Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Visiting Denali

Denali.  What can I say?  This was a big Must See on our Alaska list.  It was both more, and less, than what we had anticipated.

It was more driving than I'd wanted to do in a day.  From Anchorage to Denali is about a four hour drive.  Maybe a little less in a car, definitely more in an RV.  I had wanted to do four hour hikes, not four hour drives.  To that point, the longest hike I'd been on in Alaska hadn't even reached the two hour mark.

It was more beautiful than we'd anticipated.  The day we drove there was clear, sunny, bright blue skies, and we could see the peak of Denali.  Did we stop to take a picture from any point on the road?  No. We were in a hurry to get there and figured it would be even better up close.

Inside the park, there were less options than we'd thought.  There is one road, and you can only drive on it so far.  After that you have to take either a shuttle bus or a tour bus to designated locations.  I had envisioned something more like Yellowstone, or Glacier (National Park), where you drive yourself around and see things, stopping (and possibly hiking) at will.  There were some hiking trails-- all near the entrance of the park--but up the road was just, well, road for buses only, and wilderness.  There were a few campgrounds, all of which were full for the nights we planned to be in Denali (I don't know why DH persists in trying to play nighttime lodging by ear, especially when it gets really frustrating to not have a reservation when you want to be in a specific location.)

DS2 and his friends had made it from Seward to Denali, where they had a 3-day back-country permit and tickets for the 8 hour bus ride to the end of the road at Kantishna.  From there they would hike and camp until making their way back to Toklat on the third day and taking a shuttle bus back to the park entrance.  We met up with them our first morning at Denali, and since they had about a two hour wait for their bus, we all did a short hike to Horseshoe Lake to pass the time.

That was the only hiking I got to do in Denali.  DH was sure that we'd see more wildlife if we took one of the bus tours, and he really, really wanted to see some bear.  I had my doubts about that, but agreed that we could do a bus ride.  A short bus ride; not the twelve hour one, and not the eight hour one.  The thought of sitting still on a bus full of people for hours and hours, for me, negated any extra wildlife or scenery we had the chance of seeing.

Turned out, since we hadn't bought any tickets in advance (gee, reservations, anyone?!?) we had two choices of buses that day: Toklat River at 6.5 hr round trip ride or Eielson Visitor Center at 8 hour round trip ride.  If we bought shuttle bus tickets, rather than tour bus tickets, we could ask to be dropped off at any point and then later picked up by any shuttle bus, we didn't have to do the entire round trip on the same bus.  Which meant we could do a short hike if we wanted to.  (Remember, my Alaska wish list had included at least one 4+ hour hike, preferably several of that length and we had yet to do any that even lasted two hours.)

Trying to use my best neutral face and voice, I told DH that the 6.5 hr bus ride sounded preferable.  So he bought tickets for that.  Unfortunately, there were only two departure times left: 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.  Since I wasn't particularly wanting to be on a bus instead of in bed in the RV at midnight, we went with the 3:00 bus.  After we were on it, I figured out that hiking wasn't going to be possible.  Not even if I got off that bus.  Because it was the second to last bus going back to the park entrance that evening.  And the last one didn't arrive back until midnight. So if I got off 'my' bus in order to hike for several hours, I had to catch the last bus back--arriving at midnight--or no bus at all. (Imagine me silently swearing while sitting on what was pretty much an old school bus with at least 60 other people, while retaining my neutral face.)

We did see some animals.  The bus stopped for every animal the driver or anyone else saw.  If a squirrel ran across the road, we stopped.  When a ptarmigan was in the road, we stopped.  And waited for it to cross.  Apparently ptarmigan walk slower than turtles.  Slower than snails.  At least the ones we stopped for did.  And every time we stopped, at least half the population of the bus stood up to take pictures out the window.  I think our shortest stop was five minutes in length.  Most were 10 minutes, some a little bit longer.  Ironically the two potty stops on the trip were only 15 minutes in length.

I didn't get any pictures of the arctic squirrels, willow ptarmigan, moose, pika, snowshoe hare or Dall sheep that we stopped for.  Too many people's heads/arms/cameras in the way. Of the three caribou that were spotted, I got pictures of two, but only a few that weren't from far away and kind of blurry.  The best one was in the evening on the way back, when there was a caribou standing in a glacial outwash plain to the side of the road, calmly eating fireweed pretty much right out my window.  Ah, nobody to 'shoot' around for this picture.

