These are two places that PROVE there is more than one way to get high in Alaska!
We never book things very far in advance, which can sometimes work in our favor, and sometimes not. Access to the RV spots INSIDE the Denali National Park was impossible – all booked up. But we WERE able to find a couple spots in a little RV Park just outside the park. This was POSSIBLY THE WORST RV Spot we have booked, except for the location. Very tight spots in a gravel lot behind a tourist-chachki Shopping mall with weird food options.
For example, Reindeer Dogs – actually quite tasty – that you can have several ways. They DID authentically prepare mine “Chicago Style” (i.e. NO KETCHUP), but I wonder, should it even be POSSIBLE to prepare a Reindeer Dog “Chicago Style?”
Sites were not very level. Non-existent Wifi. Not inexpensive. Without the Location, this was one-star at best. But we COULD walk to the park, and easily access the visitor center and the buses that one takes deeper into the park area. And the staff was super friendly…
AND, we discovered, our favorite Stalkers Bob and Kathy Purcell, were staying nearby; a chance for another close encounter of the BBQ and adult beverage kind. So, all in all, not a bad experience in Denali RV Accomodations.
Denali itself is AMAZING. The National Park is pristine and VERY accessible. Amazing that, on such a HUGE Mountain, the Park Service could so conveniently label all the peaks and crags… If they can do that, why can they not rake all the forests in California, so as to prevent forest fires?
Sorry, no politics!
Seriously, the day we traversed the park in a Green Blue Bird School Bus, there was SO MUCH SMOKE that the mountain was BARELY visible in the morning, and not at all in the afternoon. Even hills ½ mile away could barely be seen at times. They say 70% or people NEVER SEE THE MOUNTAIN, usually because of rain, but often because of smoke. We DID see it, so we are in the 30%. But NOT the post-card view. Still, we did NOT regret the trip into the park. Except for the smoke, it was all we expected and more in every respect.
We had 2 full days to see “stuff” and we set about to make this time the most efficient possible. Since NO PRIVATE VEHICLES are allowed in the park AT ALL; everyone takes a Park Service Official bus. There is only one road, and the fragile infrastructure would be completely overwhelmed if the Park Service allowed access any other way. So they simply don’t. This gives a VERY different experience than one gets in Yellowstone, where there are MAJOR, Bison-induced traffic jams as people stop their cars in the middle of the road by the hundreds and watch and photograph. Taking nothing away from Yellowstone, but Denali is HUGE, and there are relatively few vehicles on the one road. You can walk 500M from the road and be the only person for miles, alone with your thoughts in the magnificence of this Arctic Gem.
Though you have to take a bus into the park, you do actually have options… We decided to take the ”Park Shuttle” vs. the various Denali Tour options. The shuttle operates from the park entrance to several locations within the park, but it will stop anywhere you ask and you can just get out and hike. And you can flag one down after your hike for transit back to the entrance. We had been told that the tour buses and the shuttle buses take the same exact route…but the tour buses are “spiffier” and you get a lunch on board. This for MORE THAN 3x the cost ($175 vs $58). We really don’t do “spiffy” anymore, and are TOTALLY HAPPY to pack our own lunch!
When we arrived at the bus depot, we realized that the tour buses are EXACTLY THE SAME as the shuttles except the latter are painted green and the former, tan!! Our green bus left the Denali Bus Depot just inside the park at 6:15 AM for the 11+ hour drive.
One difference you might expect between a “Tour” and “Shuttle Bus” could be in the narration. NOT SO. Our shuttle bus (and I am told this is the rule, not the exception) had a GREAT driver (Wendy H), who talked to her students/passengers the entire 11 hours of the trip. Describing the park, the animals, her career(s), her love life, life in Alaska, – with a most enjoyable and self-deprecating sense of humor. All the while navigating narrow gravel roads with no guard rails and VERY impressive dropoffs.
Anytime an animal was spotted, usually by her, but sometimes by a passenger, she would stop and angle the bus for best viewing, remaining as long as necessary for everyone to see and photograph. When we met a bus travelling in the opposite direction, she would stop alongside. I THINK this was because the drivers were exchanging info on animal sightings ahead. But it could have been to disentangle the mirrors so we could proceed on our way. The road is too narrow for two buses side-by-side, yet somehow these close-approaches come off without incident.
Warm but not at all uncomfortable, unless you are an Alaskan, most of whom were worried they might not survive such scorching heat!!
Later in the day, we learned of another difference between the Green and Tan buses, besides the catered lunch, IQ and socio-economic status of the passengers. The tan buses are allowed to turn on their A/C units, the Green ones actually have the same A/C but are not allowed to use them. Most of the time in Denali, the A/C is NOT NECESSARY, although closing the windows would help a little with the dust from the gravel road. Most of the time the temp is in the 50’s or 60’s and it can snow in any month!!! But when we were there, the temps were in the upper 80s.
Would we ALL soon succumb to a clothes-removing frenzied precursor to a zombie apocolypse?
Speaking of heat, about the middle of the afternoon, Steve announced he was going to unzip his pants. Now, I was thinking perhaps the heat was getting to him – a bit of delerium? Then, the woman sitting next to him asked if he needed help UNZIPPING HIS PANTS!!! Not Kathy, BTW — she had remained behind, not one to enjoy 11 hours in a bus on narrow winding steep gravel roads… It was apparently contagious – and the heat was rising in the bus, and there was to be no air conditioning. Would we ALL soon succumb to a clothes-removing frenzied precursor to a zombie apocolypse?
Then Steve smiled – he was removing the lower portion of his pants legs, which unzip from the upper.
Our time on the bus was replete with Wildlife Sightings (even above and beyond Steve and his Pants). We saw bears (7 was the final count), Caribou (lots), Fox, Ptarmigan and Moose (though we would have a MUCH CLOSER sighting of the latter outside the park).
You had to WORK for these sightings – people come to Denali imagining wildlife will be as though you are in the Serengeti – huge herds of nomadic creatures every way you look.
The Arctic region, with 8 months of winter and tundra/permafrost that even in summer is NOT verdant or productive; it simply cannot support that level of inhabitation. But, the vistas and FEEL of the place is MAGNIFICENT. Denali is over 6 MILLION Acres in total (bigger than Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island), with strictly controlled access and very few facilities.
Camping is the biggest activity overall, but not in “set” locations or trails for the most part. You hike back into an assigned “unit” and make your camp wherever you want/can. Campers are responsible for their own safety — and Bears are a force to be reckoned with! The Park Service has a series of movies campers should/must watch before going in. These talk about how to create a safe camp, how to use bear cans for one’s food, etc. And, most important, camping is NOT ALLOWED in a spot where you can be seen from the road, and you are required to remove all trace of your campsite.
Wildlife sightings were not confined to the time we were confined in the Park Bus.
One morning we went for a walk from our RV Campground to the Park Post Office (about 2.5 miles). Along the way there was a commotion ahead, which turned out to be a LARGE Moose (which is kinda redundant, actually). This critter was walking in the shoulder of the main road, and next to the hiking path.
A Clot of Cars, of course, developed so tourists could gawk. But also because the moose could not decide if it was going to walk on the shoulder, cross the road, or what. It was a little confused. It would come out on the road, decide better of that and move back to the shoulder. It would stop at times, swaying back and forth towards the road and towards the path we were on.
Now, we had an issue….
At one point, it actually did step over the guard rail and started down the pedestrian path – TOWARDS US. Now WE had an issue – a steep bank down to the river on our right, the highway and a steep bank up a cliff on our left, and a HUGE, confused and potentially aggressive animal heading our way – nowhere to go.
In the moment, we tried to remember the “Wildlife Interaction” instructions we had received at the park visitor center. RUN from a moose, Stand up to a bear – or was it the other way around…Make noise, be quiet. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight! (Had Bob Marley ever faced a moose?). Funny the thoughts that come to you, concurrent with your life flashing before your eyes!
