Saturday, July 23, 2016

Finally, a Sunny Day in Alaska

The day started off as overcast as every other day so far: low clouds and light drizzle.  

Dad was feeling sore and took a pain pill.  Instead of walking to the square for breakfast and our transfer, dad wanted to take the shuttle.  To understand what happened next, you need to know there are two types of shuttles that run among all the buildings at the hotel complex:  a large, comfortable van; and a school bus.  Since the van only seats about 15 and won’t permit standing, the school bus comes in handy when there are large groups.  This morning, we were picked up by the school bus.

Before we could get off at the square, we had to stop at the main lodge lobby.  However, because of the size of the bus, it can’t make the sharp turn into the parking lot of the lobby.  Instead, it has to exit the lot and then reenter further down, where it can simply make a left to the front of the lobby.  The bus was about a third full when we were picked up and there some women, probably mid-60s, sitting behind me, and one was talking about how her children keep calling her.  As we came up to the main lobby, the bus stayed to the right to make its exit and re-entrance. Suddenly, the women behind me were screaming “let us off!  Can’t you let us off here!  We want to get off!”

The bus driver yelled back that she needed to exit to make the turn and I think I yelled back the same.  The women were furious, sure that the bus driver was talking smack about them, and later I realized that they thought I had yelled at them.  I could here one say, “I’m going to get her name and report her,” followed by, “is she talking to us?”  The driver was carrying on a conversation with the people in the front so I said that’s what she was doing. 

As they got off the bus, they asked the driver her name.  I really didn’t pay any attention to them, and the bus headed down to the square where dad and I got off and had a so-so breakfast at the buffet.  We needed to be next door at 8:30 to get on the bus to the train station, so this was a lot more convenient than going back to the restaurant in the main lobby where we had eaten the last few days.

Eventually they announced we could board the buses, so dad and I got in line, but that bus filled up, so we moved to the overflow bus.  I think dad was still hurting because he asked if they would bring the bus to us, rather than walk across the street.  Nonetheless, we walked and got on.  At the train station, we ran into our old friends Sam and Mary (from Wisconsin), who had seats on the train just behind us and across the aisle.  I asked dad if he “had seen the farbissiner women who had complained on the shuttle bus, and I was shocked to hear “we’re over here!”  They were 6 or 7 people behind us in line to board our train wagon.  She accused me of yelling at her on the bus, and I said that “I just don’t have an indoor voice.”  Dad then said to me, “when you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

I was more than a little surprised since I hadn’t seen them on any of our other excursions or on the bus from Fairbanks.  When we reached Anchorage, they were part of the first rows of the train who were directed to a different transfer bus than ours.  I’m not sure if they will be on our ship or not.  I guess we’ll find out tomorrow if they’re on the boat train to Seward.  If they’re seated at our table, it will be more than a little awkward.

 Our seats on the train to Anchorage

The train journey to Anchorage was absolutely stunning.  I would rank it as one of the most spectacular train journeys I’ve ever taken.  Even better, as the day progressed, the clouds began to lighten, and suddenly this strange hot burning ball of fire in the sky became visible.

The early part of the route went along side the Nenana River, with gorgeous views of dark green forests, occasionally broken up by a churning river or small green meadows with black ponds.  

As the clouds began to diminish, we began to see the tops of mountains that had been mostly invisible before, such as Panorama Mountain.   

Then as the sun came out, we could see hills covered by light green tundra, with almost no trees at all (which can’t grow in heavy permafrost.

Trees on one side, tundra on the other

We even got a glimpse of a tiny part of Mt. Denali.  On average, only 30% of the people who visit the park see even a part of the mountain.  Only 5% see the entire mountain. Dad pointed out, repeatedly, that he had already seen the entire mountain on a business trip to Prudhoe Bay.  It was an amazingly warm, clear October day, and on the flight back, they passed Denali.  We actually had three separate glimpses of the mountain from the train, but each time, we only saw the very base of the mountain.  The top was wrapped in clouds.

The trip was enjoyable for the company.  We went to the dining car at lunch and shared a table with the couple in front of us, a semi-retired store owner from Missouri and his wife.  He had never left the United States before, but his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law had recently done a Mediterranean cruise, which began in Istanbul, ended in Rome, with stops in Ephesus, Israel, and Malta. 

Eventually we reached Wasilla where, we learned from our guide, Governor Palin never said she could see Russia from her porch, but rather that “We (in Alaska) can see Russia.”  Earlier, I heard her chatting with someone behind me about how her daughter and Palin’s daughter are friends (they live near by), but that many people in Alaska were upset that she had broken her promises and quit her job, rather than fight the oil companies.

