LOVE TO WANDER
Today, we took the Alaskan Railroad train again from Anchorage to Whittier. The journey this time was much shorter. Check in was at 8.45 for a 9.45 departure and we arrived at Whittier about 3 hours later.
This time, it was a panoramic journey. We passed by Alaskan beaches, with the humps of white whales visible in the sea as we passed by. The railroad runs at a leisurely pace, so it is easy to take in the views.
I slept badly, conscious of a horribly early 5am wake up call to board the 6am bus back to the park entrance. The same old dilapidated school bus that had trundled all the way into the wilderness turned up - a bit late - to trundle us back to civilisation.
It was cold and I was tired from a restless night. Even a good hot breakfast was not enough to lift my spirits enough to start to look forward to the day ahead. Travelling is like this, I suppose. There are always going to be parts of it that are uncomfortable, inconvenient, boring - or - in this case - all three! With aching neck and shoulder already a problem, this boneshaker bus with no headrests and tatty plastic seats was not in the least appealing to me.
When the driver announced that the heater and microphone were broken, it began to resemble a torture chamber. For this stage of our adventure, I armed myself with a feather pillow borrowed from the Lodge and a blow up neck pillow from my new fried Beth. I took some ibuprofen with a cup of hot coffee, lay back flat on one of the seats, closed my eyes and felt suddenly hugely homesick. I was glad to be on the return leg of the journey - with the luxurious part still to come.
The heater kicked into action part way through the journey and I swapped places with a fellow traveller sitting on top of it who preferred the cold. It is a good job we are all different. The heater gradually began to defrost my bones a little and I felt better. We were rewarded by seeing a family of three bears on the journey - a closer viewing than on the way out.
Yesterday, we were just practising. We missed the cut off for the guided hike sign up - 11 people got their names down before us and that is the maximum limit. So, we decided to go it alone - well - not quite alone. We found 3 other brave explorers to hike with us - Vash, Lindsay and a guy named Doug. Armed with pepper spray, a hand drawn map (?) and borrowed walking poles, we set off to climb up to Quigley Ridge. It was a hefty climb and a scramble through deep brush in several places. Although cold at the start, we soon shed layers and got very warm indeed with the exertion of the climb. The views from the top were amazing- a camera just can't capture the beauty of this place.
OK - this is the wilderness, but I was kidding about the accommodation. We were in the Denali Backcountry Lodge, which has warm rooms, comfortable beds and hot showers. Thank goodness, because it is cold now. There was a frost this morning. The bit about the key was true though - it still feels odd to leave your room unlocked all day - even out here!
Breakfast is served from 6 here, hikes depart at 8. Hors d'oeuvres are at 5 and dinner is at 6. This is not a stay up or sleep late place!
With some trepidation, we signed up for a guided hike to Wonder Lake today. I love hiking, but this is cold and unfamiliar territory. I don't usually hike armed with pepper spray! We had to sign a waiver saying we understood the dangers of hiking in this place - which could result in death. Oh great! It turned out to be a fabulous hike though.
The sun came up and we were soon warm walking, Forget the wildlife, I was most interested to see the mountain tundra. Reindeer lichen, blueberries, mushrooms and alpines which caught the early morning dew in their bright red leaves. I can see why they get up so early here now! We passed a number of very small trees - the short Summer season here means that the trees take many years to grow. The tiny tree in the photograph would probably be 50 years or so old.
We hiked with a guide (Jill) and Beth and Jeff, from Philadelphia and made friends very easily with them as we "trod lightly" through the rich hues of Autumn (fall) colour on the mountain side. The mountain tundra felt comfortably spongy underfoot and with the warmth of the sun on our backs, it seemed that this was wilderness land was capable of being very hospitable indeed. Overall though, I think this is a landscape that should be treated with the greatest of respect. Whilst it may feel welcoming on a sunny morning walk, it could easily become anything but. This land really belongs to the wild animals that inhabit it naturally. Humans are there by its grace and favour only and it may decide at any moment to throw them back where they came from and reclaim its peace and stillness.
We chatted to a couple over lunch who ran a gift shop in a small town back towards the Park entrance. They had come down on the bone shaker bus for a day trip - a 13 hour round ride - for lunch? In 2 weeks, they leave for their Winter job at Disney World. They run a gift shop there too, but describe their job as "sprinkling pixie dust and spreading the magic". Disney has obviously trained them very well!
We paid a quick visit to Fanny Quigley's cabin in the afternoon. She gardened in this harsh landscape, growing cabbage rhubarb, potatoes and berries - scratching a living entirely off the land with one trip a yea to town for flour and sugar. She was one tough woman.
By 8.30, I was fast asleep!
We had a morning to kill before the bus ride to the Denali Backcountry Lodge, so we took the shuttle up to the Denali Park Visitor Centre and learned a bit more about the flora and fauna and the history of the gold rush. I particularly liked the recipe for blueberry pie made famous by one of the early pioneers, Fanny Quigley. First, catch, your bear ... - see the photo for the full recipe! Life was very tough here.
My reading material for this section of the journey was maybe a bad choice - "Alaska Bound - One Man's Dream, One Woman's Nightmare, by Tammy Jones - www.AlaskaBoundTammyJones.com. It is a true story about building a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. Intense cold, dark, icy water and bears all feature in it. As we approach the wilderness, it is giving me some anxiety about what lies ahead - especially as it is a true story!
Today, we took the great Alaskan Railroad train to Denali National Park. Check in was 7.15 for an 8.15 departure. It took 7 and a half hours to arrive at the park entrance. There is only bus a day that goes into the wilderness - no other vehicles are allowed in the park - so we stayed overnight at Denali Cabins at the Park Entrance.
The train ride was long, but comfortable enough. I wouldn't describe it as particularly scenic though.
Denali Cabins were a reasonable overnight stop, but pretty basic. The Kodiak beer was good - I like the marketing piece on the side of the can - "Like true Alaskans we are not afraid of the dark". I had a pretty good Mac 'n Cheese for dinner - comfort food at it's best.
The. restaurant played a selection of 70's music all might, which got my toes tapping. For the sake of the other residents, I managed to restrain myself from singing. It was a close call though ... "I like piña colada and I like walks in the rain ... "
We were up early to take a walk to Walmart to buy some English breakfast tea. Only coffee in the room - just not the same and worth a bit of a walk to find the real thing. Everything in Walmart seemed to be supers-ized - the minimum milk carton was 4 litres?! The Alaskan registration plates bear the caption "Alaska the final frontier", which Is cool.
Then, we took the free airport shuttle from Midtown to Downtown Anchorage. We walked for a couple of hours along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which was a good start to the day. The sun was shining brightly, but there was a chill in the air early on. The area reminded me a bit of the Camargue - marshy mud flats, with lots of birdlime
Comfortable rooms, not far from shops and restaurants - we had to go to nearby Walmart to get some teabags so we could have a cup of tea though!
We took an early taxi to Sea-Tac airport today to catch a 10 am Alaskan Airlines flight The flight took around 3 hours 40 minutes - Alaska is such a big state! We are booked into the Embassy Suites, Anchorage for 2 nights.
We spent a couple of hours exploring downtown Anchorage this afternoon. the Saturday afternoon craft market was a good place to visit. We bought a sunhat!
A great choice for a stay in Seattle. Centrally located - great facilities.