of proper bear etiquette.  The advice we had heard most often was to make plenty of noise while hiking; talk, wear bells, call out “Hello Mr. Bear” at intervals - anything to avoid surprising a bear.  Apparently most bear attacks happen as a result of people startling the bears; if they hear you coming they will move away and avoid confrontation.  But of course the drawback to that, aside from feeling sort of stupid calling out “Hello Mr. Bear” all the time, is that if you make noise to give the bears fair warning, then you don’t actually get to see them.    
We hiked along the stream amid woods and dense underbrush.  Soon we came to a spot where the trail led down to the side of the creek, and we crossed to a little gravel bar island.  There we found bear tracks, the first we had seen while out hiking alone.  With backward glances over our shoulders, we checked that our pepper spray was within easy reach and proceeded cautiously.
Presently we came out of the woods to where the stream joined a broad river.  An eagle was sitting in a tree overlooking the water, and hundreds of King salmon were struggling upstream to spawn.  The shoreline was covered with fresh bear tracks.  We saw several recently killed and half eaten salmon beside the river; it appeared that the bears had breakfasted there, perhaps only moments before.  We hoped that meant they wouldn’t be hungry!  It occurred to us that they could be watching us from the dense underbrush at this very moment.  Possibly being out here wasn’t the smartest course of action.  “Hello Mr. Bear . . .”

     We had a dilemma.  We really wanted to see a bear, but then again we didn’t want to see one too close.  We couldn’t resist the chance - we had to go looking for them.  But being eaten by a bear seemed a particularly poor way to go.  We decided that for safety’s sake we had better leave Lower Troublesome Creek - so instead we went to Upper Troublesome Creek, even more renowned for its bear population.
Again there were notices with bear advice on the ranger bulletin board:  Talk and make lots of noise, don’t carry food or wear clothes that smell like food, avoid mothers with cubs, avoid streams while salmon are spawning, don’t take close-up photos of bears. . . I really did want a good bear photo; I pondered over how close was too close.
While planning the trip, I’d had a phone conversation with an Alaskan guide who lived in this area, and I asked him about encountering bears.  He advised that we wear bells to alert them of our presence, and that we carry pepper spray for protection.  He also talked about the difference between black bears and brown (known as grizzly) bears.  Apparently black bears sometimes actually hunt people for food, while grizzlies just maul you for the heck of it.  The guide said, “Everyone comes up here worrying about the grizzly bears.  But it’s the blacks you have to watch; a black bear will stalk you and eat you, while a grizzly usually just ruins your day.”   
I also had some concerns about the effectiveness of his suggested precautions.  I suppose the bells can be heard for some distance, but for the pepper spray to work, you are supposed to spray it into the face of a charging bear from a distance of 15 feet or less.  I figured that was definitely too close. 
This train of thought reminded me of a notice I saw on the Internet.  It had to do with interpreting bear signs, and how to distinguish between black and brown bears that might be in the area from their droppings.  It stated that black bear dung is smaller and often contains berries and animal fur.  Grizzly bear dung is larger, has little bells in it and smells like pepper.

At Upper Troublesome Creek, we walked through the forest in the rain.  It was a different type of woods than we had seen so far on this trip, more like a rainforest, with large trees hung with what looked like Spanish moss.  There were lots of ferns, the kind that bears like to sleep in, and plenty of berries, the kind that bears like to eat.  We followed a path down a steep incline to the river. We again saw many bear footprints, and numerous paths through the undergrowth where the wet ferns were bent over, as if something large had recently passed through.  We had our bear spray in hand, but our bells were muted.  We talked softly while we walked as sort of a compromise – maybe we better give them some warning.

     For better or for worse, we saw no bears.  Probably just as well.  We would just have to make do with our sightings of bear tracks, bear scat, half eaten salmon, and flattened down places in the undergrowth where bears had recently walked and slept.  We had been having a great time despite this small disappointment; we finally accepted the fact that we were just not going to see bears on this trip.  The bummer was that we knew the first thing everyone would ask us when we got home was, “Did you see a bear?”  Oh well. 

