Denali National Park….breathtaking.

I used to think Eden would be more like the Caribbean or a tropical island somewhere. I thought it surely lush with tropical plants having gigantic leaves and palm fronds and lipid pools of aqua colored water. The only problem with that thought is you never see the larger overall image of that place because of the thick vegetation. Now, take a place like Denali National Park…wow..now that is what I believe Eden looked like.  In fact, these days I watch Alaskan reality shows with an inclusive sense of humor and the other night an Alaskan gentleman closed out the show by stating that Alaska is where God goes to vacation.  Of course the show was being filed in the winter and I’m not sure if or why anyone would vacation there in the winter….but I definitely think Eden could be located in Alaska.

We took another “coach” to the Princess Denali Lodge. I need to premise this post by saying that our group of 27 with our fearless leader, Bruce, have just enjoyed 3 extremely sublime days at the McKinley lodge in the sunshine while staring lovingly into that rock, Denali. We danced, laughed, sang, made s’mores, listened to music, hiked, snapped countless photos, and ate great food. We were feeling very happy and satisfied!

During our coach ride and our approach to the Denali Lodge, life for us changed. It was now cloudy, misty, and cold! Bruce did a great job narrating the terrain we were passing by and we stopped to take some amazing photographs of lakes, mountains, our first glacier (photo #4) and even an abandoned igloo alongside the highway.

When we arrived at the lodge, the weather was dreary! As we walked through the lodge the other tourists who were swapping out lodges with us looked so unhappy. Upon questioning a staff member as to why; we were informed it was because their previous 3 days at the lodge had been filled with cold and clouds and the dreaded rain. Oh no….was this to be our fate as well? It was as if someone turned the lights out at our party. We all stumbled around for our bearings and grabbed a bite to eat. We dug our warmer sweaters and pants out of our suitcases and wandered around the lodge. Some of us even wished we could go back to McKinley!

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Shortly after lunch and hiking, the sunshine started to emerge! By dinnertime our McKinley weather had arrived at Denali! That evening we enjoyed a theater production of the Music of Denali in which my mother was asked to be a participating character named Fanny. We all had a great time laughing and singing along! Throughout the remainder of the trip, my mother would continue to be comically referred to as Fanny by others in our group.

The next morning we met bright and early for our tour of Denali National Park and once again the bets were on whether or not I would be moved to tears.  This time we were on an old school bus, but it wasn’t any ordinary school bus. This one was equipped with an expert tour guide to show us the land. Denali National Park doesn’t allow vehicles to drive through it with two exceptions. Guided tour buses and shuttle buses who will take hikers in and out of various areas of the park.  Denali National Park consists of SIX MILLION acres of land..thankfully there are shuttles.  We were instructed on the spotting of wild animals and told to call them out so we can collectively stop and view them all! Our tour bus driver even came equipped with a fabulous hat-cam to show us animals on bus monitors that looked like specks to us. The skies were blue and the sun was blaring…great viewing conditions for animals but for me that would not be the highlight of my day! We did get to see moose, caribou, dall sheep, golden bears, and more caribou!

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There was even a spotting of the elusive hubby showing off his antlers! Along with the amazing animals, there are these very cool mudflats that I imagine have much more water in them during a rainy period. I just find the winding ribbons of water to be fascinating!

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For me the landscape was amazing. There is a diversity of land there. Our bus tour went up considerably in elevation the farther into Denali National Park we went. The trees and vegetation at the park entrance is lush and tall and the moose can easily hide in it. However, as we approached the 60 mile mark into the park, the vegetation was now less than a foot tall and most of the flowers were at ground level. This is because at the higher altitudes there, the growing season becomes extremely shortened and therefore plants become more efficient in their reproductive cycles.  Our bus came to a stop at mile 67 and it was our last stop before heading back out. We all stepped out into the tundra to the most breathtaking views!

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But the most amazing view of all was my mountain!  Day two and we got the most spectacular view of Denali ever!  There was nary a cloud around it!!  According to our tour guide, our group was now part of the 10% club because we have had clear days on both sides of the mountain! Such a gorgeous day!  Here is my mountain….DENALI!

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On our way back, and forgive the photo that was taken through the front window of the bus, we were greeted by caribou in the roadway. Thankfully they veered off so we could continue on our way. In Denali National Park…animals always have the right of way…I think they know it too!

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After our exhausting day in the National Park it was time for Happy Hour at the lodge. We would be having to repack for our train ride to Whittier bright and early in the morning.  While looking over the Nenana river winding around our lodge, we noticed that one of the 3 rafts riding the rapids had tipped over. It was a very intense few minutes as all we could do was watch them try to recover. There were seagulls-a-plenty and they were rather bawdy too!

One of the servers shared a story with us from a few years ago. Across the Nenana river is a hiking trail and there was a hiker walking along the river. The people on the outside patio of the restaurant noticed a bear also on the trail a few hundred yards behind the hiker. They yelled to the hiker but because of the rushing water sound and the distance they were unable to get the attention of the hiker. Thinking they are surely going to witness something horrific, they were happily surprised when the bear lost interest and turned around. Whew!

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The view from the resort was amazing…but it’s time to head to the ship!

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Canvassing Alaska – next stop McKinley!

On July 1st we boarded a coach (it looked just like a bus…but we were taught the difference between a “coach” and a “bus” is the very convenient bathroom in the back. However we would come to realize that utilizing the coach bathroom is similar to playing checkers with marbles while on a bus.  Our large group was split into two and 27 of us very lucky people met our funny and brilliant guide, Bruce. We boarded our coach and headed out to our first stop…the Princess McKinley Lodge located in Denali State Park (not to be confused with Denali National Park).  The lodge has a Great Room with a gigantic double-sided fireplace and an enormous deck that juts out towards the great Denali mountain (also referred to as Mt. McKinley). Natives in Alaska changed the name of the great mountain to Denali to keep in with the native naming.  The mountain is 20,320 feet high and is technically a taller rock than Mt. Everest, however Everest is declared a higher altitude because it starts from a higher base than Denali.  We learned that many climbers train at Mt. Rainier in Washington because the climb season is so short in Alaska.  Last year the McKinley Lodge received its first snowfall in the middle of September and shortly after that snow fall they board up the entire resort, drain the water pipes, and everyone heads to warmer places for the winter until the following Spring. The landscape features never ending rows of spruces, shrub roses, lupines, fire week, mountains, and the Talkeetna River (which is very milky in appearance due to the glacial silt that runs into it). This silty characteristic is not conducive to fish and such because of the inability to breathe.  The river and our surroundings are filled with these amazing spruce trees and black magpie birds!

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The weather was amazing at McKinley Lodge! Our first day consisted of hikes around the lodge trails in search of views of the Talkeetna River and possibly a bear!  Fortunately, we found the river and no bears…unfortunately we could only view the river from a high perch.

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Throughout our second night in Alaska I continued my search for darkness. The idea of darkness and a moon sighting was tricky, but often at night I was giddy with the thought of wanting to hike or jog at 1am because it looked like 7pm in the Midwest.  My first morning waking up at the resort found us imbedded in a thick veil of fog. When we left our lodge, we discovered a cloud had set down on the ground around us and we could barely see our hands in front of our face.  Our expectations of seeing Denali fell, like the cloud had during the night. The locals say that only 30% of the tourists ever see the famous mountain. Due to the height of the mountain, it generally makes its own weather up there and the ability to see it is slim. After having rent this camera equipment to see the mountain, I was saddened to hear how small my chances were. Years ago I went to Florida with my father to watch one of the last shuttle launches at NASA and the closest we made it was a half mile before it was called for a technical problem that would take a month to repair. This disappointment felt very similar to that. Then an employee at the lodge told me to stay out on the deck that faces the mountain and wait a few hours…that the fog is expected to clear.  I must have looked at him like he had an additional eye in his forehead, because he lightly tapped my shoulder and told me to be patient.  No way!  There was no way anything was coming out of this fog!

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Waiting…waiting…waiting…still waiting…then a small patch of blue sky appeared! Slowly..oh so slowly the fog began to burn off…just like the staff member told me.  So there I sat…waiting with my camera at the ready!  My comedic father and husband were taking wagers on whether or not I would cry when the view of the mountain finally arrived…and I was thrilled to deliver.

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Sure enough!  Just as that wise employee had said.  The lodge deck became full of watchers as the great mountain made it’s debut! Denali!  It did not disappoint!

This chunk of land was intoxicating. The blue hues and the atmospheric perspective that filtered out all the details of jutting rocks and sharp ledges had my heart and soul in it’s grasp. There is something hypnotic about mountains. We talk about being at the top of the food chain…the most intelligent creatures…evolved and technologically savvy. But there is a humility that comes with being surrounded by the mountains. They are more numerous than one can count and they are all so majestic…they really make you understand that we are still the new kids on the block, sotospeak. Imagine the tragedy and turmoil that the land endured in order to create a rock that tall! I am certain the impact was great to all who walked the land at the time that happened, if anyone was even here back then. I hated to leave…even for a few hours…so fearful I would miss something special and important! As the day went by I was constantly taking photos as it came in and out of fog and clouds. We were able to also see a mountain range named Little Switzerland because of the way it looks much like the mountains well…in Switzerland! Since I have never been there…I will have to take their word for it.

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The happiness of everyone around was energetic and contagious!  Time for the “I was there!” photos, like the one of my mom and I and Dan and Dad.

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And the celebrating continued all day long! It’s funny to experience how much viewing a mountain in the sunlight in Alaska brings out the best moods in people.  Here is a photo taken of a woman who she was an artist as well. We only met and chatted for a few moments, but being in such a magical place makes even strangers seem like family! The other photo is my hubby with a lovely Australian woman in our travel group!

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This photo was taken approximately 9:30pm and the sun is still blazing high in the sky.  Our fabulous tour guide, Bruce, arranged a party at the lodge’s fire pits for us. We were all celebrating our great fortune to see the glorious Denali all day long! It was funny that we took its magnificence for granted towards the end of the day.  We listened to live music and enjoyed ourselves basking in sundog lit skies.

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After the great party it was time to try and sleep…we have Talkeetna on our schedule in the morning!