South of Wasilla, we approached the Chugach Mountains, which were quite dramatic.  Someone joked we should tell people that this was Mt. Denali.  Eventually, after eight hours, we came around the bend and were in downtown Anchorage.

Our hotel, the Westmark, seemed drab and dingy on arrival.  Dad was surprised at the niceness of the room given how shabby the reception is.  Dad wanted salmon for dinner, so I browsed Yelp and we ended up going to Orso, across the street.  Dad had the sockeye salmon on red quinoa, I had the king salmon with grilled veggies.  Dad was very happy with his and I liked mine too, but after tasting his sockeye, I think I prefer that to king salmon.

Dad wanted ice cream for dessert, so I found a parlor four blocks away.  From there we took a short detour on the way back to the hotel so I could see if the Starbucks sold newspapers (unfortunately they didn’t).  On the way back to the hotel, I could see dad was limping a little and after I asked, he said his hip was hurting him.  Luckily, we were only a block and a half from the hotel.

After finding out logistics for our transfer tomorrow, I sent him to the room while I took a stroll down to the harbor.  Dad was a little concerned for my safety, but I told him I would be back well before sunset (which isn’t until 10:59 pm here).  The Cook Inlet is only four blocks away, so I walked down there.  It was the first time since I arrived in Canada that 1) I needed sunglasses; and 2) I wished I had not taken my jacket with me. 

It was strange because the view of the mountains lining the Cook Inlet remind me a lot of the scenery I saw in Ushuia on the south shore of Tierra del Fuego, but despite the coldness of the view, everyone was out in t-shirts and shorts.  The walk turned out to be quite short, just a half an hour, and then it was back to the room.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sled Dogs and Puppies

With no scheduled excursions for this morning or much of today, we were able to sleep in.  I didn’t get up until 7:30, over eight hours after I went to sleep.  A real achievement.  We watched a little of the news this morning, watching in disbelief as Trump stepped all over his story to attack Ted Cruz’s father.  I’m still in shock that he’s the Republican nominee.

Over breakfast at the lodge, dad and I discussed politics.  How will Roger Ailes resignation affect the presidential race?  (Dad is sure Fox News’ coverage may shift dramatically; I’m not so sure the change will be that quick).  What will Trump do next week during the Democratic Convention? (I’m convinced he will try to make himself the lead news story each day).  Who will Clinton pick as her Vice Presidential candidate (Dad hoped for Elizabeth Warren, I told him that the Democrats wouldn’t want to lose a Senate seat and was hoping for Julian Castro).

After breakfast we took the shuttle to the Denali National Park visitor’s center.   A lot of the people on the bus wanted to see the sled dog demonstration, which they were late for, but I wanted to find out when the ranger-led hikes were.  Dad, though, asked if we could go see the sled dogs, so off we went. 

We had an opportunity to see almost all the dogs.  Some were in areas where you could pet them, others were not supposed to be bothered.  I did my best to pose with some of the more accessible dogs.

 The park ranger had a bit of shtick going about being a federal employee, but it wasn’t too offensive.  Eventually, we all sat behind the railing to see the sled demonstration.  As they start setting up the sled and harnesses, all the dogs get up on their boxes and bark repeatedly, saying (in doggish) “pick me! Pick me!”  

 They bring the dogs out in an odd way:  each dog is brought out only on their back paws.  I asked the ranger and he called it “two paw drive.”  The problem is that if they walk on all four legs, they are so powerful, they can pull the handler off balance.

As they put the dogs in position, they start straining and leaping, trying to pull the sled.  Eventually, the musher releases the break and off they go.  In no time at all they turn the loop and stop, after which, all the dogs gets treats and rubs.

Afterwards, we walked around and petted the dogs some more.   

Then we headed back to the visitor’s center.  I learned there would be a ranger-led hike on the Rock Creek Trail at 1 pm, so in the meantime, we watched the 18-minute movie about the park.  The mountain itself looks beautiful, but if you want to see it cloud free, your best bet is to come in January when the temperature is 40 below.  Those are the days when the sky is the clearest.

My dad decided to go back to the hotel to rest, so I walked him back to the bus and made sure he got on the right one.  Then I had lunch at the cafeteria in the park.  I had such a big lunch, I just couldn’t order a sandwich or hamburger, so I asked for the salmon chowder, which turned out to be really good on such a cold day.

I should mention that the weather today has been much better than yesterday: not sunny (though I have glimpsed patches of blue on rare occasions today), but much less rain, only periods of light drizzle. 

