Sunday, August 2, 2015

Alaska Trip Log for July 26 thru August 1

This week was generally wetter than what we’ve experienced so far on this trip. During our time in Willow, we had several days of intermittent showers… sometimes heavy; sunbreaks were few and very much enjoyed. We were in Willow until Thursday, when we headed for Denali National Park. and it rained part of the time there too. On Saturday, we drove to Fairbanks. And yes, it was raining when we arrived. Here’s the log for our week.

Sunday, July 26 - Willow local (day 50)
Nancy Lake SRA CG

Rain overnight. Heavy rain. A few folks even had to be evacuated from their apartments down in Anchorage where the 2+ inches was considered a 50-year rainfall event for July. It did lighten up as the day wore on, but I’d guess our float trip down the creek will be postponed.

Mostly, we hunkered down in the camper, worked on our various jobs, and I cracked open a new book as well as a can or two of craft beer. Mid-afternoon we drove down to Wasilla to meet Sarah and David at Local’s, a pub and restaurant where we had pizza. I didn’t check my watch, but we must have chatted away for almost three enjoyable hours.

Monday, July 27 - Willow local (day 51)
Nancy Lake SRA CG

After reviewing contradictory weather forecasts from various websites, and after at first saying “no” but then saying “yes”, we joined David and Sarah on a raft float trip down Willow Creek. “Yes” was the right answer as it turned out… a good amount of sun breaks and lack of rain made it a good day to do this trip.

We met David and the rubber raft about 3:30pm at a bridge “take-out” on Willow Creek a few miles east of Willow. He’s a fishing guide and had been out with a client since earlier this morning. The plan was to float from there, downstream… westward, to the much larger Susitna River, about 10 miles away.

Even though it’s called a “creek”, Willow Creek is a river by most people’s standards. Recent rains have raised the water level a foot or so, and that means a faster flow too. The stream's natural state means there are very shallow gravel bars as well as deeper pools, and plenty of river debris to watch for. Having an experienced guide is crucial to a good raft trip, and a rubber raft is the perfect vessel for this environment.

This Jeep didn't make it. Yep, that's a Jeep alright.
In the boat today, besides Dar and me, was Sarah, David, and one of David’s clients, Ted. Of course, David is the driver. This is his life during the summer and he knows every twist, turn, and shallow of the stream. As we floated along, Ted dropped a line in the water and, caught several fish… some nice looking rainbow trout and a greyling or two. If one watched carefully, there were hundreds, many hundreds, of King salmon moving upstream and spawning, furtive red shadows silently zipping upstream to their biologically predetermined end. Good sized too… perhaps two and three feet long. Polarized sunglasses really made them stand out from the streambed background.

This float was the highlight of our week. A thoroughly enjoyable time.

Tuesday, July 28 - Willow local (day 52)
Nancy Lake SRA CG

Slow relaxing day today. The only thing we did was run over to Eaglequest Lodge for lunch and a hot shower. Their facilities are top-notch, the lunch excellent, and we really enjoyed chatting with Cindy, the owner, and her sister Lisa.

Wednesday, July 29 - Willow local (day 53)
Nancy Lake SRA CG

Getting itchy to be on the road again. When we determined it wasn’t possible to get a float plane out to Sarah and David’s cabin on friday, we pulled the plug on the idea and decided to resume traveling tomorrow. Did some local exploring.

Thursday, July 30 - Willow to Denali NP (day 54)
Nancy Lake SRA CG

Drove out of Nancy Lake SRA campground for the last time this trip. It’s been our home for 8 nights. In our opinion, it’s our best bet for a balance of solitude, atmosphere, and location while in the Willow area. I’m sure we’ll be back at some point.

First up, stop and say our goodbye hugs to Sarah and David… and a big Thank You for bringing us into their lives the past few days. And the raft trip was a real highlight. Thanks guys. They were busily preparing for Sarah’s return flight to their cabin on the Yentna at noon today. We really like this couple. They’ve been an inspiration to us as we decided to pursue this nomadic lifestyle… helped us realize you don’t have to live conventionally. You can experience life in a far more adventurous way… if you only open your mind to the possibility… and just try.

Then it was northward toward Denali National Park. The best views of Denali the mountain, Mt. McKinley (most people up here call it Mt. McKinley) are from the Parks highway between Willow and the entrance to Denali National Park. There’s a Denali State Park wedged in the map right there at the prime viewing spot, which has a number of large viewpoints along the highway. Unfortunately, today, like most days, the mountain was obscured by clouds. Only 30 or 40 percent of visitors see it during their time here. Our sighting of it last week from Talkeetna would be the only time we’d see it this trip. But I sure would like to see it, the largest and tallest mountain in North America, up close. Perhaps next time.

We drove into the Park and did our usual National Park orientation routine. Denali is one of the older NPs in the system and due to it’s location doesn’t get nearly the number of visitors the big parks in the lower 48 get. There’s only one road that goes into the park, a 90 mile long “out and back”. Only the first 15 miles are accessible by private vehicle. Beyond that point, one must use the Park bus system. We then drove those 15 miles, seeing a large caribou alongside the road, who was much more interested in eating than in us. In the parking lot at the turn-around at mile 15 we saw another caribou on the slope across the creek

Most people come here for three main reasons: to see Mt. McKinley (which, if it’s “out”, is really better done from the State Park), to see wildlife (bear, caribou, dall sheep, moose, and wolves), and to hike the trails. There’s a rich history that can also be explored if one is so inclined.

