From Talkeetna to Anchorage

I’m going to remember these moments for the rest of my life, I thought as I finished my last walk in McKinley National Park.  Around midmorning we left on the bus and headed for a little town called Talkeetna where we were scheduled to catch a train to Anchorage. The station was tiny, but it had a beautiful red, white, and blue flag hanging from the front of it. Colorful against the gray sky, it begged for attention, and I obliged by taking a picture of the stars and stripes.

The train ride was long, but nice…exciting too. Mile after mile after mile, the train sped through the wild, and we soaked in as much beauty as our human eyes would allow. Many travelers ate lunch, but most settled for snacks. According to fellow passengers, the food choices were fairly extensive, and the service was good.

The scenery was breathtaking. Trees, especially the tall, straight pines and yellow willows flew by on every side. There were rivers and gravel bars and hills—everything but people. Occasionally, we glimpsed some small structures, probably work-related buildings, but no houses. How do people travel about in this wild country? I wondered.

After a couple of hours, probably closer to three, the conductor announced that soon we’d go through Wasilla, the childhood home of Sarah Palin, and arrive in Anchorage shortly afterwards. Soon we slowed down to ease through an overcast and chilly Wasilla, and he pointed out Palin’s home on our left. The house was nice but unpretentious, and I wondered about her childhood and how the geography and landscape had affected her psyche.

Palin lives in Arizona now, a totally different environment. Now she sees desert sagebrush instead of taiga forest, sun instead of misty fog. She never has to worry about permafrost or grizzlies these days, and she can probably leave her coat and gloves behind even on the coldest of winter days. Without ever having met her, I know that as beautiful as Arizona is, there are days when SP misses her native state.

There were stores, restaurants, and homes along the way, and I realized that in Wasilla, the citizens had everything we have in Camden—everything necessary for survival, that is. I didn’t spy any oaks, dogwoods, or  palmettos, but there were schools, churches, and grocery stores evident all along the ride. When the Princess train pulled into the station, everything around us looked gray: the sky, the concrete, the busses—everything. Like good soldiers, we disembarked from the train and climbed aboard a bus that would transport us into our hotel in Anchorage, the Captain Cook.

After freshening up a tad, many travelers, including us, ate dinner in one of the hotel restaurants, Fletcher’s. The food was delicious, and our conversation was not only about our afternoon train experiences but also about the next day’s agenda. Tonight would be the last night we’d spend on land, and by that same hour the next day, we’d be on the ship waiting to set sail.

Our time in Anchorage was brief, and if my husband hadn’t been willing to walk to a small diner for breakfast the next morning, our only real contact with the largest of Alaska’s cities would have been too negligible to even count—kind of like having a short layover in Reno and announcing to friends that you had once visited that gambling mecca.

As it was, we sauntered down 5th Avenue for a view of the coastline and a short stroll along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. After walking back up the steep hill, we walked a few blocks until we found the perfect diner, one that served both locals and tourists alike. The service was good, the food was tasty, and the view of downtown Anchorage through the huge front windows was great.

Scuttling back up the street, we made it back to the Captain Cook just minutes before the bus arrived, the one that would take us out of Anchorage and towards the sea and our ship.

Mountain, Rock, and Ridge

On the way into Denali National Park, the driver shared history of the area along with some fascinating facts about the people and terrain. Naturally, he talked a little about Mt. Denali and the recent name change, adding that the native Athabascans had always referred to it as Mt. Denali. He urged the passengers to look to the left for signs of the famous peak but cautioned us not to get our hopes up. Fog and distance were working against us.

Suddenly, the driver spotted a clear view of Denali on the horizon. From a distance, it looked like a dollop of cool whip, white and almost indistinguishable from the surrounding clouds. To our delight, he pulled the bus off the road and encouraged everyone to jump off for photo ops. Some people opted to stare from the bus windows, but Otis and I disembarked for a closer look and a photograph to commemorate the moment.

Our picture was fine, standard fare. I noticed others having pictures made on “the rock” and suggested that we take a moment to have ours made there too. The hubs was having nothing to do with such a foolish idea and repeated the words I’d heard every day all day long, “Come on. Let’s go, let’s go.”

A woman from California overheard this exchange and said, “Are you kidding me? You’re leaving without a picture on the rock? “

I shrugged, and she reminded me that I’d probably never pass that way again. “Get over there on that rock,” she said, “and say cheese.” So glad I listened to her and took her message seriously, not just to sit on the rock, but also to remember that we may “never pass this way again.”

Back on the bus, we traveled to Savage Cabin where we listened to a knowledgeable park ranger tell us about the cabin and surrounding area. After perhaps thirty minutes in the cabin vicinity, we departed for Primrose Ridge, an area in Denali National Park. The driver told us that Carol Reid was there that day and would be speaking to us on the ridge.

By this time we arrived at Primrose Ridge, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, we were getting a tad weary of getting on and off, on and off, the bus, but like good soldiers, we complied. None of us were prepared for the treat in store for us. A petite gray-hair native Athabascan woman stood on a slight incline ready to address us. Her hair flowing behind her in the slight breeze, she shared the history and tradtions of her people.