About two dozen people showed up for the hike.  It was 2.5 miles with 400 feet of elevation gain (and then loss).  The pace was a very leisurely 1 mile an hour.  The people on the trail were an eclectic bunch:  a Spanish-speaking family with a toddler, two German friends from Bonn, about six people from a Dragoman Adventure tour group camping in the park (they were from all over the world), and some Chinese girls.  

Our guide delighted in pointing out the various berries along the trail.  She encouraged us to try the blueberries, which are a week or two away from full ripeness.  “Just avoid any green ones,” she advised.  

 There were also low-growing cranberries.  These are about a month away from ripeness, but I tried one that looked like it was fully ripe.  It didn’t taste tart; in fact, it didn’t really taste like anything at all.  If I hadn’t known it was a cranberry, I never would have guessed.  At best, I’d say it had vague hints of cranberry.

I also tried a crowberry (so called because it is as black as a crow), but this had no flavor whatsoever.  Apparently, some people mix them with blueberries as a kind of filler.  There were also pumpkin berries (because of the color), but I was told they were tasteless, so I let them alone.   

 We also saw many soap berries, but I knew better than to try them.  After warning us that they were very bitter and tasted bad, she offered us to try one.  I declined.  One guy tried one and said it tasted worse than awful. 

The best part of the trail, besides chatting with the other hikers, were the views.  Although we had a patch of drizzle, we also had some really spectacular views of the lower level of Denali National Park.  

 This section of the park isn’t tundra or permafrost; it’s what’s called a boreal forest.  “Boreal” means “north” and refers to a band of forested terrain stretching across Canada, the U.S., and Siberia.  The only trees that grow in the permafrost are the black spruce, because they have very shallow roots that gain nourishment from the soil above the permafrost.  That’s why they appear so “drunken” when it melts:  they no longer have support for their root system.

I didn’t want to “hog” the guide, so after a while I ended up in the back of the group. Sure enough, I passed by a plant I thought was intriguing and had to wait a while before I had a chance to ask about it.  Turns out it was horsetail, a very ancient plant indeed.  It predates the dinosaurs (though it was a lot taller back then).  

The trail ends above Rock Creek, which provided some nice views.   

The rest of the group went off to see the sled dogs and the Dragoman hikers and I waited for the bus back to the Visitor Center. There, I got a preview of tomorrow’s train ride when I checked out the train in the depot.

A short while later I was back at the hotel and met my father for dinner.  He wanted to try out the steakhouse in the lodge, so we were the first people seated when they opened at 5.  I had the onion soup, dad had the crab bisque, and we both got the 6 oz tenderloin (though he ordered his medium, while I prefer medium rare).  We both enjoyed our soups and steaks, though dad was convinced they were larger than 6 oz. 

“Finally, a good meal!” he said. 
“What about the reindeer stew last night?” I asked. 
“That was good he said.” 
“And the backcountry dinner the night before that?” I asked. 
“That was good too.” 
“So it was just the dinner in Fairbanks you didn’t like?” I concluded.
“That was terrible,” he said. 
I told him I liked the crab, but it was so much work for so little benefit.
“If you like crab, you should come to salt and pepper crab night at Barona.”
“I don’t want to go to a casino, dad.”
“You don’t have to go the casino; you can just go for dinner.”
I said that I thought the shrimps had too much garlic in Fairbanks.
“Those shrimps were too small.  And the steak wasn’t very good either.”

We were too full to get ice cream or anything else.  We talked about the attack in Munich and Clinton’s selection of Sen. Tim Kaine as her VP.  Then I went off to see the sled dog puppies.

“I bet you won’t see anything different than what we saw today,” my father declared.  I told him I’d be back between 9:30 and 10 pm.

There were a few big differences.  First off, this place had sled dog puppies!  First I got to hold a four-week old puppy, then I got to play with a twelve-week old puppy. Unfortunately, the latter had had his nails clipped that day (all of them did), and as the puppies were rough housing, it opened up and was bleeding.  I got some blood on my jacket, but it all came out with a few wet naps.

The 4-week old puppy I got to hold.

 The 12-week old puppies I got to play with afterwards.

 The adult sled dogs.

The demonstration of the sled dog team and how they pull was very similar to what I had seen earlier, but the second half of the program was hearing from an Iditarod participant about what that race is like. 

At the end, we had an opportunity to buy a photo of us with our puppy.  I decided that $15 was really too much to spend just for a photo of me holding a puppy, particularly since all you can really see is my mass of grey hair.

