To Denali

Having exhausted the wonders of Fairbanks, next morning we boarded the Alaska Rail Road to Denali National Park, home of Mt McKinley, and thousands of acres of wilderness. Our train seats were excellent; in a Vista-Dome style car with large picture windows both to the side and overhead. However, for a good part of the trip, the scenery was pretty dull. Acres and acres of stunted spruce, aspen, birch and a few other struggling plants.

We soon learned the reason for the dullness. The entire interior area of Alaska is dominated by either permafrost or "discontinuous" permafrost. Permafrost is just that. The ground is frozen, from the surface down, all year long. Nothing much at all grows in permafrost. Discontinuous permafrost is ground that thaws in the summer down maybe 4-6 feet, but below that, is frozen solid. Then next winter it freezes again, and thaws again. So the soil is in a constant state of upheaval. Besides which, the soil itself is pretty poor. The discontinuous kind allows some trees to grow, but grudgingly. The same spruce that would be 100-150 feet tall in southern Alaska grows 10-15 feet tall here, though the tree might be 75-100 years old. And believe me, there is a lot of discontinuous permafrost in Alaska.

The last 40 minutes or so of the four hour trip were much more scenic. The tracks paralleled the Neena river which cuts through a mountain range. The stream was very rapid, though not too rapid for the rafters we saw there. We also were able to see a moose and four Dall sheep on the mountain slopes across the river. Also, much to our train guide’s surprise, we had a clear look at Mt. McKinley. He said that in all his trips this summer, he’d seen the mountain only four or five times. The day itself was bright and sunny, also somewhat of a surprise to the guide.

We arrived at the Denali train station and were bussed over the river to our rustic cabins (well rustic apartments). This complex ("McKinley Chalets") of apartments, restaurant, theatre and other supporting buildings is owned by the Holland-American company. It, along with ones owned by other travel firms, sprawls alongside the road, just at the edge of the park grounds. There was a feverish amount of construction going on, getting ready for next summer’s even larger band of visitors.

After we got settled in, we went over to the park service’s headquarters building, which was not much from our point of view. The main function was to serve as an information center for backpackers. Much information about trails and about drop-off/pick-up services available to hikers. But of course we weren’t into that line at all. So we went back to our little chalet in the woods to wait for dinner time. At dinner time we decided on pizzas, which turned out to be a bad idea. Ellen had one with reindeer sausage, which she didn’t like much. I experimented by ordering one with chicken, pesto and garlic. The experiment was a success. I will never order such a combination again. However, the bottle of wine we ordered was quite good.

We noticed that our waiter was using a very high-tech wireless electronic tablet to send the orders back to the kitchen. Duly impressed, I asked how the kitchen staff let him know when the order was ready. "Oh", he said. "They just call out my name when I walk by."

The wait staff here was also largely eastern European. Young people from Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania. Our waiter with the electronic tablet was also from a strange place, California.

Back (River Trip) Next (Denali)