Until that afternoon, I hadn’t given much thought to the various tribes and their languages and traditions. Carol opened my eyes, not only to her own culture and background but to my own as well. I looked at her face and saw the features of her ancestors. She reminded us of the importance of knowing your family as a means of better understanding yourself.

After a serious and stirring presentation, Carol smiled broadly and sang out that she was the grandmother of “ten little Indian grandchildren.” Before we left the ridge, Carol said she hoped our paths would cross again and that she was not going to tell us goodbye.

She had cast a spell on all of us. Even the tough guys in the group were mesmerized by her words, gestures, and very essence. After a moment’s hesitation, I walked over and asked if I could hug her. She smiled as if to say, “Of course,” and I took her up on her inviting expression. I then told her that her words had touched my heart and asked if it would be okay to have a picture made with the three gals in our party.

We all walked quietly back to the bus, talking in low tones about our experience. I think Thomas spoke for all of us when he said that was the best presentation he’d heard since arriving in the 49th state.

Welcome to Nenana

“Let’s go, let’s go.” Those were the words I heard the morning of the 6th, the same words I’d heard every morning of our Alaskan adventure. Here’s something you need to know should you decide to go on a Princess cruise, part land/part sea: while on land, there’ll be places to go and things to do and see every day. And while that’s a good thing, some people can find it a bit tiring. Fortunately, bus and train rides offer opportunity to doze.

Back to the morning of the 6th. It was the day we were heading to Denali, and the very word conjured up cultural connotations. I was used to towns like Kershaw, Camden, and Sumter, and although they too have histories, I was so accustomed to their sounds and origins of these Southern places that I didn’t find them odd or novel.

Before day’s end, we get a peek of Mt. Denali, spend a sliver of time in a tiny town called Nenana, watch a film at a wilderness access center, listen to a park ranger talk about life in the wild as we stood outside the Savage Cabin, and meet Carol Reid on Primrose Ridge. Late in the day, we’d pull into the small town of Denali for an overnighter.

On the evening of the 5th, Thomas said he wanted to visit an Alaskan village, someplace where people really lived, someplace where there was no McDonald’s—just people living off the grid in “real life.” As he talked, I thought, “Me too.”

I wanted to see women strolling down a narrow street, a child or two in two, with a beautiful backdrop of taiga forest on an incline behind them. I wanted to see old cars and NO tour buses. I wanted to see a collection of buildings that would stay seared in my memory forever, a place where people lived and dreamed and loved and ached with desire and wonder.

There were no towns along the road to Denali, at least none that I could see, just miles and miles of breathtakingly beautiful scenery—a landscape “as old as the hills” (literally) and most of it untouched and unseen by human eyes. This was territory for the moose, the caribou, and the grizzly. At moments, I’d find myself becoming inured to the loveliness, and in then in an instant, I’d catch sight of a certain stand of trees or rock formation that would force a “Look at that!” from me.

On the morning of the 6th, Thomas got his wish. At some point, the driver pulled off the highway and drove down a narrow road lined with small homes. I gawked and then gulped. So this is what it’s like to live in a small Alaskan village away from Wal-Mart and The Fresh Market. Was there a school here? Where was it?

We were in Nenana, the first Iditarod checkpoint in 2003 and 2015.

We lumbered down off the bus and split up in different directions to take pictures, visit the gift shop, purchase snacks, and stretch our legs. I was captivated by the bridges, the railroad tracks that led out of town (a sure sign that there was life down the tracks), the gorgeous orange and yellow trees, a cemetery high on a hill, and the overall feel of the place. While Nenana was but a stopping point on the way to Denali, it was a welcome one, and I savored our half hour there.

Little did I know that the day would get better and better as it progressed.

Have you ever been to Nenana? Has there ever been a spot that cast a spell on you?

Striking It Rich at Gold Dredge 8

I’m wearing my gold-filled pendant on its delicate silver chain today. Yes, you read correctly—gold-filled pendant. There are flecks, not nuggets, in the tiny round pendant, but still, the jewelry is special because of the memories it conjures up, memories of a cool, overcast afternoon in the 49th state.

We’d spent the morning on the Chena River, and lunch behind us, we clambered aboard the tour bus to head towards our next excursion. Before the afternoon ended, we’d have walked beneath the Alaska Pipeline, also referred to as TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline System), and panned for gold. The girls would be taking home some gold-filled treasures. When I say “girls,” I’m referring to pretty much every female on the excursion.

As soon as we disembarked and headed towards the Pipeline, we could see that the people already assembled were paying rapt attention to the speaker. Dressed in black from his hat to his boots, the presenter shared a number of facts with his listeners, including the tidbit that the Pipeline provides revenue to help operate schools and that Alaska citizens receive a check from its profits each year. Designed to move oil from Alaska’s north slope to Valdez, the 800-mile Pipeline is a marvel of construction.

