Mountains in Denali

Part 3: Journey to the Land of the Midnight Sun

Salmon from Dave’s net last night becomes our supper tonight. Yum!

Tuesday, July 20: Though Alaskans merely tolerate bald eagles (they call them buzzards in tuxedos) when we hear their loud shrill screeching and see them so close, we are still captivated. At the Kodiak Refuge Visitor Center we watch a film about the island’s wildlife, and they also feature a real skeleton of a huge whale. Across the bridge to Near Island, the Fisheries Research Center has a ten-foot diameter, cylindrical aquarium and an “open touch” tank filled with sea life. Seeing the world’s largest boat-travel-lift capable of lifting 660 ton, and watching float planes take off in the water is a highlight for Dick.

We are invited for supper at the home of Borghy’s grandmother, a very talented artist, and are served delicious crab legs, halibut, king salmon, rice, mixed veggies and salmon-berry crisp. After an interesting and fun visit, we go to meet Dave at his 30-ft. charter boat “Fish Hawk” to catch herring for a fishing trip tomorrow. The foot-long herring that we catch for bait (on a line with five hooks so we catch multiples at a time) seem like real fishing to me but it’s only a preview of what’s to come. It’s 11:30 p.m. when we get back to the dock and I’m still amazed at how light it is.

Wednesday, July 21: We meet Dave and Borghy at the Fish Hawk along with another couple. It takes an hour to motor out into Chiniak Bay where we drop anchor in 125 feet of water. The cod and halibut apparently appreciate the herring bait that we caught last night because they bite about as soon as we drop our line. We catch our two-limit each of 25 pound halibut and a total of about 30 of 15 pound cod. Marsha doesn’t fish and Dave is busy gaffing our fish and re-baiting so all the sea monsters are caught by John, Borghy, Dick and me. I’ve never seen fish this big, let alone catch any, and the camaraderie is as much fun as the fishing.

Thursday, July 22: It’s raining again so we hang out in the camper this morning, writing postcards, making phone calls and resting. This afternoon a four-hour drive through “bear country” gains us only a fox sighting.

Friday, July 23: Dick is still determined to see bears “up close and personal.” So we take a four-hour bear viewing excursion in a six-person Beaver float plane. After an hour flight through the bay we see a mother bear and three cubs but the sea is too rough to land there. Around the bend are three bears. In hip boots, the guide, Dick and I walk about a half mile through waist-high grass and marsh land (bear paw prints are everywhere) and slowly get within twenty yards of an 800 pounder. He occasionally looks up at us, but eating the vegetation seems more important. When the salmon arrive in August they will replace the bear’s salad meals. We watch for over an hour as he drinks from the creek, then goes about his important task of eating some more in order to build up fat for winter survival. The other two bears are farther away. Back in the float plane we fly low over the gigantic Hallo Bay Glacier and a logging camp and circle several times over a very active humpback whale. It’s now 7 p.m. and we are back on a ferry, the Kennicott, for our ride  back to Homer.

Saturday, July 24: Our bodies are mad at us again for trying to sleep in a chair on the ferry. But morning slowly comes and we leave the boat at 8 a.m. After a nap we head back north to Soldotna.

Sunday, July 25: At the laundromat we visit with a fisherman who drives a box truck containing two freezers full of Sockeye salmon that he has caught. After showing his prizes to Dick, he gives him one which then becomes a scrumptious supper for us.

Monday, July 26: It poured rain all night and there’s no sign of it abating (temperature is 51 degrees). This place is swarming with vehicles pulling boats. The fish probably won’t mind getting wet, but I feel sorry for the fishermen. We drive to Anchorage which has a population of 284,000, that’s 42 percent of the population of the entire state of Alaska which has 677,000. We go to their Visitor Center, then walk the downtown area and browse the gift shops.

Tuesday, July 27: At the Center For Performing Arts we watch the film “Aurora – Alaska’s Great Northern Lights.” The northern lights, not visible in summer because it’s too light, is one of earth’s great unsolved mysteries. Auroras, called “geomagnetic storms,” are caused by eruptions on our sun and they fill the heavens with colorful light shows.

