Mountain and Flame
Recently retired and ready to spread their wings, Len and Faith Todd wanted to do more with their time than just wait for the grandkids to stack up. Avid travelers, they purchased a Toy Hauler with the expressed purpose of doing some snowmobiling in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula … but another motivation waited, unspoken. Tour Alaska. Trip of a lifetime. They waited. They researched. They prepared. In late June 2009, the trip of a lifetime began. During the trip, Faith and Len blogged about their adventures and kept a growing audience of friends and family rapt with attention and not a little bit jealous. This chapter covers August 4th – August 7th, days 36-39 of their adventure.
You may not believe it, but after a long day on the road, even a mountain can jump out and surprise you. When that mountain is the highest peak in all of North America the effect is immediate, jaw-dropping. Mt. McKinley is an imposing mass of snow and ice rising over 20,000 feet into the air. As you travel the road from Anchorage to Denali it seems to loom suddenly, from out of nowhere, twin peaks dominating the horizon as they scrape the sky. We had seen many mountains in our travels around and through the Northwestern United States, Canada and Alaska; but this one quite literally topped them all. The sky was cloudy; but, from a distance, the sunshine peeking through the cover gave us impressive views of both the North and South Peaks, something, we learned later, doesn’t happen all that often in August.
Up until this point, the six and a half hour ride from Anchorage had been leisurely and uneventful, now we were both spellbound. As we moved toward Mt. McKinley, the clouds began to obscure more of the view, but it was still glorious, a distinct snapshot both anticipated and expected, begging to be framed for display.
Wednesday began with a sightseeing adventure into Denali National Park. In an effort to curb to impact of excess traffic on the natural flora and fauna of the park, once you pass mile marker 15, your travel options are reduced to: the “Green Bus”, the “History Tour Bus” or shank’s mule. We chose the Green Bus, an all day excursion that departed from the Visitor’s Center at 9:30 a.m. and returned at 5:30 p.m.
The trip would have been much more pleasant but for the limited visibility. In addition to the general overcast conditions, there was fire in the sky that did not come from a classic Alaskan sunrise. In nearby Fairbanks over 1,000 acres of forest had been engulfed by a raging wildfire. The smoke had drifted down into Denali, impeding our visit and endangering the next stop on our adventure. You guessed it. Fairbanks.
The smoke was so thick, even the stately Mt. McKinley was invisible. The Green Bus stopped at Mile Marker 66 at another visitor center, allowing us to stretch our legs and learn some more about our surroundings. It was then that we realized just how special our relatively clear view of Mt. McKinley the previous day had been. According to the State Park literature, both peaks are only visible at the same time an average of three days in August. A ten percent chance and we hit it on day one. Let’s hear it for good old-fashioned RVer luck!
Even though our views of Mt. McKinley were obscured on the Denali trip, we were able to see many wild creatures. Caribou, wolves, foxes, grizzly bears and ptarmigan (the state bird of Alaska) all mugged for their closeups. Great shots for the album, but we were doubly glad to have already seen majestic McKinley on Tuesday.
Arriving back at camp, we checked the condition report to confirm that, indeed, Fairbanks would have to wait. The Forest Service had issued a health advisory due to all the smoke and ash in the air. We retired for the evening intent on checking to see if our luck would be any better in the morning. Fingers crossed!
We woke Thursday, uncrossed our fingers and, after checking the condition report, decided to make “other plans.” These included a dogsled demonstration in Denali National Park. During the cold, dark winter months, the roads deep within the park are not plowed. Snowmobiles, too, are out of the question when the mercury drops below negative 30 degrees. So, it’s Huskies to the rescue. Park rangers use dogsled teams to travel and haul in supplies within the park. Denali is the only national park to employ the use of dogsled.
A word about these courageous canines. They are, as the rangers explained it, essentially mutts. There is no recognized AKC breed called “Alaskan Husky.” The dogs are raised and trained by the rangers. They serve for about eight or nine years. After their time “in uniform”, the Huskies are adopted out to folks who reside in colder climates and are willing to maintain a continued active lifestyle for the dogs.
Much of the thrill of the dogsled demonstration, for those of us suffering from puppy withdrawal, was the opportunity to interact with the sled teams before the demonstration. A few of us got to chatting about our furry, homebound family members, and one poor lady was so emotional she had to walk away. We can empathize, missing our own Dude terribly.
By Thursday afternoon, Fairbanks was still smoky, but the warning had lifted. We hitched up and headed out. Soon after leaving Denali, one of those “fun” little traveling “issues” nipped at us. The trailer lights on the Hauler were not working. Because of the decreasing visibility approaching Fairbanks, this circumstance turned from annoyance to immediate concern. After some troubleshooting and the aid of a passing traveler, Len determined that our little issue was nothing more than a blown fuse. He located a fuse box underneath the hood of the new truck – there were twofuse boxes, it turned out, one in the cab and one under the hood. It took much less time to fix the problem than to identify it, and we were back on the road in no time – all the lights shining bright. Good thing. We were out of the factory supplied extra fuses.
Here’s a little tip, folks. Whether or not you swap vehicles during your travels as we had done back in Wyoming (see A Tale of Two Trucks) be certain you carry several extra fuses.
As we closed in on Fairbanks, it began to look more and more ominous. Charred trees lined the road, and we passed two intersections with fire trucks at the ready. The closer we came to Fairbanks, the denser the smoke became. We debated whether to stay in Fairbanks or just haul on through; but, ironically, rain saved the day. It had begun that morning and continued all day, to the understandable joy of both the firefighters and our fellow travelers. The air quality was much better than it had been, so we pulled in and set up camp alongside the Chena River.
