Anchorage → Fairbanks, AK
July 29 thru August 4, 2019
Day 29: Monday, July 29, 2019
Seward → Anchorage, AK
We arrived in Anchorage in time for a little downtown shopping and dinner at Fat Ptarmigan. Q, Jenessa and Trevor had flown into Anchorage the previous week and they had gone into a couple of shops that Q wanted to check out in more detail, specifically Kobuk. Housed in the oldest building in town, the shop has a variety of teas and trinkets, great for locals and tourists alike. We all managed to find something to buy. Next was a tour of Arctic Treasures, where you can not only buy hand-made items, but you can also see tusks and horns being carved by indigenous people into centuries-old designs.
We ended our day in Anchorage with dinner at Fat Ptarmigan. It was so good the first time, we wanted to share it with Quelise. ME
Day 30: Tuesday, July 30, 2019
Anchorage → Denali, AK
As Quelise requested, we went out for breakfast at Snow City Café in Anchorage to have a “proper” bacon-and-egg kind of breakfast before leaving for Denali.
With Anchorage once again in our rearview mirror, we started on our trek, arriving at our campground mid afternoon. Q stayed in Ollie to read and Jim and I went to reconnoiter the check-in location for the next morning’s Denali National Park & Preserve Tour. We also went to the Denali Information Center and saw beautiful displays, including a huge circular diagram of Denali and the surrounding mountains in relief, and a “You Are Here” indicator. A LONG way from Denali. ME
Day 31: Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour #17
There is only one road into Denali National Park and Preserve. It is 93 miles long and at the end it is still 20 miles from the mountain. Travel is restricted to campers with back country permits, campers/trailers/RV’s also with reservations at the very limited in-park campgrounds, and to the 70 tour busses a day. The busses are no frills, industrial grade with clear windows that can open when the dust is not too bad. No restrooms on the bus as there are several stops every 1.5 to 2 hours. The tour company advises customers to bring their own food and water, but upon entry to the bus every seat has a small box with snacks, but certainly not enough food for the whole trip. And the tour guide informed us that she did have 2 cases of bottled water if we needed it.
We had discussed with Quelise which of the 3 Denali tours we should take.
- Denali Natural History Tour – 25 miles in and 25 miles out – “Focusing on the rich natural and cultural history of the park, this 4-1/2 to 5-hour tour travels to Teklanika River.”
- Tundra Wilderness Tour – 62 miles in and 62 miles out – “Offers the best opportunities to view the park’s wildlife inhabitants, choose from 2 tours; the Tundra Wilderness Full Tour and the Toklat Shoulder Season Tour.”
- Kantishna Experience Tour – 93 miles in and 93 miles out – “Follow in the footsteps on Fannie Quigley to the old gold town of Kantishna on this all-day adventure to the end of the Park Road”
We decided on the Tundra Wilderness Tour, signed up and paid for the 8:45 AM departure. We were met at the bus by our tour guide “Cassie, or Cassandra whichever you please.” Cassie was in her 17th year of driving tour busses into Denali. And in the winter she is first mate on her husband’s Caribbean charter boat. What a life…
As we pulled away and drove to the park entrance, Cassie went thru the housekeeping announcements. No bathroom on the bus, but we will stop every 1-1/2 to 2 hours for 10 minutes and there will be pit toilets at each stop. Also we should stay seated when the bus is moving, and she told us where we would stop for 30 minutes for lunch. She wanted us to know that 70% of all visitors to Denali Nat Park DO NOT GET TO SEE THE MOUNTAIN, but today, July 31st, may offer a glimpse. There were clouds obstructing the great one; however, the day’s weather seemed to indicate the clouds might lift some, fingers crossed. If we saw animals we should shout out “Stop” then thinking the direction of travel of the bus is 12 O’clock, at what point on the clock the animal was spotted. It should sound something like. “Stop, 8 O’clock, Moose.”
Once in the park we got a history of the park, what trees, flowers, animals and birds live there. The views were spectacular, even to a traveler who had just been in the Canadian Rockies, and all over southern Alaska. But what everyone on the bus wanted to see was the wildlife. ME and I were just behind the driver and Quelise was in the seat directly behind us. I had put the 100 to 400 mm zoom lens on the good camera. At first I was sitting on the aisle, but as time went on ME had a hard time with limited leg/foot space caused by the upward protrusion of the wheel well. Accordingly, I moved to the window seat which was better for me taking pictures on the left side of the bus. I even pushed the window open a bit so I could get the camera out the window.
The first was an Arctic Ground Squirrel. It was on the left side of the bus, but by the time I was ready with the camera it was gone. Next came a Ptarmigan (silent “P”) again gone ASAP. I guess some animals are photo shy.
