We depart the beautiful Copper River Wilderness Lodge and set off for Denali travelling down the highway before turning off to travel west on the Denali Highway – the road less travelled and before long we are off the tar seal and onto the rough. Now all our suitcases under the bus have been wrapped in tarps today – oh deary me – there is a message here!! We move into the alpine region and blow me down – some hardy people actually live here. We pass the area where the Arctic Man competition is held each year and this is a huge festival apparently where men on skis are towed behind snowmobiles on the ice and snow. Heaven help us if the boss decides this will be the next thing to train for! The scenery is very different and almost devoid of trees now but we are seeing a low foliage carpet of reds, browns, greens, yellows, oranges with little lakes in the midst of it and it looks like an artist has swept the palette over it all.
The bathroom – well let’s just say we have just had a stop at a little shack and experienced an outback Alaskan restroom – I will say no more but you get the drift! I have a feeling we may have to experience a few more of these as we travel west on this ‘ere road!
As we travel on and reach the summit on this bumpy road we look down on hundreds of little lakes and Jim, the driver, tells us we are really now seeing the heart of Alaska. The road is built up with sand and shingle because of the permafrost and so we are looking down on the tundra surrounding us. This is why we wanted to stay on here and travel inland to see the real Alaska – the little outposts where life is so very different to what we are used to. We pass hunters with their rifles over their shoulders. This is moose season and Jim also tells us that some of these hardy characters stay out here for a month hunting for moose to add to the supplies they need to get through the winter. The beavers have made their dams in lots of these tiny lakes.
We stop for lunch on this rough highway at McLaren River Lodge and, as we are getting used to in this part of the world, the manager comes out to the coach to welcome us to this quaint log cabin cafe in the wilderness. Their “world famous” soup table is awaiting where it is help yourself to as many bowls as you like with freshly baked bread and topped off with berry pie. It was a very efficient way to feed 40 of us and their warm hospitality made it memorable. The cabin was decorated with $1 bills and a large bear skin on the wall. So off we trundle dodging the large potholes and still admiring the scenery with a few large glaciers thrown in now to attract our interest.
Suddenly there are more hunters with rifles, many little tents propped on shingle, RV’s, caravans and it seems the area has come to life after many many miles and we then see quad bikes with caribou racks with their catch in tow and so many people here for the hunting. We also see a moose and her calf down by a little lake.
We are heading for the next stop at Cantwell, a small town which began as a flag stop on the Alaskan Railroad and then onto Denali Wilderness Lodge just outside the Denali National Park. Our stay here is for two nights and the lodge is spread out in several large log-cabin buildings.
This morning our excursion is to Husky Homestead which is owned by Jeff King, a four-time winner of the 1000 mile Iditarod Dog Sled race and an amazing place it is. Jeff has about 20 dogs and the same number of puppies but all is relatively quiet on the dog front when we arrive. We are given a puppy to hold and cuddle and very cute and fluffy they are. Then Jeff speaks for some time about the training of the dogs, diet, weight, exercise etc and he is very entertaining. Then it is time to give everyone a demonstration of the dogs pulling an ATV or large quad bike. Well – as soon as the dogs see the mushers going to get the harnesses they go absolutely bananas and they howl and bark and leap and dance around hoping to be the chosen one! The morning was a highlight watching these very very fit huskies pulling the ATV at a million miles an hour around the forest track and, as soon as they depart on their training run, the other dogs settle back down and all is quiet again. If only the boss and I could be so excited about doing the exercise when the alarm goes off on the mornings we go to the gym class! I might try it and watch his reaction – but then again, he may have me locked up so I will reconsider that little idea!
We are sure getting our share of huskies here because this afternoon we get a shuttle to the Denali Visitor’s Centre down the road and attend the Dog Show at the National Park Headquarters. These dogs are not trained for the Iditarod but rather they are working dogs who do work in the National Park pulling sleds during winter to get the Rangers to various places in the park.
