This second week in Alaska got off to a slow start. In fact it almost didn't get started at all. Just as we expected to get back on the road from Homer, our Expedition Vehicle decided it didn't want to go, actually it didn't want to start.
After an hour we were able to coax it to start and we drove to a service station. The next few hours were spent at Skruggs Automotive in Homer as the repair guys squeezed us into their busy schedule, diagnosed and replaced the starter on the truck.
Thanks to the long daylight in Alaska this time of year, we were still able to make a couple of interesting stops on our way back north.
We had read about fishermen who launch their full size fishing boats right off the beach with the assistance of a tractor that drags them through the surf. This we had to see. We drove to the town of Anchor Point, so named for the anchor lost by Captain James Cook when he explored this area in 1778. The local Chamber of Commerce also bills the town as the western most town accessible by road in North America.
We were also treated to our first viewing of one of the natural sights that Alaska is famous for ... a large group of Bald Eagles. We must have seen at least 25 mature and immature eagles fishing at the delta where the Anchor River meets the bay. It was awesome!
Due to our late start, we couldn't get as far as Anchorage so we set up camp along the prime salmon spawning area on the Russian River. Of course the salmon don't arrive for another couple of weeks so we had the place to ourselves.
After spending the night at the Russian River Campground, (no services, no fees, works for me) we decided to hike the Lower River Trail. We had read in the Milepost that there was a waterfall on the trail, but at the trailhead there was no mention of it and it wasn’t shown on the map, hmmm.
We started up the trail and passed numerous runoffs that formed small waterfalls, maybe those are the falls the Milepost mentioned? As we walked further and further from where we believed the river to be, we became convinced that we would just have a nice hike and we would not find any falls.
We walked through an area that had been burned by a fire in 1969. Though there had been tremendous re-growth, there were still a lot of burned stumps to be seen. There were still some spruce standing but most of the new trees were poplar.
As we continued down the trail we began to hear wind in the trees. Or was it the sound of rushing water? As we went further, it became apparent that there wasn’t that much breeze and it was definitely water we were hearing. As we came down over a rise, we could see moving water and then a bridge and then a sign that said Russian River Falls with an arrow.
The hike back was anticlimactic even though lunch was waiting at the vehicle. But after we arrived, kids from Kenai Middle School began arriving after their hike to Lower Russian Lake. We had an enjoyable time with them and their teachers, talking about the Foundation and kids in general.
Back on the road, we followed Turnagain Arm out toward Anchorage and then the Parks Highway north toward Denali National Park and Preserve.
We drove through Wasilla, the present home of the Iditarod. The race was begun in the 1970’s based on the original serum run from Seward to Nome (a distance of 938 miles) to bring diphtheria medicine to the town by dog sled.
We continued north and hoping against hope, we drove toward the first view we would have of Mt. McKinley. The mountain is only visible one day out of three because of clouds. It is so high that it creates its own weather, so even though there could be blue skies all around, the mountain could be shrouded in clouds. Almost there, through the trees, around a curve and… Mt. McKinley! Hazy from the distance, but clear all the same.
Stopping at the confluence of the Kashwitna and Susitna Rivers for the night, we had to set up our sun screen even though it was 7:00pm. The sun was so bright and warm and high in the sky that we really needed the shade. Cooking outside for the first time on this trip was a real treat. We barbecued up some red salmon and enjoyed the cooling of the evening. But with the cool came the mosquitoes. Retiring to the camper, we discovered more bugs inside than there had been outside! We don’t know how they were getting in, but we must have killed over 20 of them. We finally set up a mosquito coil inside (a no-no, but we were desperate) and went to sleep. In the morning we only had two bites between the two of us, both on me.
We wanted to take our inflatable kayak out on the Kashwitna River this morning and float down the Big Sue (as the locals call it). We asked at the camp if we could set up a shuttle and they recommended against a float as the river was near flood stage and there was a lot of debris and strainers across the river.