“Stop 3 O’clock Dall Sheep.” Cassie stopped the bus and we all looked out the right side of the Bus. Cassie opened the door and I asked if I could sit on the steps inside the bus to get a picture. She said yes, and I got a few good shots. The herd was on the move so each of my pictures shows a different number of animals. Then Cassie pulled out a Canon Video Camera with amazing zoom. She turned on the 8 x 10 video screens that were above every 2 or 3 rows of seats and ran her video onto them. That Canon Video had better zoom than my 100-400 lens. One of my pictures shows 11 Dall Sheep. This was considered a nursery herd as you could see a couple of small lambs. The other type of herd is a male-only herd.
Next came a grazing Caribou. This one I could shoot out the window. Shortly after, we stopped at our second bathroom break where I took pictures of glaciers, glacier ponds, and beautiful valleys and mountains.
Cassie called us back to the bus when I spotted an Arctic Ground Squirrel racing across the road and under another bus. I zoomed in and shot a few pictures under the bus before he/she ran up the side of the hill beyond us. I walked toward the back of the bus and spotted the Squirrel standing on hind legs holding and eating what seemed to be a seed. I got a darling shot.
A second Caribou appeared, clearly a male who was molting. We were now into Tundra where vegetation did not go to the tops of the mountains. Here is an interesting fact about trees Cassie told us. In order for trees to grow there needs to be at least 50 days a year with a temperature of 50 or above.
The next stop was at the Toklat River where there is a Ranger Station and Gift Shop. There was a large bull Caribou with a huge rack laying in the river bed. He had a grand view so he would have plenty of time to vamoose if a predator were to come into view. We ate, then we were back on the bus again.
Shortly thereafter Cassie stopped the bus and said Grizzly at 10 O’clock. He/she was clearly browsing with head down most of the time. I got a few pictures you can tell it’s a griz, but WAY out there. Cassie factoid – In the summer Griz eat 20,000 berries a day.
At our next stop we had a young Caribou walk up the hill to our left. Right after starting again we had a large Grizzly off to the right of the bus and at only a couple hundred yards distance. I got some great shots.
We reached the turn-around point Toklat River Rest Stop. From there we could see The Great One (Denali) with the shorter of the two peaks almost totally visible and the highest peak still in the clouds at 20,310 feet. From here we also saw a young Caribou running down a slope in front of us. We did not see anything chasing it. After a bit we saw it, or a very similar Caribou, come up to the left of the parking area.
On the way back I believe we saw many of the same animals as on the way into the park. The browsing Grizzly. This time I took a video as well as stills. The shaggy male Caribou. The other Grizzly at a long distance from the road. Then at the stop with the Ranger Station I believe the Bull Caribou from the middle of the riverbed walked right up the road our bus had driven in on. I got wonderful pictures of this magnificent animal. Saw only 2 Dall Sheep on the way out. One was a lamb and one an adult, still part of the nursery herd.
We came upon stopped traffic as there was a Bull Caribou in the road. He was being bothered by flies and bees. We could see him shaking his head and ears trying to get rid of the insects. After maybe 5 minutes he wandered off. Good pictures.
The last animal on our tour was another Bull Caribou on a different river bed.
All-in-all I loved the tour. We had a sunny day in summer which in itself is a not-everyday thing. As we were leaving the park Cassie told us that we could buy a DVD that would include a history of the park, the video she shot on our tour, and the best of the best video shot by all the tour drivers in 2018. I bought it and cannot wait to see it when we get home. JMS
Day 32: Thursday, August 1, 2019
Denali, AK → Palmer, AK
While we were still at our campsite outside of Denali, Quelise suggested instead of sticking to the schedule I took 2-1/2 days to prepare before we left Illinois, that we NOT go back to Anchorage in preparation for delivering her to the airport on August 3rd. She said, using my oft-stated words, we must “always remain flexible” (which we all know is the #1 rule of the infantry). Sometimes we find out that our children were actually listening to our rants.
Q suggested that we find a peaceful campground near Anchorage where we could chill out for our last days with her. She and I got out the map and the campground-finding app and went to work. Fox Run Campground near Palmer, AK was selected. I called and made reservations for 2 nights, and the next morning it was off to Fox Run. JMS
Day 33: Friday, August 2, 2019
As it turned out there are two Fox Run Campgrounds near Palmer and our reservations were not at the one we had seen on a lake. But as randomness sometimes rewards, our Fox Run was also on a lake, and our campsite had a beautiful lakeside view. There was a bonus in that a state park was just on the other side of the fence, and trees next to our site. Very peaceful, and for view people like us, you can’t get much better.
The Musk Ox Farm: When I first got into Alaska I downloaded “TheAlaskaApp.” I have used the “Nearby” button everywhere we have stopped and this app has provided us with many of the adventures you have read about in this blog. On August 2nd after breakfast it was off to the Musk Ox Farm. (Where you see “MO” below, think “Musk Ox.)
