Woke up at 5:30 this morning and stopped in Cantwell to do laundry and shower (so nice!). Planned to take a couple of days driving across the Denali Highway, but the Alaska DOT no longer maintains the dirt road, and only ten miles into it I popped a tire. Drove the remaining 125 miles through bright reds and yellows on the tundra, but didn’t stop anywhere for too long as I was nervous about not having another spare. The plan is to fix the tire first thing in the morning, and after that depends on what the morning brings.
I’m watching the northern lights for the first time in my life, and I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep tonight. There are a small number of events in this world that people always take the time to stop what they’re doing and admire — sunsets, rainbows, fireworks — the northern lights definitely belong in that group. They’re one of those things that until you see them you simply have no concept that beauty of that kind exists — I’ve seen photos and videos, but actually watching the entire night sky bend and twist with myriad lights, almost like the afterimage of some heavenly fire, is an experience unlike anything I could have imagined.
Another excellent day — absolutely perfect weather, which was much appreciated after the recent rain. Woke up, threw on my last pair of dry socks, and within a half hour of starting out hiking came across an enormous bull moose — he was like an elephant with antlers. I watched him from about fifty yards, and given the generally open terrain and his constant grunts I had no desire to get any closer. It was still very cool, although I somehow lost him after less than an hour — he wandered off, I tried to follow, but between the high willow and trying to make sure I didn’t get too close he disappeared. Any pride I had in my tracking ability is gone.
Hiked a bit more, accidentally spooked a fox on the way back to camp, packed up my tent, and then began heading back along the park road. The plan was to hike for maybe ten miles and then catch a camper bus, but after about four miles I stumbled upon a grizzly next to the road eating blueberries. Not wanting to either get too close or to have to bushwhack around him I waited for him to head off, but after forty-five minutes discovered that this bear was apparently in the world’s best blueberry patch and wasn’t going anywhere. Hopped on the next bus and got some photos of the grizzly at short range from the safety of the vehicle. A few Dall sheep ewes later made an appearance right along the road (probably five feet from the bus) and another grizzly showed up at a distance, and then it was back to the Subaru and time for warm stew, which after five days of peanuts and dried pineapple tasted utterly delicious.
Mostly spending the day hanging out by the beaver ponds and trying to dry out after yesterday’s soaking. There was some sun early in the morning, but it has since gotten cloudy and considerably colder. A bit of hiking might be nice, but after yesterday I’m rather concerned about the number of clouds hanging across the horizon.
Three caribou came through my campsite last night, passing within fifty feet of my tent. It was pretty neat. There’s also a family of at least three beavers who let me know any time something comes near their pond by slapping their tails against the water. Kind of a cool spot to be camped in.
Wet and cold, but surprisingly not unhappy. My permit required me to move to a new area today, but given the weather I was going to stay put and only after a long break in the rain decided to move on. The weather break turned out to be temporary, and shortly after getting on my way it was raining again — backpacking through waist-high brush in a cold rain is no fun, and I was soaked in a very short time. However, as things were becoming completely miserable a flock of perhaps two hundred sandhill cranes flew by overhead, I saw two big bull moose rutting with one another, and when finally I’d reached the area my permit was for I found an idyllic little spot on a hilltop between two beaver ponds to pitch the tent, so while today was a rough one, it would be tough to call it a bad day.
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”
— Douglas Adams
The night’s camping spot is a few miles east from the terminus of the thirty-two mile long Muldrow Glacier and along the McKinley Bar, a mile-wide expanse of gravel, mud, and meltwater that extends from the terminus of the glacier. A caribou was crossing the many channels of the bar earlier today, and twice had to swim through deep, fast-moving water, and many, many times had to wade across channels that often were as deep as its shoulder.
Today has been a good day — sun in the morning, views of the mountain while on the bus out here, and then perhaps eight miles of hiking before clouds moved in and I set up camp. I’m almost afraid to get in the tent and go to sleep for fear of missing something — I was lucky to see the caribou, and can only guess at what else might pop out of the brush as the evening wears on.