When I returned to the hotel after 9:30, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bit of sunlight and a few bits of clear sky.  Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the rest of the trip is rain.

 Our lodge.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Denali in the Rain

I didn’t think it would ever be night in Alaska, but the sun does set around 11:30 am and stays down until a little after 4 am.  The hotel rooms also have blinds and curtains, so the room does get dark.  As a result, I slept for over 7 and a half hours last night.  Today we needed to be on the bus by 9 am, and since I wasn’t sure how long breakfast would take, I planned on leaving for the main building by 7:30.  As it was we left a few minutes early.

Breakfast was fine, if unremarkable.  There was a wait for a table and when we were finally called, the waitress came to our table and said someone left a bag where we were waiting.  I was about to scold my father when I saw that it was my bag.  Ooops.

The agenda for today was really straightforward:  an eight-hour “tundra wilderness tour.”  We spent virtually the entire time on the bus.  This was mostly because it was a long drive on a dirt road (for the most part) until the turn around point, but also because of the weather:  it never stopped raining the entire day.  At some points, the rain reduced to a light drizzle, but mostly it was a steady rain.

 I chose a seat towards the back on the left side.  I hadn’t wanted the back, but the seats in the very front were taken, and the ones behind them had no overhead rack for storage.  Then the first seats that had overhead were over the wheel, so that meant we sat in the back.  Unfortunately, I chose the wrong side of the bus, but this wasn’t predictable. 

The issue was spotting wildlife.  While the driver did spot things for us, much of her attention had to be focused on the road and keeping us safe.  That meant if we were going to see anything, we had to spot it ourselves, and two people on the right side of the best were very, very good at spotting things.  Since these were often high up on the hill and I was on the far left, it was very hard for me to see what they had spotted.

Early on, though, the guide found us a moose cow (a female moose) near the road, and she actually got quite close to us.  I thought that was an auspicious start and, in fact, we did see a lot of animals, just some of us saw them more easily than others.

It started when they spotted a mama grizzly with cubs.  I convinced my father to move forward and I leaned over and bent down and finally saw her.  She was large, golden brown, and midway up the slope.  About 10 minutes later they spotted another grizzly.  I finally saw it and two of its cubs, but dad kept asking where it was. 

Me:  Look for the area without shrubs.
Dad:  Where?
Me:  Up there directly across from us.  Do you see the bare area, the place with no vegetation?
Dad:  Yes.
Me:  Ok, now look to the left.  Do you see the bear?
Dad:  No.
Me:  It’s moving now, do you see it?
Dad:  No.

Eventually I got tired of craning my neck so took the opportunity to photograph the wilderness on our side of the bus (when the bus was stopped I could lower the windows for an unobstructed shot).  I noticed a dark spot near the top of the hill opposite and asked the woman behind me, who had binoculars, to check it out. She wasn’t much help though, and offered them to me.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to focus them (and they make me nauseous when I do), but I kept asking people to look and finally someone asked the driver and she said I had spotted a large bull caribou.  Yay!

Can you find the caribou?  First find the Hershey's Kiss-shaped peak. then look to the left; you'll see a hill with kind of goldish-colored region on top.  Look in that gold-colored region, just slightly to the left of the peak and two-thirds of the way down the golden region, you'll see a long, black spot. That's the bull caribou.  (The gold-colored region is actually a sign that summer is coming to an end here).

In case you were wondering about the difference between caribou and reindeer, the answer is that the former are wild and the latter are domesticated.  Otherwise, they look exactly the same. 

After much effort, I was able to point out to dad where the caribou was.

As we drove on we learned about how the permafrost is melting leading to “drunken forests” (where the trees are all wildly askew because their roots can’t hold on to anything).  It’s also leading to taller trees as they have more soil to grow.  I have to say that tundra isn’t how I imagined it.  I know I’ve seen nature documentaries where the caribou graze on green shrubs, but someone I thought it would be white or grey.  In fact, it was quite green.

We had our first bathroom break at the Teklanika Rest Stop. There, we stood in the light rain and saw the Teklanika River, one of several we crossed today.  The river is called a “braided river,” because it moves about in a wide, rocky channel.  Because it’s fed by glacial runoff, the water is a murky white as it’s filled with fine silt particles suspended in the water that were originally in the glacier.  

 As we headed over Sable Pass the driver spotted a family of Rock Ptarmigan, the Alaskan state bird.  The male stood watch, as the hen and chicks moved across the road. 

