Monday, July 3, 2017

Back to the Nebesna Road

One of Morgan’s specific requests for this trip was to camp remotely.  We figured that the Nebesna Road would be the perfect fit.  It is the only road into the eastern side of Wrangle-St. Elias National Park and is traveled by very few.  This 42-mile-long gravel road is well known for its many water crossings.

When we were at Nebesna several weeks earlier, we were surprised to find very little water in any of the crossings.  It had been dry and the mountain snowmelt had not yet begun.  Now it had been raining for two days. We stopped by the Slana ranger station to check the road conditions.  The ranger warned us that if the rain continued, several crossings may become impassable.

We set up camp at our favorite spot, disappointed for Morgan that clouds covered the amazing views of the Wrangle Range.  We clambered into the camper for supper and played our new favorite card game, Three/Thirteen until bedtime.  Of course, Morgan won.  What a card shark!

The rain continued all night, and it was still drizzling the next morning.  We drove up the road, amazed at how different it looked from just two weeks ago.  Much of the road was rutted and muddy.  So much rain had fallen that many of the smaller creeks had overflowed their banks and were washing out sections of the road.

The Nabesna Road turned muddy
It was the first time Morgan had ever been in a high-water crossing… although I’m not certain it impressed her greatly.  As for David and me… we love this kind of road!

Morgan's first water crossing
We easily made the first two of the major water crossings but turned back when we reached Lost Creek.  We knew that this crossing has several sand bars in addition to areas of deep gravel.  It can get dicey pretty quickly if your tires hit a sandbar in the deepest, U-shaped section of crossing rather than riding on firm gravel.  We decided not to chance it.  At least we were able to get a little mud on the tires.

A little mud on the tires
The rain continued the remainder of the day.  Late that afternoon, David received a text from Liz and Walter.  They had arrived in Valdez early… would we like to meet them on the third rather than the Fourth of July?  It was a unanimous and immediate decision.  We’re off to Valdez!

(So sorry for the lack of photos... internet connections have been few, far between, and dismally slow.    We'll keep trying!)

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Denali... Part Two

Morgan at the Denali National Park Entrance
 The morning we left Tek, the fellow in our neighboring campsite ran his generator for two full hours.  It was intolerable.  We decided to have breakfast at a pullout up the road rather than listen to his generator grind away.

We found a campsite at Savage River then drove back towards the entrance for the sled dog demonstration.  What fun!  The rangers clipped five dogs into their harnesses.  The dogs pulled at their stations, barking, tails wagging… they were ready to go.  When the signal came, they dashed off around the track.  It seemed that the slight girl on the “sled” behind them was hanging on for dear life.  In seconds, their run was over. 

Sled dogs hooked up and ready to go 
Happy dogs!
The rangers told us about the dogs and how they hauled building materials, equipment, and scientists conducting various experiments around the park during the winter.  After the demonstration was over, we strolled among the dogs.  Many were available and ready for pets.  Morgan found a favorite or two...

Before we left, a red squirrel scampered up a tree near several of the doghouses.  What an uproar ensued when the dogs caught wind of him!  

While heading to the showers the next morning, we spied a moose cow and her twin calves not far from the sled dog area.  The rangers had told us that the moose like to raise their calves close to the dogs because bears find the dog numbers too formidable.  

On our way back to camp, we stopped again to pet the dogs.  We had found them to be irresistible.

We left Denali the following morning… right after Morgan was inducted into the Junior Rangers.  She had completed an activity book, took the oath, and received her badge… a special one commemorating Denali’s centennial celebration.

Morgan becomes a Junior Ranger

Clouds had gathered around Denali the night before, so we had no chance of a parting shot of us and the mountain.  Instead, we bid adieu to Denali and traveled down Highway 8 to one of our favorite boondock sites (we affectionately call it Blueberry Hill).  While the blueberries were far from ripe, we enjoyed our time in this remote and quiet area.  Tomorrow, we head back to the Nebesna Road.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Denali... Part One

Mount Denali

We arrived in Denali under clear skies... a first for us.  In all our visits to this beautiful park, we have mostly seen grey clouds.  It is particularly significant because only thirty percent of all visitors  see the top of Denali.  Morgan must be our good luck charm!  

