Alaska Railroad, May 2016

Our trip from Denali to Anchorage was aboard the Alaska Railroad.  The bi-level, glass-domed McKinley Explorer cars were perfect for viewing the extraordinary landscape of Alaska.

Denali Train Depot CFX Help Me Rhonda

The Alaska Railroad’s routes are entirely contained in Alaska and the railroad carries both passengers and freight.  While the railroad depends heavily on tourism, inland residents of Alaska depend on the Alaska Railroad for supplies and transportation.  But our experience is as passengers, so we’ll focus on that.

This is not your average passenger train.  The lower level is the dining car and, from our experience, the food is quite good.  The upper deck is glass-domed, which gives the passengers great views of the passing landscape.  There’s a full-service bar on each passenger car.  Here’s a view of the beautiful yellow and blue engine from the passenger car.

Alaska RR engine from dome car 2 HDR Deep 1

The trip was around eight hours and we passed through some beautiful country.  Inland Alaska is sparsely populated, so much of what we passed was wilderness.  We never tired of watching the mountains, forests and rivers pass by.

One of the highlights of the trip was Denali.  Few visitors to Alaska get to see the Tall One.  Denali spends most of its time hiding behind banks of clouds that hide it from most people.  We among the fortune few.  The weather was perfect, with few clouds.  Denali was in sight from the train for over an hour.

Best Denali CFX Detail

Denali was the icing on the cake.  The rest of the trip to Anchorage was pretty uneventful and relaxing.  Each car had a guide who pointed out interesting facts and, in general, kept us entertained.  We enjoyed a nice lunch, a drink or two, and a beautiful journey.  Soon we would reach our last stop on our Alaska journey, Anchorage.

Tundra Wilderness Tour, Denali, May 2016

Easily the best excursion we took on our Alaska cruise and trip to Denali, the Tundra Wilderness Tour was a seven hour trip into Denali National Park.  Since we visited early in the season our trip was a little shorter than it could have been, ending at the Toklat Ranger Station.  That being said, I think the early visit actually worked to our advantage.

The buses were not much at to look at but they were retrofitted with a fantastic system with zoom camera and video screens.  When the driver spotted wildlife he could control the camera and zoom in to a remarkable closeness.  At the same time video screens would drop from the ceiling in front of each row of seats.  The camera system allowed us to see wildlife that we could barely see with binoculars.

Tundra Tour Buses HDR Deep 2

Our driver was great.  He said he had come to Denali in 1996 to study wolves and has been there ever since.  He was very knowledgeable and loved to share that knowledge with his passengers.  For example, he gave us the odds of seeing various species of wildlife- 9% to see a moose, 30% to see a brown bear, 100% to see Dall sheep, etc.  We were fortunate enough to see all of these and many more.

One thing that worked to our advantage was that we were visiting just after the bears were coming out of hibernation and just before all the foliage had leafed out.  That meant the wildlife was there and the foliage would not interfere with our ability to see them.

The first animals spotted were a few Dall sheep in the distance, but shortly after that we spotted our first moose peeking out from the trees by a small pond.

Moose Color Efx Ektachrome 100 and Detail Extractor

The moose at Denali grow to huge sizes.  This is because the primary food source for moose is willow, and willow is abundant in the park.  Denali moose have been known to grow to over 1,000 pounds and even brown bears think twice before challenging one of these behemoths.  Later we would see a cow moose with a new calf.

The next sighting was a ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan had begun shedding its white winter feathers to its brown summer coloration.  Known colloquially in Alaska as the “snow chicken”, it’s about the size of a small chicken.  One funny story one of our bus drivers told us was that there’s a town in Alaska named Chicken.  The residents liked the taste of ptarmigan and decided to name the town after the bird.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on the spelling so they agreed to name the town Chicken instead.

Ptarmigan Color Efx Fuji Velvia 100 Foliage

Brown bears, or grizzlies, are the preeminent predator in Denali.  Because the environment is quite harsh the inland bears of Denali are only about half the size of the coastal bears, between 400 and 500 pounds.  Denali’s bears are very territorial and solitary, so you won’t see bears very close to each other.  We saw six brown bears, including a mother with two cubs.  Most were in the distance but we had the rare opportunity to see a brown bear up close.

Grizzly in Road Revealing Detail Foliage

Next up were a herd of Dall sheep.  Dall sheep are quite common in Denali.  They spend most of their time on steep rocky slopes, which allows them to easily move away from any approaching predator.

Dall Sheep HDR Outdoor 2

Wildlife wasn’t the only attraction of the tour.  The rugged landscape was breathtaking.  One of the high points was Polychrome Pass.  Ancient and vast, Polychrome Pass was typical of the sights along the tour.  The pass gets its name from the variety of colorations in the rock faces.

Polychrome Pass HDR Deep 2

Caribou are quite common in Denali.  We saw several herds but most were either too far to photograph or blended in with the surrounding landscape.  This was the best I could do with the Caribou.

Caribou Ektachrome 100 and Foliage

We turned around after a short stop at the Toklat Ranger Station.  The Toklat River is a braided river, so called because it’s made up of many channels that intersect at various points.  From the ranger station we could see mountain goats on the mountain sides across the river.

Tundra Tour Landscape Detail Extractor

In all we saw three moose, six brown bears, a couple ptarmigans and countless Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou.  But shortly before the end of the tour we passed a porcupine beside the road.  After such an eventful and successful tour, we were surprised when, after spotting the porcupine, the bus driver shouted “this is the best trip ever!”

