Alaska: Sunlight (?!#@!), Santa and Scat

Trip Start Jun 17, 2008
Trip End Aug 31, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Alaska
Friday, July 25, 2008

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In our last entry we had travelled 1,500 kilometers up the Alaska Highway and had not reached Alaska yet.  Nor had the legendary Alaska Highway been much of a foe to "The Big Zeke".  Well things have changed.  We arrived in Alaska 6 or 7 days ago, and the Alaska Highway started to bare its teeth...not so much that it ate through our tires, but enough to decrease our average speed to 30 or 40 km/hr.  The highway from Haines Junction, Yukon (where?) to Tok, Alaska (huh?) was in particularly bad shape...lots of frost heave damage, chuck holes and washboard surfaces.  I'd never heard of any of these terms either, but now Tracy and I toss them into conversations at the RV dumping station with ease (and with more than a little pride).

We were quite underwhelmed with Alaska for the first 500 kilometers...the scenery was average, and the weather was cold, wet and dreary.  However, after being at Denali National Park (the home of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America) for the last 4 nights, our impression of Alaska has improved dramatically (even though we have seen no corresponding improvement in the average temperature).  Denali is a very special place to us...home to great scenery and wildlife, and it has been added to our list of places we would like revisit sometime in the future. 

Traffic is kept to a minimum in Denali because there is only one road that runs 92 miles into the park.  Only the first 15 miles are open to all vehicles...thereafter you must take a shuttle bus.  Although hundreds of grizzly bears, moose, caribou and wolf reside in the park, people are allowed (and encouraged) to simply get off the shuttle bus wherever they want and explore the forest/tundra.   When you are done (assuming you don't get eaten), you just hike back to the road and flag down the next shuttle bus that drives by. 

This sounded appealing (the exploring, not the getting eaten), so we headed down a dry creek bed and then off into the wilderness.  We came across all kinds of moose and caribou tracks and scat (more on "scat" later, I promise) but the only animals we saw were arctic ground squirrels, snowshoe hares and ptarmigans (kind of a pheasant thing...yes, I'll keep educatin' y'all).   We didn't let an icy river stand in the way of us and the ridge we wanted to reach, and were rewarded with discovering the bones of a caribou.  Shortly thereafter, Michael found a moose antler.  It's hard to describe the feeling of complete insignificance when surrounded by miles and miles of wilderness, and when walking into the path of a grizzly bear or moose at your next turn is a real possibility.  It is something we will remember for a long time. 

Other highlights of Denali are:

    Our drive into the interior of the park above the tree-line and through the tundra, and seeing moose, dall sheep and caribou;

    Seeing the sled dog demonstration.   To Laura's delight, we got to pet the dogs, learn how they are used to monitor the park in the winter and see them pull the sled.  Interestingly, they replaced the sled dogs many years ago with snow machinery; within several years they realized that the dogs were more reliable and faster and so they reinstated them;

    Seeing Laura's smile when she was publicly sworn in as a Denali Junior Ranger at the visitor center;

    The silence from the back of the RV on that same day as Sarah and Michael raced against time to complete their Denali Junior Ranger workbooks before we passed the last Ranger station 100 miles south of where Laura was "crowned";

    The rainbow! the risk of harming my cool, studly, he-man reputation I need to mention the rainbow we witnessed.  Both Tracy and I agreed that it was the widest, longest, most vibrant one we had ever seen.   Unfortunately, pictures do not do it justice (but to confirm our opinion of the rainbow, it was the talk of the campsite that night!);

    The numerous Ranger led talks and hikes...did you know that there are 365 different types of squirrels?;

    Mt. McKinley...despite being hidden from us for the first four days here, the clouds finally parted on Day 5 long enough for us to see it in its glory....very neat.

One of our other stops in Alaska last week was the town of North Pole, just outside of Fairbanks.  The kids really enjoyed Christmas in July, especially seeing Santa, the candy cane light poles, staying in SantaLand RV park (on Santa Claus Lane no less) and seeing Santa's reindeer.  (Incidentally, did you know that all of Santa's reindeer are pregnant females?  All other reindeer lose their antlers in the winter). 

North Pole from an adult's perspective?   We found it a little curious to see Santa, in his off hours, staying in the same RV park as us...he even had the primo trailer spot on Rudolph Way, right next to the washrooms.  And for those of you who have always wondered, Santa drives a green Ford pick-up truck with Arizona license plates (when he's not driving the sled, that is).   Call us if you ever decide you would like to visit this "town".

Other miscellaneous tidbits from last week:

    We should have brought hats...the  toque wearing "tourists" I laughed at when we first entered Alaska were in fact the smart locals...during our stay the temperature at night has gone down to 5C, and some of our fellow campers have hiked through falling snow.  It has also drizzled rain on most days, but with 4 layers of clothes I can almost keep the chill out.  Tracy, who is always cold, has not been quite so lucky;

    In our last entry I mentioned that having seen the Biggest Beaver, the Big Nickel, the Big Goose, the Big Lumberjack, and the Biggest Fake Dinosaur Tourist Trap, my life was complete.  Well, Tracy held out, hoping there was more to life, and she was rewarded last week with the spectacles of the Giant Mosquito, the Biggest Santa Statue and perhaps the most magnificent, the Giant Mukluk!;

    Apparently, teaching the kids how to make fake fart noises is not part of the Grade 2, 4 or 6 curriculum...I was just trying to help with the home schooling effort!;

    We met an inspiring couple from Germany last week who shared lots of stories of their travel experiences, as well as some wonderful salmon jerky (you can never go wrong with the jerky!).  They are retired and spend most of their time travelling.  Tracy and I think they might just be on to something...

    We have to force ourselves to go to bed at midnight.  It's freaky to have only a few hours of darkness in a place that seems to get such little sun;

    Rumour has it that I worked myself into a major frenzy because of the computer's "broken" Wi-Fi (who wouldn't when they had a blog to get out!); much to my chagrin (and another hit to my he-man status), after I worked on it for a few hours, Tracy fixed it in about 30 seconds.  I was at least happy that I wouldn't have to pay to get it fixed. Then she informed me that I could pay her back over time with Starbucks.  I really should buy stock in that company....

And, finally, a section on "scat", a more polite term for animal poop, and a topic that Alaskans can talk about for days.  Consider the following:

    The Denali Visitor Center has an exhibit on "The Seasonal Differences in Bear Scat", including samples from each season.  If you would like a mental picture of the "Fall Bear Scat", which is berry season, just think of corn-on-the-cob season for humans;

    We learned that a wolf will roll around in "scat" before hunting so that he doesn't smell like a wolf...personally I think I'd stick with the wolf smell;

    The male porcupine pees on the female porcupine to see if she might be interested in, well, you know...   I'm thinking I'll share some of my old pick-up lines with the next porcupine I meet...Finally, someone who might benefit from them.

    The town of Talkeetna has an annual Moose Dropping Festival every July.  It includes a moose scat throwing contest and a parade (I don't even want to think about what that might entail...);

    Numerous books to pique one's interest in scat have been written.  How can anyone resist titles such as Alaskan Scat, Know Your Animal Scat, and 101 Scat Crafts (okay, I made up the last one);

Well , that's it for Week 1 in it's on to Valdez where I assume they'll try to "spin"  how an 11 million gallon oil spill turned out to be a good thing.  Then we are up to the "Top of the World" highway from Chicken, Alaska to Dawson City, Yukon.

Scat-daddle for now...

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