Monday, August 30, 2010

Alaska {3 of 6}: Denali & Our Furry Friends

Keep reading to hear more about the Denali Sled Dogs! {Friday, August 6th}
 2 administrative items before I delve into tonight's post:
  • I finally figured out how to fix the resolution issues I was having with our photos. It took some time, but I'm incredibly stubborn (just ask Matt), & I figured it out. I am a tad bit displeased with Blogger, but I'm glad I figured out a work around (editing HTML code - no fun). I went back & fixed Parts 1 & 2 so the photos should be a lot clearer than the original posts!
  • If you are extremely bored with our travel log, I apologize. This is an efficient way to share our stories & photos with everyone (family, especially) who has been asking "how was your trip?!? what did you do?!? did you see anything cool?!?" However, if you are the least bit interested & you are just now moseying over to Simply Suz, make sure to read Parts 1 & 2!
 Here's where we are on my little schedule.
  1. Journey to Alaska/Denali (Sunday) - Click here!
  2. Denali - Part 1 (Sunday) - Click here!
  3. Denali - Part 2 (Monday) - This post!
  4. Kenai - Part 1 (Tuesday)
  5. Kenai - Part 2 (Wednesday)
  6. Anchorage (Thursday)
Okay, now that admin is out of the way, here's the big bad bear post. Last night I mentioned running into some ground squirrels while hiking. Whoopdeedoo, right? I had conflicting feelings about being in the park for 5 days & still not seeing a bear. On one hand, we were so thankful not to have a surprise encounter with a grizzly while out in the wilderness. I would have peed my pants & given that we didn't have access to showers, that would not have been okay. On the other hand, everyone sees bears in Denali! My folks were in the park for 1 day & saw one!

It turns out, we were in luck Friday morning as we jumped on a bus to leave Wonder Lake & head back to the entrance for our remaining 2 days in Denali. At our first early morning pit stop at Eielson (remember our hike near Eielson to Thorofare Ridge from yesterday's post?), as soon as we stepped off of the bus, Matt nudged me & said, "Is that a bear?!" Sure enough, there he was, playing with some weather instruments (which I'd gander to be extremely expensive) in front of the Visitor Center like they were toys! I've got to give Matt gets mad props for being the first to spot him, we were all a little sleepy & that bear was a bit close for comfort. He grabbed our camera & we got a quick photo before we were ushered to the restrooms or back to the bus.
Early morning bear shenanigans {Friday, August 6th}
We split ways at this point & Matt went to use the men's room & I jumped on the bus. Matt, naturally, took the camera. Right about this point, the bear decided he wanted to see what was going on near the buses, so he climbs over the little wall (remember, Matt's in the bathroom with the camera), scratches himself on the handrail for awhile (RIGHT next to the bus) & then heads on over to some nice, presumably informative, interpretive signs. He knocks those over & then decides he's had enough fun destroying park property & wanders off. No photos of all of the bear's shenanigans folks, blame it on Matt's bladder. (In all fairness, once they went into the restrooms, someone from the Park Service made them stay in the building until the bear was off the premises!)

It wouldn't be the last bear we'd see that morning. On our bus drive out, we saw 6 bears! Our rambunctious friend at Eielson... These 2 bears who were going at it at blueberries (I did get to videotape these fellas making quick work of a blueberry patch)....
Bears & Blueberries {Friday, August 6th}
And a momma bear & 2 cubs! We never really saw the cubs bodies because they were hidden behind the brush, but occasionally we'd see dark bear paws fly up in the air (the younger they are the darker their coat is). These 2 cubs were rolling around, having a good old time.
Momma Bear & her Cubs - little dark feet next to Momma {Friday, August 6th}
We were in a fuzzy, furry mood, so when we got back to the Park Entrance, after we set up our tent at our new, posh campsite (showers, clean bathrooms & laundry, oh my!), we decided to watch the sled dog demonstration. Matt was in canine heaven.
Denali Sled Dog Kennels {Friday, August 6th}
A couple cool things about the kennels:
1. All of the dogs at the kennel are working dogs. That means when it starts to snow, those dogs are transporting supplies/rangers/researches/etc, throughout the park.
The sleds have definitely gotten a bit more advanced, but I liked the old wooden sleds best {Friday, August 6th}
 2. They encourage visitors to interact with the dogs. It's part of their training & socialization. That meant we could pet to our heart's content. The dogs really didn't even notice us.
Real-live-working-sled-dogs a.k.a. Denali National Park Employees {Friday, August 6th}
After our visit with the dogs, the demonstration was about to begin. A ranger shared a brief history of Alaskan sled dogs, their current role in the park operations, information on training the dogs, what happens when they retire, how they keep them fit & healthy, etc., etc. It was pretty interesting stuff. However, what was more interesting was the commotion going on in the kennels.

