We rose early on Wednesday and reported to our departure lounge ready for our 06.25 disembarkation. The port of Whittier was grey and foggy and the rain was pouring down, fortunately the Alaskans know how to deal with these conditions and we followed a covered walkway across the quayside to our waiting train. The trip to Mt McKinley Lodge took about 6 hours, the first five were in a glass domed railway carriage which gave us a great view of the Alaskan landscape as we headed inland and north. We were sharing a table with a couple from the Midwest who, like everybody else wanted to talk about Brexit, and after that to find out what we think about Donald Trump!!
The journey took us along the estuary passed Anchorage and the site of the town of Portage which was destroyed by a 9.2 earthquake in 1964 and was never rebuilt. The Rail Car manager recounted stories of the earthquake which lasted for 4 ½ minutes and did enormous damage. As we passed across an area of flat ground with lots of standing dead trees he explained that when the quake struck the tide was out, the ground dropped 15ft during the event and when the tide came in it flooded the forest and killed the trees.
As we travelled we watched out for moose and beavers in the marshes but we didn’t see any; even so the scenery was wonderful as we headed into the Alaskan Range of mountains.
At about 12.30 we arrived at Talkeetna, there was no station, just a gravel siding where a series of coaches had gathered to meet the train and take us to our hotel an hour away, The Mount McKinley Princess Lodge (owned by Princess Cruises). Some people chose to visit the town of Talkeetna but having seen a street map we decided to skip the delights of a one horse town and head straight for the lodge. With typical efficiency Princess sent a representative to meet us on the coach and hand out envelopes with our room keys and information about the hotel amenities – no need to check in, marvellous! When we got to our hotel room our suitcase was waiting for us.
We were slightly thrown when we arrived at the hotel to find a giant Santa outside, Christmas Carols playing in the hotel and a big Christmas tree in reception. Apparently in 1912 a group of travellers were caught in an unseasonal snow storm in Yellowstone National Park in August, they were trapped in their Lodge for several days and to pass the time they decided to celebrate Christmas. Ever since it has become a tradition to celebrate Christmas in August in the National Park Lodges across the country. Sure enough on Thursday 25th it was Christmas day, all the staff were wearing tinsel and Santa arrived outside with a reindeer for a photo opportunity.
We headed to the lounge where we bumped into Terry and Jenny, we decided to have a drink and a bite to eat so Terry set out for the adjoining bar and ordered a hummus platter and some tortilla chips and dips. Unfortunately, the barmaid didn’t tell him that because we were sitting in the lounge, and not the bar the food was served as a take away so we ended up with the platter and chips in boxes, the dips in little pots and no cutlery or plates. If we had known we could have moved 10ft to another table. Never mind, it tasted ok! Having had an early start (and a couple of drinks) we decided to have a rest in our room before supper in the nearby grill, after the food on the ship it was disappointing to be back in the land of burgers, fries and ‘mac n cheese’ but there we were.
Thursday morning it was damp and very misty so we took advantage of the hotel Wi-Fi to catch up on emails, news (thank you BBC website) and update the blog, if you have been paying attention you will have seen the result of our labours in the previous post. The weather didn’t improve so we whiled away the afternoon admiring the scenery and catching a film on TV. We had dinner back in the Grill and were invited to share a table with an older couple from South Carolina, we had met them on the deck while we were waiting for a table and they were keen to talk to us about England, Brexit(!) and our trip. They were celebrating their 49th Wedding Anniversary by visiting the 49th state (what a great idea); they were planning to go to Hawaii next year, the 50th State but after talking to us the wife decided she wanted to go the Bali instead – I hope it doesn’t lead to a divorce.
Friday, 26 August, Marks 65th birthday – or as we now know, Boxing Day! We were due to leave Mt McKinley Lodge at 10.30 but because of the weather we hadn’t seen Mount Denali. Denali is the highest mountain in North America and stands at over 20,000ft, it used to be known as Mount McKinley but most Alaskans and all the Athabascan tribes refer to it by its native name Denali (The big one), in 2015 President Obama officially renamed it Denali. The Mount McKinley Lodge was built to take advantage of a view of the mountain but only 30% of visitors see it because it is cloaked by cloud most of the time. I thought our chances were jinxed because Mark had bought an ‘I saw the mountain’ badge, but as we had breakfast the cloud started to lift so we could see the base of the mountain so we took some photos. Then the cloud lifted more and we could see half the mountain – we took some more photo’s. Finally, about half an hour before we were due to leave the sky cleared and we had a fantastic view of the whole mountain – Happy Birthday Mark. As we left the hotel we saw a bull moose on the side of the road.