We were still considering our options, including an untimely death when fortunately the Moose decided to turn around and disappeared down a path of sorts on a section of the bank towards the river; maybe 100yds ahead of us. We intended to continue our walk right through that section of pedestrian path, but decided to WAIT to be sure he stayed down there, rather than coming back up to the path.
The woman in the chair joked that she would have no trouble outrunning the beast, but worried about her daughter!
As we waited, a tour bus coming towards us from the direction where the moose had been gawking at and was being gawked at from the highway, stopped. The driver shouted out the window to us – were we aware there was a moose there – concerned we might walk into danger. We were more than aware, we said still considering our options, but thanked the driver.
As we quickly and alertly walked past the place where the moose had gone down (it stayed down), we got to a parking area where a woman was unloading her mother into a wheelchair for a walk. We warned them about the moose, which we thought must certainly EVENTUALLY come back up to the path – there was no other way off the small beach we now saw it on, down by the river. They considered our advice and decided to take their short walk in the other direction.
I can tell you, having been pretty close to this critter, they are BIG. And apparently stupid, unpredictable and aggressive (or so we are told). Yet, we still see with regularity people stopping their cars, getting out and approaching these animals for their requisite selfie. Makes me question our species’ intelligence, even more so than when we watch the news!
In the evenings, back at the RV Park, we met another retired couple travelling in their Bluebird. Russ and Carol Howard, from Wausau, Wisconsin! As we did in Tok, we rang the doorbell as soon as we realized there were other Bluebirdbrains in the area. THIS TIME, they opened the door IMMEDIATELY, and invited us in. This lead inevitably to serial cocktails, during which we realized we had met before at least a couple of times at Blue Bird Rallies.
Leaving Denali, we moved onwards to Talkeetna, Alaska. This town is (in)famous for being the ostensible inspiration for the TV Series “Northern Exposure.” Whatever it WAS, it is now a tourist mecca-by-day and a quiet town with local color by eve. There is no “night” this time of year.
The Cruise Ships that call on Anchorage, about 2.5 hours away generate most of the tourists. They take buses, arriving late morning OR Private Train Cars on the Alaska Railroad, which stops in the middle of town. Though not quite as many Cruise-touri as Skagway, still dominating the town.
But also generating some pretty good restaurants AND a more-than-decent brewery (Denali Brewing Company), which we enjoyed for a couple days.
During our stay in Talkeetna, we had at least a couple happy accidents. First was a lecture by a former park ranger in the Talkeetna Historical Society’s Mountain Ascent Exhibit. He spoke about the Rangers’ activities in support of Climbers ascending Denali. And about the whole process for preparing and then undertaking such a climb. Step by step, including all the equipment necessary, the details of each facet of the climb, the routes used historically, the differences between this mountain and others, such as K2 and Everest, etc.
This was FASCINATING, not that we are ever inclined to make such an effort.
Most interesting was the very organized assistance the Park Services Rangers provide if people let them, including staffing three separate base and way-camps on the way up, roping certain parts of the trail, providing the latest weather forecasts, etc. And the fact that the Rangers CANNOT stop anyone from climbing, even if they show up at 7,000ft Base Camp in Flip Flops and t-shirts. People have, he assured us!
He also said if anyone gets in trouble, the Park Service will mobilize search and rescue (best in the world, he said) and find the climbers in need (or repatriate their remains); even if the need was created by their own stupidity. No bodies (or garbage or other waste) on THIS mountain such as you would find on Everest! All courtesy of the US Park Service and the US Taxpayer. He did not say this in a sarcastic or biting way – just a fact, and he was proud that the Park Service was charged with protecting even the idiots among us.
Next surprise, which was really a multi-part surprise, was some live music at a historic former-hotel – the Fairview. We thought we’d stop just for a diversion on a Wednesday Evening, since we saw the listing on the whiteboard in front. Good thing it was Wednesday (Mario Carboni) not Monday (Karaoke). Never heard of the former, but the later would NOT be pretty.
As we came to the hotel, we had the first part of the surprise: The sign said “7-10 Mario Carboni.” We assumed “7-o’clock to 10 o’clock.” There was NO activity at 6:55, not even any instruments or sound system on stage. So we asked the Bartender. She said, “There is DEFINITELY Music, but not at 7.” Liz asked “When.” She said, “Whenever Mario shows up!” Then I realized, “7-10” meant JULY 10th which it was, without relation to any particular “o’clock.”
