Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Talkeetna to Denali Park; McKinley Views All the Way

Mt McKinley in the cloud
            With a Talkeetna Roadhouse breakfast under our belts we headed for the Parks Highway and our next stop, Denali National Park. Denali is anchored by 20,000 foot Mt. McKinley, which is the target of hundreds of “wanna be” climbers each year. McKinley may be the highest but it is surrounded by other mountains of the Alaska Range that present an incredible vista you as you head north. Alaska has no shortage of impressive mountain peaks.
Since McKinley weather is notoriously fickle we stop at every opportunity to take “just one more picture” in case the clouds beat us to the park. We now have a goodly supply of photos of the big mountain.
Denali Park is special since most is preserved as wilderness; a single 90 mile road carves into the park and traffic is very restricted. During the summer season most guests must leave their cars outside and enter the park on a school bus for the park tour. We are the lucky ones. The buses are not running yet and visitors are scarce so we are permitted to drive 30 miles into the park. Having ridden the bus on a previous visit we really appreciated that opportunity.Views are expansive—though not of the cloud covered mountain. We are told of bears, caribou, wolves and sheep that have been seen from the road by visitors that day. We had to settle for a single moose visible only with good binoculars. But the views are worth the trip.
Caribou spotted outside of the park
Like so many places we’ve visited, the tourist facilities are just waking up. Hotels, shops and restaurants that will be crowded with cruise ship passengers in a few weeks are, like the bears of Denali, slowly coming out of hibernation.
While some park facilities are open year around, to facilitate winter camping, most businesses abandon the place. Average January temperatures of -7 degrees tend to drive summer workers to warmer climates.
Today the trek north continues with stops in Healy, Nanana and Fairbanks, the gritty “capital” of the interior

Flashback, a story of Healy Alaska, near Denali Park: The winter of 1941 my mother-in-law and her husband, Lt. Marvin Walseth, were stationed at Ladd Field, Fairbanks, Alaska. Walseth, an Army Air Corp pilot, shared this story in a letter to his father.

One winter morning Walseth’s commander and friend, Major Dale Gaffney, left Ladd in a single seat fighter plane for a 300 mile flight to Anchorage. His route would take him over a pass in the Alaska Range just south of the current Denali Park. As he approached the pass clouds descended and he decided to land while he could still see. The nearest airfield was at Healy, just north of the current Denali Park entrance.

Gaffney made a pass over the field to see if it was plowed. Seeing two tracks on the runway he concluded that someone had successfully landed before him so he came around, lowered his wheels and settled in. The next thing he recalled was being upside down, hanging from his shoulder harness in four feet of snow.

Gaffney's plane at Healy; Wheels and flaps down!
It seems the tracks he saw were made by snowshoers who had walked down the snow covered runway that morning, not another plane. He was rescued from his inverted and badly damaged plane with a sore back and injured pride.

The incident didn’t seem to impact his career. Gaffney, later promoted to General, managed the transfer of thousands of “lend-lease” planes to our Russian allies through Ladd Field.

You can read about Lt. Walseth’s all too short flying career at “Old Seventy.”

Tech Challenges: Our Chalet comes equipped with a power cord and four interior outlets. That should be fine, right? Not in the modern era. Each evening we have a need to plug in and/or recharge, a heater, laptop, two Kindles, two mp3 players, two phones, and iPad and batteries for two cameras. Eleven demands for four outlets. Who says this isn’t roughing it?

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