Alaska 2016: By Train and ATV to Denali

Monday, August 29, 2016               

Today we had a 9-hour train ride from Anchorage to Holland America Line’s resort north of Denali National Park.  The train was also a collaborative effort between Alaska Rail and HAL.  This train was called the McKinley Express.

We were seated in a specific car in assigned seats on the upper floor, where domed windows afforded fine views.  This time we had comfortable seats not at tables. People were called in groups to go downstairs for breakfast (which we’d already had) and lunch.

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The bartender on our train car was Doug.  Tami was our guide.  Besides really bad puns, Doug would say crazy things like “Yeah, I climbed to the summit of Denali yesterday” or he would see a really beautiful house on a hill and say, “That’s my house!”  Tami would mockingly rebuke him.

At the beginning of the ride, when we passed through the Anchorage suburb of Wasilla, Doug pointed to a big house on a hill and said, “That’s Sarah Palin’s house!” Which it wasn’t, of course, although he told us the Palins do still have a house in the hills around here even though they mostly now live in Arizona.

In the end, Doug and Tami told us they were married – to each other! – and they hugged and kissed.  No one apparently had guessed – this was presumably their regular “routine” on the train.  Doug said usually the more they argued, the more passengers would guess they were married!

The weather we’ve been having this entire trip has been unusually beautiful.  August usually is the beginning of the rainy season, we were told, and in fact, a week before we arrived, it had rained so much that August was on track to be the rainiest on record!  But today, the sky was clear, as it had been in Anchorage, and we were able to see the top of Denali clearly, from over a hundred miles away!

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We had a clear view of Denali and other snow-covered mountains of the Alaska range in the distance.
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Denali

That, Tami said, makes us members of the 30% Club. This is the percentage of visitors to Alaska who actually get to see the top of Denali! The mountain is so high that it creates its own weather system and most of the time it is shrouded in clouds.  We’ve been so lucky on this trip!

We passed stands of dead trees periodically.  It was eerie.  Tami told us it was because of the 1964 earthquake, which registered 9.2 on the Richter scale, exponentially higher than the 2011 Japan earthquake at 9.0. Alaska suffered heavy damage from the quake and the tsunami that followed.  The earth shook for 5-6 minutes, followed by a huge tsunami that reached as far inland as the area we are traveling through! (We are in about the center of the state west-east). The tsunami caused the trees to die and then their trunks hardened, as if petrified.  According to Wikipedia, 139 people were killed in the earthquake and its aftermath.  A whole town disappeared.

(For more resources on this earthquake, see The U.S. Geological resource web site:
http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/events/alaska1964/.)

We saw another large area of blackened trees, caused by a forest fire out of control.

We passed Spencer Glacier north of Anchorage.

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Alaska has 100,000 glaciers but only 600 have been named. The largest is Hubbard Glacier. Alaska also has many thousands of lakes, far more than Minnesota and Wisconsin combined!  Kenai Lake is long and narrow: 22 miles long and only a mile wide, so it kind of looks like a river.  There are many lakes like this.

The lakes can be very deep and so can the rivers. Silt River is 800-900 ft. deep!  At high tide this river looks like a lake!

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We were entering the tundra area of Alaska with fewer large plants – there is a lot of brush and low ground cover. The ground is spongy when you walk on it.  Some river beds contain so much glacial silt that a very thick layer has formed.  If you walk on it, you get stuck, like quicksand!

Two types of evergreen trees grow in this area – the white spruce, which we think of as Christmas tree-like in shape : wide at the bottom and narrowing to a point on top.  Black spruce, which is becoming far more common as we go north (also called Sitka spruce), is scraggly, thin and sometimes misshapen.  It produces a large quantity of cones at this time of year, which grow in large clumps at the top of the tree.  Squirrels collect these cones as a major staple which they store for the long winters.

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Denali Park train depot

The train arrived in the Denali area later than expected – it had had to stop several times and go onto a siding to let other trains pass.  From there, we got on a bus, “Coach 5” for the transfer to our hotel.

We had a tour booked for 6 pm, which I was prepared to cancel because I didn’t think we were prepared in terms of clothing.  We were going on an “Argo ATV adventure” with a company called Denali Tundra Tours.  I was beginning to have serious misgivings about this tour, but was unable to do anything about it, because a young woman named Andrea was already waiting for us inside the main lodge. We had to leave immediately – no time to eat or go to our room first.  Our luggage would probably not be there yet anyway since it had come on the same train we were on.  Andrea assured me we’d be fine – in fact, we’d probably feel hot once we got off higher ground where it was windy.

We decided to leave our backpacks stored there, and the main desk gave us tickets with numbers on them to identify our bags when we got back.