I didn’t get out of Fairbanks until 10:00 last night, and after driving fifty miles with the moose rutting season beginning and the conditions dark, rainy and foggy I decided it wasn’t worth risking either the life of a moose or the Subaru, and pulled off the road for the evening. Spent almost two hours reading through e-mails and catching up on news that I downloaded while in Fairbanks — thanks to everyone who wrote, it’s definitely nice to find out what’s happening back at home. The saga caused by my lack of wool socks was especially amusing — the Fairbanks K-Mart luckily solved the sock dilemna, so hopefully everyone can once again sleep soundly 😉
The intention today was to only do a short bit of hiking, but after starting out I spotted five caribou about two miles away and decided to go and hang out with them. Without realizing I was doing it I started giving them names, and after a couple of hours Scooby and Darlene had gotten comfortable enough with me around that they wandered to within about twenty-five feet. The big bull that was leading the group, Melvin, was a bit grumpier, and refused to let me or any of the other caribou get too close to him.
Tomorrow I’m going out for five days of backpacking, starting near the terminus of the Muldrow glacier and heading towards Wonder Lake. The fall colors have gotten even more spectacular, so unless the weather turns really bad it should be a memorable time.
Did just a short bit of hiking near Savage river this morning looking for caribou, but they were in hiding. Despite having good weather yet again I needed to get a few things so I left the park early in the afternoon and headed up to Fairbanks to re-supply. While here I grabbed a shower, which was very a good thing. There was a mirror in the shower place, and I’m definitely looking lean — it was actually a bit of a surprise seeing my own reflection as I didn’t think I’d been losing weight.
I ran into the guys who had been volunteering in Juneau for a third time today at the park visitor center — if I believed in fate I would send in my application for their volunteer program immediately, but as it is I’m still strongly considering it.
Any grievances I had against the weather gods are completely forgiven after the past three days. Woke up this morning with not a cloud in the sky — the mountain stood out perfectly, and I grabbed a camera and headed out to grab some photos of Denali reflected from the lake. In the afternoon I did a bit of hiking down the McKinley Bar trail to the hugely braided river at the base of the Muldrow glacier. It was odd — having a trail actually somewhat lessens the nature experience since suddenly there is a path and a destination, and constantly stopping to pick out a route, and thus take in the surroundings, is no longer required.
Caught the last camper bus of the day and rode back with two of the individuals who had been on the bus out to Wonder Lake, and later we picked up a hiker who turned out to be the driver from the bus ride two days ago. The two guys on the bus had been volunteering in Juneau for the past year and filled me with tales of life in Juneau, salmon, kayaking, and other good things. Something to consider.
A last, rather random story, but a lot of older people at the campground were talking about seeing the northern lights last night. One fellow was saying “I got up at 11:00 but didn’t see them, but they were out at 1:00 and 3:30.” Another individual gave me a similar story, and then a third. I was amazed that so many people were getting up to check on the lights, and said so to the third individual, to which he replied “Shoot, I didn’t get up looking for the lights, it’s my bladder that gets me up every few hours.”
Robert Frost had two trails in a yellow wood to choose from — up here there are no trails, and I think it makes the experience even better. The weather was again sunny and dry today, and I took advantage by spending ten hours out roaming around Wonder Lake. Started out up a high ridge above the lake and spent tons of time roaming through the tundra, eating wild blueberries, and investigating the many kettle ponds — at a particularly nice pond I settled down in the moss for a nap, and when I woke up felt so relaxed that I immediately took another. By the afternoon it had warmed up so much that I was in just a t-shirt whenever there was enough breeze to keep the insects at bay. Everywhere I went I was surrounded by signs of moose, grizzly and wolves, but only when I crossed the park road at the north end of the lake did I see or hear any other people. When coming back along the east side of the lake I stuck close to the water, and was moseying along until a thunderstorm snuck up behind me. After that I set a new speed record for tundra traversal as I put it into high gear back to my camping spot, beating the storm by less than ten minutes. I’m physically worn out, but it has been a thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable day.