Friday morning we toured a gold mine that dated back to the early 1900’s. We were far from professional miners, but those two famous Johns, Wayne and Horton, had nothing on us. As far as we were concerned, the rush was on! Of course, the illusion was spoiled a bit by the concessions allowed to gold panners of the day-tripping tourist variety. These included benches to sit on and warm, trough-sluiced water instead of the traditional near-freezing mountain streams. Definitely the way to relive that experience. Who wants to sit on rocks with numb finger anyway? Besides the traditional Gold Miner beard looks better on Billy Gibbons than it ever would on us.
That afternoon we enjoyed a riverboat cruise up and down the Chena River. One of our stops was at the home of former Iditarod legend, Susan Butcher, the only woman to win the race four times. Called the “Last Great Race”, the Iditarod is a grueling, 1,150-mile dogsled competition. The track between Anchorage and Nome is wild, covering some of the most rugged, beautiful and deadly terrain in the world. Temperatures plunge well below zero and visibility is nullified by the elements as the racers and their teams run over mountains, frozen rivers, thick forests, barren tundra and wind-whipped coastline. The musher and his or her team of 12 to 16 dogs cover the nearly 1,200 miles in between 10 and 17 days. To call it a race is to write a thesis in understatement. Only the most dedicated, persistent racers finish this challenge, and we were standing in the home of someone who had not only finished – but won the thing four times!
Though neither the elements nor her opponents could not beat her, leukemia caught up with Susan in August of 2006. But the woman who said that, the first time she saw Alaska she “felt at home for the first time in her life”, bestowed her love for dogs, sledding and the northern wilderness as a legacy to those she left behind. Susan’s husband and two daughters still train and race dogsled teams. During our stop, one of Susan’s daughters demonstrated dogsled technique. It being August, the team pulled a four-wheeler instead of a sled, but it was still very interesting to see how the team and the musher worked together.
Our next stop on the cruise was at the Athabasca “Authentic” Indian Village. We all disembarked for a walking tour of the village and fish camp. We saw nearly-domestic caribou, a Husky kennel, log cabins and several less-alive creatures, namely a stuffed moose and several pelts. The latter included, by our count: fox, grizzly bear, lynx, mink, wolf and one that gave those of us who are lifelong maize and blue fans pause, a wolverine. Perhaps sensing our reaction, the guide told us a story that put a smile on our faces. Legend says that when a grizzly bear and a wolverine meet along a trail, the bear steps aside to allow the fierce little scrapper to pass. Go Blue!
So what do you do after a day absorbing the wild and wonderful culture of Alaska? Sit down to another delicious salmon dinner, of course. And, yes, we ate hearty. After all, there’s a lot more adventure waiting for us tomorrow!
Places to Stay in and Around Fairbanks
Santaland RV Park
Looking for Christmas in July? You can find it all through the summer season at the uniquely delightful Santaland RV Park. The park is open April 1st through October 31st. The owners of the park, Phillip and Teffonie Wyman, are third generation Alaskans that love Christmas almost as much as they love their home state. The park offers easy access to attractions in Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city. A narrated shuttle departs for the city each day. If you would like to do some wilderness exploring at the North Pole, the park offers access to the Beaver Slough Nature Trail. And, of course, you have to stop by the gift shop for that perfect item for under your tree.
Amenities include free WiFi and cable TV at every site, tickets and information to area attractions, shuttle service and your choice of full or partial hookups. The bathrooms are clean and the showers are non-metered. Electric offered includes 20, 30 and 50 amp. They have plenty of big-rig friendly sites and offer on-site trash pickup. The park also offers a modern laundry facility, complimentary pet sitting, mail forwarding and a vehicle wash.
125 St. Nicholas Dr.
North Pole, Alaska 99705
907.488.9123 | 888.488.9123
Rivers Edge RV Park
Nestled along the Chena River and surrounded by the sounds and beauty of pristine Alaska you can find quiet, relaxing River’s Edge Park. The park boasts 190 sites including wide pull throughs and your choice of full or partial hookups. Fitting with the park’s commitment to hospitality, you “do not even have to unhook” to experience Fairbanks. The park provides tickets and transportation to all major area attractions including Riverboat Discovery. You can also take a break from kitchen duties and enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner at the onsite restaurant.
Other amenities and opportunities include 50-amp electric, available cable TV, wireless Internet, a dump station, free showers, a 24-hour coin laundry, vehicle wash facilities, a gift shop, clean restrooms and paved biking or hiking trails. River’s Edge RV Park is open from May 28th through September 10th.
Chena Marina RV Park
This park’s location on an active floatplane pond gives guests a close up view to the Alaskan bush plane experience. Weather permitting, the park offers drinking water delivered right to your rig. They have operational shower facilities from April 15th through September 15th, weather permitting. There is also an on-site laundry facility and sewer hookup.
Riverview RV Park
Located on the Chena River “upstream of all the hustle and bustle” is the Riverview RV Park. Ten minutes from downtown Fairbanks yet with plenty of room to roam, this park also offers a 3-hole pitch and putt golf course so you can swing your clubs under the midnight sun.
The park has 160 sites offering full hookup, 30 and 50 amp electric, water, sewer, free cable TV and WiFi. Most of the sites are pull throughs big enough for the big rigs and buses. The rest room facilities have free showers and private dressing rooms. Onsite laundry service is also available.