QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity.” ~ Amelia Earhart
Starting out with a little fun…here are a couple of recent signs:
DID YOU KNOW…Alaska’s ratio of coffee shops to people is one of the highest in the country!
In order to make everything fit for this leg of the trip, we had to travel on Sunday, July 16. We really try to avoid that, because we enjoy meeting people at local churches each week. It couldn’t be helped, though, so we were up and out very early to head north. It was very grey and drizzly, and stayed that way all day. We stopped in Houston, Alaska, for a breakfast biscuit/burrito at Miller’s Market. The store houses the local post office, which is basically a scale sitting on the back counter. Gotta love tiny places! The food was good, and MW even took home a bit of Caramel Caribou ice cream (caramel ice cream, caramel ribbons, and mini peanut butter cups), which he almost never does. (It was a little too sweet for me, but he loved it.) Near Knit, Alaska, we stopped to check out the Alaska Veterans Memorial Rest Area. There they have information about Alaska’s involvement in WWII and the Cold War, the geography of the Denali area, and how to tell different bears apart (more on that later). There were also monuments to the veterans of all branches of service, Medal of Honor winners associated with Alaska, the USS S-26 (a submarine lost in WWII), the victims of a C-47 crash in the mountains in 1954, and those of a TB-29 that crashed in the Talkeetna Mountains in 1957. It was a very nice memorial area with a lot of information. A couple of things I learned: 1) The American Civil War touched Alaska…kind of. The whaling industry, based out of New England, was financing a large portion of the North’s efforts. Their ships would travel to the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean to fish, then bring home the catch. After acquiring a ship from England that was capable of sailing and steam, the Confederates sent her, the Shenandoah, to the waters off of Alaska to take out the whaling ships. During the 13-month trip, 20 whaling ships were destroyed. 2) In 1941, Alaska’s National Guard was called to active duty, leaving the state vulnerable. After the attacks on Dutch Harbor and the captures of Kiska, and Attu Islands, the governor decided they needed a territorial militia. He assigned Major Marvin “Muktuk” Marston to organized the villagers along the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea to defend the coast. He traveled by dog sled and boat to find people with knowledge of the land and hunting experience, predominantly Eskimos. The militia patrolled the coast and prepared for rescue missions and aid to the military in the event of Japanese attack. After the war, many of these brave natives joined the Alaska National Guard when it was reorganized and integrated in 1949 under the leadership of Major Marston. 3) Actions in Alaska saved pilots during WWII. On June 4, 1942, a Japanese Zero flown by Tadayoshi Koga was hit during an attack on Dutch Harbor. The pilot needed to sit her down, so he aimed for a green spot. Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be marsh, not land. His plane flipped upside down and Koga was killed. Later the plane was spotted during a PBY patrol flight by Captain Bill Thies. It was recovered and shipped to San Diego, where it was repaired, studied, and flown. They learned that the Zero was a much better fighter plane than anything else in the air. They also learned of its weaknesses. It lacked armor and self-sealing gas tanks and negative Gs did a number on its carburetor. Armed with this information, our pilots improved their tactics and designers also improved our aircraft designs. 4) The battle for Attu Island, far out on the Aleutian chain and less than 500 miles from the Russian coast, was one of the bloodiest of WWII. The Japanese had taken the island in June of 1942. (Did you know Japan OCCUPIED part of the United States during the war? Were it not for being married to a war encyclopedia, I would not have.) By May of 1943, it was time to take it back, and America launched an offensive. For 19 days the battle raged, and in the end, we won. Our side lost 549 soldiers in the fighting and had 1,148 wounded. The Japanese lost 2,622 soldiers and 28 were captured. The deadliest part of the battle, though, wasn’t enemy fire or bombs. It was weather. More than 2,100 American lost their lives to wind, fog, rain, snow, and ice. In the end, the battle at Attu gave the Americans valuable insight into beach landings, fighting in bad weather, and going up against well-entrenched forces. That valuable information would help us later at the invasion of Normandy and countless other battlefields for the rest of the war.