Morgan on the bus trip to Wonder Lake
David had made reservations well in advance for us to camp at the almost-always-full Tek campground.  He also reserved a spot for the three of us on the shuttle bus to Wonder Lake.  We set up camp, and the following morning walked to the bus stop.

The bus was full, including several large family groups traveling together.  There were three infants under the age of one and two children under the age of four.  To say the least, it was a very long eleven-hour bus ride.  The babies needed to be strapped in car seats the entire time, so they cried... either one at a time or in chorus.  One of the babies was obviously sick... cute... but extremely cranky.  

The bus was so full that at the first stop, the driver announced that two people would need to transfer to another bus.  We decided to make the change and were delighted with the extra room and much quieter companions.  The new bus driver was also very good at explaining the surrounding geography and information about the animals and park.

We met up with our original bus at the Eielson visitor's center and, since it was the only bus to Wonder Lake, transferred back to it.  In retrospect, it may have been better for us to have skipped Wonder Lake entirely.  We were only at the lake thirty minutes, and the babies only cried more as the day continued.  (Within ten days of the bus trip, first me, then David, and then Morgan all came down with colds.  Thankfully Morgan only had the sniffles.  Several weeks later, David and I, however, are still coughing.) 

The good news was that we were able to see lots of animals during the bus ride, although most were quite a distance away.  We saw caribou... one walked in front of the bus, another was strolling along the river, and we saw hundreds were moving up a mountainside.

Denali caribou strolling among the wildflowers

Hundreds of Denali caribou
We also saw a grizzly bear dozing in a meadow with her twin cubs at her side.  They were quite a distance away, but it was a wonderful sight.

Denali grizzly bear sow and twins
Wonder Lake was lovely.  With Morgan still on crutches, rather than do some hiking, we found a picnic table and had a bit of lunch.  The day was absolutely glorious with only a few clouds in the sky.  Each time we spotted Denali, we could see clouds swirling around its top, middle, or bottom.

Wonder Lake
Denali range near Wonder Lake
On our way back, we stopped again at the Eielson Visitor's Center before making the final three-hour run to our Tek campsite.

David and Morgan at the Eielson Visitor Center
The next day we spent hanging out and resting up at Tek.  When camping at Tek, you must stay at least two nights and can only drive your vehicle in and out.  The rest of the time, you must remain parked in the campground.  With our Tek shuttle pass, we could have taken another bus to drop us off for hikes, etc., but with Morgan on crutches, we decided just to have a lazy day.  It was wonderful.

The following morning, we broke camp and moved to the Savage River campground so that we would have more flexibility in moving around the park.  We continued to relish the amazing weather.

Mount Denali

To be continued...

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Scottish Invasion

Piper competes at the Palmer Scottish Highland Games
Our original plan for our first few days with Morgan was to visit Hatcher Pass and its abandoned mine.  We discovered, however, that the pass was still closed due to snow and the area was socked in fog so thick we could hardly see two feet in front of the truck.  Oh well... another time.

When Liz announced that the town of Palmer was having their annual Scottish Highland Games, we jumped at the chance to meet her and Walter there.  While Morgan had visited a Highland Game several years ago, neither David nor I had ever been to one.   We had no idea what to expect.

Pipers warm up for group competition.

Snare drum competition warm-up
Clogger at the Palmer Scottish Highland Games
One of the greatest pleasures in our forays and adventures is the opportunity to get to know an area.  The Highland Games offered just that... music, dance, competitions, and a variety of characters.

Scottish Lad

A Scottish Lass with a familiar face!
My favorite visiting group was the raptor rehabilitators.  They brought several owls and hawks to educate folks about the birds.  All the raptors had been injured and were unable to return to the wild.  Some even posed for me.

