As we headed back around Turnagain Arm we decided to take a side trip to Alaska’s only downhill ski area called Girdwood (mining town in 1915, ghost town in the 30s, 11 guys created the ski corporation in 1954 and they haven’t looked back since) . We walked around the Alyeska Resort where a tram departs from and enjoyed their high-speed internet while sitting on posh leather couches. We drove through Anchorage and visited Kincaid Park before heading up to Finger Lake SP for the night. They have a cool thing in the SP’s at the boat launches where they have a rack with life jackets of various sizes for kids that you can borrow for the day.
Early the next day we headed up to Hatcher Pass to go the Independence Mine and Summit Lake for a hike. The drive up the valley along the Little Susitna River (an outflow from the Mint Glacier) was beautiful. When we arrived at the entrance for the Independence Mine the ranger told us the buildings didn’t open until 11 so we decided to drive up the narrow gravel road to Hatcher Pass and do the Summit Lake hike. It was a steep climb with lots of switchbacks and large drop off’s but we made it fine. We parked at the pass and hiked down and around Summit Lake with some nice reflections of the mountains.
Independence Mine is a State Historical Site and well worth the visit. In 1906 Robert Lee Hatcher staked the first hard rock claim on Skyscraper Mountain in the area after he saw a quartz vein high in the mountain. Prior to this placer mining (getting your gold from the streams) was done but shifted to hard rock mining where you mine the gold-filled quartz rock in the mountain. The main construction for the mill started in 1937 and it was operated until 1951 (with a pause during WW II) when it closed due to low profit margin. On average they got 1 ounce of gold from 1 ton of ore. The mine produced 181,000 ounces of gold while in operation. We did the self-guided tour around the site, some of the restored buildings are open to the public. It’s a beautiful setting on a sunny summer day but back in the mining time you spent all your time inside the mountain so wouldn’t have much time to enjoy it. It was interesting to see the contrast between the restored buildings and the ruin piles. It was quite a steep climb to go all the way up to where the railroad came out of the water tunnel to drop the ore in the mill but it gave great views of the whole operation. By the time we went to leave several hours later, the parking lot was getting quite full, so it was good to be there right at the opening at 11 am.
You don’t see many Ontario license plates in Alaska, at a viewpoint on our way down a woman flagged us down to tell us her daughter-in-law was from Ontario (the daughter was too shy to flag us down 😊). We stopped and chatted for awhile, turns out she was from the Listowel area, met an Alaskan in Australia and now lives in Houston Alaska with their new baby.
It was pretty hot so when we saw an ice cream sign Sharon yelled “stop”! We both had a huge soft ice-cream in a waffle cone. We were entertained by a group who locked their keys in their rental car. A local helped them get into the car. The guy tried to give the local some money and he said “I’ve been poor all my life, why change now. Thanks anyway.” The local looked like Sam Sheppard, maybe it was him incognito 😊
Next stop was the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters. We watched a video on Sled Dogs, the Alaskan Sled Dog is bred to RUN and run for a long time!! That’s what they love to do. When they aren’t running, they are very relaxed but do get very excited when they think it’s time to run. They have a team of dogs that will take you on a short track (1/4 mile for $10), we decided to go for a ride. Now we can say we’ve been pulled by Alaskan Huskies that competed in the Iditarod with the son of the founder and Iditarod competitor as our “musher”. The Iditarod started in 1973 to promote sled dogs and the historic Iditarod Mail Route. The 1973 winner took over 20:00:49:41 (Days:Hrs:Mn:Sec) to complete the race, in 2019 the winner did it in 9:12:30:06. In 2019 first prize was $51,299 (and a new truck) and goes down to 20th place who got $10,343 and everyone to finish after that gets $1,049. 1049 Miles, a number that signified the length of the trail before they actually measured it. The trail was at least 1000 miles and Alaska was the 49th state. Our “musher” told us in the early days you had to bring all your supplies with you (that’s a lot of dog food to pull), today you have it shipped to the checkpoints (there are 21). The dogs are now bred just for this race so the teams are a lot stronger and the food is much more nutritious. The dogs will consume 10,000 calories per day during the race. He said he could sell a lead dog he has for over $30k since it was a winning dog (he has 85 dogs). They usually have 60-70 entrants in the race but they don’t all finish and they are from countries around the world. They have to compete in 3 races totaling 500 miles prior to being allowed to do the Iditarod race. Lake Lucille recreation area was just down the road from the Iditarod Headquarters, so we decided to stay there for the night.
