Posted: 2006-11-03 21:14:00
I flew to Minneapolis on September 8, 2006, changed planes and flew on to Anchorage, Alaska. I flew Northwest Airlines, using Expedia.com. Roundtrip fare was $731.80. It was inches and feet. Things close early in Alaska. I took the People Mover city bus downtown from Ted Stevens Airport. Stevens is a Republican senator. The Hilton Hotel served as a landmark. I walked to the Alaska Railroad depot on 1st Street. It was late evening, and the train to Denali National Park did not leave until morning. I pulled an all-nighter. I entered a karaoke bar called The Woodshed and sang Elvis, Beatles, ABBA and Shania until 2:30 AM. I sat in the Marriot for a couple of hours and dozed. The train depot opened at 5 AM. I bought a ticket to Denali. My instincts told me to beeline to the park. I had to stay alert and keep moving. I knew I could do it. I wanted an experience in Alaska.
The train ride north was scenic. It made me think of Yellowstone. There were lots of shallow rivers and wierd-looking mountains. The rivers and streams are glacier water. They flowed on both sides of the train. Despite its beauty, there was a stark sameness in the terrain. Spruce and birch trees dominated. Spruce growing in permafrost are in miniature. Leaves on the birch were yellow as they showed their fall color. The landscape was green and yellow. An abundance of water makes Alaska a fisherman's paradise. Salmon fishing is big. I met a couple from Minnesota who had come to hunt caribou. An employee on the train told me there are no snakes in Alaska. The train ride was 7 hours.
National Parks are operated by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Denali National Park was established in 1917. In Denali, I got a room at the River Cabins for $127.33 a night. I wanted my trip centered around astronomy. A native girl told me of a legend surrounding the northern lights. She said that whistling makes the lights come out.
Mount McKinley is in Denali. It is the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. It is part of the Alaska Range. There is controvery over the mountain's name. The federal government calls it Mount McKinley after President William McKinley. The state of Alaska wants it called Denali (High One). Denali Park consists of 6 million acres of wilderness. It has glaciers. A 90 mile road runs through the park and ends at Wonder Lake. September 14 was the last day for tours. I went through on September 10.
I got lucky on my tour of the park. I sat at the front of the bus and enjoyed a good view. Mount McKinley is visible only 20% of the time. It is usually clouded over. It is covered with snow and ice and about 30 miles away when we see it. McKinley has two peaks. The north peak is sharp; the south peak is rounded. The south peak is a bit higher and the true summit. The mountain is a big piece of granite. Molten material solidified underground and pushed up over millions of years.
We drove 63 of the 90 mile road, more than usual because it was such a great day. We saw wildlife: grizzly bear, moose, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep. Dall sheep are named after explorer William Dall. We got to the mountain, and there was a grizzly in the ravine. It kept us close to the bus. We got good pictures of the mountain. We ate caribou meat for lunch. The Tundra Wilderness Tour through Denali made the trip a success despite not seeing the northern lights.
My second night at Denali, I slept in a tent. It was 30 degrees. I had on 5 shirts, a toboggan and gloves. It was back to the River Cabins for my third night. I kept going outside to look for the lights. I went out around midnight and before dawn. The moon was too much of a factor. It was full the night before I left. I never gave the moon a thought when planning my trip, a strange oversight since I am so aware of it during the Perseid meteor shower. Not seeing the lights was a disappointment although the rest of the trip compensated. I kept wondering whether I should go on to Fairbanks. I decided not to because even there the moon would be overpowering. The lights can be seen 240 nights a year from Fairbanks. Knock out May, June, July and August because the sun stays up during the summer. One guy described the northern lights as buckets of paint poured across the sky. The red, blue and green waves of light are caused by the solar wind hitting gases in the top of the atmosphere. The earth is a magnet. It pulls the solar wind toward the north and south poles. I observed the sky. The north star was way up, and the constellation Orion was farther south. I saw why the north star and the Big Dipper are on the state flag. Sirius rose behind Orion.
Danali gets 4 1/2 hours of sunlight on December 21. Nor is it quality sunlight. The temperature drops to -60. Cold, dark and snow. Denali is not really a town. It consists of a few lodges and shops. It gets its mail at the park post office. The tourist season was winding down as I left. People were heading south. Alaska is big. You carve out your niche and leave satisfied.
I hustled. I talked to people and asked questions. I kept learning and moving forward. People in Alaska are friendly. They look you in the eye, stare with anticipation. Maybe it was me. I talked to an Australian from Melbourne. I mentioned ABBA. I asked our driver in Denali about Jon Krakauer's book. He knew the story. There was downtime, then things would happen quickly. I kept communicating. Waiting to eat at the River Cabins restaurant, I met a camerman from L.A. who had been working on a movie. The morning of September 11, I explored the Gulch, the string of souvenir shops. I had coffee at the Black Bear Coffee Shop and used the Internet. It was raining. I was glad I toured the park the previous day. It was the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I watched George Bush's speech on television from my room.
Having given up the idea of Fairbanks, I arranged to return to Anchorage with Yukon Trails, a van service. I did the smart thing. I would miss the lights but would not miss my plane. I faced a second night in Anchorage. I remembered the hostel next to the Marriot. I got a bed for $20.
My last day in Alaska was spent in the heart of Anchorage. I went to the Visitors Center and to the 5th Avenue Mall, a modern mall with shops and food court. I found the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. There were paintings and exhibits of Alaskan birds. I knew about the purchase of Alaska from Russia and the lure of gold which gave rise to Alaskan towns. I made a study of Alaska before coming and knew that towns like Nome grew from the gold rush of 1898. It was the "3 lucky Swedes" who found the first gold near Nome. Anchorage was established in 1915. It began as a tent city when the Alaska Railroad was built. Current population is 270,000. I walked to the Captain James Cook statue at the Cook Inlet. The Inlet connects to the Gulf of Alaska. Cook navigated the Pacific Ocean in the 18th century. A talk was given. The lecturer noted that Anchorage is a railroad town, not a river town. Its streets were designed by engineers. The are at right angles, letters and numbers. It made me realize that Nashville is a river town because its streets are meandering. I got pictures of the Eisenhower Statehood Memorial. I headed for the airport. The Chugach Mountains loomed in the distance. I was tired and slept on the return flights. I got back to Nashville on September 14---6 days. Alaska is big. You carve out your niche and leave satisfied.
Jim Colyer wrote Save The Planet.