Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Best Of Denali

I thought I’d start this post about our days in Denali National Park with the best wildlife pictures we were able to take from the park bus.

Wildlife on the roads were far more common in the past when people fed them. But now the bears still like to take the easy path, and ramble down the roads instead of crashing through the tangled brush. We were lucky to see these three:

 Bears are generally solitary animals except for mothers with cubs, and pairs during the mating season. These were probably a set of three year old siblings, who had left their mother this summer, and were still hanging out together.

They are opportunist omnivores and will eat almost anything. They were carrying around the carcass of a snowshoe hare.

This one had possession of it, and after tearing it up a bit, he eventually left with most of it and moved on with the others, leaving a scrap or two on the road.  A magpie quickly took advantage of this nourishing find.

Most private vehicles are only allowed to drive 15 miles into the park. We were allowed to drive the Alfa in 30 miles to the Teklanika campground where we had made reservations eight months ago.

We  also purchased our bus tickets in advance ($34 each), and because we were at the campground we were able to use it on multiple days, which we did. 

On Friday and Saturday we spent a total of fourteen hours on the bus, broken up by a few rest stops and one short hike.

The bus seating is very tight, and the double windows are sometimes hard to see out of, particularly when most of the 48 passengers are up trying to take pictures out of them. But it is one of the only ways for the public to see the park.

The following pictures are the best of those Craig was able to take with his Nikon D3 and Tamron 28-300 lens. They have all been cropped.  The animals are more clearly seen here than what I could see, since they were all very far away.

Dahl Sheep
Mother Moose and her calf

Mother grizzly nursing her cubs

To see this mother grizzly nursing her two large cubs on a hillside was a very special treat.  

The cubs appear almost as large as she was, but probably weren't.

As distant as most of the animals were, it was good to see them living their natural lives in the wild. 

However, I am very glad there are places like the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near the Alyeska Resort, where we were able to see them up close.

Sometimes we weren't sure what something in the distance was. Was that a bear or a bush? Is that white spot a rock or a sheep? Can you find the critter in the above picture?

If you look closely and use your imagination, you may be able to see the giant Alaskan mosquito that crashed in the snow on the side of this mountain.

It was very hard to limit the number of images I put into this post. The landscape was so vast and beautiful, and it seems no pictures can compare to what my memory has stored. 

In the above image you see a sweeping view, and yet it is only a small portion of the panorama. 

Looking closer at just this magnificent mountain, one of so many, is a magnificent view. 

Here's one of the Polychrome Mountains.  They still, or is it already, have snow in the high country. I could have posted twenty more, but you just have to come here yourself.

Also fascinating were the places where the road pullouts overlooked vast gravel river bars. The water takes many paths giving them the name  "braided" rivers.  Their water flow varies with the seasons and rainfall each year, and the overall riverbeds were laid down over thousands of years as the glaciers receded.

Visitors to the park come hoping to get a good sighting of Mt. Denali. It was interesting to see its many views. There were times when it was completely hidden by solid overcast skies.

There were times when only parts of her were visible. The above image was  zoomed in and later cropped.

This was taken from the same place at the same time, and shows the complete scene as we really saw it. As you can see the mountain is very far away.

As we rode along, Mt. Denali would disappear behind other mountains, and then on a turn suddenly loom largely over the distant horizon.

Another good sighting!  But every time she came into view, I felt a renewed sense of the good luck we had had that day on our jet boat ride and our flight from Talkeetna. Such wonderful, visual memories to have.

Our days in Denali have come to an end. Our days in Alaska will soon be over. We are headed back to the lower 48, but we will always treasure our time in this distinctive place.

And so to renew a charming tradition of an old blogger friend, Judy Bell:

The End

Monday, August 28, 2017

Autumn is coming -- hiking in Denali National Park

We really haven’t done much hiking this summer. It seems the rain is always just a few hours away, and we hesitate to go far from shelter.

On our first day in Denali we stayed at the Riley Campground, close to the entrance. We walked about a mile and a half from our campsite to the Visitor Center, and then back again by a different trail. I guess that counts as a three-mile hike.

It was an easy path, and as you can see, a few of the trees were starting to show fall colors. We had noticed this up in Fairbanks a few days before. The air has also had a bit more of a nip. It is mid-August, and autumn feels like it is coming quickly in Alaska.

The trail went under the railroad tracks. We have heard and seen the Alaska Railroad that runs along here many times in our recent travels.

We wondered why this structure was here, over the trail under the bridge, and decided it must be to protect hikers from things falling from the train.

Our second short hike was on the first afternoon we were up at the Teklanika campground.

We decided to take a quick walk along the gravel bar of the Teklinika River which was just beyond a tree line from our camping loop. This was where I first noticed the broad yellows and oranges starting to show in the ground cover, and the much lighter greens of some of the deciduous trees. It reminded me of hillsides covered with wildflowers in the spring, just large masses of color.

The river water was opaque with silt from the glacier feeding it, and the low sun gave it a metallic glow.

On our fourth day in Denali we took a rather short hike along a trail near Wonder Lake.