In our RV we had a set of DVD’s for the Third Season of the TV show Northern Exposure from 1991 and supposedly the story line was based on characters from a town named Talkeetna so we had decided to go there after watching several of the shows. Talkeetna is off the main highway to Denali but it has Denali Brewing along it, so of course that needed to be a stop. I had a flight of beers and Sharon had a flight of cocktails after which we decided to take the brewery tour where we got even more samples. This is one of the larger breweries in Alaska and they were using several techniques to be environmentally friendly. They are also experimenting with distilling whisky and gins which we sampled and bought a Spruce Tip gin.
From the campground we walked to tour the town and get dinner. Sharon said it could be an early birthday dinner, but I said it should be her birthday dinner since she had shrimps, scallops, salmon and halibut, everything she likes😉 I had king salmon with scallops, and we had a crab cake appetizer. It was an excellent dinner (we were totally stuffed) and the restaurants motto was “good food takes time to cook”! Most of Talkeetna’s buildings are on the National Historic Registry. It was a small quirky town, just like the Northern Exposure TV show.
On the way out of Talkeetna we stopped at the Birch Syrup shop to sample and go on the tour. For maple syrup the ratio is 40 to 1 but for birch syrup the ratio is about 120 to 1. In order to reduce the syrup they use reverse osmosis first and then evaporation for the last step. It was incredibly flavourful but also incredibly expensive so we just bought some mustard and birch toffee.
Our plan was to stay in Denali SP (K’esugi Ken Campground) south of Denali NP for 1 night prior to our two nights booked in the NP (it was hard even getting the two nights). They say 70% of the people who come to Denali don’t see the mountain due to the weather patterns it creates in the park. We did see the top of the mountain as we approached the SP so we were glad we got to see it. The SP campground was relatively new and had large very separated sites. It was also one of our first electric sites in awhile but later in the day we had a thunderstorm and the power went out and was off all night! We decided to do the Curry Ridge trail to get some views of the Alaska Range and Denali (formerly called Mount McKinley and the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet). The signs and maps were fairly unclear, so we ended up doing a 17 km hike but luckily, we got back to the RV just before the rain started. We went to the top of the ridge (1155’ elevation gain) and then took a longer trail to Lake 1787 and to the rock knob for the views.
The next morning, we stopped at a touching veterans memorial on the way to Denali. They had concrete blocks to represent each of the organizations within the U.S. military. They also had many display boards representing the Alaskan connections to those military groups. It was quite touching until 3 large bus loads of people came in and one of the buses gave out their boxed lunches so the people were focused on the lunch instead of the memorial.
Denali National Park and Preserve is 6 million acres of pristine wilderness that contains Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Denali means “The High One” in Athabascan but early gold miners called it Mt. McKinley and it was registered with that name. In 2015 the name was legally changed back to Denali by President Obama.
There is only one 95 mile road into the park and with hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer they limit the traffic within the park in order to preserve the wilderness. You can only drive to mile 15 (paved to here), mile 29 if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation at the Teklanika Campground. To go any further, you must take a park bus and there are lots of them, so many they have a Bus Depot and dispatcher. They have the “Tan” buses ($$) that do full narrated tours and provide some food/drink, the “Green” bus ($) is a hop on hop off style bus, bring your own food , you pay for the furtherest distance you want to go to. They also have a “Camper” bus which takes backpackers/tent campers and their gear to the tent only sites. We were booked on the “Green” bus to Wonder Lake at Mile 85.9 (138.2 kms) leaving at 6:45am the next morning.
