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.

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