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The Glory of “The High One”: Denali National Park

Sunrise on Denali / NPS Photo by Tim Rains

Many travelers venturing to Alaska include on their itineraries Denali National Park, and rightly so. It provides breathtaking vistas in a rugged land to etch in your mind a memorable trip. Within Alaska alone, there are 24 parks and sites managed by the National Park Service, however Denali usually comes to mind when people think of Alaska. Denali is  Alaska’s most well-known national park and is actually more readily accessible than some of the other remote parks.  Denali averages over  400,000 visitors annually. The flag ship feature of the park is the 20,320 feet high mountain peak known for thousands of years by the Athabascans as Denali, or “The High One”.

So What’s in a Name?  The park we know today as Denali National Park was founded in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson as Mount McKinley National Park. The name of the Park has been a controversy since it’s inception.  There are certain ironies that one can’t help but ponder on. First, the name McKinley was taken from our 25th President William McKinley. McKinley himself had never traveled to Alaska.  Perhaps he would have gone to see the majestic mountain and park, but sadly he was assassinated in September of 1901. Charles Sheldon, a naturalist and conservationist, advocated from the start the name of Denali for both the park and the mountain. The locals called it Denali, and the debate continued for decades. Finally in 1980, many continued to favor the name Denali after the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act changed the park’s name to Denali National Park and Preserve. But the official name of the mountain remained Mount McKinley.  Then just prior to the National Park Service centennial year in 2016, the mountain was reverted to the name Denali. While visiting Alaska in September of 2015, President Barack Obama announced the official name change of the mountain.

Bull Moose~NPS photo

Keeping the “wild” in Alaskan wilderness.  The vastness and diverse ecosystems of the park are beautifully preserved and presented to visitors by virtue of how the park is operated and maintained.  Unlike other National Parks, access into the park is restricted and controlled by only one road, 90 miles long into the park.  Personal vehicles are not allowed beyond the 15 mile mark on the park road; only the shuttle buses taking visitors back and forth from several destinations. This may seem odd at first, but when you take a bus trip into the park it helps you to understand  how this system helps to minimize car travel and reduce the carbon footprint on this wilderness. Riders are free to get on and off the bus as they please.  Another distinct advantage is that you are much more likely to view an abundance of wildlife.  The animals have become accustomed to the big tan buses along the road and are more likely to view them as just a part of the landscape. When we went, we observed, from the safety of the bus, a mama Grizzly helping her two cubs to hunt a ground squirrel. That was an experience I will never forget.

Horseshoe Lake~Denali National Park

In addition to the park road, the trails allow foot traffic within the park for both the casual hiker and the seasoned veteran. Some of the more seasoned hikers are encouraged to “make their own trail”, but for the casual hikers there are several trails starting closer to the Visitors Center.  An easy hike, 1.5 miles, to the beautiful plateau above Horseshoe Lake provides ample opportunities for stunning photographs.  You can see why they call it Horseshoe Lake as evidenced by this photo. Wildlife thrives in the vastness of the park and the “big five” have been designated as: grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.  It may be a personal goal to view all five, but don’t be too disappointed if you don’t view them all. You can always pick up a coffee mug or t-shirt with all of them on it; sounds a bit touristy but a great way to remember your visit.  My family and I saw a grizzly and her cubs from quite a distance and also a mother moose and her cubs, but sometimes it’s very cool to also capture them on a souvenir. Not quite the same as seeing them in real life, but it’s so neat to bring back the memories of your trip and be able to say you’ve been to Denali. Wolves and grizzlies are not as easily seen, but the abundance of Moose in the park makes it almost a sure bet you will see them at some point. Depending on the year, the moose population within the park fluctuates of course, but the National Park Service estimates about 1,800 Moose at Denali.  That’s alot of Moose!  Just FYI, the plural of Moose is Moose…good to know.