Back on the road, we drove the last hundred miles or so passing through Cantwell and arriving at the Denali RV Park in Healy, Alaska, around 1:30 PM. Even in the grey rain, the landscape everywhere you look is gorgeous. After setting up and relaxing a bit, we headed to town for lupper (like brunch, but later) at 49th State Brewery. Clearly the place to be, we had to wait for 20 minutes at 3 PM!! Totally worth it, though! The food was fabulous…we shared a pretzel with beer cheese, then I had a Yak burger (a delicious first) while MW went for their bison meatloaf (also a winner). Oh and we saw the replica bus used in the movie Into The Wild. (The actual one was removed from its original location because of stupid people. Not kidding. After reading the book or watching the movie, people from around the world have decided to make a pilgrimage to the bus. Sadly, most were just as unprepared as Chris McCandless on his ill-fated journey. Some died, and there have been at least 15 bus-related search and rescue operations. The original site is about 25 miles as the crow flies from Healy. After restoration, the original bus will be located at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.) Ready to put our feet up, the rest of the evening was spent relaxing and writing.
Monday my head required a slow start. When we did get going, we drove over to Denali National Park and Preserve to drive the 15-mile portion still open to everyone. It was a mostly cloudy day, but the ceilings were high enough for great views. Although we didn’t see any wildlife or the big mountain, the scenery was spectacular.
MW wanted to get a long hike in, and I wanted to check out the sled dog kennels and presentation, so we compromised. He dropped me off, then drove back to the Visitor Center to park and hike the 2 miles back to the kennels. There have been working sled dogs at Denali since 1922. Although they had been used in the park by natives for generations, the first official ones were bought by the original park superintendent, Harry Karstens, as a way to continue patrolling the park boundaries during the harsh winters. Even today, with thousands of square miles, it is more efficient to use sled dogs for patrols, transporting supplies, tracking animals, and other winter activities. The dogs used are Alaskan Huskies, which are mixed from several breeds and bred for their purpose. Unlike Siberian huskies, they don’t all look the same, and in fact could be confused with mutts. The park dogs are bred for strength, because they work all winter and train all summer. The Iditarod dogs are bred for speed. When you come to Alaska, there are a couple of places you can see dogs, and even vendors who will take you up on a glacier to mush for yourself. At Denali, we were able to tour the kennel area, talk to the rangers, and pet some of the dogs. Some were housed in large, chain-link kennels with sturdy dog houses, while others were in an open area on leads that give them enough room to move round. I suspect the latter was mostly for the summer season when tourists wanted to get a closer look. The dogs clearly love their rangers and are given lots of love. Later the demonstration included hitching a few up to a wheeled sled and letting them do their thing. Let me tell you…if you think these dogs are being made to run, you’re totally wrong. As each was brought out to hitch to the sled, he was so excited he was shaking. The lead dog was hooked up first, and despite being clearly ready to GO, he stood his ground and kept everyone else in place until the musher gave him the go ahead. Then they took off so fast that the rider had to actually keep braking to slow them down. It must be truly amazing to let them open up out on the snow in the winter! When the demonstration neared its end, the dogs were released one at a time to return to the kennels. They ran as fast as they could back to the trainer waiting for them.
“He who gives time to the study of the history of Alaska, learns that the dog, next to people, has been the most important factor in its past and present development.” ~ Judge and Congressman James Wickersham, who made the first recorded attempt to climb Denali.
After looking a little more at the dogs (because who wouldn’t spend some extra time there), we both hiked back to the Visitor Center. The clouds seemed to be clearing out, so we drove back into the park to see if the big mountain was visible. No luck. On the way out, we stopped by the bus terminal to confirm the departure time for the next day’s tour, then headed over to find food. We planned to stop for pizza near the park, but it was crazy busy. By then I was ready to kick back, so we went to Petunia and had tuna salad for supper. The evening was spent catching up on our church service from the day before and watching the movie Facing Nolan.
