September 8, 2015

Stay Tuned . . .

After an intense, but rewarding, two-week work session at Denali National Park, Tim and I packed up and headed towards Fairbanks to restock for our trip south.  Yes, we have begun our journey back to the Lower 48 and will cross into Canada today on the Alaska Highway.

I still have several posts to finish about our time in Denali, including my two trips into the park.  Reviewing all those photographs and selecting a few favorites takes time!  I’m not sure when I’ll get those posted since we will have to rely on WiFi in Canada.  I won’t leave you in total suspense, however, and will give you a spoiler alert.  I did see the mountain on a gorgeous blue-sky day!

I’ll try to post when I can during our two-week trip to Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota.  We likely won’t cross back into the United States until the day before we arrive in Fort Union, currently scheduled for September 21.  Stay tuned.

August 28, 2015

Winter Weather Advisory! Seriously?

When traveling to Alaska, one never knows what might be in store as far as the weather is concerned.  For the most part, we have had three months of the most amazing weather anyone could hope for.  I guess it’s our turn for some nasty stuff.

Ever since we arrived in Denali almost two weeks ago, it has rained virtually nonstop.  Yes, there were a few nice days last week (when we were sick!), but all I can remember is rain, and more rain.  I hate to complain, but even the locals are sick of this weather.  

There has been so much rain that the park road has been closed on and off due to mud slides.  Yesterday, the road was closed at mile 53 because of snow!  Yes, snow in August!  I’m just not believing it.  The temperatures have really plummeted as well, and it will likely dip below freezing during the next few nights.  Highs are only in the low 40s where we are.  Brrr!  Now, to top everything off, the park is under a winter weather advisory until noon tomorrow!  Seriously?

Baby, It's Cold Up Here

You've Got to Be Kidding!

Although most full-time RVers would take this as a sign to get those wheels moving and head to someplace warmer, Tim and I are committed to working at Denali National Park through next Friday.  Tim is conducting an on-site archival survey and accessioning project, and the work is going well.  This project is not as glamorous as cataloging a historic photograph collection, but it’s an essential part of museum management.

The contract with Denali has been a bit different than previous ones with other parks.  Typically, Tim and I work together, with each of us undertaking different components of the same project.  Here, Tim has been focused on his project, while I have been doing whatever needs to be done to help the park’s museum curator.  I do get to work with Tim on occasion, but mostly I’ve been doing other tasks.  The staff has been great to work with, and I’ve been learning lots of new things, which I always enjoy.

Hard at Work

Both Tim and I have had to spend a lot of time walking from building to building in the park headquarters area, where the roadways are under construction.  I have to confess that my most enduring memory of working at Denali National Park will undoubtedly be this endless construction, constant rain and slippery mud.  Employees at the park have had to deal with construction for the last three years, and I really do feel for them.  They are ready for it to be over.

Walking Through the Rain and Mud

Dodging Construction Equipment

One of the perks of volunteering at least 32 hours per week at Denali National Park is that our campground fees are covered by the park.  That is especially nice when the rates top $40 per night for full hookups.  Volunteers are also encouraged to get out into the park, and we are given a voucher for a trip on one of the park shuttle buses. 

Our friend Kathleen has gone out of her way to make our lives very easy while we are here.  Not only did she let us stay with her last weekend, but she also picked up groceries for us while she was in Fairbanks last Monday.  The tiny markets here only carry a few items, so that was a huge help.  Kathleen also gives us a ride to and from work every day, which is especially nice since we are traveling without a car in Alaska.  We can leave Kitty behind at the campground and not have to try and find a place to park the RV.

Watching the Trees Change Colors Day by Day on Our Way Home From Work

I actually took the day off today (volunteers are only required to work 32 hours per week), since our propane gauge registered empty.  Although I had thought about using my bus voucher to venture farther into the park today, my priority was driving to the nearby town of Healy to fill up with propane so we would have heat tonight.  I also wanted to see if I could find a somewhat larger space heater than our tiny one.  Have I mentioned that it’s been really cold?  The trip was a success.

Before I left, however, I decided to drive the RV to mile 15 in the park, which is as far as private vehicles are permitted.  At least I would get to see a little bit of the park today.  Much of the landscape was enshrouded in clouds, and visibility was limited, but the drive was still beautiful. It even snowed for a while, but the sun tried to peek through the clouds from time to time.

Driving the Park Road

Hoping for the Sun to Peek Out

Fresh snow blanketed the nearby mountains, and fall colors reminded me that winter is not far away in this part of the world.  The snow added a new element to the park experience. 