     Leaving bear country, we headed south.  We stopped by the historic town of Talkeetna to check it out, but it seemed to have become somewhat of a tourist trap, and was full of people from the bus tours coming to shop.  We didn’t linger.
Our trip had taken us on a circuitous route east and north of Anchorage , and now we were getting near where we had started.  We headed east on the Fishhook-Willow Road, ending up at Hatcher’s Pass again, close to where we had hiked on the first day.  The scenery was stunning, even in the mist and rain.  The narrow gravel road climbed to the top of the pass in a series of steep switchbacks; there was no guard rail, and the drop-offs were many hundreds of feet.  We were very much struck by the beauty of the area – we had somehow almost forgotten how spectacular it was.
We stopped on the summit and had our happy hour and dinner.  We ate sub sandwiches we had bought that morning, and we drank some Cloudy Bay chardonnay, a top rate New Zealand wine that we had gotten at the beginning of the trip.  We stayed the night in an excellent cabin at the Hatcher’s Pass B&B.

Day 10:  September 15
We woke up early on our last morning in Alaska , and guess what – it wasn’t raining!  We couldn’t believe our good fortune.  This was the only rain-free morning we had seen since the very first day.  We were scheduled to fly out of Anchorage , but not until 10:00 that night, so we had one last day to enjoy.  We grabbed coffee and cupcakes at the local gas station, and went back up Hatcher’s Pass to hike the Fairangel Lakes Trail. 
We drove up Archangel Road ; it was so incredibly beautiful that the drive alone was enough to make the morning special.  We were on a very narrow, rough gravel road, full of pot holes, broken culverts, and treacherous rocks just waiting to take out an oil pan.  But by now our little Dollar car was undaunted by such trivial obstacles.  
The scenery was spectacular, and every bend in the road brought new vistas.  Our route wound back between the mountains through a series of steep sided valleys, before ending at a gate that was posted, “Feet Only.”   There we found the trailhead for Fairangel Lakes .

     The trail began by winding down through the willow bushes, passing an old abandoned mining cabin, and crossing Fairangel Creek.  We picked blueberries along the way, now fully ripe and much better than the ones we had sampled ten days earlier.  We followed the narrow path as it passed several beaver ponds and small lakes, and then climbed up through a hanging valley along the creek.


     The landscape was fabulous all along the way - it was much more beautiful than I can possibly describe.  The colors were vivid; the tundra was painted with greens, reds, and golds, contrasting with the bluish gray of the granite, and the mountains were topped with new white.  As we climbed higher, we could look down on the valley and admire the mountains from ever changing perspectives.  It was like we had the world to ourselves - we didn’t meet anyone the whole day except two marmots. 

     As we neared the top the way became very steep, and in places it was quite slippery - we carefully picked our way over the boulders on the trickier spots.  The ascent gave us a good workout, but we’d had a bit of training so to speak during the last ten days.  Presently we came out on a high plateau where a small lake was nestled between the surrounding peaks; this was Lower Fairangel Lake .  It was a tranquil spot, with panoramic views of the valley below and the snow-tipped mountains beyond.  A perfect lunch spot, but that would have to wait - we hadn’t reached the upper lake yet.


     We continued up the steep rocky slope, well above the lake, until we came out on a barren rock outcropping, where the remains of an old miner’s cabin lay.  We were at the snowline, and the air felt very much colder.  We stood shivering beside the fallen timbers of the cabin, looking down into the vale beyond it at the brilliant turquoise waters of the glacier-fed Upper Fairangel Lake .  We thought about the miner who would have lived in this cabin in the early 1900s and prospected for gold in these mountains, and the incredible hardship and loneliness he must have endured.


     We went back down to Lower Fairangel Lake , where we sat on a large rock and picnicked on trail mix and brownies.  We reflected on what an amazing hike it had been, perhaps our best one yet.  On the way back down the trail we were able to enjoy the beauty of this spectacular valley and the changing perspectives all over again.

     We went back to the Hatcher’s Pass B&B to shower and finish packing, and then made the two hour drive back to Anchorage .  Reaching the city around 5:00, we still had about four hours until we had to be at the airport, so we decided to head south of the city and explore a bit.
We drove along the shore of the Turnagain Arm, a body of water branching off of the Cook Inlet .  The Milepost told us that it has a tidal fluctuation of as much as 33 feet, and the water level can rise extremely fast.  Many people have drowned by going out on the mud flats at low tide, then being unable to reach safety in time when the bore tide comes rushing in.