RANDOM RAMBLING: I love a good baseball movie, and documentaries count, especially about players like Nolan Ryan. The man was a physical powerhouse! He played his first major league game in 1966 at the age of 19, and his final game in 1993 at 46. That’s 27 years of playing in the MLB…as a PITCHER!! He still holds 51 records, some of which will never be broken for a variety of reasons. (For instance, they typically pull pitchers on a pitch count now, instead of letting them finish out a game.) His 5,714 career strikeouts is 839 better than number two, Randy Johnson. He also walked more people than anyone else in MLB history, by 50%! (Admittedly, many of those were on purpose as he would definitely hit batters who crowded the box.) The one that amazes me, though, is no-hitters. He had already thrown FOUR prior to starting with the Astros in 1980 when he was 33 years old. He posted his record-breaking FIFTH in his second season in Houston, and went on to play there for 7 more years. Despite a long list of records, 1989 would see him starting with the Texas Rangers after a contract dispute in which Houston wanted the 42-year old player to take a pay cut. Their loss was Arlington’s gain. In his final 5 years, Ryan continued to rack up the records AND threw TWO MORE no hitters. At 47 years old, it was finally a torn ligament in his elbow that forced him into retirement. Only two people have ever played in the majors for 27 years, and only one of those was a pitcher. (The other was Cap Anson, a first baseman who played from 1871 to 1897.) That’s a generation! In fact, he was teammates with Bob Oliver in the early 70s, and his son Darren Oliver in 1993. Wow! If you like baseball or just learning about a terrific athlete, check out Chasing Ryan…oops...Facing Nolan.
On Tuesday we left really early. (I would say “the crack of dawn”, but I haven’t seen a sunrise or sunset since we got here!) In addition to the sled dog kennels and driving 15 miles into the park on the road, there are a LOT of other things you can do in Denali National Park. Camping is available in four camping areas or the back-country. For hikers, there are lots of established trails and the back-country that you can tackle alone, and rangers offer guided hikes, too. (The park recommends bear spray, which you can bring with you or rent at the book store. Interestingly, most tourists put it in their backpack. It’s useless unless you are holding it when you come upon the bear, and I didn’t notice anyone with it while hiking. All of the Alaskans I talked to said they don’t ever use it.) You can also walk or bike on the road as long as you are prepared for big elevation changes. (There is one spot with a 10% grade.) Of course, wildlife watching and photography are also big, and the park is home to “Alaska’s Big Five”…bear, moose, caribou, wolf, and Dall sheep…plus red fox and bird species from all over the world. (So far on our trip we’ve been lucky enough to see the five and a lot more.) Just outside the park, you can find flight-seeing tours, four-wheel adventures, and fishing expeditions, among other things. (Winter comes early and the park is open all year. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are big then.) We decided to take the Tundra Wilderness Tour at the park. It is a bus ride on Denali Park Road to just before the Pretty Rocks Landslide, which is about 43 miles out and took a section of road with it. (We took this tour in 2008 and it went out about 65ish miles before turning around. The repair will take at least another year or two.) It was overcast, but the clouds were not hanging right on top of us. In looking at the weather forecast, though, it was our least likely day to see the big mountain. (The tour is scheduled way in advance, so you get what you get.) Animals tend to like grey days, so I was hopeful they would be out in force to make up for it. The bus rule is that everyone keeps an eye out and, if something is spotted, you yell “STOP!” Our first excitement happened just 10 minutes or so down the road. A female moose was hanging out in the brush right beside the road and was generous enough to linger. Mature moose have one or two babies a season, but we didn’t see any with this big girl. Wolves and bear prey on the young ones heavily, and the survival rate is very low.