Ship Creek is the epicenter of urban fishing. An average of 3,600 king salmon and 10,000 silver salmon are harvested annually from here. We watch fishermen from a viewing bridge and walkways as the tide comes in. The huge fish are clearly visible in the water and are numerous. In the heart of downtown Anchorage is the corporate office skyscraper of the BP Oil Company, which owns one-third of the oil production of the North Slope. (Exxon and Conoco-Phillips are the other owners). In view of their legal problems from the Gulf oil disaster, I wonder if there might be a sign on the door “closed due to bankruptcy.”

Wednesday, July 28: Seven miles south of Palmer is the Reindeer Farm with bison, moose, horses, elk and reindeer. Reindeer are called “cattle of the north” and we hand-fed and petted them. But the moms won’t allow petting their little ones. The bison and moose are much larger than I expected. We stayed overnight in Wasilla, home town of Sarah Palin.

(Dick and carabou.)

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Thursday, July 29: The 1,100 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome takes place the first Saturday in March. We go to the race-dog headquarters and museum and see the sleds and dogs, but best is the seven week-old adorable puppies.

At an elevation of 3,500 feet on Skyscraper Peak, in 1906 Robert Hatcher staked the first gold claim in the area and the mine was named Independence Mine. The mill recovered an average of one ounce of gold per one ton of ore, and throughout its working days produced 141,000 ounces of gold. Now a State Historical Park, we drive up the mountain to the mining camp which consists of a power house, kitchen and mess hall, bunk houses, assay office, framing building that produced the lumber not only for the settlement but also for shoring up the mine. With 204 men, the mine worked 24 hours a day, shutting down only for Christmas and Fourth of July. Now the buildings are left to crumble in the onslaught of time and the elements. One old miner said, “Those holes in the mountains will stay there and that’s the only monument that the miners will ever have. The miners will go back to the ground just like the buildings. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Surely there are many ghosts (real or otherwise) that reside here.

Friday, July 30: In Wasilla, at the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, there are twenty acres of historic aircraft, antique fire engines, farm machinery, trains, boats, cars, ATV’s and radio and communications equipment. This place is paradise for old-timers to take a trip back to yesteryear (that includes Dick). Sadly, like the mining camp, these old steel work horses, too, are succumbing to the elements.

Saturday, July 31: Denali National Park encompasses six million acres and includes Mount McKinley which, at 20,320 feet elevation, is the tallest peak in North America. And it is still growing three-fourths inch per year. (Can’t you just picture somebody up there with a ruler?) At the Visitor Center we watch the film “Heartbeats of Denali,” and then drive along the scenic road in the park. While hiking we see four ptarmigans which resemble our pheasants. On the drive back a majestic caribou with huge antlers trots back and forth in front of us and then comes right up to our car. I almost expect him to say hello. What a show! Dick says it doesn’t get any better than this. The jagged peaks and multicolored hues and shapes of the mountains here are too incredibly beautiful to describe. In the midst of all this awesomeness, the hymn “How Great Thou Art” resonates in my mind.

Sunday, August 1: It’s Sunday morning and there’s no church facilities nearby. But somehow being in God’s natural Denali cathedral seems more spiritual than a man-made one. Dick still hasn’t had enough wilderness, so to leave Denali we drive the 134 mile old Denali Road from Cantwell to Paxson. It’s dusty, gravel, narrow, washboard, pothole heaven. Sometimes I thing the desire for adventure overrules our sanity. The mountains, including three snow-covered glaciated ones, are as spectacular as expected but the highlight is another caribou who crosses in front of us and leaps down a steep embankment. Including two short breaks it takes six hours to traverse the 134 miles. Thankfully the camper and car aren’t in need of a mechanic after that harrowing drive, but they sure could use a bath.