The coach ride to our next stop, Denali National Park took about 2 ½ hours and was like an excursion; we travelled along the Parks Highway, the only road heading North from Anchorage crossing fantastic river valleys and gorges, Hurricane Gulch was particularly impressive. At the ‘town’ of Cantwell we passed the start of the Denali Highway which runs east to Paxson, our driver explained that the first ¼ mile of that road was paved but from there the next 130 miles were a dirt track. We arrived at the promisingly named Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge only to discover that it was the least wildernessy place we had seen; a four lane highway, a big junction and lots of gift shops, excursion offices, hotels and cafes. The Wilderness Lodge itself was a resort hotel with 8 restaurants, gift shops, a spa etc. etc. It wasn’t what we were expecting but we made the most of it. We had a lovely evening with Terry, Jenny and Judy from the cruise to celebrate Marks birthday. We decided to push the boat out and go to King Salmon, the fine dining restaurant; the scene was set when we ordered a bottle of Prosecco to toast the occasion, there wasn’t much info on the wine list so I ask the waiter if it was dry, he shrugged and said he didn’t have a clue and suggested we Google it. In the event it was dry, the word ‘Brut’ on the label was a good indicator, and it went down very well.
On Saturday we took a Natural History day trip into the National Park, our driver/guide was really good and told us a great deal about the parks history, geology and wildlife. We took a short walk away from the bus to visit a pioneer cabin and on the way he told us about the nutritional and medicinal uses of some of the native plants. A highlight was a stop to hear a presentation by an Athabascan indian woman called Carol who talked about the 5 native tribes in Alaska and told us the story of four generations of her family spanning the transition from a nomadic life to a modern settled life, she was terrific, it was a real privilege to hear her speak. During the drive we saw a female moose and a caribou off in the distance, not as much wildlife as we had hoped but not bad. We particularly enjoyed the flora in the park, fall has started and the trees and shrubs were all shades of red, yellow pink and orange, in three weeks’ time all the leaves will have fallen.
Sunday was transfer day again – we feel a bit as if we are being processed through Alaska, if we come again we will travel independently and have a bit more time to enjoy the landscape. We travelled to Fairbanks, the second largest town in Alaska after Anchorage and just 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle. On route we stopped in a town called Nenana, it is most famous for the Nenana Ice Classic, an annual event in which people bet on the precise date and time that the ice on the Nenana river will break. People from all over America place $2 bets picking the date and time down to the precise second, half the money goes to the town and half goes into a prize fund, last year the town made over $600,000. They set up a tall tripod on the ice and attach it to a clock tower onshore, when the ice breaks up, usually in late April, the tripod topples over, the wire is pulled tight and stops the clock.
We are staying in the Princess Riverside Lodge in Fairbanks which is very nice, Jenny and Terry were only in Fairbanks for one night before flying to San Francisco and were booked into a different hotel so we took a bus across town to their hotel to have dinner with them before they left. We have really enjoyed their company while we have been in Alaska and are hoping to see them when we are in Australia later in the trip.
On Monday we were booked on to a double excursion, we spent the morning on a traditional paddle steamer cruising up the river. On the way we stopped by a kennel where they train huskies for the 1000 mile Iditarod sledge race, one of the most gruelling endurance events in the world. We heard the story of Susan Butcher, a woman who won the Iditarod four times with dogs she trained herself. She died of cancer in 2006 but her husband and daughters still run the kennel and train the dogs. We saw a team of dogs pulling a summer sledge (a quad bike with no engine) and heard how puppies are trained to run in a team. We also stopped at an exhibition village built to demonstrate how the Athabascan way of life has changes in the 150 years since westerners arrived in Alaska. We were served and excellent lunch back at the steamboat landing and then moved on to see the Alaskan pipeline which runs through Fairbanks, and a site demonstrating how dredgers were used to extract gold from gravel up until the 1960’s when environmental regulations made the method unviable. We were given the chance to pan for gold, Mark discovered a previously hidden talent for this and we came away with $25 worth of gold flakes.
We have been keeping an eye on the Northern Lights forecast for Fairbanks; apparently this is one of the best place to see them and the season runs from late August to April so we have just scrapped in. The hotel keeps a list of people who want to be called during the night if the lights appear, we didn’t put our names on it but decided to go out on to the hotel sundeck just before midnight to see what we could see. To pass the time we drank a bottle of wine that Jenny and Terry gave Mark for his birthday (cheers guys). We had been outside for a few minutes when we saw a pale ribbon of mist in the sky, it gradually resolved itself into a sharply defined band and then faded away, other ribbons started to fade in initially looking like stray clouds but then changing to look like curtains curving through the night sky. They weren’t the bright colours you some time see in pictures but a subtle greeny cream colour, however mark managed to take a couple of great photo’s which show a deep green hue. It was a great added bonus to our time in Alaskan Interior, we went to bed very happy to have seen the lights and looking forward to our morning flight to Anchorage.