About 15 minutes later, we got the next…and biggest…surprise. There was a nice woman sitting behind us who lived in California, but was originally from England with the lovely British accent. She was visiting with her husband, son, and parents, and this was her last opportunity to see the mountain. Since MW and I had driven the road the day before and read the signage, I knew where to look. When Double Mountain came into view, she asked, “Is that Denali”? I told her no, but that if it was going to be visible it would be popping out on the right side when we got a little further down the road. Amazingly, the sky that far out looked pretty clear. Hmmmm. Just a couple of minutes later, I got my first glimpse of the snow, and pointed it out to her. She screamed, then yelled “STOP”, which the driver did, but then he couldn’t understand her and was looking for an animal. She was standing up, pointing, and yelled something like, “NO!! It’s the blooming mountain…the REASON we came!!” I couldn’t help but laugh, and a little further down the road, we were all in awe. Denali was totally visible and in the sunlight 70 miles away, appeared to be GLOWING!! I was SO EXCITED! It was like the clouds just opened up over the mountain, because everywhere else was a solid ceiling. The former Mt. McKinley doesn’t look terribly imposing with the closer mountains in the foreground, but the total snow cover is a big clue that you aren’t looking at just any old mountain. It is the tallest peak in North America at 20,310′ above sea level. While there are plenty of mountains that beat that measurement, Denali’s prominence (meaning how it appears in its surrounding area) makes it number THREE in the world, and when measured from base to peak, it is the TALLEST in the world. During the summer months, clouds hide it 70-80% of the time. The bus driver said he didn’t think he’d ever seen it look like that, and he’s been working in the park for 16 years! Honestly, if we didn’t see another thing on this ride, I was totally satisfied.
Later we saw mew gulls, willow ptarmigan (the p is silent), and another good Denali view, now about 50 miles away.
Before we got out to the turn-around point, there were a lot more beautiful areas to see, plus a couple more of the Denali big five animals…caribou and Dall sheep. I was really surprised that someone spotted both. The caribou were way out in the middle of a huge field, and the sheep were just white dots on the side of a mountain. My eyes just aren’t that good! A little later we saw a couple of sheep a bit closer. The final sighting was about halfway back…a HUGE bull moose! Although we could see him on the bus camera, I couldn’t get a shot, because he was directly out in front. After looking for a minute, the driver tried to reposition to get a better look, but he dropped behind some brush. 🙁 My English friend was planning to bring her son and parents back to see the mountain later, but by the time we made it to the last overlook, Denali was once again totally hidden in the clouds.
When we made it back to the bus depot, it was time for lunch. We headed back to Prospector’s Pizzeria & Alehouse and this time found a place to park. The pizza was incredible…we tried the Path Finder and a spinach, garlic, mushroom, taking most of it back for leftovers. Afterwards we walked along the boardwalk, stopping in at a couple of gift shops and Miller’s Gourmet Popcorn for ice cream and fudge. Fireweed is everywhere up here, and we’ve seen jelly, candy, barbecue sauce, and lots of other stuff using it as flavoring. They had fudge, so MW took some home to try. (It was a band of fireweed and a band of regular fudge together. Whatever the fireweed is supposed to taste like was overpowered by the fudge in this instance.). The final stop was for groceries on the way back to Petunia. We were pooped!
ALASKA TIDBIT: In 1927, the American Legion in Alaska sponsored a contest to design a territorial flag. Designs were submitted by students from 7th to 12th grade and the winner would receive $1,000, an engraved watch, and a trip to Washington, D.C. The winning submission came from Benny Benson, a 13-year-old Qawalangin Unangan (Fox Islander) boy who grew up in an orphanage after his mother died and his father could not take care of him. He used his earnings to later learn diesel engine repair and would later become an aircraft mechanic with Kodiak Airways. His description said: “The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.” When Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, the legislature chose to retain the design. Benson died in 1972 at the age of 59. Today in Alaska you can gaze at Mount Benson near Seward, fly into the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport, or in Anchorage, drive on Benson Boulevard in Anchorage send your kids to the Benny Benson School. The young boy certainly left his mark.
