(1st in a series of 3 posts on Alaska travel)
After a year in Texas it was time to visit the state that had done more to injure Texans’ pride than any other, Alaska. It is by far the largest state in the US, with President Dwight Eisenhower signing the Alaska Statehood Act in July 1958. This was my 50th state to visit, a goal I set as a young adult.
We had prepared for the trip by taking an informal evening course on Alaska travel at the University of Texas. The instructor, who had been there seven times, contradicted what most of our friends who had visited Alaska had told us. He said, “If you want to see Alaska, don’t take a cruise up the Inside Passage. If you do, you’ll see only about ten percent of what you should see. Fly to Anchorage, rent a car, and drive.”
So we took this advice, but instead of renting a car and staying in motels, we rented a small recreational vehicle (RV) so we could travel without worrying about finding a place to stay at the end of each day. If convenient, we would stay in RV parks with water and electric hookups, and if not we would pull off the road in quiet places—and Alaska has plenty of those—to spend the night.
Denali National Park was our first destination after pulling out of Anchorage. Visitors are required to take a shuttle bus into the park from the visitors’ center. There are several reasons for this policy, one of which is to minimize the number of people eaten by grizzlies.
We traveled to the interior of the park to the Eielson Visitor Center, with an up-close view of Mt. McKinley on a nearly picture-perfect day, a 132-mile round trip. Mt. McKinley and its accompanying snow-shrouded peaks were sparkling in the sun, with their clouds masking the summit of the big guy. As we shuttled to and from this terminus, I’ve never heard so many “Look at that!” directives from one traveler to another on any other trip. People were bouncing off the interior windows of the shuttle bus like mosquitoes inside a jar.
We saw twelve grizzly bears, some so close we could see the saliva on their tongues, as chills went up our spines—inside the bus! Our driver said the most grizzlies he had seen on a single day was thirteen, and he had been driving that shuttle for over fifteen years. We also saw three moose, dozens of caribou, a similar number of Dall sheep with their magnificent horns and stately gazes, and a dazzling late summer landscape of small shrubs, flowers, and grasses across the tundra, spectacular in their yellows, golds, and reds.
Near the edge of the park two days later, we hiked a trail in a warm gentle rain near the Savage River Bridge along the wooded river bank where gold and mottled aspen leaves silently glided to the ground. In the middle of an elk-rutting area, we heard a lovelorn bull elk trumpeting loudly from across the valley. At some level we felt we were intruding, so we turned and walked back the other direction. We also did not think it was a good idea to get caught between a receptive cow elk and an amorous bull elk.
There’s no place like Denali National Park. It’s wildness–vibrant landscapes, teeming wildlife, mountain ranges, and rivers swollen by snowmelt and disappearing glaciers–is simply incomparable. I deleted the adjective unspoiled in front of “landscapes” just above, because vanishing glaciers are diminishing the grandeur of Alaska.
As the glaciers wither, I wonder in retrospect if humanity will continue to dither on the greatest threat, not only to Alaska, but to the world. Inertia can be, and often is, deadly.
If you haven’t been to Alaska, put it on your bucket list. The glaciers won’t wait forever. Nor will we.
Alaska—North to Fairbanks, South to Valdez (2nd in a series of 3 posts)
Alaska—The Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage (3rd in a series of 3 posts)