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August 21, 2014

Our tour of Denali National Park began at seven a.m. We piled into a green-painted school bus and headed north, paralleling the Alaskan range, with a very knowledgeable naturalist, Sonya, as our guide. Our route followed a valley dug by a massive glacier millennia ago.  The valley’s center was wetland and taiga forest, while sheer mountains bordered on either side

We hadn’t driven more than ten miles before we encountered our first moose.

She was beside the road, feeding, and when we stopped, she walked across the road to the other side. We took countless pictures, since we figured this might be the only moose we saw that day. A few miles down the road, however, we saw three more moose, all female, and witnessed some belligerent behavior as they apparently disagreed about something. We saw several more moose, ten or eleven in total before the day was done.

Moose2

Moose 1

 

Moose 1

Moose 2

We headed further north west, deeper into the park and began climbing up a pass between two craggy peaks. From the pass, we could lookat the glacial valley from a higher elevation, and appreciate better the entire Alaskan Range. We also caught a glimpse of Mount Denali (the politically correct name for Mount McKinley), which is often obscured by clouds and invisible to tourists. We had a mile-and-a-half long walk to an almost-dry riverbed and saw large amounts of moose skat and even some bear skat on the trail. Sonya was able to identify a several Arctic birds and lots of interesting plants, including some blooming fireweed, a plant that blooms about six weeks before the first snows. On the way back, we saw some Dall sheep in the distance, at the top of one of the peaks. I saw one caribou in a river. No bears, though.

Sonya left us at our lodge, transferring us back to Chuck’s care. We boarded another bus to drive back to Talkeetna, the town upon which “Northern Exposure” was based. Chuck kept up an entertaining banter as we drove back to Talkeetna. The high point of the trip back was seeing an even better view of Mount Denali from a restaurant/rest stop near Talkeetna. We felt lucky, because many visitors never see Mount Denali during their visits. That was, however, nowhere near to being our best view of the day.

We checked into the Talkeetna Lodge, and a half hour later, met a van that took us to the K-2 airlines office, where we caught a plane that took us into the glacier valleys that are surrounded by Mount Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter, three of the largest mountains in the Alaska Range.

Jeff Babcock, our guide and pilot was very experienced, having flown for Alaska’s governor for many years before going private. Yes, he did fly Sarah Palin, but after he’d left the state job. The weather was perfect, with sun showing on brilliant white snow. We flew past one spectacular mountain view after another, seeing sheer cliffs, craggy arêtes, and dozens of huge glaciers before finally landing on one.

He landed us on the Kahiltna base camp glacier, where he normally lands mountain climbers who are about to attempt climbs of Mt. McKinley or one of the other peaks in the neighborhood. This late in the season, the base camp was deserted, but we could see dimples in the snow where tents had been a few weeks before. The landing was surprisingly smooth, no more bumpy than if we had landed on a runway.

Howie  I on glacier

On the glacier. Mt. McKinley in the background

The glacier we found ourselves upon was gorgeous, packed with brilliant white snow. The temperature was mild, probably just around zero Celsius, and the wind was minimal, so we were very comfortable.

The three mountains surrounding us, Mount McKinley, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter are respectively 20,320, 17,400, and 14,573 feet high, Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in North America, but Mount Saint Elias in the Yukon is higher than Mount Foraker at 18, 008, so Mount Foraker is the third highest. Mount Hunter is tenth in height in North America. For comparison, Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States is 14,505 feet tall, Mount Rainier is a mere 14,409 feet in height, and Pike’s Peak is 14,114 feet high.

Mount McKinley

Plane Glacier

The Kahiltna glacier with Mount McKinley in the background

We spent a half hour taking pictures of each other and the mountains that surrounded us before taking off again, circling Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker before following the Ruth Glacier from its origin at the Don Sheldon Amphitheatre to its foot. The glacier was brilliant white at the top but became progressively more brown as it ran downhill and carried portions of the mountains with it. As it ran around corners, it cracked, resulting in deep crevasses. By the time we came to the foot of the glacier, it was as dark as the rock that surrounded it, and the runoff from its melting resulted in a river that was milky green.

We returned to the airport and from there to the hotel, where we had a marvelous meal before calling it a night.