The first thing you need to know about MO is that they DO NOT produce musk and they are NOT Ox or related to any Oxen. MO are related to Goats and Sheep. The second thing is the MO produce an under fur called qiviut. First Nation peoples in far north MO lands harvest qiviut to make hats, scarves, vests, mittens, and other garments. Qiviut is 8 times warmer than sheep’s wool by weight. In the wild the qiviut is harvested from the tundra as the MO sheds. At the farm they follow a different process. There is a stall only big enough for a MO and a human. A MO is put into the stall with a handler who uses a “hair pick” to comb out the qiviut. Hair Pick is like the thing that QuestLove has stuck in his hair as the Roots play music on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. Every year each adult MO provides 4-5 pounds of qiviut.
The Farm’s History: In the 1950’s a gentleman decided it would be good to have a MO farm in the US. He started in Vermont and got a small herd going. He moved it several times over the years and finally landed in Palmer, Alaska. The farm is a not-for-profit and has a sister not-for-profit company that is a co-op of first nation women who knit and sell garments made from Qiviut.
The Tour: Amy was our tour guide. First she had us walk thru 2 rubber trays with rubber mats and water. This was to clean the bottom of our shoes and keep the areas where the MO live a bit cleaner and healthier for the animals. The farm has 83 MO on 75 acres. There are many pastures and the MO are segregated by sex and age. Mommas and babies in one pasture. Older retired ladies, along with the oldest and peaceful gentlemen, are together. The breed able males are by themselves. The young Bachelors are in their own pasture, and the breed able ladies are apart from all others.
MO are slow, mellow creatures. However, during the “rut” the breed able males do butt heads. Their horns are made for this. Where the horns come out of the top of the head there is a thick pad of horn, then the curved thinning horn curls down the side of their heads. The horns are pointed on the ends. But all have been cut off where the nub is about 1-1/4 inch in diameter to prevent injury during this head-butting exercise. Another interesting thing, is MO nostrils are spiral on the inside to help warm the incoming air as to not freeze the animals nose.
Poo: These animals eat hay during the winter and produce poo that are little balls about the size of marbles. And in the summer when grazing on grasses they produce what is more like a buffalo chip. As we walked around the farm I surprised that it was not the least bit stinky.
Breeding: This is done by genetics ONLY to keep the herd healthy. Occasionally they bring in a male from another herd. And all insemination is all done naturally. So the select few MO on this farm have the pleasure of . . . Well you know. At 83 MO the farm is close to maxed-out. So the farm this year will only breed 2 of the ladies, expecting a 50% survival rate. Each year the newborns are named with a theme, such as cheese, trees, candy, state capitals, spices, or mythological beings. This year’s newborns were Gouda & Muenster. We also met Maple & Larch; Twix, Pixie Stick & Heath; Lansing, Madison, Juneau & Honolulu; Wasabi & Sassafras; Medusa, Aquarius, Luna, Zeus & Athena. I love the naming themes.
Amy gave us a wonderful information-packed tour. Check them out. JMS
Driving into town after the Musk Ox Farm tour, we started looking for a place for lunch and found a restaurant called Turkey Red. Sounded good to us. Interesting name, nice ambiance, great food, with friendly and knowledgeable wait staff. We had interesting sandwiches, salads and soups, and then we took home bread pudding and an assortment of cookies for future desserts. Yum!
After that wonderful lunch, we drove a couple of blocks down the street to the Farmers Market, which was much less about selling fruits and vegetables than it was about locally-made products. Jim dropped Q and me off and went to park the truck. On his way back he discovered the Historical Society Museum just across the street from the market, so he went in and got to enjoy himself by getting a better understanding of the people who originally came to farm in Palmer, and Q and I got to walk around and enjoy the crafts without him trying to hurry us along.
When Jim didn’t show up again after going to park the truck, I finally called to see where he was. He joined us a few minutes later to look at a few things I had picked out to buy for family members for gifts. He had been about to go to the community garden next to the museum, so Q and I joined him. One thing I can say about Alaska is they have lush and abundant flowers, both wild and cultivated; the varieties and colors seem infinite. ME
Day 34 / August 3, 2019
Palmer → Anchorage → Palmer, AK
After breakfast we drove Quelise the 30 miles to Anchorage to drop her off at the Airport for her return home after a two-week Alaska vacation. We made one last trip through Anchorage for some Krispy Kreme donuts and a car wash, then we ate lunch at the Slippery Salmon Bar and meandered back to our Palmer campsite. A much-needed quiet, relaxing day and evening.
Day 35 / August 4, 2019
Palmer → Fairbanks, AK
When we left the campsite in Palmer at 8:45 am it was 61 degrees F. By the time we stopped for lunch at 12:30 pm, it was 50 degrees F. The wrong direction!
We didn’t get into Fairbanks until late afternoon, so we just caught up on a few things, ate dinner in, and tried to get into bed early. A nice end to Week 5 of the Great Alaskan Adventure!
End of Week 5