Loving the Fall Colors

Walking Along the Savage River

Looking Down at the River

Deciding that It's Just Too Cold for a Hike

Noticing the Little Things - Snow on Mushrooms

Enjoying the Breathtaking Views

Hoping to See Wildlife

Admiring the Snow-Covered Mountains

Moose rutting season has already begun, and photographers were lined up along the side of the road to capture the action.  I stopped and watched for a short while, and I was even able to see a bull moose in the distance – the first one for me this summer.

That Seems Quite Tasty
I Can See You

August 23, 2015

Hoping to See Denali

The drive to Denali National Park was rainy, with low-lying clouds, so the views just weren’t there.  We glanced over at the numerous Denali overlooks, but to no avail.  The Parks Highway Scenic Byway just wasn’t too scenic that day.

Because of the extended forecast for rain, we decided to stay at an RV park in order to charge our batteries before checking into Riley Creek Campground within Denali National Park.  Denali Rainbow Village RV Park isn’t much more than a crowded, gravel parking lot with interior dirt roads filled with potholes.  It’s certainly not our kind of park, but it’s the closest commercial park to the entrance to Denali.

We barely ventured out of the RV for two days since we were both battling colds.  Tim likely picked up his on the flights from Oklahoma, and he was kind enough to share with me.  It’s rather surprising that this is the first time either one of us has been sick since beginning our full-timing adventure (we won’t count Tim’s surgery last summer as being sick).  Colds are more annoying than debilitating, but we still didn’t feel up to doing anything.  The rainy weather only added to our lack of desire to extend ourselves or to expose others to our germs.

When it was time to move to Riley Creek Campground on Wednesday, I was feeling no better.  I stayed in the RV while Tim met with Denali’s museum curator to finalize the details of his two-week contract.  Tim returned to the RV full of enthusiasm about the project, which will begin on Monday, August 24.  We then checked into Riley Creek Campground and got set up.  Riley Creek is the largest campground in Denali National Park and is located near the park entrance.  Like all campgrounds in the park, there are no hookups, but the campsites are nicely situated in a wooded area with a lot of privacy between sites.

Since the weather forecast for Thursday was fairly good, Tim and I talked about taking a shuttle bus into the park, which is the only way to travel the park road since private vehicles are mostly prohibited past mile 15.  Shuttle buses are glorified school buses, filled with fellow tourists seeking to take in views of magnificent wildlife, breathtaking landscapes and, hopefully, Denali itself.  In the end, however, I accepted the fact that I was still sick.  The idea of spending eight hours on a bus was not at all appealing.  So, I sent Tim on without me.

At 1:00 pm on Thursday, Tim hopped aboard a green shuttle bus headed to the Eielson Visitor Center, approximately 66 miles inside the park.  The bus was scheduled to return to the park entrance by 9:00 pm.  Tim thought this would be an interesting schedule, and he was hoping to get on a less-crowded bus and take advantage of afternoon and evening light for photographs.  Well, the bus was crowded, but the visible light was great for photography, as you can see in his images.

Shuttle Buses Transport Visitors through Denali National Park

Private Vehicles Are Prohibited Past Savage River

The road through Denali National Park winds its way through a remarkable landscape, and wildlife sightings are almost guaranteed.  It is said that visitors are much more likely to spot wildlife than Denali itself.  Denali is an Athabascan name meaning “the high one.”  The mountain is often hidden behind clouds, but Tim was fortunate to see a partial view. 

Up high on the alpine, the tundra is already turning to a carpet of gold, with highlights of amber, red and yellow.  The remaining hues of green are holding on but becoming less and less each hour.

The Many Colors at Polychrome Pass

The Park Road Winds Around the Mountains

The Mountain Made Itself Partly Visible
The View from Eielson Visitor Center Is Lovely, Even if the Mountain Is Hiding

The Tundra Is Already Starting to Show Its Fall Colors

The Colors of Denali National Park Are Amazing

Braided Rivers Wind Their Way through the Park

Denali National Park Is Much More than the Mountain Itself
The Colors Were More Vivid on the Return Trip

Wildlife views included moose and a dozen or so grizzly bears, all large males.  They were all at a considerable distance from the road, requiring binoculars to view.  A much longer zoom lens than ours would have been required to capture images.  One of my wildlife goals in Alaska has been to see caribou, and Tim was able to see a couple of them for me.

Two Caribou Were Grazing Not too Far from the Road

Unfortunately, Tim’s most enduring memory of the bus ride was the screaming children and parents who could not, or would not, control them.  When wildlife is spotted from a bus, passengers are required to be very quiet.  Although the bus driver repeated this message time and time again, it seemed to do no good.  It’s a shame that parents inflict children like these on other passengers who have paid a lot of money to experience a wilderness environment.