What I did get some decent pictures of was the scenery at many of the scenic overlook types of stops the bus made.

at Teklanika  overlooking one of many braided rivers

Polychrome Mountains

the bridge where the road goes to Toklat

 Toklat River

also Toklat

So, the scenery was pretty nice, the bus itself not as uncomfortable as I'd anticipated, but overall not the Denali experience I had desired to have. (Confession:  I had brought a book in my backpack of snacks and drinks, and I did read for roughly half of the return trip portion of our bus ride.) Even DH got a bit bored with it and was more than ready to get off when we finally returned to the park entrance.  We'd spent more than twelve hours in the park at that point, but only less than three (total) actually walking around outdoors.  On a fairly decent weather day, we'd spent a large portion of it 'indoors' (but clouds covered the top of Denali, so again, no picture of the famous mountain!)

I don't want to make the bus experience turn anyone off from going to Denali and seeing/experiencing it for themselves.  It wasn't horrible. If you like to sit and listen to a guide and look out the windows at things, it was really a perfect trip.  Me, I like to move, to walk, to hike, to examine things at my own pace (and preferably close up).  I can't sit still anywhere for 6.5 hours (I was a horrible doodler in school, keeping my hands busy was the only way I could keep my rear in the seat all day), and I would have much more enjoyed being tired and sweaty and using my own feet to transport me for 6.5 hours.  I also like the little view (as DH says, look at the hairs on a bee's legs) versus staring at distant scenery.  So the bus wasn't bad, it just wasn't my kind of adventure.

There were a few more things we wanted to see in the park, like the sled dog demo, the Murie Science center, and try a longer hike than to Horseshoe Lake, so we planned to return the next morning.  We wouldn't be able to spend another entire day, but we could stay until roughly 2:00 or so.

We found a nice overlook pullout about half hour down the road from the park entrance, and parked the RV there for the night.

The next morning didn't go so well.  We did get to see the sled dog demonstration which was cool in many ways.  I was familiar with sled dog training and their wheeled summer 'sled' (cart) as I had grown up across the street from (and babysitting and dogsitting for) a family who raised, showed, and mushed Samoyeds.  So the handling, the harnessing, and even the cart were nothing new to me.  DH and DD2 loved seeing and learning though.

What was most interesting to me was seeing more than a few dogs who looked almost exactly like our own Old Dog, whom we'd had from puppydom to the ripe old age of 12 years 11 months, who was supposedly pure German Shepherd but was built with a flatter more level back and longer legs and larger feet than any shepherd we'd ever seen.  When we'd take him places, people always asked us what he was crossed with.  Now I think I have the answer.  Alaskan Husky.  Those dogs are bred for work, for pulling, for running through deep snow with long legs and large feet.  They aren't the big, fluffy, black and white dogs you think of when you hear Husky. (Your stereotypical Husky is a Siberian Husky.)  Alaskan husky is a type rather than a pure breed.

this (young) dog looks almost identical to our beloved Old Dog in his later years

this dog is the coloration of Old Dog as a youngster

Another part of the sled dog demo that I found entertaining was the park ranger.  We rode shuttle buses from the entrance area to the sled dog area (15 min ride or so).  Upon arrival, this ranger boarded each bus, introduced himself, gave some rules about being in the dog kennel area, and explained to us what the order of our visit would be.  10 min to walk around designated areas, then go to the viewing stands, watch about a 30 minute demo, then 15 more minutes to walk around and see things.

But from the instant he stepped onto the bus I wasn't focusing so much on what he was saying, but how he looked.  His build, his facial expressions, the way his clothes fit. . . if he wasn't a dead ringer for Ranger Tom (from Escanaba in da Moonlight, all you Michiganians).  That was it, my concentration on anything but getting a pic of this guy and texting it to my kids was blown.  (And yes, they agreed he definitely was a twin for Ranger Tom.  Guess that's where he went after the Bearwok scared him out of the U.P.  LOL) 

After the sled dog demo was over, we decided rather than take the shuttle bus back to the visitor center at the entrance, we would take one of the short paths that led in that general direction, and stop at the Murie Science center.  I was anxious to move around.  Except the faint discomfort I'd started having underneath my left shoulder blade while watching the dog sled demo grew into more of an actual pain while we walked.  It was a strange pain I'd never experienced before, like someone was trying to either shove a knife from my spine toward the front of my ribcage and up underneath my shoulder blade, or hit me occasionally in that location with a sledgehammer.  Drawing a deep breath became difficult.  