The only way that days get better than today is when they’re shared, so hopefully everyone can at least somewhat share today with me by reading this log. I woke up at 1:00 AM last night and saw stars in the sky for the first time in weeks. Got up to search for the northern lights, and while there was a glow in the southeast it may have only been moonlight reflecting off of high clouds. Woke up early this morning to board the first camper bus out to Wonder Lake — the road through Denali is closed past Savage River so buses are the only way to travel further. On the trip through the park we saw several animals including a bull moose (the moose count now stands at five), a fox, and two grizzly bears. One of the grizzlies was digging for roots along a stream and worked his way to within ten feet of the bus — I could make out every single hair on his immense body. It was an awesome experience.
After arriving at Wonder Lake the sun came out for the first time in ages, and Denali (Mt. McKinley) began to peek out — the mountain hasn’t been out from behind the clouds in at least a week, and is usually only visible a few days a month, yet for the whole afternoon I had at least a partial view of the entire north face — it’s an amazingly beautiful mountain that dwarfs everything around it. I spent seven hours roaming through the tundra, eating wild blueberries, and lying down in meadows watching the scenery. Sandhill cranes were calling out (next to wolves and loons, one of the most stirring sounds I’ve heard in the wild) and the trails I occasionally followed were filled with moose tracks, but no footprints. The day ended with two and a half pounds of warm stew, and now I’m curled up comfortably in my tent waiting for what tomorrow might bring.
“Boredom, Tyler. Boredom, that’s what’s wrong. And how do you beat boredom? Adventure, Tyler. Adventure!”
— Never Cry Wolf
The weather was actually reasonably good this morning, so I again set out for Savage River and hiked back into the same general area where I went yesterday. There were five caribou back there this time, but the group was very skittish and seemed to be nervous even when I was two hundred yards away, so I let them be.
Spent almost five hours out hiking on the tundra. There are no maintained trails, so to get around I either had to find my own trail or follow the game trails. The fall colors were great, and having the entire countryside to myself was definitely a nice thing. Twice today I had to ford a stream, but after yesterday’s lesson I avoided missteps and didn’t end up taking any unforeseen plunges. Storms moved in during the late afternoon so the day ended early, but it’s nevertheless been another good one.
It turns out that Savage River parallels the park road, and while hiking I noticed that a lot of people were stopping their cars and staring out in my direction (“Stop the RV, Earl! What sort of weird-lookin’ critter is that?”) so I decided to cross to the opposite side of the river and head away from the road. The water was full of silt, and the next time I attempt to ford a river in Alaska I’ll remember to first check the depth in places where I can’t see the bottom.
Once on the other side of the river I started out across a thicket and nearly walked in amongst a group of four big caribou before noticing them resting about a hundred yards away. It took about twenty minutes for them to get completely comfortable with having me around, but after that they pretty much ignored my existence, occasionally grazing to within about sixty feet of me. It was another very cool experience — having four caribou, including one huge old bull, wandering around that close to me is something I’ll remember for a long time to come.
After a few hours the rain got heavier so I left the caribou and started back, and an hour or so later I arrived at the Subaru thoroughly soaked but very happy.
Rain in the morning, so I slept late and then headed off to do laundry and take a shower. People really should build monuments to the inventor of the shower — warm and clean is a combination that is near impossible to beat.
The sky is completely full of low, grey clouds, leading me to think that it’s going to rain hard at any minute, but thus far there has only been drizzle. I’m going to tempt fate and set off for a hike upstream on Savage River — the trails all go downstream but I’m convinced there are caribou hiding in the thickets upstream. Hopefully the weather gods will be kind and forgo soaking me and my now clean and dry clothes.