Wednesday we were up and out early again, this time for an old-fashioned wagon ride. We headed over to Black Diamond Resort Company, where we were met by Chip and Royal. They are the great big Belgian draft horses that would take us on our ride. The company has mostly Belgians, with a couple of Percherons mixed in. The horses (let’s face it, they grab your attention first) were accompanied by Danny, the driver, who is an actual cowboy from Northern California, and Lucy, our guide, who is from Slovakia. When we arrived, we were presented with a fresh-baked cookie right out of the oven. Cookies for breakfast…I like the way they roll! Then we were off. Since we were the only folks booked for the early ride, we got to know Lucy and Danny a bit along with learning some more about the area. The ride is along dirt roads that border Denali National Park and Preserve. Like the bus ride the day before, we all kept an eye out for wildlife. Not long before we arrived at the turnaround point, Danny spotted a big moose off in the brush. He was elusive in the trees, so I couldn’t get a pic, but it was pretty amazing. Then we made it back to the base, we were served a delicious, family style breakfast…of eggs, pancakes, sausage, bacon, fresh fruit, biscuits and gravy, potatoes, juice, and coffee. Remember, it was just the two of us, and they brought out enough food to feed an army! Everything was delicious, too.
We headed back over to Petunia, and took a little walk on the Antler Ridge trail next to the campground. We only walked a mile or so, but the trail actually goes up to the top of the ridge where Dall sheep reside. After two very early mornings, we were ready to relax when we got back. There might even have been a nap! I did tackle a little writing before bed, though.
Denali RV Park and Motel is located on Parks Highway in Healy, Alaska, about 8 miles north of the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. It offers easy access to everything at the park, air tours, four-wheel tours, the shops at Denali and Healy, and everything else available in the area. Most importantly, it is not in the middle of all of the congestion closer to the park entrance. Amenities include a gift shop, laundromat, wifi, meeting tent, dog walking area, and bathhouse. Lodging options include motel and lodge rooms, and a few larger accommodations, plus the campground. The 83 sites have picnic tables and include pull-through and back-in, mostly full-hookup with 30-amp electric, with a handful of electric and water only. Cell signals were good for Verizon, but no over-the-air tv stations came in. Facilities were clean and well-kept, and the staff was very friendly. The park is just off of the highway, so there is a bit of traffic noise. For location, though, we would definitely stay here again. For this stay in July 2023, we paid $257.68 for 4 nights.
Thursday was a sad morning…the beginning of the trip out of Alaska. Of course, at the rate we travel, we won’t actually be back in Tennessee for quite a while. It was a very grey, dreary day, so not too much scenery to shoot. Just short of Ester, we tried to grab a little lunch at a cafe, but it turned out to be closed. We headed on into Fairbanks to check out our one stop for the day, the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Although I didn’t realize it before we arrived, this was one of our tour stops in 2008. I immediately recognized the giant brown bear in the entry to one of the galleries. He is actually a bit blond, and truly massive. (My memory is very visual.) As we drove in, we saw a bunch of sandhill cranes grazing on the lower lawn. They are beautiful and very big. The museum has been expanded since our last visit, and in addition to the bear’s home, the Gallery of Alaska, it now has the Alaskan art gallery, a creativity lab, the Special Exhibits Gallery, an auditorium, museum store, and cafe. I particularly liked the art exhibits. After checking it all out, we headed over to Fred Meyer to pick up a few things, then grabbed lunch at Arby’s across the street.
By then, it was time to ease on down the road, so we hit the Richardson Highway southeast. The only real wildlife I saw of note was a bald eagle flying alongside the road. The rivers are a lot more full now than a few weeks ago. Many areas of Alaska have had a LOT of rain for summer. Overall, though, we’ve been really lucky for the entire time. We stopped to stretch our legs at Birch Lake, then ran all the way to Delta Junction and our second visit at the Clearwater Lodge. The owner, Kevin and his girlfriend came out to greet us. He told us about his salmon fishing trip the day before, which had been VERY successful. In Alaska, the normal fishing limits don’t apply to native Alaskans, who still fish to eat. They have what is called subsistence limits, and those numbers can be very high. Kevin and his two buddies went out and caught more than 250 salmon in one day…WITH NETS FROM SHORE!! Holy smokes!! They were over at Chitina, which is not too far from the campground we stayed at in Copper Center. While the fishermen were catching when we were there, it wasn’t the “prime time”. Not being able to see the fish working their way upstream (a bucket list item for me), means I’ll have to return to Alaska, huh?! Later Kevin showed back up with a nice fresh salmon filet and some that he had just smoked for us. He is such a nice guy. I’ll let you know how it tastes later. Oh, and by the time we got set up, it was mostly sunny and almost 80 degrees!! Nope…I don’t like that!
