by BILL BARTLETT*
Any itinerary on the Alaska Railroad is an adventure in beauty. You cannot go but a few miles before something special stares back at you – glaciers, rivers, wildlife, gorges, snow covered peaks, valleys, water falls – all that nature has to offer.
(Alaska Railroad photo by Bill Bartlett)
Next destination – vast and wild Denali! It’s up early, breakfast and the 08:15 Denali Star that arrives, yes, precisely on time at 15:40. However, unless money is no object, arrange for a €10 Uber to collect you and take you a few miles south to McKinley Park. Lodging inside the pristine and highly regulated Park is quite expensive and can cost as much as €800/night. Denali Cabins will be around €140-150/night. The on-premise pub is a worthy eatery, popular with many of the colorful locals and guides. Most importantly, the next morning you can walk to the McKinley Chalet Resort for your 06:40 pick up by Denali Wildlife Tours. DO NOT use any other tour operator or you very likely will only get to about KM marker 83 and you need to take the tour that goes clear to the end of the Park, 148 km. It’s a long day – 13 hours, but one you will never ever forget. Lunch is provided.(Grizzly photo by Bill Bartlett)
The school bus style coaches are not luxurious. They are comfortable with operating windows, critical for photography. You will see bears, several most likely- the big ones, the grizzlies - 400+ kg, some as close as 50 meters. On our day we were also treated to several moose and one or two caribou. We were not privileged to see wolves that day but a number of foxes. And birds. More birds than I imagined in such a desolate place with extreme winters. Alaska’s state bird, the willow ptarmigan, is in abundance year-round, part of the grouse family. Likewise, eagles- golden eagles not the bald (white headed) ones.
(Caribou photo by Bill Bartlett)
Gyrfalcons, the largest in the world claim Denali any time of the year. Snowy owls, trumpeter swans, horned grebe all call Denali home. Our skillful driver/guide found most of them.
What you might not see is Denali itself. Only 30% of visitors are fortunate to travel on a day when Denali does not have her head in the clouds. And only 10% of visitors travel the entire length. If you do and see Denali, as we did in all her glory and all day long, you are in the “3% club”. I don’t know how disappointed we would have been not to have seen this majestic peak. I will never know. But the wildlife, so close and abundant is unforgettable mountain or no mountain.
(Denali photo by Bill Bartlett)
Another restful night in the Cabins sleeping in and taking a late breakfast. The train north to Fairbanks, once daily, does not depart until 16:00 so there is not much to do except luxuriate in the memories of the past 5 days. We meet others from several countries with whom we share the adventure.
(Fairbanks airport photo by Bill Bartlett)
For me it was a relaxing time to organize over 1,000 photos, doing an early cull and still ending with some 500. I travel with my MacBook so I can quickly see what luck I may have had only hours or a day earlier. I relive it all again. As I am now.
At last the train comes and 4 enchantinghours later we are in Fairbanks, infinitely more interesting and aesthetically pleasing than Anchorage. It’s a late check-in at Sophie Station. Zach’s, Sophie’s well-regarded restaurant is still open offering 8 entrées. We feast and take a stroll around the neighborhood as sunset will be nearly midnight in the summer. The Aurora Borealis can be seen in Fairbanks from mid-August to mid-April. Not for us however, a minor disappointment as we are a bit early.
(Riverboat Discovery photo by Bill Bartlett)
We generally shun larger tours or those that seem too commercial in nature. The exception is the Riverboat Discovery. It is worth every cent. Continuing with fortunate weather, our day on the river was splendid. Seeing Iditarod bound dogs training for the annual world class event was impressive for sure, not an everyday sighting. Salmon being caught in the river and smoked on riverside wooden racks by native Alaskans was also a vivid scene.
(Training in Iditarod photo by Bill Bartlett)
Undoubtedly docking at the Chena Indian Village was the highlight of the visually rich excursion. Here we could see and touch what life was like for ancient Alaskan natives, a way of life continuing to this day. This particular well preserved and enhanced site reflects Athabascan Indian culture at its best. The visualization of life on unforgiving, frozen land was equally stark and beautiful. Alas, another 300 photos to manage. A day we will never forget.
(The Athabaskan village photo by Bill Bartlett)
Our next and last day found us at the University of Alaska Museum of the North housing the definitive collection of native and non-native Alaskan heritage art and crafts. The works displayed in an easy to manage setting expand 2,000 years of Alaska culture. It was easy to spend several hours. Afterward we visited the Morris Thompson Cultural Center the highlight of which were the three life-size dioramas. Neither museum rivals anything in older, larger cities. However, each is impressive in their own right as doing an admirable job of giving historical context to this vast and wild territory.
(Floatplane in Fairbanks photo by Bill Bartlett)
An early evening Seattle bound departure returned us to the “lower 48” the term for describing the contiguous states of the US. With so much of the world yet to be explored we rarely visit the same place twice. Alaska, the last frontier, would be an exception.I would gladly return to sense again its wild beauty.(2 - the end)
Read part 1
*BILL BARTLETT (Managing Director of Cascade Travel & Photo in Central Oregon. His travel focus is history and architecture. Alaska – The Last Frontier – is his second in a series of 4 posts for FoglieViaggi. His first – Texas – can be read here. Next, he will write about the Mississippi River)