As soon as all of the visitors were ushered to the demonstration area & the ranger started his talk, something just flipped & they knew what was up next. The otherwise mellow dogs went nuts. Each dog barking louder than the next, vying for a turn to be on the team. It was insanity. I wish I would have recorded them. We could learn from them- they are trained & excited to do work! If only we could have the same enthusiasm for our jobs!!!

The demonstration was all of about 20 seconds. The team of 5 pulled a ranger around a short course... & let me tell you, they were quick!  (My photos weren't too fabulous, so these are the "after" shots.)
Sled dog demonstration {Friday, August 6th}
These are some excited dogs! {Friday, August 6th}
All in all it was a really fun afternoon activity. One other fun of the dogs was preggo &  had gone into labor that day. She was cordoned off, pacing around. We found out the next day she had puppies that night! So cool!
Dreaming we were leading a team of sled dogs ... in summer weather, of course {Friday, August 6th}

On Saturday, we woke up & decided to squeeze in a couple more hikes before we said 'sianara' to Denali, & more importantly, before we got our all important shower of the week! (I'm holding up "5s" for 5 showers! Eek!)
We decided to stick to the Park Entrance, as there were several trails just a hop, skip & jump away from our campground. We hiked first to the Mount Healy Overlook. Though not particulary long (only 5 miles roundtrip), it was a respectable hike, with some decent elevation gain (1,700 ft) & what would have been a great view if it weren't so cloudy & rainy that day!
Cloudy day at Mount Healy Overlook {Saturday, August 7th}
We also did some shorter, flatter trails, including this one to Horseshoe Lake.
Horseshoe Lake {Saturday, August 7th}
After we had stretched our legs enough for the day, we snapped a quick photo at the entrance (gotta have one of these for your scrap book!)
The all important photo album shot .. Matt wasn't keen on jumping up on the sign {Saturday, August 7th}
...And took our much needed showers! I think that was the best $8 bucks we'd spent on the trip thus far! They didn't have time limits on the showers & I think Matt & I each spent a solid 45 minutes getting clean! That evening I did laundry & Matt headed into town to take care of business (Reply to some dental school interview requests! yippee! &, more importantly, buy me an Alaskan Amber... a girl deserves a beer after a week in the wilderness, no?)
So fresh & so clean! All showered up! {Saturday, August 7th}
We'd wake up bright & early the next morning for our very long drive to the Kenai Peninsula (I use the word "we" very loosely. Matt drove, I co-piloted). You'll have to check back tomorrow to hear about Kenai....that is if I can keep this blogging streak alive! Until then...Good night!

Alaska {2 of 6}: Denali

As promised, another post about our week in Denali. I started this blog process tonight by picking all of the photos to post, & I think I hit my max at three days (Tuesday 8/3, Wednesday 8/4 & Thursday 8/5). I'll have to hit the highlights from Friday 8/6 & Saturday 8/7 tomorrow!

If you missed part one of this recap, click here. Let's pick up where we left off, shall we?

We allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in on Tuesday morning, after our long day of travel & late night at the Reflection Pond. We were pleased to see McKinley still visible when we ventured outside of our tent. Another beautiful day!
McKinley in the morning {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Good morning! View from our campsite - thanks to our sweet gorillapod! {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Over breakfast, we met some friendly Californians who had spent the previous day in hiking near Kantishna, the end of the road. For the record - Denali is HUGE. The park is over 6 million acres, & when you include the preserve, you're looking at an area the size of Massachusetts. The 91 mile park road only hits a small portion of the park. We decided that if we were going to make it all the way to mile 85 (Wonder Lake)- we might as well trek to Kantishna. Their suggestion sounded great - it involved minimal bus time (we were sick of cars/buses by then), would allow us to hike in view of McKinley, & we would get the full Denali Park Road experience!

We ventured off that morning towards Kantishna, & decided to jump on a bus if one passed us on our way. While we moseyed toward Kantishna, we picked & ate blueberries (yum! all berries in the park are edible - though not all quite as tasty at the blueberries), enjoyed little lakes & ponds along the way (isn't the Alaskan cotton in this next photo gorgeous) & warmed up for what would be a serious hike ahead of us.
Alaska cotton. Grows well in wet ground. Found near lakes/ponds {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Something else that made our Denali experience unique from any other National Park is the lack of hiking trails. There are several trails near the park entrance, but the deeper you get into the park, the fewer trails are available. So what's are you to do? Hike off-trail. The park encourages it, and it's an amazing way to explore the tundra. Our hike in Kantishna (technically, Wickersham Dome) was a bit of a hybrid, we started & ended on trails, but there was a lot of scrambling & figuring it out for ourselves in the middle portion.

When we got to the ridgeline of Wickersham Dome, we were treated to some stunning views of the Alaska range, including McKinley, which was slowly disappearing behind the clouds, the Kantishna hills on the opposite side - tundra as far as you can see, & we even spotted a caribou on this hike!
View of McKinley from Wickersham Dome {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Wonder Lake to my left; McKinley to my right, Moose Creek in the valley below {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Another challenging aspect of hiking in Denali is the tundra! Growing up in Florida, I know how difficult running/walking on the sand can be. Beach runs are killer, but nothing compares to hiking on the tundra. The elevation gain is one thing, it's an entirely different story when you add marshmallow like ground beneath your feet. Every step you sink into the spongy tundra below.
Kantishna Hills & Tundra Underfoot {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Wickersham Dome Ridgeline - Happy to be heading DOWN {Tuesday, August 3rd}
On Wednesday, we hiked the McKinley Bar trail...twice (I'll get to why we did it twice later). We were a wee bit sore after our hike at Wickersham, so the 6 mile roundtrip (starting at our campsite) hike sounded like just the ticket for a relatively relaxing day. We figured we could spend the rest of the day exploring Wonder Lake & maybe even squeeze in a nap!

The gravel river bar is at the base of the glaciers below Mount McKinley. To get to it, you hike through spruce forests & bogs -- a great opportunity to see some pretty wildflowers & tons of mushrooms (Alaska has an impressive variety of mushrooms). Once you get to the river, you're pretty much as close to the mountain as you're going to get (although, McKinley was hidden behind the clouds by Wednesday):
McKinley Bar {Wednesday, August 4th}

My favorite part of the hike were the gorgeous wildflowers, berries & mushrooms.

When we got done with the hike & back to the lake, we laid down on some benches to relax & perhaps squeeze in a nap. As I took off my Mountainsmith bag, I realized that the shoulder strap, which I had taken off earlier in the day because it was rubbing on my neck, wasn't tucked into the side pocket where I had put it. When I hike, I like to wear the bag around my waist (I know, I know...very fanny pack-esque, but it's way way more comfortable).

Frustrated, but convinced that it had to have fallen out somewhere on our hike, we turned right around & spent the rest of the afternoon hiking the entire trail, scouring for my shoulder strap. We never did find it, nor did we get that nap we were so looking forward to! So much for an easy-peasy day, 12 miles later!
Before I realized my Mountainsmith strap was gone {Wednesday, August 4th}
On Thursday, we jumped on a bus and headed back to mile 66 to the Eielson Visitor Center. It was so gorgeous when we stopped there on the way to Wonder Lake, we decided we'd explore the ridges & river bars in that region of the park.