Friday dawned clear and beautiful, and I headed out to take care of the laundry. On our last stay in Delta Junction, I went to the laundromat at the Delta Petro-Wash. It was small, hot, and had one dirty table to use for folding. I didn’t enjoy the experience at all. This time I remembered passing an RV park that advertised a laundromat. That was going to be my destination, I thought. When I drove to where I thought it was…nothing. I searched on my phone map and the satellite images, but couldn’t find it. I know I have a bad memory, but I truly could picture it and remember telling another woman in town where it was. As I gave in and headed for the other place, I suddenly realized that my approach was different last time. I headed down the other road, and lo and behold, there it was. Whew! I’m not crazy! Well, that might be an overstatement. It was a nicer setup and was totally empty, which made for quick work. Then I headed over to the Buffalo Center Drive-in for lunch and to get a little writing done. They have a nice, outdoor seating area that made for a lovely afternoon. Then, back at Petunia later, I cooked that salmon Kevin gave us. It was a beautiful piece of red salmon, and we found a nice rub recipe. It was amazing!
Saturday we had a bit of unexpected fun…the Deltana Fair. I love it when we find a surprise fair or festival, and you should know by now how MW feels about fair food! We headed towards town to find a place to park and enjoy the parade. The guy beside us was excitedly waiting to get a picture of his 13-year-old granddaughter, who won the beauty contest. Both of them were grinning from ear to ear! After that, we went to the fairgrounds and checked out the vendors. Surprisingly, MW didn’t go for ANY food trucks. When we finished taking it all in, we went to Big Delta Brewing Company for lunch. Denied! They were closed. MW chose Buffalo Center Drive-In, and we sat outside and enjoyed the company of a young couple who moved from the lower 48 to Alaska last fall for work. They are LOVING it…even the winter! It is amazing how many people I’ve met on this trip came to Alaska for a job or vacation and just never left. I’ve certainly felt the pull the past few weeks.
INTERESTING ALASKA FACT: The Alaska Territory was purchased from Russia in 1867. William Henry Seward, Secretary of State for President Lincoln, negotiated the treaty, which was a tough sell in the Senate. The agreement was lambasted in both Congress and the press as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox”. Eventually it was approved, though, and the 663,268 square miles (about 1/5 of the entire rest of the country) became a U. S. territory. So what was the price that made everyone believe the deal was ridiculous? SEVEN million dollars or approximately two CENTS per acre!
Sunday we went down the road to Clearwater Baptist Church and heard a nice sermon on mercy by Pastor Brandon Jones. It was a good message, and the people were very welcoming. It was a bit warm that day, and the building is not air conditioned (as is the case with many places this far north), but I made it through with a lot of fanning. MW noted that most people were fine, although there was another woman workin’ that bulletin pretty good behind me. I’m still dealing with the age-related nuclear internal combustion, so it doesn’t take much! LOL. Afterwards we went over to the Draft House & Lodge for lunch, which was okay, but nothing to write home about. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing and writing a bit.
We’ve stayed at Clearwater Lodge before, and the info is in this post. There were no changes this time, although the owner does say he will eventually rebuild the restaurant. Kevin is super nice, though, and it is a mostly peaceful place. For this stay in July 2023, we paid $80 for 4 nights.
We are finally back on our normal travel schedule, and this wraps up another week. Next up…Tok, this time without the flu, and back into Canada. See you on the path!
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