So we packed up and headed off to Talkeetna where we could book our flight to circle Mt. McKinley/Denali. Mt. McKinley/Denali is the tallest mountain in North America and one of the largest massifs in the world. The mountain has two summits, with the highest at 20,320 ft. The massif, on base, rises from nearly sea level to the summit in less than 200 miles. Our pilot, Zach, from Talkeetna Air Taxi was a fount of information as we flew toward the mountain.
We started our flight from Talkeetna which is only slightly higher than sea level, at 346 ft. As we approached the mountain, we could see the clouds increasing and heard from other pilots that the weather was changing and decreasing visibility. Due to snow showers, we aborted our flyby of the mountain climbers base camp but we were able to fly by the rock spires with names like Moose’s Tooth. We also saw climbers and tents set up on the Ruth Glacier.
After about a half hour, we took off on our return flight. Looking out the windows we could see bright blue pools of melt water revealing the true glacier blue underneath. We got close-up views of lateral and medial moraines – the rock debris piles pushed up the sides and middle of the glacier. Even though we didn’t get clear views of the summit, it was a very exciting 1-1/2 hours.
After lunch we drove on to Denali National Park and Preserve. As we neared the park, we got a few glimpses of Denali’s summit, with clouds covering everything else.
Denali National Park and Preserve – we set our alarm so we could get up early and drive 30 miles into the park on our "North American Safari". In just 2 days the road will be closed to all private vehicles – but today we could drive!
Right away we started to see caribou. First one, then two herds (10 animals) on the hills. Several came close enough that we could see the velvet covering their antlers. A bit further along we viewed Dall sheep walking precariously along the rocky mountains tops. We saw another bald eagle and a new bird (for us), a willow ptarmigan.
We’ll schedule another drive after dinner to see if we can spot any grizzlies!
Well our drive last night netted us the back ends of two brown bears running through the trees. Several other people got to see them fully and we tried to follow their path through the trees as it seemed to go toward the road, but to no avail.
We got up early again to see what we could see. All the spots that we had seen caribou yesterday were empty today so we stopped at Savage River to do a hike. Before we left we heard that there were Dall sheep to be seen in the Savage River Canyon. We had not gotten beyond the parking lot when we saw a moose coming down the hill toward the river. As soon as it caught scent of the water it started trotting. And so did we as we didn't want to miss the best sighting we had had of a moose so far. As the moose reached the river bank, we reached a spot on the trail that was a safe distance away. Moose are notoriously unpredictable and you don't want to do anything to provoke them. As we watched, the moose stopped in the river to take a drink and then continued across the river and up the other side where the trail was. There were some other hikers watching from the trail and they scattered as soon as they realized he was on his way up. He continued up the trail and into the trees where he disappeared like he had never been there at all. It was a great sighting.
We spent the evening sitting at a turnout just watching to see if anything would amble by. We had heard that at this particular turnout a bear with a cub had been sighted two nights before. Diligent watching didn't produce any bears but we did get a nice view of a couple of caribou crossing the meadow and continuing up the hill. We also had a very nice picnic dinner watching the evening colors changing the landscape.
On our way back to the campground, we continued to marvel at the colors of the mountains and lakes. We hadn't stayed out late enough to see the sunset before (it was now 11 pm). We're always tired and in bed by no later than 10:30. As we were marveling at the sunset and the moon coming up, we came over a rise in the road and were startled to see a moose ambling straight down the center line, coming right toward us. As we slammed on the brakes, the car behind us moved into the left lane and between the two of us, we were blocking the entire road. Unfazed, and since the center line was still unblocked, the moose continued its evening stroll right down the middle of the road and between the two cars. I certainly didn't expect to get that close of a view of a moose! We laughed about it all the way back to the campground.
We got a slow start today as we had been up late last night, but we managed to accomplish some house keeping duties (laundry) and still fit in the museum at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The museum was absolutely fascinating as it covered the history of Alaska in all of its aspects. They had exhibits covering the early animals that inhabited the area like mammoths, mastodons and steppe bison. They also had exhibits on the First Nations people and showed examples of their clothing, boats, toys and tools. They continued with exhibits on the more current history with the Russians, the Americans, the Stampeders, the Alaska Highway and the Alaska pipeline as well as information on natural aspects like the aurora borealis. We spent a couple of hours there and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.