When we got to the Murie center, I thought maybe sitting down would help.  It didn't. Sitting actually intensified the pain and made breathing in general a struggle.  I'm not one to panic, and I have a pretty high pain tolerance (4 births, all natural, not one single scream!!), but this was pretty intense and worrisome.  Any desire to hike was gone.

No, scratch that. I still wanted to hike.  I just knew that, right then in that condition, I couldn't hike. I wanted to hike, but I didn't want to keel over out on a hiking trail.  Alaska was not supposed to be the final trip on my bucket list. I could barely breathe.  I could barely keep from crying out.  Plus, my mind was going a hundred miles an hour trying to pinpoint and categorize exactly what was going on with my body, then do a memory search on what those things might be symptoms of or caused by. 

 Appendix?  Nope, too high and wrong side (although back at the RV, I did lay on my back and do a quick knees-to-chest check for appendix pain).  Heart?  Hmm, maybe, I have mysteriously had increasing high blood pressure this year and it was really high two weeks prior at the dentist, but an EKG the month before that had come back normal.  Mostly, though, it seemed to be deep muscular pain, especially the way I could definitely feel it near my spine and under my shoulder blade at the same time.  Lungs?  Possibly.  I was diagnosed with two calcified granulomas in my left lung last summer, possibly indicative of a condition known as farmer's lung.  With the location of the pain and the accompanying difficulty breathing, lungs couldn't be ruled out.  So, at least I wasn't having a heart attack, right?

DH and DD2 were getting a bit concerned about me.  They weren't so sure I wasn't having a heart attack.  To be sure, DD2 commanded me to "Cough really hard, that is supposed to restart your heart rhythm."  Not sure where she got that idea, but I did it to humor her.

We ended up cutting our visit to the Murie center short, so that I could go lay down in the RV (which helped ease the pain and make breathing less difficult) and take a shit ton large dose (800 mg worth) of Motrin for the pain.  It wasn't for the pain relief itself that I wanted the Motrin, it was for the muscle relaxing and anti-inflammatory ability of the ibuprofen.  That did the trick, although it took nearly an hour for the pain to go away enough that I could walk or sit comfortably and talk without coughing.

So much for getting to hike in Denali.  It was almost one o'clock by then, so we just hit the road back toward Anchorage. By bedtime that night, I was fine.  I'm thinking it was either my lungs, or I just had my first ever back spasm and it was incredibly nasty.  (DH occasionally has a spasm in his lower back that brings him to the floor; I've just never personally had one.) There had been a little niggling soreness in that area beginning a few days before, and I'd thought I was just uncomfortable from sleeping cramped up on my side in the RV's 'queen' sized bed with DH.  Maybe the (mostly bumpy) bus ride the previous day had inflamed that irritated muscle enough that sleeping on the bed again was just too much and I ended up with spasms?  Who knows.

Before it got difficult to breathe, I had managed to push away the pain enough to get interested in examining a really cool quilt that was hanging in the Murie center. It was a representation of Denali National Park, and it had basically been turned into a GIS map (DD2 was super geeked when she saw this; she had a class on GIS mapping last semester and knows how to take data and create a GIS map with it), then each category on the GIS had been given a fabric color and a quilted map was created. You could 'see' Denali and know what type of tree or terrain or water feature was predominant in a location by what color fabric was sewn there.  The entire border of the quilt was of different trees, animals, etc, that live within Denali.  Some of it featured applique or other special piecing techniques.  The quilting itself gave texture to the quilt and incorporated animal tracks (moose & wolf).  

Looking at it as a quilter, I was totally blown away.  Looking at it from a scientific mindset, the whole design, with the GIS mapping, was brilliant.  As a whole, that quilt is a masterpiece of art and science and a perfect example that they can and do exist together and don't need to be mutually exclusive.

I really wish my mystery back pain/breathing problem had waited long enough for us to get that one last hike in before leaving Denali.  Shortly after we left the park, the weather turned to rain, and the rain continued through the night.  I totally could have been in intense pain laying on the RV's bed, while DH drove in the rain.  If I could have scheduled it, that's the way it would have happened.  As it was, I felt okay and interested in hiking about the same time the weather got crappy.  So even though we'd planned to leave at 2:00 in order to stop on the way to Anchorage and do some hiking, yet be close to Anchorage by dinner time, nobody wanted to hike in the pouring rain.

Including DS2 and his friends, who still had another day and night in Denali's back-country, and ended up having to pack up and lug wet tents and other gear back to the airport.  Apparently we all picked a rainy spell to visit Alaska in.

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