An unexpectedly great day. Woke up to drizzle and headed off to Savage River with low expectations. While trying to find a better angle to photograph a waterfall I started making my way up a mountain slope, and as the weather was mostly dry I decided what the hell and kept going. After a bit of free-climbing and much bushwhacking through thickets I was near the top and spotted three Dall sheep rams — two of them with horns that made a complete loop plus some. After sitting and watching them for about an hour the oldest one got up and moved on, so I followed, only to discover that he had just gone about ten feet down a ledge — I nearly walked right on top of him. He ambled off, but when I again found him he gave me the once over, then came within fifty feet of me and laid down! We ended up sticking together for most of the afternoon, with two golden eagles flying by occasionally to check on things. Aside from a few planes passing overhead it was a completely magical time.
At the end of the day the sheep and I finally parted ways, and the hike down the mountain again involved much bushwhacking through thickets. After driving back to my “camping” spot near the highway I sat down to warm food — it was tremendous to once again eat food that wasn’t cold, and it could have even been hot food had I not been too hungry to cook it longer. Life is most definitely good.
Moose! Finally! A mother and her calf appeared along the road in Denali and then wandered to within six feet of my passenger window. They were so close that I could not only tell the mother’s eyes were bloodshot, but I could see the individual blood vessels.
Tons of rain today, although I still did a bit of hiking along Savage River in Denali. After a morning in Fairbanks the car has fresh oil and the tire is patched, so all is well. Also, the day’s most important discovery, surpassing even the moose sighting, was butane for my stove at the Denali mercantile. There will be no more cold soup — the next time I eat canned soup it will be warm, oh yes.
Arrived in Alaska today after driving the “Top of the World” Highway from Dawson City. After about 75 miles the spare-tire-in-can® sprung a leak, so I was forced to go to the more reliable spare-tire-from-the-trunk®. Also of note is that my supposed alignment trouble turned out to be nothing more than unbalanced tires — despite the fact that I used $6 worth of pressure wash yesterday trying to get all of the mud out of the tires, enough remained to seriously throw them out of balance. $4 more pressure wash allowed me to drive at fifty without too much shaking (improved from thirty before washing), although I finally had to take each individual tire off of the car and chisel out the remaining mud with a screwdriver before I could get up to highway speeds.
The first stop in Alaska was Fairbanks to patch the tire and get an oil change. I arrived too late to do either, and was going to stay outside of town, but instead opted to visit Alaska Land and their salmon bake. Three salmon fillets, fifteen halibut chunks, and two plates of blueberries later I’m feeling quite happy. The “camping” spot for the night is the parking lot of the K-Mart, so I’m hoping that the cops won’t feel the need to patrol the lot tonight.
More wet weather this morning so I made the decision to start back to Dawson City. Went slowly, enjoying the fall colors and the occasional sun. Spotted two river otters who were kind of hunting for fish, but mostly just playing along the river, and couldn’t help but smile while watching them.
Visions of hot food were dancing in my head as I got closer to Dawson City, and I probably started driving too fast given the wet dirt road. As a result, after getting to Dawson City I heard air coming from one of my tires, and my spare-tire-in-a-can® is now all used up. The car is still having issues however — any time I go over thirty it begins shaking, so I’m guessing my alignment is hosed as well and I’ll be spending some time at the local garage tomorrow before heading on. On a side note, washing all of the mud off of the car took twenty minutes — I had almost forgotten that the Subaru wasn’t brown.
Hopefully I’ll be able to return to the Dempster on the way home as the countryside is beyond incredible, and by October the 130,000 member Porcupine caribou herd should be returning for the winter (see http://www.taiga.net/satellite/index.html). Anyone coming up here who has the time, consider driving at least the first hundred miles — you won’t regret it.
After snowing very early this morning the day has been one without precipitation, and the sun has even made appearances on several occasions. As a result the entire day has been filled with roaming across the tundra, hiking up mountains, taking photos, and making the acquaintance of the largest (and sleepiest) porcupine I’ve ever seen. The only downside of dry weather is that the local black fly population has come out to play, but a mosquito net kept them more or less at bay.
Coffee again at the Eagle Lodge, and it tasted even better this time. Also splurged and at the Arctic Circle crossing used some of my dwindling butane to cook the day’s meal — hot chili definitely hit the spot after almost a week of cold soup.