The next part of the road took us up the Polychrome Overlook, a windy mountain road with multicolored rock cliffs (hence the name).  The couple sitting behind us on the bus are from northern Wisconsin.  We had met them in the hotel in Fairbanks and they will be with us on the cruise.  It would be nice if I could remember their names.  Anyway, she had a fear of heights, so kept her eyes closed (though we were driving on the mountain side).  Given the rain, the driver delayed stopping at the overlook in the hope the weather would be better on the return journey.  Then we descended to our last major river:  the Toklat.

Here we had a longer rest stop as there were not only bathrooms but a bookstore/gift shop.  Despite the rain, I wanted to get up close to the river.  With all the added water from the rains, the current was swift and loud.  I recorded its sound on video.


Rather wet, I went into the bookstore and we were chatting about McKinley’s fate.  He used to be known for the mountain and being shot, but now he’s only known for the mountain.  “And the Spanish-American War!” said the guy running the concession.  “That’s how we got Puerto Rico, and American Samoa!”  “And the Philippines,” I added, “and Guantanamo.”  

As we left, the driver spotted a large male grizzly walking by the water.  This time it was on the left, so I was in good position.

Dad:  Where is it?
Me:  Directly opposite us, walking on the rocks by that green vegetation.
Dad:  In the water?
Me:  No.  Opposite us, on the rocks.
Dad:  In the water?
Me:  No!
Passengers:  on the land!  About a quarter of the way from the river towards the bus.
Dad:  I don’t see it.
Me:  It’s the only brown thing that’s moving.

Male grizzlies are much browner than the females.

A little further on we saw a female grizzly with at least two cubs walking on the bank across the river.  Altogether I think we saw four or five adult grizzlies and perhaps more cubs.  That might not seem like a lot but there are only three hundred and something grizzlies in the entire two million acre park.  We saw about 4% of the total population.

The further into the park we got, the worse the weather became.  By the time we reached the turnaround, where we were about 38 miles from Mt. Denali and where, on a clear day, we should have had a stunning view, we could see nothing but rain and mist.

On the way back, we stopped at the Polychrome Overlook and, despite the rain, I got out and saw the view.  Despite the weather, it was pretty spectacular.  Dad, however, was getting rather tired.  Because of his vision issues, it’s hard for him to see many of the animals, which despite their large size, were too far away from us for him to see clearly.  “We should have turned back awhile ago,” he harrumphed. 

 The road over the pass

 Our tour bus.

Fireweed:  the last wildflower to bloom and the sign that summer is almost over

We spotted more caribou and moose on the way back, but no Dall Sheep (though we were told that the sheep would most likely look just like white blips in the distance).  We returned to the lodge a little after 5:00 pm, which didn’t give me much time to eat before my 6:00 pm photography excursion.  After making sure my father was on the bus to the Canyon Lodge where we’re staying, I ran and got a crispy fish sandwich for dinner, wolfing it down as fast as I could.  I needn’t have bothered.

When I got back to the main entrance, there was no sign of my tour.  I checked in with the tour receptionist, who suggested I wait.  When they still hadn’t come by 6:10, she called it to find that it had been cancelled.  I went to the front desk to get a refund, and then headed back to the cabin to surprise dad.

As it happened, he surprised me by meeting me in front.  He wanted to get dinner, so I went back with him to where I had eaten, and he had reindeer stew, while I had a beer.  Meanwhile, dad complained about my having signed him up for the tundra adventure.  I told him I hadn’t, that this was part of the land portion of the cruise, but he insisted he had paid $90/person.  I dug out the email confirming the excursions we purchased and showed him the tundra tour wasn’t on the list.  The $90 excursion was the covered wagon and backcountry dinner we had yesterday.

Meanwhile, dad informed me that there was a note in our room saying that my strenuous backcountry hike in Denali Park for tomorrow has been cancelled due to low enrollment.  That leaves me with nothing before 6:50 pm tomorrow night, when I get to hang out with husky puppies.  I asked about the Denali National Park visitors center, which does have ranger-led tours.  I’m going to call them in the morning to find out when they are.  There may be another walking excursion; I’m trying to get more info on it.

Since none of the desserts in the restaurant appealed to dad, who didn’t want either chocolate or vanilla ice cream, the waiter suggested an ice cream parlor across the street.  This turned out to be a bit more of a walk than I anticipated, and I had to convince dad to stick it out a little further until we finally arrived.  He asked for mocha, but it turns out they call that flavor “espresso explosion.”  Thankfully, it was just mocha.  I had rocky road.

Tomorrow remains up in the air.  Hopefully, it will work out.

Meanwhile, here's the closest we have to a sunset at the lodge: