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Travelogue - 07/29/04                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages


Homer, Talkeetna and... Denali !

I tore myself away from Ninilchik and drove to Homer, mainland Alaska's southernmost road-accessible town. I am forever on the lookout for a place I might someday want to live and I had heard Homer described as a friendly artists' community with an appealing ambience. So I went there with a hopeful attitude and the idea that I might stay for a while and get to know the place. As I approached along the coast I was encouraged by the magnificent view across Kachemak Bay to a range of snow-and-glacier-covered mountains similar to those facing Seward in Resurrection Bay.

Unfortunately, that first positive impression of Homer didn't last. I found the town big by Alaskan standards, and scattered. Beyond a few blocks of cute tourist shops on Main Street, mundane businesses and strip malls prevailed. The residential districts spread for miles along the rolling coast, sensible houses competing for the waterfront view. At that point I was undecided about the place. I tried to book a seat on a small sightseeing airplane to fly over the mountains, but they were full. "Come back tomorrow," they said. I looked in vain for an Internet cafe, finally settling for a commercial computer store to log on for email. Then I cruised out onto Homer Spit.

The "Spit" is an appropriate name for Homer's main tourist attraction, however you choose to define the word. A long, flat stretch of gravel and dirt connected to the mainland by a causeway, it juts out into the bay a couple of miles, reaching towards the glamorous mountain range on the other side. But Homer Spit could hardly be more at odds with it's stunning view. 

Whether by design or accident, it is the single most concentrated display of tasteless, tourist-fleecing, money-grubbing, trinket-and-attraction-peddling commercialism I have seen in a long time. Homer's famous Spit is lined on both sides with broad, barren RV parks completely devoid of vegetation, yet filled to overflowing with hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of the metal and fiberglass beasts. It made me ashamed to be driving one myself. In between these sprawling RV mini-cities were row upon row of tourist souvenir shops of the tackiest kind selling T-shirts and all manner of make-believe Alaskan crap made in China. The stores were crammed cheek to jowl with dozens of pseudo log cabin huts brandishing oversized signs peddling boat tours, airplane rides, sport fishing excursions and every other tourist junket imaginable. The air stank of dead fish, diesel, auto exhaust and capitalistic greed run rampant. 

Was it ugly? Oh, my god, it was hideous! I fled, mumbling expletives under my breath, and didn't stop until I had backtracked the 40-odd miles to my sanctuary on the Ninilchik quay. So much for Homer, Alaska.

Early the next morning I left sweet Ninilchik to head north. At the very moment I was about to pull out of my space between the beach and the fishermen's harbor, a bald eagle flew past my windshield at eye level heading due north. It was an unusual sight to see an eagle cruising so low, and it seemed a striking coincidence of timing. Someone who believes in omens might have marked it as meaningful. Then, a couple of minutes later as I turned onto the highway itself to begin my northbound journey, another eagle (or maybe the same one) appeared across the road above a wooded gorge. It, too, was flying precisely at my eye level and was heading north. Perhaps, I thought, the Universe was indeed signaling its approval of my direction and my timing. That couldn't hurt.

I stopped in Anchorage just long enough to re-provision and use the wi-fi Internet connection I'd found last time I'd passed through, to check my email and make a few phone calls. Then I carried on up Route 3 towards the Alaskan Interior. Along the way I passed this Alaskan parody of Wal-Mart:

I stopped in Talkeetna, a small town a few miles off the main road that sounded interesting from what I'd read and heard. It's a center for flightseeing trips around Mount McKinley in the Denali National Park, being fairly close as the raven flies. Also, they host a wacky annual event called the Moose Dropping Festival. The day I visited was too overcast for flightseeing and I'd missed the festival by a couple of weeks. I just went to check out the town and the people. 

The Talkeetna spur leading off Route 3 was broad and newly paved, suggesting that tourists are expected and welcomed. That is not a good sign in my book, but the village turned out to be a mixed bag, part tourist attraction, part real. The 3-block village center was spruced up for the summer trade with a rustic Alaskan facade and featured gift shops, a few basic restaurants & snack stands, a tiny museum, one or two local art galleries and a couple of saloons. Tourists were arriving, leaving and milling about, but it wasn't crowded. Beyond the village center, small, plain houses and wood cabins were strung along a few back streets and tucked into the woods, and a quiet grass runway ended just a block from downtown. I suspected the locals might be an interesting bunch, but aside from the shopkeepers I didn't see any around. I did not stay long, but while there I met a pretty woman from Anchorage whom I hope to see again.


Denali National Park

The Denali National Park is Alaska's biggest tourist attraction, both in terms of its volume of visitors and the sheer size of the place - some 6-million acres, an area equal to the entire state of Massachusetts. Like all US national parks, Denali is governed by a long list of rules and regulations strictly enforced by uniformed Park Rangers. They're intended to protect the land and the wildlife from so many human beings, an unfortunate necessity. I tend to pass through such places quickly or else bypass them altogether, preferring the relative freedom and solitude of National Forests. I don't blame the Park Service; they have to preserve the fragile environment while simultaneously accommodating way too many people. I just personally prefer less crowded, less controlled environments. However, I wasn't going to miss this Alaskan Mecca and in the end I found Denali to be exceptionally inviting and delightfully well managed. 

As a walk-in customer without a reservation, I had to wait two days for a campsite to open up. That's because they limit how many people they allow into the Park at any one time. This keeps it from ever feeling crowded, a nice change from places like Yellowstone and Yosemite in the Lower 48. The delay posed no problem for my open-ended schedule. I simply found a quiet campsite a few miles away, off the main highway, and returned each day to see some of the open Park near the entrance. 


This included attending a free dogsled demonstration given by an enthusiastic young park ranger who concluded her lecture by riding a sled fitted with wheels around a short gravel track. It conveyed some of the excitement of what the real thing must be like (look at her go!). By the way, the lead dog on the right in these photos was named Tor.

On the day of my official entry into Denali, I rose early and was at the checkpoint 14 miles into the park by 6 AM. Beyond this point, the only motor vehicles allowed along the 90-mile park road are Park Service vehicles plus about 30 authorized tour busses. They also allow a few special case visitors, which I'll tell you more about shortly, and a handful of RV's like mine going to a campground fifteen miles further in that's exclusively for Recreational Vehicles.

Denali National Park is home to a large number of wild animals, all of which are protected within the park boundaries. These include eagles, hawks, falcons, ptarmigan, which is Alaska's State Bird, and numerous other birds, plus caribou, moose, Dahl sheep, wolves, wolverines, foxes, coyotes, arctic squirrels, hares, illusive black bears and, most notoriously, brown or grizzly bears.

The landscape falls in to two basic categories, taiga and tundra. Taiga is lower land forested with white spruce, which look like classic Christmas trees, and/or black spruce, which are smaller and scrawnier with dark trunks. Tundra is the land above the tree line. The vegetation there is all low to the ground with the occasional small bush or stunted tree poking up. Both the taiga and the tundra lie over a base of permafrost just beneath the surface; the underground has been frozen hard for centuries and nothing lives or grows in it. So all the plant, insect and animal life occurs in the top foot or less. As a result plant roots are shallow, leaving the trees vulnerable to blow-downs. The whole ecosystem is similarly fragile.

Both the taiga and the tundra are carpeted with deep, soft moss. When I was there things were relatively dry due to lack of rain, so the moss was dry. Even so, walking anywhere cross-country was like walking on a sponge. It's kind of dreamlike. Your foot sinks down several inches and there's an eerie, living springiness to it, as if you're treading on some huge, alien creature. It's an effort to walk over the tundra, even more so when it has been raining and the moss is saturated. Then you wind up wet as well as tired.

For this reason, most hiking is done either along the road, on the solid rock of the high ridges, or on the many broad, stony riverbeds, which tend to have more dry surface than wet. There is enough wildlife around to see from these vantage points and everywhere the scenery is pleasing, accented with prolific wildflowers.


My first day in Denali I struck off on foot from my campsite, following a riverbed for several miles, occasionally climbing onto a high knoll along the bank for broader views of the terrain. Then I hiked into the taiga forest where I first experienced that strange sponginess walking on the thick moss carpet. I was all keyed up for encounters with anything from raging bears to charging moose to savage wolf packs. Carrying firearms is prohibited in any national park, but I was armed to the teeth with pepper spray, hunting knife and my probably ridiculous bear stick, which I hope might deter any critter that gets close enough for me to whack on the snout. It's an unlikely scenario, I suppose, but what the hell. Carrying it makes me feel a little more secure and gives me something to twirl and drop while I'm walking. As it turned out, my most dangerous confrontation that day was with a pair of sparrows. Conservationist that I am, I refrained from whacking them on their snouts.

On the second day, the temperature and humidity were nearly perfect and the sky alternated between partly cloudy and mostly sunny. I spent about 10 hours riding on a Park Service bus with two dozen other tourists, gawking at the views and photographing the scattered wildlife through open windows. The bus took us to the end of the line, 90-miles into the park and back again, stopping every so often at rest areas or anywhere an animal showed up. In that one long day we saw a coyote, several small herds of caribou, a few grizzly bears, some with cubs, numerous white, horned Dahl sheep perched high up on the mountainsides, various birds, lots of pudgy ground squirrels and one lone wolf. The wolf was wearing a collar with a small radio transmitter collar that researchers had put on him to track the pack. It made him look like somebody's dog. 

One of the highlights that day was watching a brown bear chase after a caribou with the clear intention of killing it to eat. When the caribou saw the bear charging up the hill towards him, he reared up onto his hind legs like Hi Ho Silver and took off at a full gallop across the tundra. Bears are fast, but not that fast. The grizzly quickly gave up the chase and went back to its usual occupation foraging for berries.

One fellow I met had taken the same bus ride the day before and witnessed a more dramatic episode. Apparently a grizzly had killed a wolf cub and was eating it not far off the road. There were at least two other wolf cubs nearby, oblivious to the danger, but their mother was frantic. She kept harassing the bear, getting right in his face snarling and threatening until the bear left its quarry to chase her. The wolf would then dart off, trying to draw the bear away from her cubs, but the bear kept returning to it's meal. It was quite a show. 

I'm often surprised at the depth of some of the people I meet traveling. An elderly woman seated across from me on the tour bus made some comment or another and we struck up a conversation that lasted for an hour or more. She must've been in her 70's, at least. Born on the west coast of Norway, she had been an actress much of her life, first in Norway, then in New York. She dropped some names of shows and actors I was supposed to recognize but didn't. She was extraordinarily well traveled. I could hardly name a country or part of the world she hadn't visited. Europe and the US, of course, but she'd also spent months in India, knew Thailand well, South America, Africa. 

The old Norwegian lady shared a few stories from her youth and it struck me, as it often does these days, what a pity it is that we only get to be here and do this for a few decades, maybe a hundred years if we're lucky. It isn't nearly enough time. And when the spirit outlasts the body's ability to get up and go adventuring, it's worse. What good is a willing heart and a curious mind in a failing body? I wonder sometimes whether our Creator didn't make a seemingly small but crucial miscalculation here. I'd have done it differently. A few centuries of perfect health coupled with a fraction of the reproductive impulse strikes me as a much kinder balance.

After a full day on a bus, I decided to do some cruising at my own pace. So early the next morning I brought my mountain bike with me aboard an inbound bus. Only certain Park busses can take a bike, those with an open space in the back for camper's gear or wheel chairs, and then only if there's room when they get to wherever you're boarding. They told me this as if it were going to be a great inconvenience, but I got aboard without a hitch and we traveled into the interior for a few hours. I hopped out and a roadside visitor center about 40 miles from my campground. I then spent the next two days riding back on the bike, and a third day going another 18 or 20 miles beyond my home base so that I pedaled a total of almost 60 mountain miles in three days. This became my great Denali adventure. 

That first day it rained, initially in fitful showers and then in a steady, dismal downpour. The air was cold and damp and any time I stopped for a while I became chilled. I was suited up in a bright yellow rain suit that kept the water out well enough, but it also kept the sweat in so I wound up wet anyway. I'm in pretty good shape these days, but I'm no Lance Armstrong. That first 20 miles stretched my endurance to it's limit. Peddling a bicycle 20 miles may not seem like a big deal, but if those miles are mostly up and down mountains it is, at least to me, and that's what I was doing all that day and the next and the next. Still, it was so awesome out there I almost didn't care how wet I got or how much my leg muscles ached and throbbed on the long, uphill slogs. Almost.

I occasionally met people along the road who were driving their own cars inside the Denali National Park. I was curious how they managed to get permission to do that, so I asked whenever I had the opportunity. One was a professional photographer and his wife (Michael DeYoung, www.mdphoto.com) who, along with a handful of others of the same profession, had won the Park's photographers' lottery that year, allowing them to spend up to a week cruising around in their own camper taking pictures. 

Another couple in their own car had won a similar Park Service lottery for professional artists. The woman was the painter. Her husband, a biologist, got to come along "to carry the water," as he put it. They were staying in a neat little log cabin provided by the Park Service, on the banks of a river. During the day she took photos from which she could later paint when she returned to her North Carolina studio. I wondered whether the Park Service had a special access lottery for writers.

At the end of the first day's ride, I left the bike locked to a rail behind a tour bus rest stop. I arrived there wet, muddy, exhausted and elated. The only person around was a maintenance ranger, a short, stocky man in his early thirties with strawberry hair, a rugged Irish complexion and a ready smile. "Just this morning," he told me, "while I was straightening things up, a big ole' griz' poked his head up at the edge of the road just over there." He pointed across from where we stood, where the rail-less shoulder dropped off abruptly 2000 feet to the glacial riverbed below. 

"So, what'd you do," I asked?