We have been seeing the seasonal change in the Fireweed which is common along the Alaskan roadsides. 

When we were in Valdez we were told that summer had not yet arrived because the Fireweed had not yet started to bloom. 

Then when it was blooming we were told summer ended when the top flowers of the plant had opened and dropped, and the leaves turned dark red.

The trail started out very narrow and wound through dense blueberry bushes.

For days we had been lectured about what to do if we encountered a bear on the trail, and about how much bears loved blueberries. 

We had been told that "bear bells" were not recommended for Grizzly bears, since it seemed they attract rather than discourage them.

We were told if we came upon a bear we should back slowly away. But how? This path was very narrow, windy, with many stones and roots one could trip over, trying to walk backward. 

I felt a bit apprehensive to say the least.

Then although the trail remained narrow, the surrounding landscape opened up as we came to a large gravel bar, dotted with smaller pools.

Craig taking the image below

We ended up turning back at this point rather than walking all the way to the lake. We did so for several reasons. The stones on the path became increasingly rough. Although I had my poles, I felt my ankles were in danger with  every step. Craig was not very comfortable because he had worn his regular shoes rather than his sturdy hiking boots, and finally the fluffy white clouds were turning dark and we could see rain falling across the valley.

Along our return path we noted more signs of Autumn.

This type of ground cover is called tundra and goes on for miles. The tundra looks a bit like it has vast swatches of red and orange wildflowers,  but it is all low growing brush and plants. There is very little actual grass.

Finally, as our bus drove home from our walk at Wonder Lake,  I asked Craig to catch a picture of this remarkable stand of Poplar trees blazing gold on the side of an otherwise barren hillside.

I have much more to share about the things we saw in Denali National Park, but they will have to wait until my next post.

Winter may be coming on the Game of Thrones, but in Alaska it is still only August and it is fall color that is showing!

Monday, August 21, 2017

More Fairbanks

It seems like a broken record.  The rain continues. But we have tried to get out and about between the showers. 

On Friday we went over to the Georgeson Arboretum on the campus of the University of Alaska. It was more of a research facility than a well-tended garden, but it was a good place to go to see what survives well at this latitude. The biggest problem is that the ground is cold.

From Craig: I was thinking "I'm posing with a cabbage!"
I asked Craig to crouch down next to this cabbage to show just how big it is. With all the rain they have been having, some of the cabbage heads had burst open.

Most of the flowers had been beaten down by the rain, or were not in bloom, but these two were nigh-to-perfect.

I nominate this flower as the symbol of Fairbanks August weather. I call it "Shy Sunflower."

Well, it seems that all you have to do is wait, and the sun will shine eventually.

Although Sunday started a bit wet, by the time I had done the wash and we had gone over to Walmart for a grocery run, the clouds cleared enough that we decided to take a chance on an afternoon trip on the Discovery Riverboat.

It was a well done, touristy, production on a boat that can hold up to 900 passengers. Many of the people I had talked to here in Alaska recommended it as a good thing to do in Fairbanks. I give it a high ranking for tourist attractions of its kind.

The narrator had a wonderful smooth voice, and was not too hokey.

Shortly after we left the dock, we slowed to watch a prearranged take off and landing of a small plane on the river. The pilot spoke to us through a radio headset.

Then the boat stopped at the riverside, at Susan Butcher's Kennels. She won the Iditarod sled dog race four times.

Susan's husband also spoke to us, and we were able to watch as he hooked up the dog team and took them for a run. They sure were fast and looked like they enjoyed themselves. This was a good supplement to our visit to the Iditarod Headquarters in Wassail.  

They were so much faster, running in a straight line!

The next stop was at a reconstructed Athabascan Indian village.

I thought the village was a bit Disneylandish, except the interpretive  guides were teenage Indian girls instead of animated robots. 

From what I have learned by reading about the real history of the Native Alaskan peoples, it was just a bit too nice and pretty. 

I guess I've learned too much about the horrible things the white men did to them.

This parka for example, is a museum quality garment that has never been worn by anyone, much less an average Athabascan. 

But then, how many tourists would like to hear about the fact that 80% of the native people died from abuse or the diseases brought to them by the white men. Or how pretty young women like these were kept and traded like animals or slaves.

No, it is best to just keep thinking of them as healthy young people pretending to live in delightful rustic log homes, to wear beautiful furs, and to eat salmon they caught in their back yard.

Enough about what I think.  

It was a nice afternoon trip and the reflections on the river were fantastic!

The river was a bit muddy from all the rain run off.

If you look carefully you might be able to see the first hints of autumn coming. A few of the leaves are turning yellow or brown.

There were many very large homes with huge impeccable grass lawns along the shore. There were also a few smaller cabins.

The images above and below were taken with Craig's cell-phone camera. It gives a much wider view, with a different color balance. 

I really liked this shot. The funny thing is that it evokes the first photograph we have purchased in years, entitled "Tenas Lake Reflection" which now hangs in our dining corner.  It too is full of diagonals.

