By Sonia Dhami-
DENALI NATIONAL PARK
Leaving Fairbanks, we are on the road to Denali National Park early, mounting anticipation of sighting the Big Five of Denali – Bear, Moose, Dall Sheep, Caribou and Wolves. During the 5-hour ride to Denali, we make a stop at the town of Nenana, well-timed with Alaska Railroad just pulling in. This small town had seen better days for sure.
We finally pull into the Denali National Park entrance and rush to grab the few sandwiches left on the café shelves before we get on to another bus, operated by the park services for a ride on the Dalton Highway 3, the only road into the park. The scenery is spectacular as snow-covered peaks surround us. We reach the end of our drive where all we do is take photos and head back on the same road.
Luckily we passed a lone Moose grazing alongside the road, which finally gives us a much-awaited photo opportunity to prove that we did see some wildlife. Our bus driver shares the unique geological, environmental and ecological history of the area as we pass through.
So we return to our lodge for the night, which turns out to be the highlight of the day. Situated on the banks of the fast-flowing Nenana River, chunks of ice broke in front of our wonderstruck eyes from its frozen embankments and floated down the water. I relished my salmon dinner plate while the vegetarians made do with leftover chana masala and naan, that they had secretly stowed away from last night’s dinner.
The next day, we are again up at 5 am since our bags were going to be picked up at 6 am giving us hardly any time to laze around and feel like you were on vacation, though I did sneak out and have my morning chai (made with Instant Wagh Bakri chai sachets) sitting on a bench overlooking the river. Soon after we were on the long road heading to Anchorage.
Our first stop is early on, at the DogGoneIt Kennel owned by Mike & Caitlin. Mike is a finisher of the famous 1000-mile Idatarod race where the dogs and their musher race 100 miles a day for a grueling 10 days. On arrival, we are greeted by adorable Alaskan Husky puppies, which are been trained to take their place in the harness in a few years. Standing amidst the 40-odd dogs leased to their kennels, we learned about the raising and training of these canine athletes. We also see the dogs in action, as Mike harnesses them and takes them for a training run demonstration and we complete our visit by seeing a video presentation “Last Great Race on Earth” featuring Mike & his 14 dogs.
As we cruise along, passing deep gulches, streams, rivers, mountain peaks and traffic, we are rewarded with a spectacular view of the famous Mt. Denali the crowning peak of the Alaska Range and the highest mountain on the continent, at 20,310 ft. above sea level. If measured from base to summit, it is the tallest mountain in the world at 18,000 ft., surpassing Mt. Everest, which stands at 14,000-17,000 ft. (north and south faces). Measured from mean sea level it is the highest in the world at 29,031 ft.
To put things in perspective, the altitude of Kathmandu is 4344 ft. above sea level, while Denali is only 1342 ft, and Fairbanks is just 446ft.
Mt. Denali is known to shroud itself with clouds most of the time, but we were the favored few – as our guide proudly admitted us into the 5% club of tourists who are able to view the summit during their visit to Alaska.
We take a quick coffee break at the homestead of Mary Carey, who arrived alone in 1962, daring to make Alaska her home despite all odds. Mary was an award-winning photojournalist and author of 15 books, including “Alaska – Not for a Woman”, which I bought from the gift shop to read en route.
Soon we rolled into the town of Talkeetna (native American word – where the 3 rivers meet) is on the banks of the confluence of the Suisitna, Chulitna & Talkeetna rivers. Some 115 miles north of Anchorage in the Mar-Su valley, it accords magnificent views of 3 tallest peaks of the Alaska Range – Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter & Mt. Denali. During the gold rush of the late 19th century, it was a riverboat steamer station and later became the staging town for climbing expeditions. We strolled through the historic downtown, which has retained much of its early pioneer Alaska flavor with clapboard storefronts, a roadhouse and the red & white Nagley’s store dating to 1921. Many famous white pioneers had lived here including the famed Bush pilot Dan Sheldon & the indomitable Mary Carey before she headed north.
Here we also left the bus and boarded the Alaska Railroad into Anchorage. This luxury railcar accorded 360 views of the surrounding landscape, which was clearly stepping into summer with fresh green leaves sprouting all around. We still had not given up hope to spot wildlife and were lucky to catch a porcupine going uphill, a few grazing moose, an eagle nest high up on a metal tower with a Bald Eagle soaring by and a fleeting glimpse of a foraging black bear.
By late evening we were in Anchorage and comfortable at the high rise downtown Hilton. Once again, it was time to Doordash our lifesaver chana masala & naan to our room from the local Bombay Deluxe restaurant. This one got more stars from us than the one in Fairbanks. Keep in mind, if you find yourself in Anchorage.
A visit to a glacier can be a trip of a lifetime. Alaska has the nation’s greatest concentration of glaciers with about 100,000 in number covering nearly 30,000 square miles. A glacier is a moving mass of ice, created where there is abundant snowfall & cool summers (annual snowfall is higher than the snow melt rate) and a gravitational flow. Glaciers shape the earth’s surface carving gorges, valleys & mountains as they move. Anchorage boasts of 60 glaciers within a 50-mile radius including Porterage Glacier & Matanuska glacier, which are easily accessible.
The next day was devoted to exploring the Anchorage museum downtown. The museum building with a magnificent modern glass façade and a lush garden houses a wide collection of works by local artists including contemporary works by artists from the native communities. The anthropological displays of traditional objects & clothing etc. of native tribes from the different territories were, thankfully, showcased in smart modern vitrines, in a manner which was culturally respectful in contrast to the many elementary dioramas created for the foreign gaze.
On the way back to the hotel we sampled reindeer meet hotdogs from an Indonesian Muslim street vendor.
As we came close to our tour, I was troubled by the thought that I had not seen or encountered any significant native enterprise or heard of any legendary native narrated by the tour guides amongst the many stories they shared. Local businesses including gift shops, restaurants, hotels, guides, park rangers, mushers, art galleries were dominantly white enterprises. While there is increasing awareness of acknowledgment of tribal land sovereignty, it seems to end there. The question continues to haunt me about the ways to reconcile past wrongs – whether it is bringing put from the shadows inspiring stories of women from Indian history or closer to home, celebrating native American legends.
Since we arrived in mid-May, we got to see the majestic mountain peaks including Mt. Denali, shrouded in snow and rivers gushing with snow melt. The landscape was still mostly bare higher up north– past forest fires and beetle infestations and struggling between winter and spring. The fauna was there for us to imagine – it was the time of the year that the Moose were calving and it is too early for the salmon run which starts around late June/July, and the Bears too are just starting to get move around after the winter thaw. The trip, if I were to summarize, was an expertly packaged experiential tour. It is this modern tourist machine industry that made our trip to Alaska a memorable one, nevertheless.