After checking in for our two-night campsite we took the hiking trail from Riley Creek campground over to the Bus Depot so we could time the walk, from there we took the path to the Visitors Centre and got our internet fix and looked over the displays. We took a different trail back to the campground that took us by the river and under the old trestle train bridge.
Of course we were awake, waiting for our alarms to go off so no problem making it for our 6:45 am bus. Our driver John said they normally don’t narrate on the “Green” bus but if we want him to talk he will. Of course we all said yes, you might not get as much narration on the Green bus but we were lucky, John had been driving for 20 years so he was extremely knowledgeable. He also told us if we saw some wildlife we were to yell STOP and he’d stop the bus and he stopped a lot along the route. Our trip to Wonder Lake and back took 11 hours, total drive of 276.4 kms. We had stops at several viewpoints, Eielson Visitor Centre where some people get fabulous views of Denali, unfortunately not us, time at Wonder Lake where the sun peaked out for a few minutes and then all our animal sighting stops. Even though we weren’t able to see Denali the scenery was spectacular in many sections and the road was downright scary in spots with no guard rails and narrow conditions with buses needing to pass by the other way! We had a great day of wildlife viewing, some far away but others pretty close. We saw: 1-Brown Owl flying, 2 – Snowshoe Hares, 2 – Gyr Falcons at a distance, very rare to see, and 4 – Ptarmigans. We also saw the “Denali Big Four” (really it’s 5 but they said right from the start we probably wouldn’t see a wolf). We did see 3 Moose (one very close), 6 Grizzly (glad they weren’t close), 17 Dall Sheep (high up) and at least 41 Caribou, several walked in front of the bus when we were stopped. It was a long tiring day but well worth it. Even though Denali was hiding from us the other views were fabulous. After a day of seeing so much amazing scenery and looking for wildlife we were pretty tired, no problem sleeping that night!
The following day was my birthday and we had to check out of the campground but first we went to see the Sled Dog Demonstration. Denali is the only U.S. National Park to have canine park rangers. The road in the park is closed in the winter but they still need to do park patrols so they actually have 37 sled dogs they use to get around the park. A ranger will take a sled dog team out for anywhere from a few days up to a month and go to remote cabins in the park. They are finding it harder to patrol as global warming is impacting their trail routes making it harder to use the sled teams. Last year though they travelled 1,400 miles through the park with the sled dogs. At the demonstration they spoke about their breeding program and what they do to train and care for the dogs. You had an opportunity both before and after the demonstration to pet some of the dogs.
We headed north from Denali and crossed the Nenana river and when we arrived in Healy we stumbled across the 49th State Brewing Company so we decided to stop to have my birthday lunch. Not only did they have great beers, tried another flight, but they also had the actual bus used in the movie called Into the Wild. The movie was the tragic true story about Chris McCandless where he hitchhiked to Alaska and then went to live in the bush in an abandoned transit bus. We had watched this movie before we came on our trip. The location where he lived in the bus is not far from Healy. For lunch we had bacon wrapped crab stuffed jalapenos for an appetizer and I had a really tasty Halibut Burger.
After lunch we continued North and decided to stop at a small RV park along the Nenana river. They had some interesting displays in their gift shop and around the grounds. Again we had paid for water and electric but they had a power failure and their generator failed so we had neither. You really have to be prepared in Alaska for no services.
On the way to Fairbanks we stopped in the historic town of Nenana. We saw the Railroad museum and an actual train came by while we were there. The big claim to fame for Nenana is the Ice Classic where they place a wooden tower on the frozen river in the winter and then bet when it will fall through when the ice breaks up in the spring (seems like lots of towns in the North do similar things). Closer to Fairbanks we stopped in the small town of Ester to also see some of the gold mining historic buildings.
Once in Fairbanks (the second largest city in Alaska) we checked into the Chena River SP and then went for a 17 km bike ride around the downtown area. We saw Pioneer Park and followed the river into the historic part of town. We also made a stop at an REI store to get a bike part for Sharon. We just got back to the campground before the rain got heavier.
Fairbanks in essence marks our turn around point after 3 months of travel and we now begin the journey back home.