The majority of the Highland competitions were all about strength and agility.  As an example, men threw a 52-pound weight between their knees, above their head, and over a bar.  One fellow almost made the world record at 19 feet, six inches!  Some threw weighted stones by hugging it to their chin, twirling around, and tossing them out.  Others tossed weighted hammers.

The most outlandish competition, in my humble opinion, was the caber.  A contestant would vertically lift a 127-pound tapered telephone pole, run with it, then toss it end over end.  The one that could make it flip most in front of his body won.  Incredible!

Morgan's description of the various games is much better than mine, so I invite you to visit her post (click here: Morgan's Highland Games post).  I wanted to include more visuals of the competitions we saw, including the combined bands playing Amazing Grace.  Unfortunately I cannot.  I took videos and have just discovered that I can't download them.  Ah... the frustrations of a new camera!

We left the games early in order to make our reservations at the Tek campground in Denali.  Now the question is... will Morgan see the mountain?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Waiting for Morgan

Morgan on her first flight.
I’ve never been good at waiting.  Now we had three days between us and Morgan’s arrival.  We campled at Eklutna State Park our first night.  The next morning, we took Liz and Walter to REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.), one of our favorite places on our short list of favorite shops.  They loved it.  We did laundry and re-provisioned.  We kept checking the Anchorage post office for our new credit cards… they never came.  

After rowdy neighbors at Eklutna kept us awake until four in the morning, the four of us moved to Eagle River State Park.  It was a good move… the campsite was quiet and only twenty minutes from the airport.

A highlight to our wait was meeting Sook, owner of Alaska’s Gourmet Subs.  She made us feel like royalty.   We took Liz and Walter there the following day and told Sook we would try to bring Morgan on our way back into Anchorage.

Finally the day arrived.   You can imagine our disappointment when Morgan’s mom texted that the flight would be delayed three hours.  Instead of arriving at 6:50 pm, Morgan’s plane finally touched down at 9:45 pm. All of us were excited to begin Morgan’s Alaska Adventure together.

 She was nearly the last to get off the plane and greeted us on crutches.  A few snapshots, and we were on our way to the campground.  We had talked so much about Morgan that Liz and Walter stayed up to meet her.  Morgan was exhausted after the long flight and delay.  She arrived at nearly two in the morning, East Coast time.  We quickly set up her bed and settled her into it. 

Morgan arrives!
For the next three and a half weeks, we will share Alaska with our young friend.  We can’t wait!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Return to the Nebesna Road

Wrangell Range from the Nebesna Road
Blue skies and the Nebesna Road… two of our favorite things combined make a very good day.  After passing three more moose grazing near the highway, we stopped at the Slana Forest Service office to find our road conditions.  

Moose on Tok Cutoff Road
We were surprised to learn that the snow melt had not yet started and that the road condition was great.  Normally when we travel the Nebesna, we need to make about a half-dozen wet water crossings.  This time, all but two were dry.

A look up the Nebesna Road
We found our favorite camping spot empty, so we quickly set up the camper, the bug screen, and settled in for the evening.  Much to both our chagrin, David had also turned up lame from a severe Charlie horse he had during our last long hike.  With Morgan due to arrive with crutches and a boot, and David gimping along, I literally felt like the last man standing this trip.  Hopefully both will bounce back quickly.

The next day we discovered a visitor had entered our camp the night before, leaving a large moose track as evidence.  We broke camp and traveled to the top of the Nebesna Road, visiting several favorite places.  I had hoped to hike to the Ramble Mine this trip… maybe we can stop by again before heading back into Canada.  We were surprised to find the entire road was remarkably dry, even the normally muddy places. 

Moose track
The weather was so glorious that we decided to spend another day on the Nebesna.  With David still limping badly, we just hung out, drinking in the views and enjoying the sunshine.  While David tested our new solar panel while I caught up on a few blog posts. 