Visiting with one of the Sled Dogs of Denali

“Mush, Doggies! Mush!” You can’t get up close and personal with a grizzly, but at Denali you can get close and cuddly with the sled dogs.  In the winter months, the best way to get around from here to there within the park is still by sled dog team.  One of the must see attractions at Denali is the sled dog demos and a visit to the kennels.   Even if you are visiting in the summer, they have to keep the dog’s training going year round, so they add small wheels to the sleds to run them on all terrains.  During the summer tourist season, they have 3 daily dog sled demonstrations.  The Park Service runs several shuttles to the kennels.  When I was there I was amazed to find out the importance of the use of dog sleds withing the park and also within the state of Alaska.  The most famous, well -known sled dog race, the Idiatrod, has a colorful and intriguing history.  Portions of the Iditarod trail were used as early as the 1880’s, However the most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing is the 1925 serum run to Nome; also known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” A large diptheria epidemic threatened Nome. The only way to get the antitoxin to Nome was by sled dog, due to unusable planes and ships in the worst of winter.  So on January 27, the port at Seward had received the serum where it was passed to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. Wow, I hear that story and am amazed of the courage and tenacity of those mushers and their dogs. No wonder it has become an inspiring tale; both for those that participate in the Iditarod and those that watch on the sidelines.  All an amazing part of the Alaska experience. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

For more information on Denali National Park, check out: Discovering Denali, A Complete Reference Guide to Denali National Park by Dow Scoggins  and also the National Park Service has great details about the Park including information on park habitats and wildlife.  Check out their web-site at:http://NPS.gov

Tales from the Ghost Trees of Alaska

Driving along the roadways in parts of eastern Alaska, on odd indication of the 1964 earthquake becomes apparent. The 1964 Alaska Earthquake had a profound impact on the people of Alaska and  left visible scars on the land. Many of the scars and the buildings that were destroyed have long since left from view, but what remains after all these years are the tall trees that stand stark against the blue skies.

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Ghost Trees near Girdwood,Alaska (photo: Julie Smith)

They stand like soldiers guarding the memory of that terrible day in 1964  and to serve as a reminder to never underestimate the phenomenal power of nature’s force. When the quake occurred, sea water came up through the fault flooding the terrain near the trees, but in the same token not uprooting them.  So they not did immediately die, but the sea water caused them to turn to a petrified-state and they remain standing.
It is just one of those odd tricks and unusual quirks of nature that leaves behind an almost artistic rendering to tell the story of what took place here over 50 years ago.   Repercussions of catastrophic events such as this earthquake can have lasting, visible effects for quite some time after the clean up has been completed and people have carried on with their lives.

1964 eathquake

Anchorage-4th Ave. 1964 (photo: Time.com Life collection)

The 1964 Alaska earthquake had a profound impact on numerous communities along the fault line.  The quake occurred on Good Friday, March 27, 1964 and according to the US Geological Survey measured 9.2 magnitude on the rector scale.  The quake was reported as the most devastating quake in North America. A total of 131 deaths were reported and the property damage totaled between 300-400 million dollars. Damage was widespread throughout the state and was felt as far as Oregon.  The epicenter of the quake was about 10 km east of the mouth of College Fiord, approximately 90 km west of Valdez and 120 km east of Anchorage.  This earthquake is the second largest earthquake ever recorded in the world. (http://www.aeic.alaska.edu/quakes/Alaska_1964_earthquake.html)  Because of the epicenters location, some of the hardest hit towns were Anchorage, Valdez, Girdwood and Portage. The quake also spawned a tsunami, which contributed to the severe damage to the harbor town of Valdez.  Half the town tumbled into the harbor and the disaster claimed 31 lives. Valdez was not totally destroyed but relocated 4 miles west of the original site. Traveling through Valdez today, there are signs designating “Old Valdez” prior to the quake. Girdwood was also relocated, but the town of Portage was completely abandoned after the earthquake.

 

The town of Portage was destroyed by the quake. In the area where Portage was located are a few abandoned buildings, still remaining, not yet consumed by the earth.

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The abandoned town of Portage (photo:www.greatlandofalaska.com)

The area around what used to be the town of Portage is a location that one can readily see an abundance of “skeleton trees” that stand there ground 50 years later after the rest of the landscape has changed around them.  In other areas of the country, with higher demands for immediate “land usage”, the trees may have been taken down, but here they stand on a seemingly barren landscape.  The tundra and other life has grown up around them, but their clinging to the earth with a refusal to succumb to gravity, gives them a stoic albeit sometimes ghostly look.  To hear Alaskans talk of the skeleton trees and their evidence of the earthquake in ’64, there is a sense of deep sadness of course, but also a sense of pride in the strength of the Alaskan spirit and tenacity.