I Still Think Tim Had a Good Time

Tim and the Locked Antlers

I was feeling a little bit better by Friday when we checked out of Riley Creek Campground, so we toured the exhibits at the visitor center and watched the film.  We then made our way ten miles north to the small town of Healy to spend the weekend with our friend Kathleen.  Kathleen was Tim’s colleague at Rocky Mountain National Park, but transferred to Denali National Park four years ago, so we had a lot of catching up to do.

Tim and I have really enjoyed driveway camping at friends’ houses.  We get to spend quality time with them, but still sleep in our own bed.  The rainy and cold weather provided us with a good excuse to just hang out with Kathleen at her home.  She prepared a wonderful dinner for us on Saturday and invited one of the women we will be working with at Denali.

We returned to Denali Rainbow Village RV Park on Sunday night, and this is where we will remain for the duration of our time at Denali.  Although it would have been great to stay in the park, we do need hookups.  The weather has turned cold, and rain remains in the forecast for at least the next week.  Kathleen remarked that she cannot remember such a long stretch of rainy weather this time of year.  I’m still hoping I will be able to get out into the park and enjoy wonderful vistas, wildlife sightings and views of the mountain.

August 16, 2015

Time for Talkeetna

Tim and I left Wasilla on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  The forecast for the next week or more is for more rain and cloudy conditions, not what we want to hear as we make our way towards Denali National Park.

Our plan for today was to go as far as Talkeetna, a quirky little town that reminded us of McCarthy.  Talkeetna is a popular destination for vastly different groups of people.  Every spring, the town is the starting point for mountaineers who are planning to climb Mt. McKinley, which is known as Denali in Alaska.  The National Park Service has a ranger station in Talkeetna, and all climbers must start their journeys there. 

Welcome to Talkeetna

We stopped by the visitor center and watched the excellent film that follows the climbers as they make their preparations for, and then climb, “The High One.”  It’s daunting just to contemplate what is involved and how determined someone must be to attempt a climb.  Just over 1,000 climbers registered to climb the mountain this summer, and 57 percent made it to the summit.

Flight services based in Talkeetna ferry climbers to the base camp at 7,200 feet.  We had hoped to take a similar flight and land on the glacier there, but the weather was just not cooperating.  Although we had built several extra days into our schedule to allow for inclement weather, the forecast for the next week doesn’t look any better.  Sadly, this is one adventure that Tim and I will have to forego this summer.

I can’t be too disappointed, however, because we have been so unbelievably fortunate in virtually every other day trip we have taken since arriving in Alaska.  For the most part, the weather has been very good, and when it hasn’t been, we still had amazing experiences.  Although a flight to Denali was something that Tim and I were really looking forward to, we just can’t control the weather.

Tim Finally Caught Some Fish!
Let's Mush!

We had fun walking around Talkeetna and taking the obligatory cheesy, tourist photographs.  I mentioned earlier that vastly different groups end up in Talkeetna.  One group is busloads of cruise ship passengers on the land portion of their tours.  I’ve read that the numbers of people can overwhelm this small town, but the throng of tourists was manageable by the time we arrived in the afternoon.  After the Alaska Railroad pulled in and picked up the tour groups around 5:00 pm, the town was even more pleasant.

Historic Log Cabins on Main Street

Eclectic Means of Transportation

We had an excellent dinner at The Roadhouse.  Originally built in 1914 and established as an official roadhouse in 1944, it’s one of the most popular cafes and bakeries in town.  We also wandered into the Nagley’s Store in hopes of seeing the town’s mayor, a cat named Stubbs.  Stubbs has been the honorary mayor of Talkeetna since 1997, and he usually hangs out around the store.  Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found, and I was sad to leave Talkeetna without meeting him.

Great Food at the Roadhouse

Where's Stubbs?

Tim and I had originally thought we would spend three nights on the road before arriving in Denali on Wednesday.  We thought this would give us time to wait out the rainy weather and hope that the mountain would make its appearance.  The long term forecast for continued rain, however, makes that prospect unlikely, thus prompting us to rethink our options.  We have now decided to scratch our original plan.  We’re spending tonight in a pullout just outside Talkeetna and will head directly to Denali tomorrow.