Andrea told us on the way that she was from Michigan and had a good job there as a veterinarian technician.  Her boss had been nice enough to give her a sabbatical for the summer so she could come up here and work for Denali Tundra Tours.  She has been loving it and wishes she could do it every summer from now on.

This place was a long way away – it took us about ½ hour to get there in the van Andrea was driving.  No one else from our cruise had signed up for this but Andrea said they were expecting two other couples.

John and Dan are the two owners of the company.  They had put out clipboards with a 2-page waiver to read and sign.  I began reading it carefully and became alarmed at the description of all the awful things that could potentially happen, but the guys assured us it was just for liability sake and that none of those things had ever happened.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

The other two couples arrived – four young Australians. I had the feeling that we were the only ones there over 30…hmmm!  Dan and John went over the safety rules and took us out to the Argos.  Andrea gave everyone a helmet to wear while Dan and John taught the drivers how to drive an ATV.  All I needed to do was figure out how to stay in the vehicle and…well, just get through the experience.

A quick lesson on driving and safety features on the ATV
A quick lesson on driving and safety features of the ATV

There was a short “practice course” for the drivers to practice, weaving around cones (Dale went around only one, then drove past the other two) and then we were off down the road.  I felt a little chilly with the wind whipping through the ATV, but Andrea was right – once we got off the road into more sheltered territory, it wasn’t windy.

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We got a gorgeous view of Denali before leaving high ground and stopped to take pictures.

Gorgeous view of Denali

We drove along rutted paths full of boulders, and through puddles, big and small.  The route actually led through portions of creeks.  We were the second in the procession, behind Dan and Andrea.  John brought up the rear  behind the two Australian couples.

The trails were full of boulders, dips and ruts.
The trail was full of boulders, dips and ruts.

As for taking pictures en route, although both Dale and I had our cameras dangling in front of us, it was impossible to take any pictures unless we were stopped.  It took all our concentration to negotiate the boulders, water, and uneven paths.  Several times, I closed my eyes and let Dale figure it out.  This was usually when he had to swerve to avoid a dramatic dip on one side of the path. Fortunately, he slowed down when we entered water, the opposite of what Andrea had suggested because it was part of the fun to get splashed with water and mud. No thanks! I suppose it is fun for a 20-something.  One’s idea of “fun” changes with age!

We hadn’t been out real long when we stopped for quite awhile.  John had fallen backwards into the water and was soaked from head to toe!  At first I thought he’d fallen out of the ATV – but no, he was walking in the water to check a tire on one of the other vehicles when he slipped and fell.  Although he had a dry shirt to put on, he had to finish the trip with wet jeans and shoes. I took advantage to take a couple of shots of the woods around us.

Rest stop in the woods near a stream

We took a longer break in a clearing shortly after that.  For the guys, it was a convenient potty break. Although we women had a designated “area” to urinate, none of us did.  Too complicated for us!

Clearly, we weren’t the only ones who had been here.

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KODAK Digital Still Camera
The cones cluster at the top of the black spruce.

Then we were off again.  Up to then, I had been gripping a hand hold bar below the seat on the side with my left hand, which was beginning to hurt with the effort, and pushing down on the seat with my right hand.  On the break, John showed me a better position – put my right foot in a foot rest, which I hadn’t noticed before (well, I had but didn’t know what it was used for) and left foot against the side to brace myself, and put my right arm across the back of the seat and hold on that way.  I did this for the rest of the trip.

Meanwhile, Dale was navigating the vehicle, veering to avoid large dips and holes in the path, and pretty much stayed between 11 and 14 mph.  In the orientation, we were told that 14 mph is the fastest safe speed. When Dale went over that, I told him to slow down, which he did.

I eventually got used to the jarring and jostling and actually think all the bumping somehow helped take the kinks out of my neck!  Still, I can’t say it was my idea of fun – although Dale said it was fun for him.  I kept wondering what on earth I had been thinking when I signed up for this tour (it promised stunning views of Denali).  I mean, I don’t really believe in rumbling through the wilderness in a noisy off-road vehicle.  We were unlikely to see wildlife, which would be scared away by the noise.  I guess I really didn’t see the point of it.  Although I later told Andrea I’d write a good review on Trip Advisor, I also will probably state that if your goal is to admire scenery and see wildlife, you probably shouldn’t take an ATV tour.

I knew when I began to feel chilly in the wind again that we were back on high ground and almost done. I could see the familiar buildings coming into view – yes! It’s almost over!

After turning in our helmets we went back into the shelter for hot chocolate or coffee.  They put out wipes for us to clean our hands, as there was no running water in the shelter, and Dale and I each took one.  My hands were dirty from gripping the sides of a vehicle that most likely hadn’t been cleaned and Dale’s were worse – he had some oily stains on his hands. The sun was setting as Andrea and the two of us got back into the van.

 

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