 

When traveling to a new place it is so rewarding and incredibly interesting to learn some of the historical aspects of where you are visiting.  Not only is it valuable in terms of learning how certain areas were developed, but it also gives you an opportunity to view the area with an understanding on why it is the way it is: how the people and the land have been shaped: culturally, geographically and politically. Put your traveling shoes on.  JES

 

Off the Beaten Path:Kennecott Coppermine, Alaska

Nestled in the snow-capped Alaskan mountains of our largest National Park: Wrangell-St. Elias, stands the Kennecott Copper mine. Closed in 1938, it stands silent watch above the valley and steep drop offs that are common to the area.

When visiting the abandoned mine, the sheer majesty of its size gives you a whole new appreciation for the people who lived and worked here. The structure of the main mill, pictured here, has such an ominous presence that even if it is not haunted it still has an alarming presence that truly is awe-inspiring.The building of the mine itself, and the surrounding buildings supporting the workers, initially seemed to be  insurmountable tasks. To bring buildings materials in through the rugged mountain passes, the first priority was to build a railroad. In addition to helping construct the new city and mine, the copper ore was transported via railroad south to Cordova. When visiting Kennecott, I walked along the original rails that line up with the chutes, where the rock crusher spit out processed rock and ore that was further refined.

              Traces of past profits
Remnants of the tools that were used in the labor intensive process of mining are found strewn about the area. Here my son Dan surveys the rugged Wrangell Mountains while standing by an ancient rock crusher, circa early 1930’s. Also remnants of the life that was left behind after the mine closed are still visible and one gets a strange sensation that memories and spirits of the past still are present here.  It seems to have had more recent activity in the mine than the footsteps of tourists and it is hard to believe it closed more than 75 years ago.  Nevertheless, as one of those tourists, I found it a fascinating historical place to visit and taking in the natural beauty of the park was an inherent bonus.
National Park Service Site
The National Park Service acquired the mine in 1998 and the lands of the historic mining town of Kennecott.  The mine has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  On the Wrangell-St. Elias website: www.nps.gov/wrst life working in the mine is described: “Kennecott was a place of long hours and hard, dangerous work.  At the height of operation about six hundred men worked in the mines and mill town. Paying salaries higher than those found in the lower-48, Kennecott was able to attract men willing to live and work in this remote Alaskan mining camp…..Despite the dangers and grueling work, the Kennecott workers mined and concentrated at least $200 million worth of ore.”
The mine successfully ran for over 30 years, but was closed due to declining copper deposits and the high cost of railway maintenance.
  The Road Less Traveled
The mine is a fascinating place to visit because it is a demonstration of the tenacity and ingenuity of the human spirit. When traveling the McCarthy Road to get to the mine, you feel as if you are already on an adventure, and you sometimes have to reach into your own resolve when seeking this destination.

The McCarthy Road is 60 miles long and is a long gravel road. Here is a photo showing where the nice smooth pavement ends and the gravel road & imposing cliffs begin. It is intimidating when all the travel literature warns NOT to take rental cars on this road and other warnings for the faint of heart. It was a rough ride with several portions of the road demonstrating the “wash-board” effect, a series of tight ridges.  I give my sister-in-law, Christy, so much credit: she drove both in and out on this challenging stretch of road.  We took her mini-van, which worked well and we took it slowly.  That is key to surviving on this road without a flat tire or worse damage to your vehicle.  It is only 60 miles, but plan for about 3 hours. It is well worth the trip if you take your time.

You can see so much more when you are traveling at 30 mph as opposed to 65. Be sure to catch all the scenery and wildlife along the way and the views are spectacular. This is the Kuskalana Bridge, built in 1910, it spans 525 feet and sits at a height 238 feet above the river. An incredible building accomplishment and yes we drove across it. Having a little bit of a fear of heights (don’t we all to some extent) I had to hold my breath and somehow muster up the courage to take in the view.  Be courageous and take in the view, it’s worth it.  Put your traveling shoes on. JES