Even though this isn’t a particularly busy park by big park standards, it’s tough to just come in and get a campsite at one of the park’s campgrounds without a prior reservation. We don’t do reservations, not very often anyway. So we couldn’t get a site for tonight. However, a very nice couple we met in line at the campground office offered to give us their site for tomorrow night as they would only be using one night of their two night reservation. We struck a deal.

As evening came we drove about 17 miles south on the Parks Hwy and found an agreeable roadside campsite right on the banks of the Nenana River. It was an old alignment of the Parks Hwy, bypassed when the road was upgraded some years ago. Up here, you can park overnight at any pull-out, wayside, or viewpoint unless signs specifically prohibit it. This one was particularly good as there was a wooded area between us and the current highway.

Friday, July 31 - Denali NP (day 55)
Roadside camp alongside the Nenana River south of main entrance to Denali NP.

Just up the road from our roadside camp is the Creekside Cafe. Since we had free camping last night, why not treat ourselves to a hot breakfast? Today we planned to hike. With all the driving the past couple months, we fear our hiking muscles have atrophied somewhat.

There are a few short hiking trails in that first 15 miles of park road that doesn’t require us to use the bus system. We did the Savage River Loop Trail, the Mountain Vista Trail, and the Savage Cabin Trail which together amounted to about 5 miles of walking. Certainly not too strenuous, we found we’re still in pretty good shape. I don’t feel like an old geezer yet. Of note, on the Savage River Loop Trail we were able to observe a mid-size dall sheep ram… watched him for 15 minutes or so as he ate his way up a steep rocky slope.

After rendezvousing with the couple whose site we’ll be using in Riley Creek CG, we drove back to the visitor center where we caught a bus (yes, busses, busses, and more busses) to the sled dog kennels. The park has a crew of about 50 sled dogs that they use for patrolling the park during the winter. They take the “no motors in wilderness areas” seriously, and routinely use the dogs to keep an eye on things, to assist scientific studies, and to haul building materials for next summer’s projects while the ground is frozen.

During the summer tourist season, the park does a 30 minute presentation about the dogs, their history, and their importance to the park. We found it interesting and informative. For example, I didn’t realize that Siberian Huskies are not the same as Alaskan Huskies. The park uses all Alaskan Huskies as they’re bred more for traits and function, and not at all for looks like the Siberian Huskies. They look for different specific traits for the different positions that make up a team. Some are good listeners and are smart, good traits for team leaders. Others are put into a swing position as backups and leaders-in-training, just behind the leaders. And they want their strongest and best pullers, the sled dog positions, to be right ahead of the sled. All of them have a thick coat of fur, a large bushy tail that they wrap around their faces when sleeping on frigid nights, long strong legs, and big paws with tight toes. Pound for pound, these dogs are the strongest draft animals on earth.

They performed a short sled run for the crowd, hooking up 5 dogs to a sled and running on a loop track. I think all 50 dogs were howling and barking… “pick me”, “pick me”... as the team was put together by park staff. They are born and bred to pull and run, and they clearly want to do just that whenever they can. It was fun to watch the enthusiasm and passion these guys have for their job.

A little more tired than we’ve been after most days recently, sleep came easy and early.

Saturday, August 1 - Denali NP to Fairbanks (day 56)
Riley Creek CG in Denali NP

Out of the chute early, we’re back on the road headed for Fairbanks this morning. Once through the commercial and touristy area just outside the park entrance (they wanted $4.13/gal for gas), we drove just 10 miles further to the small town of Healy (where we got the same gas for 3.57/gal). In that same 10 miles, the road clings it’s way through picturesque Nenana Canyon, where the Nenana River cut it’s way through the Outer Mountains. Lots to look at.

The 120 mile drive through a wooded and hilly landscape was easy and pleasant. At the town of Nenana we drove off the highway and into town to see what was going on. Found the Roughwood Cafe and discovered we were hungry. Chatting with the staff in the restaurant, we learned about the big annual Nenana Ice Classic (go ahead, google it). This next winter will be the 100th anniversary of the event. Here’s the deal: they sell tickets, for $2.50 each, on which the entrant guesses the date and time, down to the minute, that the ice on the Tenana River goes out in the spring. These tickets are sold all over the State of Alaska, and hundreds of thousands of tickets are sold every year. They determine the time by erecting a large black and white painted tripod out on the frozen river. A cable is attached to the top of the tripod and strung to a tower on shore, where a mechanism and clock are set to record the official time without any human assistance or interference. While everyone waits, a huge book is assembled with every entrant’s guess duly noted, and arranged in chronological order. The books we inspected from past years are at least 4 or 5 inches thick. There are a lot of entries. As soon as the ice moves more than about 100 feet, and the clock records the official time, the winners are determined. Last year the pot was more than $330,000 which was shared by 28 people who all guessed the correct date and time. If only one person had the right guess, they’d get the entire pot of course. They keep track of the historical dates and times, and even include them in the registration form for all to see. Late April or early May is the usual time frame. What fun. Think we’ll be watching the website next April to see if our entries strike gold.

Rainfall greeted our arrival in Fairbanks. After finding a campsite, we hussled on down to a Jiffy Lube joint and had the truck’s oil and filter changed. Then a stop at an auto parts store for a new air filter and wipers. After a couple other chores we made camp and talked about our plans for the upcoming days and weeks.

Click on our "Pics" link above to see more photos from our week.