We first hit up Thorofare Ridge, a short but steep hike from the Visitors Center. You gain about 1,000 feet in only 1 mile, but it's worth the quick climb. Below us on either side of the Ridge, we enjoyed views of the gorgeous glaciers, mountains & tundra.
View from Thorofare Ridge {Thursday, August 5th}
The other side of Thorofare Ridge {Thursday, August 5th}
Walking along the ridgeline - more spongy tundra {Thursday, August 5th}
My husband, the adventurer, determined to get the best view. {Thursday, August 5th}
Playing it safe while Matt's living on the edge (literally). One of us had to tell this story! {Thursday, August 5th}
My handsome, scruffy, hubby .... pondering life, or how freezing & windy it is! {Thursday, August 5th}
 On our way down, the threatening rain finally started to fall & we quickly found ourselves soaked. We couldn't have chosen a better spot for a rainy day: Eielson is the only true "shelter" past the park entrance, we hung out in the warm visitor center, dried off & waited for the rain to pass. It never really did clear up, so we ventured out again, this time opting to stay closer & explore the area around the river basin. We ran into a few furry creatures ...only ground squirrels! We would run into a much bigger furry fella the next morning at that very same spot, but you'll have to check the blog tomorrow to hear more about that encounter!
No ground squirrels were fed or harmed in the taking of this photograph {Thursday, August 5th}

Some of you might be wondering about camping details. Let's call this next little section Camp & Hike FAQs:

Do you do any backcountry camping? Nope. Not because we wouldn't be up for the challenge, but because it requires a whole slew of gear we don't have & probably wouldn't use enough to justify investing in. Day hiking has never really limited what we've been able to see & experience. We've hiked 25 miles in a single day, without having to carry 40-50lbs on our back. Works for us! 

Do you have running water/amenities at your campsite? Sort of, though every campground is different. At each place we camped, we were spoiled with running water & flush toilets (hallelujah!). However, showers weren't typically part of the deal. Only one campground we stayed at (in 2 weeks) had showers. You just have to prepare yourself to be stinky (or to sleep next to someone stinky)....

How do you stay safe from bears?! We were really mindful of this, especially after the attacks out west that happened shortly before we left:
  • If you're car camping, you keep anything with any sort of scent in your car. That means food (obviously), toiletries, water bottles, clothing you wore while cooking, stoves, etc. At Wonder Lake, bear closets/lockers were provided where campers could store these items in a locked space far away from sleeping areas.
  • Also, everywhere we hiked, we carried bells. It got uber-annoying, but the key is not to surprise a bear (or moose). Making lots of noise is the best way to let them know you're there, & talking for 2 weeks straight with Matt is impractical, so we resorted to bells.
  • We also carried bear spray, which is basically pepper spray on steroids that you can use in the event that you were to run into an aggressive bear. Theoretically, even if we ran into a bear, the spray wouldn't be necessary. You are supposed to make yourself look large & very human (waving your hands above your head) & speaking calmly but firmly e.g. "Go away bear." The #1 rule is not to run & in some cases (depending on the bear), not to fight back! Since I'm not sure I'd have to presence of mind to act calmly/rationally in a bear encounter, we carried the bear spray. Thankfully, we didn't have to use it (probably because of the bells), but it did give us peace of mind!
What do you eat? We have a little stove, so we always ate hot meals for breakfast & dinner. For breakfast we're pretty boring: oatmeal & craisins, coffee for me & hot chocolate for Matt, every single day. Lunches were usually trail mix, granola/cliff bars, tortillas & peanut butter &/or applesauce. For dinners, we ate lots of pasta, rice, beans, canned vegetables, mac&cheese (my fave), soup (Bear Creek makes some awesome dried soups), instant potatoes, etc. There's enough variety to keep it different from night-to-night, but fresh food sure tastes good after 2 weeks of that!