"Well," he said, "I hopped up into the maintenance truck, is what I did, and honked the horn, and that bear's head disappeared again below the rim.". His point, I think, was that bears keep popping up anywhere and everywhere in Denali (as I was to discover for myself on my next day's ride). The ranger drove off and a few minutes later a bus came along. With a final glance back at my bike, I limped aboard. That evening I was especially glad I wasn't staying in a little pup tent in the rain at the end of such a long day. Instead I luxuriated in a piping hot shower, a hot meal and a soft bed in my cozy RV.

Next morning I caught the first bus into the interior and continued my ride through Denali in weather much improved from the day before. My leg muscles were sore as hell from the first day's ride, but once I got going and warmed up they loosened and felt better. While it is true that the road went down about as much as it went up, in practice the slopes seemed to be heavily imbalanced in favor of up. That's because it only takes a few minutes to coast down off a mountain, but it takes much, much longer to pedal all the way up the next one. So I was actually spending much more time going up than down. From necessity I figured out a few techniques to help me get up the long, steep inclines. For example, I found that pedaling standing up with the bike in a medium-high gear allowed me to use my full body weight to propel the bicycle and to coast momentarily every third pedal stroke, giving alternate leg muscles a two-second rest. Small things like that became important.

It was at the end of a fast, exhilarating downhill stretch that I met my bear. When I first spotted him he was a good 100 yards off the road, grazing on blueberries. I stopped, laid my bike off to the side and watched though binoculars. There's something awesome and sobering about big bears, the way they move, their enormously powerful bodies draped in the thick, shaggy coat of a wooly mammoth. The grizzly is the top of the food chain. You know it. He knows it. And don't let his proclivity for berries fool you. He's omnivorous. He'll eat practically anything.

So I was understandably nervous standing alone and exposed within sight of this quarter-ton brute. You can't run away from a bear if he decides he wants you, not even on a bicycle. He can maintain 35 miles per hour for at least a couple of miles and you can't. If that bear wanted me he would have me, and my little can of pepper spray notwithstanding there wouldn't be a whole lot I could to about it.

All this was running through my mind when the bear suddenly turned and strutted down the embankment onto the road about 30 feet from where I stood, eyeing me suspiciously.

Well, I am my father's son and I did what I believe he would have done in this situation. I started taking photographs. Happily, the bear showed no further interest in me, but simply crossed the road, walked along the adjacent riverbed, and vanished into into the dense bush. I stood on the road, camera in hand, not knowing quite what to feel. Awe. Relief. Exhilaration. Tor Crocket, bear chaser.

On my last day in Denali National Park I rode a stretch of the road outbound, from my campground halfway to the park entrance. Midway through that leg I had an unlikely run in with a caribou. It began when I spotted a moose and her calf up in the brush and stopped to photograph them. They were some distance away, barely within range of my camera's small zoom lens and certainly outside the 75- to 100-yard radius you're supposed to allow a moose in the wild so they won't get nervous and charge at you. 


The moose and calf eventually moved off into the bush. I had mounted my bike to continue my ride when all of a sudden a really big buck caribou came bursting out of thick hedge onto the road just 50 feet in front of me. Then he turned towards me and charged, or so it seemed to me. What the hell?! I never heard of a caribou charging a person, but this fellow had antlers broad enough to impale a Buick and he was bearing down on me at a fast trot, so I didn't stay to argue the point with him. I whipped the bike around and hightailed it down the road as fast as I could peddle, the caribou hard on my heels. Lucky for me he was only trotting, not running full out. Otherwise he'd have overtaken me very quickly. 

Just then a camper van came along, heading out of the park from the RV campground. What they saw was a guy flying down the road on a bicycle, shirttails streaming behind him, and a big damn caribou hot on his tail. I don't know what they must've thought when this unlikely spectacle hove into view, but as I came even with them the man driving called out, "Is that thing chasing you?" 

"Yes," I panted, "I believe it is. Mind if I hop in with you folks for a minute?"

"Sure," he called out as I careened past, "come around the back." And that is what I did, skidding around behind the RV, dropping the bike on the fly, and scrambling in through the side door, which the wife opened just as I got there. 

Immediately we all looked out of the windshield. The caribou charged right up to the front of the RV and stopped abruptly, looking startled and confused at finding himself there. After a moment or two, he moved down alongside the van and, as calmly as you please, strolled on down the road, no longer in a hurry. By the time I ventured outside and snapped a picture of him, this was all I saw (Man, I wish those folks in the RV had taken a photo of me flying down the road in front of that thing. That'd be one for the scrapbook!):


I left Denali National Park the next morning feeling a little leaner and a good deal richer in experience. The park's icon, Mount McKinley, appeared on the way out, 70 miles distant and cloud-free for the first time since I'd gotten there. It seemed a fine and fitting farewell from this very special corner of the Alaskan Interior.

Next Entry: 08/12/04


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