Mario, it seems, tours in an Old Greyhound Bus, which he later told us was built in 1968, and the engine has more than 3 million miles on it!!! We had seen this bus, parked next to the Talkeetna Airstrip, and wondered at the time why someone would name a BLUE-painted bus “Ol Red.” Did not know whose it was, but once we did, it was all we could do not to walk over to it, knock and ask when the music would ACTUALLY start…
Anyway, we were considering how long to wait, when a woman inside the bar caught our attention. This was the second part of the surprise. She specifically came out and said “Don’t leave…Mario is EXCELLENT, you will be more than rewarded if you wait!” Turns out Anne and Charles, a couple in their 70’s who had retired to Anchorage awhile back, and had driven up to see Mario.
With, it turns out, Charles’ Boy Scout Buddy Wayne and his son Dave. They had FLOWN UP FROM HOUSTON, where Dave is a Cop. Not just to see Mario, I am sure, but they made quite an effort to get to Talkeetna and to see THE Mario Carboni, so we decided to stay, and we struck up a conversation. Part of which was an analysis of the “DEADLY HEAT WAVE” gripping Anchorage and Talkeetna for the past 2 weeks. UPPER 80’s. FOR TWO WEEKS! The Houston folks, used to upper 80’s overnight temps for 6 months of the year, and I laughed about that a little.
It turns out, our new friends had dinner reservations at 8:15, also being under the impression that Mario was playing for just an hour, beginning at 7. By 8:00, they realized they were going to have a problem. One the bag of Doritos Charles had purchased from the Historic Nagley’s Grocery Store across the street, was NOT going to solve. They asked if we could somehow save their PRIMO seats at the front-row table, while they wolfed down supper. We said OF COURSE we could. Anne and I exchanged numbers and then Texts so I could reach them at the restaurant if/when Mario showed up to play.
However, just, before they even left for the restaurant, Mario could be seen advancing from the old Greyhound pushing a cart with his Piano, Trumpet, Sound System etc. When he got to the bar, he greeted Charles and Anne warmly, as they have been following him for years, apparently. We were introduced, and, it seems, are now part of the extended familiy. Mario started playing, and after about ½ hour our friends went to dinner, returning later to seats we managed to retain. Of course it was after cruise-touri-departure – there were just NOT THAT MANY PEOPLE to save seats FROM.
As for the music, well, to say this was a HUGE SURPRISE would be an understatement. Mario Carboni is AWESOME. He calls himself the “Honky Tonk Rebel.” Mario, it seems, played with “Red” Simpson, who wrote a whole bunch of no.1 songs for Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and called Mario “The Best Damn Piano Player I Ever Heard.” (So now we know why the bus was named “Ol’ Red.”) He plays piano and trumpet (yes, Trumpet). At the same time, sometimes. Covering all sorts of Country and Country-rock and country and blues standards from Merle Haggard, Jimmy Rodgers, Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, etc. And mixes in some of his own work. An EXCEPTIONAL player and vocalist, and a really charming guy to talk to.
At one point, during a set he noticed the BB King shirt I was wearing. He said to come back tomorrow, he’d bring his harmonica and play some Blues (he didn’t have to invite me twice!)! Then he pointed to Liz, and said that John Denver (he played a few of his tunes, as well) had sat in THAT VERY CHAIR in THAT VERY BAR a few years back.
You CANNOT make this shit up!
After the initial confusion about time, he played 2 2+hour sets, finishing at MIDNIGHT! Of course he and we were perhaps invigorated by the fact that it was hardly dusk by then. Liz and I walked back to RV WHERE YET after the music finished, about 12:30 AM, more in need of sunglasses than flashlights!
After all the music, Liz and I realized that Mario was playing at “Salmonfest” with Norm Hamlett (another C&W Legend) on the Kenai Peninsula; something we had just happened to register for that very afternoon…
But THAT is a story for another post!