Any favorite gear? After a week in mosquito-land, we loved our headnets. They looked nerdy, but no one wants a mosquito to bite your face. Those darn things bit through my socks.... vicious creatures! I also fell in love with my Buff. It's in almost every single photo of me over our 2 weeks (the red thing on my neck or hair). It's basically a glorified bandana: super quick drying, has UV protection, can be worn as a bandana (without having to tie & adjust all of the time - something I appreciated as a long-time bandana gal), or about 19 other ways ... I used it as a scarf when it got chilly!

What's the best/worst part of camping?
  • Best: Waking up to the gorgeous landscape.  Not worrying about make-up or checking emails or watching the morning news. Living simply.
  • Worst: Putting up or taking down a tent in the rain. We did both in Alaska... does not make for happy campers.
"Veiled" - Wearing our favorite head nets! Saved us from the killer mosquitos at Wonder Lake! {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Wonder Lake Campground  {Thursday, August 5th}
Yum! Enjoying some warm chili! Camp food isn't all that bad! {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Until tomorrow....

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Alaska {1 of 6}: Our Long Journey to Denali

My attempt at a panoramic of McKinley - 4 photos spliced together! {Monday, August 2nd}
It's been 2 whole weeks since we made it home from our amazing Alaska trip, so I figured it's about time to share our stories/photos with y'all in blogland! I could probably write a novel about our adventures & would like to show you all 900 of our photos, but I think I may lose some blog readers if I go that route.

So I've given myself an hour to give you a glimpse of our long journey to Denali National Park (& Preserve, if you want to get technical). I thought I could cover our entire week at the park, but I just don't think that's going to happen. If you know me at all, you won't be surprised that I like plans- so I'm laying out a schedule for the rest of the week... I don't know if I'll be able to keep to this sched, but I'll try my darndest!
  1. Journey to Alaska/Denali (Right now!)
  2. Denali - Part 1 (Tonight) here!
  3. Denali - Part 2 (Monday) here!
  4. Kenai - Part 1 (Tuesday) here!
  5. Kenai - Part 2 (Wednesday) here!
  6. Anchorage (Thursday) here!

Post blog update: This post took 2 hours due to all of the photos & some blogger technical issues.... if it takes me as much time the next go-around, I may not be able to stick to the schedule above!

To get to Denali, we had quite the road ahead of us. We left Saturday 7/31 and drove 2.5 hours to Charlotte (sidenote: on our way to Charlotte, a rock hit our windshield, cracking it. Awesome way to start the trip; I was convinced we were doomed). In Charlotte, we stayed with Vero Beach buddy, Ali, & then got up at the crack of dawn to catch our first flight. From Charlotte we flew in an itty-bitty plane to Memphis, then to Seattle, & finally to Anchorage. Luckily, the time zone changes (4 hours to be exact), worked in our favor flying west, so we got in at a reasonable hour, picked up our rental car, & drove an hour north to Wasilla.

In Wasilla, we loaded up on food & supplies at the Fred Meyer (Awesome store! Why don't they have Freds in the lower 48?!) - Cliff bars, trail mix, nonperishables, bear bells, bear spray, mosquito head nets & a few odds & ends we either didn't have or didn't pack with us.  We stayed in a hotel (LUXURY!), took the only shower we would take for the rest of the week, & tried to get some must needed rest after our marathon day(s) of travel.

Monday morning, we picked up our two big footlocker boxes at the Post Office that we shipped weeks ahead of time that had all of our clothes / gear (after all of my worrying - they arrived - hallelujah!), & hit the road. It took four more hours to drive to Denali & then we jumped on a bus for another 5+ hour drive to our campsite.