All in all, this was the best excursion of our trip and seven hours well spent.  If you visit Denali I highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour.

 

NPS Sled Dogs, May 2016

One of our favorite excursions was also a free one.  We took a shuttle from McKinley Chalet Resort to the park to visit the National Park Service sled dogs.  The NPS sled dogs are quite different from the racing dogs we saw at Caribou Crossing in the Yukon.  The NPS dogs are working dogs and, as such, are not built for speed but for endurance. Because of the harsh winters virtually the only way into the wilderness is by dog sled.  The rangers can spend weeks in the the wilderness and depend on the dogs to get them in and around the park.  During the spring and summer, though, the dogs take it easy and provide an opportunity for tourists to interact with real working sled dogs.

As part of the visit to the dogs, the park rangers put on a short but informative sledding demonstration.  It’s obvious from the demonstration that the dogs love what they do.

A few words about the dog sled team.  Each dog on the team has a job and they’re assigned that job based on their physical abilities and their personality.  Here’s the team from our demonstration.

The Team HDR Deep 2

The front row contains the lead dogs.  Lead dogs steer the team and set the pace.  Qualities of a good lead dog is intelligence, initiative and the ability to find a good trail in bad conditions.

The second row are the swing dogs.  These dogs help swing the rest of the team along the turns of the trail.

The dog closest to the sled is the wheel dog.  The wheel dog needs to be calm and intelligent, so that it is not startled by the movement of the sled.  They also need to be able to help guide the sled around tight turns.

So that’s the team.  The sled they  pull during the demonstration is an actual working sled, but without the couple hundred pounds that can be loaded on the sled for long excursions into the Alaska wilderness.  The all wood sled has not changed much since men began using sleds and dogs for transportation in Alaska.

NPS Sled Ektachrome 64 Pro HDR Deep 1

The actual mushing demonstration only lasted a minute but it was obvious that the dogs enjoy their job.  Once they were done with their 60 seconds of work the dogs were rewarded with a treat and laid down to enjoy it while a park ranger explained the ins and outs of the life of an NPS sled dog.

Mushing HDR Deep 2

In case you’re interested, the NPS sled dogs are retired at age nine.  By that time they’ve traveled more than 8,000 miles under harness.  So what happens to the dogs once they’re retired?  They’re adopted to suitable homes.  Keep in mind that the years of sledding have kept these dogs in top condition and the energy and intelligence of the dogs may not be a match for the casual dog person.  But if you’re used to high energy and intelligent dogs and can give one of these dogs the home it needs, please consider adopting.

Glacier Bay, May 2016

One of the highlights of our cruise was the day spent in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.  Designated a National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Glacier Bay has been a cruise ship destination since the 1960s.

We spend virtually the entire day on deck enjoying some of the most beautiful natural areas on Earth.  Luckily, it didn’t rain, which, according to the National Park Service, is a rare event.  They call rainy days “glacier making days” and there are a lot of Glaciers in Glacier Bay.

We went on deck early and enjoyed a “special” coffee.  We asked the waiter for coffee with a splash of Kahlua.  His response was “Ooh!” and then he made our coffee.  We liked him a lot.

Cruising Glacier Bay is a thing of beauty.  Everywhere you look you see wilderness virtually untouched by man.  It’s quiet to the point of feeling like you’re in a religious shrine.

Glacier Bay CFX Double Tone and Darken

We were on the lookout for wildlife.  Glacier Bay is home to whales, sea otters, seals, brown bears, mountain goats and many other species.  We did see a couple sea otters, a humpback whale and a bald eagle (resting on a small iceberg), but the excitement started for us when we spotted mountain goats high up the sides of the mountains.  It’s amazing to see these animals make their way across nearly vertical walls of rock.

The stars of the show for most, though, are the glaciers.   There are a lot of glaciers in Glacier Bay but the queen of them all is Marjorie Glacier.  The railings along the deck were packed with people waiting to see Marjorie Glacier.  It had the feel of fans lining the red carpet at a movie premier.  And, to be fair, Marjorie Glacier is quite a sight.  Big and beautiful, calving icebergs every few minutes, the glacier puts on quite a show.

If you can tear your eyes away from Marjorie Glacier and manage to look over your right shoulder you’ll see another glacier.  The Grand Pacific doesn’t have the eye appeal of its neighbor but is no less impressive.  Grand Pacific is black, covered with dirt that the glacier has dragged along in its journey to the bay.  Because of this Grand Pacific doesn’t attract thr attention that it’s neighbor does.

Grand Pacific Glacier CFX Detail

We spent an hour or so at these two glaciers before heading for our next glacier, the Johns Hopkins Glacier.  This 12-mile long glacier gets its start on the eastern slopes of Lituya Mountain and ends in the Johns Hopkins Inlet.  Interestingly, the western slopes of Lituya Mountain were the site of the highest tsunami ever recorded.  Damage from a 1958 earthquake along the Fairweather Fault were seen over 1,700 feet up the side of the mountain.

Johns Hopkins CFX Graduated ND

A second glacier terminates in Johns Hopkins Inlet.  Lamplugh Glacier is quite pretty, with lots of the glacier blue ice showing at its terminus.  Just over a month after our visit, Lamplugh Glacier was the site of a huge avalanche that left 150 million tons of debris on it’s surface.  Nature can be awesome.

Lamplugh Glacier CFX Graduated ND

Our time in Glacier Bay is a day we’ll never forget.