Monday, August 2: We drive Highway 4 north toward Delta Junction, where we get a tremendous view of the Gulkana Glacier and Rainbow Ridge and Rainbow Mountain which are appropriately named. The 6,000 foot-high ridge and 6,700 foot-high mountain have varicolored slopes. The reds and greens are volcanic rock; the yellows and pastels are siltstone and sandstone. I keep thinking the scenery can’t get any more beautiful, but this is just stunning. The 800 mile-long Trans-Alaska pipeline parallels this road and we stop at a viewing area. The pipe is 48 inches in diameter, insulated with four inches of fiberglass, factory-bonded to a galvanized steel jacket and designed with earthquakes in mind. We touch this monstrous pipe just for the principle of it.

sod house(Sod roof house)

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Tuesday August 3: Today is my 70th birthday and I should start acting my age. Well — maybe someday! We go to the Visitor Center at the town of North Pole, a small log cabin with a sod roof. There are many buildings with such roofs because of the insulating properties. It looks funny seeing grass and weeds growing on top of buildings. At Santa Claus House we chat with the old guy and sit on his lap for photos. Outside is his replica standing 42 feet tall with live reindeer in a corral. Because of the angle of the sun, degrees here are more intense than in Indiana. So here we are in North Pole, Alaska, with a sizzling 87 degrees outside. What irony!

Down the road the sky becomes smoke-filled and ominous, with soot raining down. In Fairbanks we learn that the frightening sky is caused by a nearby forest fire.

Wednesday, August 4: Fairbanks has a population of 31,000, with 22 hours of summer daylight. (The sun rises in the north and sets in the north). The air now is still smokey from the forest fire, and the 88 degrees is penetrating. At the Visitor Center the film is “Gates of the Arctic,” the northern-most mountain range. It relates the saga of the early native Alaskans in the North, who endured the harsh and unforgiving land with 70 degrees blow zero. Yet its beauty spurred them on to eventually shape the state.

Thursday, August 5: We spend most of the day at the University of Alaska Museum of the North where a 1250 pound, nine-foot mounted grizzley bear greets us as we enter. Exhibits focus on local cultures, wildlife, geography and history. Highlights are Blue Babe, a 36,000 year-old bison mummy, the state’s largest public display of gold, and the 1942 government-ordered evacuation of all Japanese-Americans and Aleutes in Alaska to live in deplorable internment camps. Movies that we see are “Winter in Alaska” and “Dynamic Aurora Borealis.” Their art gallery showcases 2,000 years of Alaskan paintings, sculptures, ivory carvings and grass baskets. Something I learned: because of the extreme cold in the winter, snow is light and fluffy and so does not pack. Can you imagine living in a winter wonderland and  not being able to make a snowman or have a snowball fight?

Friday, August 6: The 44 acre Pioneer Park was created in 1967 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. We ride the narrow-gauge train circumnavigating the park and walk through the “Nenana,” the largest stern-wheeler ever built west of the Mississippi. All the buildings in the park are relocated and authentic old ones.

Over 70 gleaming pristine cars, ranging from tiny horseless carriages to huge art deco classics from the 1930s are on display at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. In addition there are 55 vintage fashion exhibits, enlarged historic Alaska automotive photos and old-time auto videos. Willy Vinton, museum manager and chief restorer, invites us into the restoration room and explains the processes. It’s total fascination for Dick.

Saturday, August 7: We stop at the Big Delta State Historical Park eight miles north of Delta Junction. Rika’s Roadhouse, now part of the park, was once a thriving stopping place for travelers between Valdez and Fairbanks. The roadhouse and other buildings are interesting but Rika’s restaurant — “Best Food In All 1,488 miles of the Alaska Highway”– falls far short of their advertising. Cold lunch meat sandwiches, crab chowder, watery tomato soup (more pepper than tomatoes in this), pre-made salads and desserts are all that is available in the cafeteria-style eatery. A big letdown after a big build-up! We stay overnight east of Tok (rhymes with poke).

(continued next week)

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