Our drive to Denali was rainy & gloomy. I knew that bad weather was to be expected, but I was a little bummed. Thankfully, our luck changed almost instantly as we approached the Park when the sun decided to peak out. Oh happy day...
Almost to Denali National Park! {Monday, August 2nd}
As I mentioned earlier, we had to leave our car at the park entrance & bus it to our campsite. Denali only lets visitors drive about 15 miles into the park. You have to jump on one of their school buses to venture any further. The road turns from pavement to dirt and isn't suited for a ton of traffic. I think it's a genius idea, and really makes the experience that much more wild & unique than any other National Park we've visited.
Waiting for our chariot, the Camper Bus, at the Denali Park Entrance {Monday, August 2nd}
We only had to drive 85 miles to Wonder Lake, where we'd be camping for the next 5 days, but the trip took over 5 hours. We didn't mind - we felt like we were on a mini-safari. Driving through entirely different landscapes, seeing all sorts of creatures (Caribou, moose & bears on our trip out of the park) & getting a pretty decent commentary on the history & life of the park from our bus driver (Sidenote - the commentary from the driver was great. The fact that he knowingly left 2 passengers who were late at one of our pitstops was not so cool). Here are a few photos from our bus ride.

Some of these photos are fuzzy on the blog - not sure why because they are clear on my end. What gives, blogger?!?! Try clicking on the photo to open in a new window for a clearer view:
Our trusty camper bus at one of our pitstops {Monday, August 2nd}
View from the camper bus {Monday, August 2nd}
One of many caribou sitings {Monday, August 2nd}
Wish I could remember the name of this awesome spot {Monday, August 2nd}
The pitstop where 2 poor passengers got left behind {Monday, August 2nd}
Caribou antlers {Monday, August 2nd}
View from the Eielson Visitor Center, Mile 66 {Monday, August 2nd}
Fully intact moose skull & antlers at Eielson {Monday, August 2nd}
We finally arrived at Wonder Lake Campground at about 7 pm. We set up our tent in the mosquito-infested campground (if it wasn't such a gorgeous spot, it would have been horrible), made dinner & were ready to call it a night. Given that we checked out of our hotel & hit the road at 6am, we were tired & ready for bed. The weather had something else in mind.... At about 9:30-10pm, the clouds cleared & we got our first glimpse of McKinley. Wonder Lake is the closest campground to McKinley...only 26 miles from the mountain, allowing for some awesome views right from your tent!
Well, hello, Mt. McKinley / View from Wonder Lake Campground {Monday, August 2nd}
If you've been following the blog, you already got to see my 2 favorite photos of McKinley, which were taken at the Reflection Pond about 3 miles from our campsite. If not, do yourself a favor & click here. McKinley is truly breathtaking & what we saw was pretty darn special. It rained almost every day in July, and the mountain was only visible for a couple of days (& even then, the mountain rarely stays free of clouds all day/night). According to the Ranger, that evening was THE BEST night of the summer. To get that view, at night, when the sun was setting, was truly a special gift. We were thankful!
Mt. McKinley at Reflection Pond {Monday, August 2nd}
I mentioned alpenglow in my previous post about McKinley, but I thought I'd give you a quick explanation on why you see the pink on the mountain (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Alpenglow (from German: Alpengl├╝hen) is an optical phenomenon. When the Sun is just below the horizon, a horizontal red glowing band can sometimes be observed on the opposite horizon. Alpenglow is easiest to observe when mountains are illuminated but can also be observed when the sky is illuminated through backscattering. Since the Sun is below the horizon, there is no direct path for the light to reach the mountain. Instead, light reflects off airborne snow, water, or ice particles low in the atmosphere. It is this circumstance that separates a normal sunrise or sunset from alpenglow.
11:30pm sunset opposite the Alaska range {Monday, August 2nd}
Alpenglow on the Alaska range {Monday, August 2nd}
We hiked back to our campsite & hit the sack, exhausted but elated after our long day. This photo was taken without any flash at midnight (hence the "1" & "2" I'm holding up). Talk about confusing your internal clock!
Nighty night - midnight in Alaska {Monday, August 2nd ....or technically, early morning August 3rd}
That's all for now, folks. Stay tuned for more Alaska stories....
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