The camper hooked up to the new solar panels
Later that afternoon, we received a text from Liz and Walter, our Australian friends.  They knew when we were picking up Morgan and had realized that we would all be in Anchorage at the same time.  Surprisingly, we had cell service, so David “rang them up.”  We quickly made arrangements to meet up and camp together. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Terra Firma… our arrival in Haines

The Fair Weather is a pontoon ferry, capable of moving much faster than the Matanuska.  In fact, it skims on the water at twice the speed, reducing the sail from Juneau to Haines from six hours to three.  We had to be at the Juneau ferry terminal by 6:00 in the morning to make the 8:00 sail.  Although gray clouds lingered and hung heavy over the mountaintops, we were grateful that it was not raining. 

Haines, Alaska
Our arrival in Haines meant that we were on terra firma.  Our voyage up the inside passage was now finished… at least for this trip.  We were happy to once again be on our own time rather than the ferry schedule.  Our main goal now is to arrive in Anchorage in plenty of time to pick up our young friend, Morgan.  Morgan is a 13-year-old friend of ours.  We have known her since she was two.  She wanted an adventure, and we were more than happy to share ours with her.  In fact, we are quite excited about the opportunity. 

Our only concern had become Morgan’s mobility.  Three weeks ago she broke her ankle when a friend collided with her on a trampoline.  Her mom had reported that the cast was scheduled to come off the day before Morgan arrived in Anchorage.  She would need to be on crutches the first week and in an air cast/boot the entire trip.  While some of our longer hikes would need to be curtailed, Morgan is the kind of kid to rise to a challenge.  We just wanted to make sure she healed completely and wasn’t uncomfortable.

With nine days between us and our picking Morgan up at the airport, we decided to spend a few days in Haines.  We have visited Haines on several occasions, but our focus has always been photographing the bears fishing salmon from the weir.  This trip, however, we are much too early for the salmon run.  In fact the day’s count of salmon was one, and only a count of 94 for the entire month.  Normally salmon don’t begin running in earnest until mid-July.

All the locals told us we would see no bears during this visit.  A mother bear, thankfully, took exception to their dismal reports.  We were delighted to see the sow and her triplets, grazing across the riverbank that evening. 

The Chilkoot river and lake were at record high levels because of the recent rain and heavy snow melt.  As we strolled lakeside that evening, we watched a mother Mersanger teach her chicks to navigate the breakwaters between the lake and fast-running river.  In calm waters, the chicks would tag along closely behind her.  When the current became too fast, they would quickly climb on her back.  Although she was much too far away to get a good photograph, hopefully these shots will give you an idea of how sweet it was to watch them:

Mother Mersanger and chicks

Mother Mersanger with chicks on her back
The next morning, we took showers and did laundry at our favorite Moose Horn Laundromat so that we would be clean for church on Sunday.  Later, we drove out to some of our favorite places and strolled around Fort Seward.

After church, we took a hike.  The wind was blowing strongly as we wound our way through the dense trees.  It felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings’ Fanghorn Forest with limbs creaking and trunks groaning as they rubbed against one another.  At one point, a dead tree snapped very close to us, startling us both.  Finally we reached a break in the forest to catch a glimpse of Rainbow Glacier.  It was getting late and the clouds were darkening, so we turned back to return to camp.

Rainbow Glacier near Haines, Alaska
Our new credit cards were due to arrive no later than Monday.  After spending a slow-paced morning in camp, we visited The American Bald Eagle Preservation Foundation, learning more about these magnificent birds.  We checked again at the post office just before closing time, but the credit cards had still not arrived.  Ready to move on, we called Chase and asked that they be re-sent to Anchorage.

Resident eagles at The American Bald Eagle Preservation Foundation, Haines, Alaska

Tuesday morning, we spied a young brown bear along the roadside just outside of Haines.  Later we saw a pair of swans with three young chicks.  Past Haines Junction, a moose grazed along the hillside.  We were in familiar territory again… on a road we had traveled at least a half-dozen times.  It was great to know we could drive as far as we wanted to now that we were on terra firma.  We camped at Congdon Campground.  Our plans were to stop in Tok tomorrow to re-provision before returning to one of our favorite places… the Nebesna Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.