We depart the lovely Denali National Park and Glitter Gulch and it seems incredible that in a month’s time air will be blown through all the water pipes of this huge Lodge and all the adjacent hotels and shops and the place will resemble a ghost town. The seasonal workers are all leaving and just the hardy souls who live in this part of the wilderness in this amazing country will hunker down for the winter. Some of the men will work over winter trapping for fur or hunting for moose and others may leave to get work on ski fields in Colorado or somewhere else. Other families will live off what they have managed to save over the summer. Some people in Alaska live in dry cabins – now that means no running water. Can you believe that every day they have to fetch water from a spring, river, lake or melt snow to get water. Oh how happy am I that I was not born in Alaska because I can tell you for sure that I would be writing some very interesting stories about ze bathroom if we lived in a dry cabin! Heaven forbid.
We are heading to Fairbanks passing through Healy (the coal mining centre of Alaska) and Nenana. By the way – petrol has risen to $US3-7 per gallon up here which is much more expensive than the lower 48 states (as they refer to all states apart from Alaska and Hawaii).
Now I must tell you – the teddies – well they have become a foursome now because a Canadian Mounted Police teddy has joined the family – obviously to keep them all from breaking the law!
Now there is one thing I need to tell y’all – the one in charge of the B’s has been on the job for 10 weeks and his contract states he will get a break in about five days time. He surely needs a break because there has been a serious breakdown in the delivery of his responsibilities. He managed to “misplace” his glasses. Of course it was definitely NOT his fault (so states he!) Needless to say, he can no longer see which is a benefit to the one in charge of the P’s because, as you will know, American banknotes are almost all the same colour so how is he to know (or see) that some might be missing from his wallet! He makes several phone calls to lodges all over Alaska to no avail. But St Anthony does his job again because while I am in the shower he rushes in to tell me he has just had a phone call from the front desk to say a lady is coming to see him in our room to deliver the glasses which have arrived from somewhere else in the wilderness! He wants to ensure I don’t march out of the bathroom wearing very little or nothing at all. He has arrived in the bathroom changed out of his nightshirt into something respectable to welcome this lady so excited is he that the lady is coming. But this is sad news for me because I can no longer peruse his wallet for those $50 bills.
We go on a riverboat for a lovely cruise down the Tanana River seeing a huskie demonstration on the way and an Athabascan village which was wonderful. The problem here was that the boss spots a “For Sale” sign on a house and he suggests we could come here and live the “easy” life. I am sure he has completely lost his marbles. When the heck did he turn into an Athabascan I ask myself? The last time he noticed a “For Sale” sign was in the heart of the Arizona desert where I pictured us running around in thongs and now his bright idea is Alaska where we would need blimmin snow shoes and the fur of an Arctic fox around our necks! Can you honestly belieeeeeve it? The other interesting thing we see is many beautiful log cabins with the logs extending out so that the hunted moose can hang. Now we didn’t do this at Pauanui, as you will all have noticed, because the boss is completely useless at hunting moose and I would not be letting him loose with a gun I can tell y’all.
Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle – Coldfoot and Wiseman
Today’s excitement is a trip to the Arctic Circle and the towns of Coldfoot (population 20) and Wiseman (population 12). We travel just down the road to the Fairbanks International Airport which is interesting in itself. It looks like the car yards of Wairau Road lined up with small planes – there are hundreds of them and we learn that 1 in 5 people in Alaska (population 800,000) has a pilot licence. Off we go for the 1 hour flight to cross into the Arctic Circle (they call it the 66-33 parallel) and cross over the Alaska pipeline, Livenwood (an active goldmine) and the famous Dalton Highway. This highway is interesting for a few reasons and later in the trip we actually drive on it. It is the only road giving access up here and ends at the Arctic Ocean; is 413 miles long and has a sign indicating there is absolutely NO service of any description for 380 of those miles – zilch! If you rent a car to travel the highway it costs $US250 per day and you are issued with one spare tyre and a satellite phone. Thankfully, the boss has no desire to do this…….as yet!! – heaven forbid! It is also the road that those TV Ice Truckers drive.