Next we got on an open-sided train that was a replica of the Tanana Valley Railroad. While we waited for the train to get going, a musician entertained us by playing the guitar and playing “Ring of Fire.” Within a few moments, the train rolled down the tracks to Gold Dredge 8, a popular and historical attraction, where we learned how the dredge worked the gold fields. According to the literature, Gold Dredge 8 extracted millions of ounces of gold from the frozen Alaskan ground and today serves as a monument to the miners who built Fairbanks.

After a presentation on the history of Gold Dredge 8, we piled off the train and were handed small bags of what appeared to be dirt. Little did we know there would be actually smithereens of gold hidden in the dirt. Friendly employees clad in plaid shirts gave the gold diggers (us) a demonstration of exactly how to pan for gold by using the warm water in the troughs in front of us. After striking it rich, we deposited our tiny nuggets into a plastic receptacle and headed to the huge rustic building close by.

The building contained a number of gift shops and a jewelry kiosk (?) set up to measure our gold. Delighted to learn that we had enough specks to preserve in a pendant, most of the women walked over to one of the gift shops to check out our options. Choices included pendants and earrings of various sizes and designs. I chose a “plain Jane” version, but my traveling buddies got something a little more embellished.

While wandering in and out of the various shops, most people sipped on complimentary hot chocolate, coffee, or water as they munched on delicious freshly baked cookies. My personal favorite was chocolate oatmeal raisin.

Fortified by our snacks, we boarded the railway car and listened to a gentleman play the fiddle and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Many of us joined in the singing, and I knew that I’d always recall that beautiful afternoon just “a singing” beside Gold Dredge 8. Seeing the staff lined up with smiles and goodbye waves added the perfect ending to the afternoon.

Back at the lodge, eight of us later met for salmon chowder, cheeseburgers, and meatloaf. To be honest, the food was mediocre to be so expensive. My chowder was thick, muddy, and lukewarm (even after it was reheated). My husband still talks about his $4.50 scoop of chocolate ice cream and is planning a trip to Cold Stone Creamery in Myrtle Beach ASAP.

Everyone hit the sack early that night, excited with the knowledge that we’d be heading to Denali the next morning.

Along the Chena

On the second day in Fairbanks, it was up at at ’em pretty early. Our bus driver, Benjamin, was outside waiting to take us to our first destination, a port a few miles away where we ‘d board a riverboat and cruise down the Chena River. It was cold for those of us with Southern blood, so Jeanita and I found it necessary to shop for some warm clothing in a gigantic gift shop. We each bought olive green vests with AK written on the front left. Call us Plain Janes; we didn’t want bears or moose emblazoned on our clothing–not that day, not yet.

The “All Aboard” summons came all too quickly, and we queued up to board the Coral Princess steamboat. Once on board, some of us climbed to the top deck for a better look at everything. It was chilly, yes, but some of the cold was assuaged by the free hot beverages and donuts served at the prow of the ship.

The scenery on both sides was breathtaking, and I was again reminded of how many ways there are to live our time on Earth. Some people live in high rise apartments and rarely see a single tree. Others live in dense rain forests and have never tasted a Coke or heard of a vest. Along the Chena, inhabitants live in all types of structures, some elaborate and others rustic and suited to the surrounding taiga forest, riverfront, and brutal winters. Anticipating tourist questions about the varying architectural styles, the captain remarked that as long as a house met code, the owners could build whatever style or shape of house they wanted.

We soaked it all in. There was so much to savor and absorb that I almost missed the demonstration of a small floatplane! While all was grand, There are three specific river memories that will stick with me: Susan Butcher’s husband training dogs, the scenic nature at the turnaround point, and the visit to a fishing village.

Remember Susan Butcher? She was an American dog musher, “noteworthy as the second woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1986, the second four-time winner in 1990, and the first to win four out of five sequential years.” (Wikipedia) Unfortunately, Susan died of breast cancer in 2006, but her husband, also a musher, continues to operate Trail Breaker Kennel along the Chena, and he treated the boat folks to comments and a demonstration of the dogs on a training run around the lake.

Not long after enjoying the energetic and noisy dogs, we reached a turnaround point  where the captain took a slow turn, allowing the passengers to take sone gorgeous shots. Although I took several, the deck was too crowded with avid photographers to capture as many views as I wanted.

On the return trip, the captain slowed down a few moments so that we could listen to a lecture and demonstration by a young Alaskan woman about catching and processing fish. A few minutes later, we disembarked at the Chena Fishing village and were privileged to see caribou, learn how to treat furs, and watch some huskies being “put through the paces.” It was a magical morning that ended all too soon but not before we had someone snap our photograph beside the Chena.

Back on the boat, we headed to the port for a hearty lunch and more shopping. Everyone gathered in a huge dining hall to savor beef stew, salad, bread, potatoes, and chocolate cake.the efficiency and quality of the entire experience was amazing!

Lunch behind us, we browsed through the gift shop, and my husband found a few treasures. Since ours was the last tour of the season, prices were reasonable.

With memories of a beautiful morning along the Chena and a fortifying lunch, we once again climbed aboard the tour bus, this time headed for gold. Stay tuned to learn of our gold panning experience and the treasures we brought home.