Fun in Talkeetna

August 15, 2015

Our Plans Are Definitely Written in Jello

After a lovely week on Portage Glacier Road, I returned to Anchorage so I could pick up Tim at the airport on Tuesday night.  He had been in Oklahoma at Chickasaw National Recreation Area to prepare the park’s annual museum reports.  This was a return visit for Tim, who flew to Chickasaw last summer to prepare the same reports.  You might recall that Tim and I visited Chickasaw last December, and you can read about the park in this post. 

Chickasaw had recently experienced heavy rains in a short period of time, causing extensive flooding throughout the park.  The silver lining to all this water was the replenishment of the water table.  When we visited Chickasaw, many of the springs and fountains were dry.  This time Tim was especially happy to see the Bromide Fountain flowing.

Bromide Fountain, August 2015

Bromide Fountain, December 2014

This was a whirlwind trip for Tim, and a hot one.  The temperatures inched into the triple digits while he was in Oklahoma, with a heat index of 116.  He almost had a heat stroke and was happy to return to Alaska where temperatures have been in the mid-70s.

We had decided that after Tim returned to Alaska, it would be time for us to start heading toward Denali National Park and Fairbanks.  We expect Fairbanks to be our northernmost destination before we begin our trek south toward the Lower 48.

In order to give Tim a break after his project, as well as catch up on laundry and other chores before leaving “civilization” behind, we decided to stop for two nights at a commercial campground.  We had not stayed at a campground for nine days, a record for us.  The solar panels are really doing their job and have opened up so many new opportunities.

We picked Big Bear RV Park and Campground in Wasilla, where we had stayed a month ago.  Big Bear is a nice, simple campground that we enjoyed the first time around, and this time was even better.  We arrived to discover that the campground was hosting a salmon bake that evening – the first one of the summer.  That was a stroke of pure luck for us, being at the right place at the right time.

The offerings were plentiful and delicious.  Grilled Copper River salmon, fried salmon fingers and salmon spread were joined by moose ribs and a moose casserole.  Fellow campers provided a selection of side dishes, but the hosts took care of almost everything.  What a treat!  The salmon was delicious, and so was the moose, but my heart melted when I tasted the dessert – a rhubarb, blueberry, cranberry and raspberry crisp with vanilla ice cream.  All of the berries had been handpicked.  Yum!  Everything else was also homemade by many of the relatives of the campground owners.  What lovely people they are.  The good food was matched only by the good conversation.

Frying Up a Batch of Salmon Fingers

Grilling Several Copper River Salmon Filets

Enjoying an Overflowing Plate

While Tim was taking it easy on Thursday, he received a telephone call offering him another museum services contract.  It seems that the folks at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota liked his work for them last year and want him back.  That was an unexpected call.  We decided to extend our stay at the campground so we could look at our schedule, and some maps, to see if we could work North Dakota into our plans.  Tim and I both enjoyed working at Fort Union, so we hoped a return visit would be possible.

Although we had originally planned to return to the Lower 48 via the Cassiar Highway, and then head towards Oregon, we decided that a trip down the Alaska Highway and on through Alberta and Saskatchewan Provinces would do just fine.  We wouldn’t really have time to do much sightseeing along the way, but we had always planned to return to Canada for a much longer visit sometime in the next few years.  So, we decided we could leave Fairbanks around September 1 and take three weeks before arriving at Fort Union by September 21.  It would then require a quick dash to Colorado for our doctor and dentist appointments the week of October 11.

With our new plans on the calendar, we were ready to leave for Denali.  But, not so fast.  Yesterday, Tim received another telephone call offering him the possibility of one more contract.  What?  What’s going on here?  This one was really enticing – Denali National Park!  But, how on earth could we possibly fit in another two-week contract before leaving Alaska and still make it to Fort Union in time?  Extending our campground stay for another night gave us time to look at the schedule one more time.

It looks like we just might be able to make it happen.  Although the contract is not a sure thing – Tim has to meet with the museum curator at Denali this coming week – we think we’ve figured out a tentative plan.  It would mean that Tim would have to work during much of our planned visit to Denali (I’m not sure how many days he’d want to spend on a bus anyway!), and we would have only two weeks instead of three to drive to Fort Union (not our preferred speed at all!), but this contract is something that Tim would love to do.  I’m always up for an adventure anyway, so let’s make our last month up north one to remember.

Wow!  That's a Long Drive!

I don’t think Tim ever anticipated that he would be offered so many contracts, especially since he hasn’t really been seeking them out.  Most have come his way via word of mouth.  However, he is thoroughly enjoying the work, and so am I, since I get to work with him on most projects. 

As the old RV saying goes, “RV plans are written in Jello, always some wiggle room.”  I’m thrilled that this lifestyle has given us such flexibility to take advantage of opportunities that come our way.