Just over an hour flying over huge areas of forest damaged by fires, the Yukon River and an Athabascan village with a population of 80 (no cars here…..no roads either), we arrive at Coldfoot. This tiny place with its tiny population experiences 33 days of the sun never setting from the summer solstice on 21 June and 33 days of the sun never rising and continuous darkness from the winter solstice 21 December. Now that summer is ending and the fall has started they are losing 10 minutes of daylight per day – over one hour per week as the days draw in towards the long harsh winter. Fuel up in these parts costs $US13 per gallon. The only store here is the Post Office attached to the saloon and bar which primarily services the truckers and maintenance workers for the pipeline or other services.
The white spruce trees here are tiny although old, caused by permafrost under the ground. Actually 50% of Alaska has permafrost. The Arctic and Fairbanks is a frozen desert – it is considered an arid area getting only approximately 30 cm of rain a year but, of course, this rain freezes so the temperatures drop dramatically. The average temperature here between November and March is 17 below to 40 below. The coldest day recorded was 62.5 below in 1971. We are very privileged because only 10,000 people visit this area per annum and we are two of them and here we are at the foot of the Brooks Mountain Range on the edge of the Arctic National Park which is 8 million acres in size.
We have the privilege to visit Wiseman where only 12 people live and go right into their tiny village which consists of little log cabins sitting near the river with large grass areas and trees. It is a sunny day and it looks like paradise with the golden foliage of the trees and the vegetables in their garden flourishing. The people in Alaska and up here have the ability to grow amazing crops of vegetables because in the short summer, if they get the planting time right, they get so many hours of daylight and sunshine that the vegetables grow to a huge size and produce a huge crop. This is a great example of nature providing assistance to stock up for winter. This family we hear about has a cool store under their floor which is large enough to store 250 kg of root vegetables for the winter. Meat is hunted for, fish are caught and other products are ordered online and the plane flies them in. The problems arise when illness strikes because there are no medical facilities unless they fly to Fairbanks. They have a 4 year old daughter who goes trapping and hunting with her Dad. He entertains us in a cabin which was lived in until the guy passed away – it is basic in every way. These days however, they are harnessing the solar energy and other forms of energy and using LED lights which draw less power. They have the Internet, although moderately slow, and cable TV. They are resourceful people. Our amazing visit to this little place comes to an end and we make our way back to Coldfoot for the flight home (and I am thinkin that the name is apt – the blimmin feet would indeed be cold in this ‘ere place in winter!)
On the drive back to the little airport a black bear appears out of the bush on the side of the road so we stop to admire this fella from the wild farewelling us. At the airport we eat our boxed dinner in the saloon/cafe where those Ice Truckers sit to enjoy theirs and think how very lucky we are to have had this amazing day.
Our pilot is awaiting for the flight back and we board the little plane and fly over the pipeline again and a ski area with long runs. At this ski area you are driven back up the mountain after you complete your run because there are no chairlifts – the reason being that if the chairlift broke down you would freeze before they could get to you. Well, I am thinking you would be a hardy soul dressed up like the Michelin man to even ski there! This wonderful day ends our Alaskan adventure and what better way to do it.
It’s blue rivers, glaciers, critters and trees
Where people flock to work the season
And leave as the ground starts to freeze.
The days draw in and darkness falls
On this spectacular wilderness land.
Animals migrate and black bears sleep
And those beautiful red salmon are canned.
The sled dogs train for the Iditarod race
Their mushers are hardy gals and blokes.
The people who winter over here
Are especially resourceful folks.
Special memories we take home from this place
To share with those we hold dear
The trip of a lifetime we have had
To celebrate our golden year.
One more stop folks – Mickey we are a comin!