The first time I visited Alaska was the summer of 2002. It was the year I turned 25 and about the time I realized that I wanted to go back to college. I was burning out on waiting tables in the National Parks and yearning desperately for a different direction in my life. Much of my burn out centered around waking up before the sun and reconciling the difference between a breakfast cook’s idea of over-medium eggs and a stressed-out vacationer’s idea of over-medium eggs. The back and forth that resulted in over a dozen eggs being ferried between the kitchen to the dining room was happening far too regularly for me to continue to like people and remain employed. I got a job for the summer at the McKinley Chalet right outside of Denali National Park. It was my last hurrah of park life. I was lucky enough to score a serving job at the fine dining restaurant that only served dinner. No longer did I have to concern myself with the disparity of people’s opinions on the definition of over-medium. I was able to go out on a high note and squirrel away some money that I should have saved for college but instead spent on a six-week trip to Thailand and Cambodia. Fast forward 16 years and I find myself yet again at the McKinley Chalet. This time I am poaching the computers reserved for guest use and dragging Scott along for the ride down my memory lane. So much had changed and so much had remained the same. The dining room where I used to work had been repurposed as a bar and I couldn’t even find employee housing. The main drag outside the park looked completely unchanged. The same businesses were operating and the crazy commercial vibe was still prevalent. We basically used those businesses for their free internet, garbage and recycling cans. We bought one delicious vegan pizza from a surly bartender at Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse complete with house-made cashew cheeze and got out of there.
Before our drive along my memory lane, we spent a handful of days camped out in a dry creek bed outside of Healy, just north of Denali National Park. It was a nice place to lounge for a while and recover from the rigors of our most recent backpacking trip. For us, the highlight of Healy was a visit to the 49thState Brewing Company. They had a couple of brews that pleased our palates and the brewery itself was pretty cool. The outside yard had fire pits, a stage, darts and a replica of the bus that Christopher McCandless lived in during his final fateful summer in the Alaskan wilderness that was used in the movie about his life, Into the Wild. There was even a chair placed outside the bus in case you wanted to replicate one of the last photos he had taken of himself. If was a bit weird feeling to me but I guess it is not the first tragedy to morph into a tourist bucket list destination.
Anyhow, we were feeling the pull to begin our southerly migration so we headed toward the Denali Highway to make the crossing towards Canada. The Denali Highway is a dirt road that connects the towns of Cantwell (pop 219) and Paxson (pop 40). Before we headed out on the highway we camped out along a river called Jack’s Creek. It had the clearest water and it seemed like all of the cobbles in the creek bed were the same size. The clarity of the water really showed off the bright colors of the grapefruit-sized rocks. There were some sandy depressions on the beach that had interesting tracks. Moose and baby moose as well as the biggest dog tracks I have ever seen. Maybe wolf tracks???? We had the whole creek to ourselves so we spent the evening honing our aim with the slingshot.
It took some doing to talk ourselves into leaving and heading down the highway. We had heard from a family at the coffee shop in Cantwell (JP’s Coffee House, home of the most delicious meat pies ever) that they had seen brown bears on their crossing of the Denali Highway so we were on high alert for a serious wildlife sighting. Sure enough, not more than 20 minutes into our drive I see a flash of brown that has us pulling over and whipping out the long lens for the camera. No, not a grizzly bear, but a spruce grouse! It was super cute and lounged by the side of the road somewhat contentedly allowing me to take its picture. Each time it would try to grouse away I would scold it and it would halt its retreat letting me get closer for even one more picture. After a while, other travelers pulled over to check out the grouse so we moved on to allow everyone their space to appreciate the majesty of the grouse.
The Denali highway is only 136 miles long and we thought there would be a good chance that we would complete the drive in one day. Nope! Not when you are combining driving with serious wildlife seeking! I drove the first leg and I think I only made it about 55 miles before we found a campsite that was too beautiful to pass up! It was up on a hill overlooking the Susitna River Valley. We found a level-ish spot and enjoyed a long sunset complete with rainbows!
It took a bit of coaxing to convince Scott that we should be heading down the road the next day. Alaska has a way of luring us to spend just one more day everywhere we turn. We stayed strong and headed off down the highway the next day. In return for our perseverance, we were rewarded with our first caribou sighting! They are the goofiest looking animals. Very prancy. We also got to see swan families and loons. Alas, no brown bears. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we will still be in bear country for a while so the opportunity is not lost yet!
After we left the Denali Highway we headed back to the Kendesnii Campground in the Wrangell- St Elias National Park. We had set our sights on hiking up to the Rambler Mine at the end of the road at Nabesna.
A month had passed since we were last there and the road was unrecognizable! The sections of road that were washed out before had been graded and we had a hard time finding the spots that had thwarted our progress before. We were a tad disappointed as we were thinking we might have a chance at some adventure driving but it was nice to make it to the end of the road in a timely manner. The hike up to the mine was short and steep. I think the official trail ended where most of the buildings were but there was a scramble to a higher mine shaft and we couldn’t resist. Scott went all the way to the top and peeked in that giant hole in the mountain. I watched.
The trail was pretty loose and steep and if you follow this blog you know that I don’t really do well with loose and steep. On our way up, we had noticed a spur off the main trail that looked like an old road and surmised that it met up with the trail further up. The equipment and all that gold had to be transported somehow and we didn’t think it went via the skinny trail we had taken! So, we opted to take the less steep and very much less trodden old road path back down just hoping that it led where we thought it did. Never have I been more creeped out by a trail. It was just weird. The road had been overgrown by these spindly trees and someone had come through and trimmed them making a sort of tunnel of trees. I felt my place in the far-north food chain very acutely. Scott had the bear spray and I stuck to him like glue!
Thankfully the creepy trail led back to the regular trail and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief that we didn’t get eaten. One thing that hadn’t changed at Kendesnii Campground since we were last there was that bugginess. There were so many bugs before and there were still so many bugs!
Once we got back to camp after our hike we cooked up some dinner and then retreated to our tent to escape the bugs. We were watching videos and laughing when our neighbor angrily shouted, “QUIET! PLEASE!” You see, 10:00 pm quiet time has a way of sneaking up on you when the sun doesn’t set. We felt a little affronted by the ire delivered to us from our neighbor but we took the rude shushing in stride. We dropped our volume to a whisper but definitely giggled when nearby children played hide ‘n’ seek and screeched with glee late into the night. The next morning our neighbors energetically packed up their elaborate camp and moved down one spot presumably to put space between us and them. We didn’t have the heart to tell them we were leaving that day.
When we left Kendesnii Campground we headed to our final amazing free campground in Alaska. It was at Deadman Lake in the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. This place was awesome! It had a dozen or so campsites, super clean pit toilets complete with tons of paper and hand sanitizer, free canoes to borrow, a crate of novels to read, ranger presentations every night, and minimal bugs. It was heaven. We stayed a record four nights there. We hung our hammock, I read a novel a day, and Scott paddled me around on the lake like the princess I think I am.
Our campsite was a convenient 5km loop to the Alaska Highway and back so we managed to run a 5k every day we were there followed by a dip in the lake. We have pledged to ourselves that we would get at least 100km of exercise every month on this trip. Either hiking/backpacking or running counts towards the 100km. It is a challenge when the road days are long to get the exercise in but we really don’t want to succumb to road trip sluggishness. Anyhow our Deadman Lake streak of 4 days really helped us to get August off to a good start! It was really the first time I felt like it was summer since we crossed into Canada back in June and a great way to cap off our time in Alaska.