Saturday, July 21, 2012

To the top of America - Denali
Weird wildlife...
 Before heading for America’s highest mountain - Denali (the big one) in the language of the local Athabaskan people - otherwise known as Mount McKinley - we decided to do a tandem Kayak on the Nanana River, which could generally be described as a babbling float, with the exception of a section called the Rock Garden where it narrowed and sped up, making for a quick dash requiring a sequence of rapid maneuvers as I shouted Left! Left! Right! Right! Right! from the stern, generally to good effect with Christine taking all the waves in the front, until eventually the rocks were appearing faster than we could deal with them. When we found ourselves perched atop one of them sideways to the current, we knew it was getting interesting. A quick shove with the paddle set us on our way, the only problem being that we were now facing up-stream in mid-rapids. A quick glance over the shoulder suggested that there was time to do a quick 180 before the next set of rocks rather than trying to go through them backwards, so with more shouted instructions from the stern, and quick responses from the bow, we spun around in time to be spat out the bottom, stirred but not shaken. The rest of the paddle seemed a bit tame after that!
The next day saw us on the bus into Denali National Park (no cars allowed) where we disembarked at Wonder Lake to be greeted by the camp hosts, John and Eve, whom we had met months earlier in a campsite in Glacier National Park. They saw us settled into our camp before we joined them for the evening, sharing stories, wine and food in their confined but cosy camper. John, the only American among us, suffered the chagrin of celebrating Independence Day cooped up with three members of the Commonwealth.
Wonder Lake campsite, Denali NP
Up till now we had seen only glimpses of the Alaska range and the mighty mountain through brief gaps in the clouds so, when I looked out of the tent at 1 AM to see a full moon rising over the snowy peaks under a clear sky, we leapt out to witness what I guess is what they call the Alpenglow - the reflected radiance of the mountains under the clear, moon-lit sky. 
1am moonrise over the Alaska Ranges
Snoozed briefly before getting up again for the 3 AM (!) sunrise to find that the moon had drifted along the top of the range and now was perched directly above Denali - a magical and memorable morning.
Denali (Mt McKinley) at 3 in the morning!
The remainder of the day was spent wondering over the ridges above Wonder lake, following animal trails, as the parks encourages ad hoc cross-country hiking rather than formal trails, and then a walk from Reflection Pond (no reflection - too windy) to Wonder Lake (interrupted by  a snooze in the sun) where the local loons made their first proud appearance with two newly hatched chicks. And then another delightful evening in the camper with John and Eve.

Ground Squirrel - getting ready for next winter?
Our bus trip back down to the park entrance was broken up halfway for a hike up onto the ridges above Eilson to hunt out hoary marmots and picas (google if you’re interested) and lots of wildflowers on the alpine meadows. 
Dusk on the Denali
Back in Fairbanks, the BLM guy in the visitor center gave us lots of good advice for driving the Dalton Highway. The extra bit of advice he gave us was to drive the gravel Denali Highway that runs parallel to the Alaska Range. He suggested setting off from the Western end at 7 pm so that we would have the late light behind us, illuminating the mountains and glaciers to the north - great advice - improved by the fact that the light in the west was battling with storm clouds over the mountains creating a dramatic evening sky.  Stopped halfway and camped just off the road to watch the spectacle. 
View of the Alaska ranges from road-side camp
One of the wonderful things about Alaska is the ad-hoc nature of camping. As long as you are not intruding on anyone else it seems OK to camp pretty much anywhere, and so everyone does, and what is really impressive is that there is rarely a scrap of rubbish to be found, and sometimes the previous occupant will have left a pile of fire wood, or even a made fire, for the next person. Alaskans are fiercely, and rightly, proud of their natural, wild state - a state with patches of (more or less) civilisation surrounded by wilderness rather than the reverse as is the case in the other 49 states.  
Matanuska Glacier
From one scenic byway to the next, we completed the Denali the next morning and then took the Glen Highway towards Anchorage, staying the night under brooding skies at the base of the eerily blue-green Matanuska glacier.

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