I wrote this post while sitting in the Alfa, in the back lot of the body shop that is repairing the Jeep fender. They say it will take several days ☹️. The eclipse has just come and gone, just a 1/3 bite this far north. We are planning on going over to boondock at Walmart later today.  We noticed that there were several rigs there yesterday.

After this, our Denali National Park experience will begin. On Wednesday we will be camping at Riley Creek, which is at the entrance, for one night, then drive the Alfa in to Teklanika campground, which is 30 miles from the entrance, for four nights, then back to Riley for a night before we start our long haul back to the lower 48. All of our time in Denali will be dry camping, and we cannot take our Jeep beyond the entrance. But once we are at Teklanika we will be able to use the bus to go further into the park.

There will be little or no internet access.  I'm sure we will be working on words and pictures every evening, and will post again when we are back online.

Friday, August 18, 2017

In Hot Water Again

A large steel dragon sculpture on the grounds of Chena Hot Springs

I love hot springs, and as we have traveled in our RV we have enjoyed a few. So, when checking out the map, and seeing that Chena Hot Springs resort was only 60 miles away from Fairbanks, and they had RV camping, we just had to go there for a few days. 

Monday morning, after Craig took the Jeep in to get an estimate and make an appointment to get the Jeep fender replaced, we were on our way for a few relaxing days. 

The first 30 miles of our drive to Chena Hot Springs was a bit rough with frost heaves and bumpy spots. There was just enough rain to kept the wipers going on low, and much of the time visibility on the sides of the road was poor because the grasses and shrubs were overgrown. We kept a sharp lookout for moose. It just felt like the kind of road a moose or bear might appear on unexpectedly and we didn’t want a collision. None were spotted.

We were both hungry when we arrived, and as soon as the Alfa was parked, we enjoyed a late lunch of grilled roast beef sandwiches in the very rustic restaurant at the Resort.  Very nice!

The weather Monday night and Tuesday was very strange.  Overnight, there was some of the heaviest, sustained rain that I can remember experiencing in the Alfa.  It just poured and poured.

When we woke in the morning it was still pouring.

Then around 10:30, it just stopped. It didn’t taper off or slow down. It just stopped, and the sun came out. So we decided to go over to the Hot Spring Pools.

I was delighted to see there were only a few people there. On Monday when we took a quick look, the place was packed!

Like most Hot Springs, there were a series of swimming and soaking tubs. A large very warm swimming pool with lots of minerals in the water and two hot tubs were inside. A larger, and much hotter tub was outside. As we cycled through them, I was a bit disappointed because I expected a more natural spring.

It was there, we just had to go through an enclosed passage to get to it.

Look at that blue sky! Can you believe it was pouring rain just an hour or so before this picture was taken? The weather was variable to say the least. It would pour for a while, then stop for a while and the sun would come blazing through.

You can't see the more natural pool from the front of the building. I think the enclosed passage is to protect the soakers from the extreme cold and wind in winter.

Over a two day period we went in the morning and evening, between downpours. The last three we went directly to the Stone Lake, skipping the indoor hot tubs. 

The water is waist deep, with a coarse sandy bottom that feels good on the feet. I saw a staff member measuring the temperature at an average place and she said it was 103°. There were numerous pockets of much hotter water around the edges where it was being pumped in and had not yet mixed. We were later told the actual spring measures 165°.

On Wednesday we went on a short, free tour of their geothermal power plant and hydroponic greenhouse.

The energy from the spring powers the buildings, and the hot water piped through the floors heats them.

In winter they use grow lights in the greenhouse.

We also went on a tour of their Ice Museum. 

It is kept at a constant 25°. Needless to say, we were all given heavy parkas to wear inside.

I heard there are several places like this in Scandinavia. There is also an Ice Museum in Fairbanks, that sounds quite similar. 

Craig chose to pass on wearing their parka, saying he was warm enough in his own clothes. Here he is standing next to one of the ice sculptures, holding the ice glass from his Appletini.  He said she was cold to him.

This is the raised ice bar area. The floors were all carpeted as were the bar stool seats. I think it looks better on this picture  than it did in person. Maybe that is because I took it when the twenty or so other people who were there were not in view.

The ice fire did not give off any warmth.

There were four chambers made up as bedrooms. Craig tried out one of the beds. Not as soft as in the Alfa!

All in all, it was interesting, and it did add to the Chena Hot Springs experience. The whole place feels just right for the mountain foothills near Fairbanks, Alaska.  It has a strong local customer base, and is open in winter to see the Aurora. You can soak in the hot springs and see the Northern Lights. 

I have collected their room rate and airport shuttle information for future reference. Maybe we will fly up for a few days in winter.

We have  noticed more and more trees starting to turn yellow-brown in the last week. As a lady at the springs said:"Summer is almost over".

Just a note. I think I have found a theme for our summer of 2018. Discovering "Hot Springs" in the Northwestern part of the USA. Maybe we can find some cool weather and hot water. Do you have any to recommend?

[From Craig]  This is one of the best places to get rained on, in all of North America.  Precipitation fans should not miss Chena Hot Springs!