     The weather was overcast and the water appeared gray.  Tall mountains with snowy tops rose up steeply on the other side of the inlet, partially obscured by heavy mists.  Highway 1 went right along the edge of the water, and the railroad track paralleled it.  The Milepost said that you can sometimes see dolphins and beluga whales in Turnagain Arm, but though we stopped several times to glass the waters, all we saw were seagulls and bald eagles, flying along in search of fish. 

Portage Glacier

     We saw a sign for Portage Glacier, so we turned down the small side road to take a look.  The glacier was quite large, with many branches of blue-green ice visible creeping down the mountainsides.  Tiny icebergs floated in the lake below it.  Even though Portage Glacier is close to Anchorage and is a big tourist attraction, being both late in the day and late in the season, the area was pretty much deserted.  We had the road to ourselves.    
We checked out the Whittier tunnel; it was completed just a few years ago to connect the town of Whittier to the Alaskan road system.  We contemplated driving through the tunnel, but there was a hefty toll so we didn’t bother.  It was around seven o’clock and just starting to get dark; we would have to think about heading to the airport before long.  We turned around and started back toward Anchorage , driving slowly and looking for a likely spot for happy hour while reflecting on what a great trip it had been.

     Jineen was driving as we approached a bridge over a small river.  To our right, about 300 yards upstream, was a trestle where the railroad track crossed the river and entered a tunnel into the side of the mountain.  Suddenly Jineen let out a shriek and slammed on the brakes.  She had spotted, to our utter astonishment, a bear.  Well, actually, four bears.  A mother black bear and her three cubs were crossing the railroad trestle over the river!  We couldn’t believe our eyes. 

     We watched from a distance as the family made their way along the trestle.  When they got about a third of the way across, suddenly the mother turned around and brought the three cubs back off the bridge.  They walked down the embankment and disappeared into the bushes.  About a minute later we heard a train coming; it crossed the trestle and vanished into the tunnel.  The mother bear must have felt the vibrations of the approaching train, and that is why she reversed course and brought her babies back down off of the tracks.  Unbelievable!  After having pretty much given up on it, we had finally seen our bear.  In fact, a whole family of bears!  What unbelievably good luck.  
Hoping that we might get another glimpse of the bear family, we parked the car, poured a glass of wine, and settled down for happy hour.  We thought if we waited a while they might appear again, and sure enough, after about 15 minutes they briefly emerged down by the rivers edge, now a little closer to us.  They paused by the shore before disappearing again into the dense willow thickets.  
I got out of the car and walked ahead to the bridge to see if I could catch a glimpse of the bears from that viewpoint.  To my astonishment, I found that they had worked their way down the river towards us; they were now beside the water less than 100 feet from where I stood on the bridge.  I turned back to the car, wildly beckoning to Jineen while trying to avoid making noise that would frighten the bears.  By the time Jineen joined me on the bridge, they had slipped back into the underbrush again, out of sight.   

     We waited, and soon our patience paid off.  To our amazement and lasting delight, the mother bear once again emerged from the undergrowth and stood by the river, but closer now, right next to the bridge, no more than 50 feet from us.  Her cubs snuffled around among the boulders at her feet.  It was really the perfect bear sighting; normally it would be very dangerous to be so close to a mother bear with her cubs, but because of our position on the bridge we felt safe.  And we got our close-up bear photos!     

     The mother bear stood poised on the rocks, sniffing the air and looking around - and then suddenly she saw us.  She stood motionless, silhouetted against the turquoise waters of the glacial river.  For several timeless moments she made eye contact, staring right at us.  Somehow she seemed to understand that we were no threat to her family.  It was sheer magic.  Presently she and her cubs turned away and moved off through the thickets, disappearing into the gathering darkness.  Jineen and I got back into the car and slowly headed north, following the shore of the Turnagain Arm toward Anchorage , toward the airport, toward the plane to take us home.

“How long the road is.
But for all the time the journey has already taken,
How you have needed every second of it in order to learn
What the road passes by.”

               ~ Dag Hammarskjöld ~


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