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6/14: Going Home & Final Words

June14-1We caught the 4am Hotel Shuttle to the Anchorage airport. We checked in for our 6:05 flight. Everything went smoothly with our travel today. We flew from Anchorage to Minneapolis/St. Paul to Detroit to Bangor, Maine. We arrived in Bangor close to midnight – tired, but happy to be home. We stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Bangor, and Mij & the dogs picked us up at 9am the next morning. The dogs were happy to see us, and they’d obviously had a wonderful time with Mij. It took about a week to get our body clocks back to East Coast time.

The Wrap-Up

The Cruising Portion: We would happily book another small ship trip with Un-Cruise Adventures. Their people were outstanding, and good customer service is a sure way to bring people back for more. The Alaska Scenery, opportunities to see wildlife, and learn about Alaskan history and culture made this an unforgettable journey for us. The hero of the trip was the Weather – of the 6 days we had rain, it only hindered our activities in Juneau. Sunshine, snow on the mountains, and natural beauty most everywhere we looked.  Meeting so many nice people made the trip even better.

The Land Tour: There were a few hiccups, but the land tour portion of our trip gave us what we wanted – a quick overview of Denali and a chance to see more of Alaska.  It was an opportunity to scope things out for a future trip.  Next time, we’ll do all of the planning ourselves, but it worked doing it the easy way this time.  We should have added one more night and stayed at the Lodge at Redoubt Bay – that would have increased our chances to see bears, because they (the people at the Lodge, not the bears) are very accommodating and will take you out for as long as you want.

Extra Excursions:  We booked 5 extra adventures for the trip.  Harv & Marv’s turned out to be a bust, but only because of the weather.  Our flight over Misty Fjords with Island Wings was outstanding.  We lost out on our private charter to St. Lazaria Island in Sitka, but we weren’t feeling well then, and happy to say our refund check beat us home.  The flight seeing to Mt. McKinley couldn’t have been better – and we got a bonus flight the next day.  The day at Redoubt Bay was bear-free, but otherwise fantastic.

 

How do you summarize a month long adventure?

In one word – Awesome.

In two words – Exceeded Expectations

In three words – Let’s Go Back !!!

 

Thanks for following along. If you have any questions, just give us a shout.

6/13: Are There Any Bears in Alaska?

June13-1We were picked up at 7am by a nice young lady from Rust’s Flying Service.  We knew we wanted to increase the odds of seeing bears on this trip, so we booked a fly in – fly out tour at the Lodge on Redoubt Bay.  This wasn’t the best time of year to see bears, and we knew that going in. (We did see bears on our cruise, but were hoping for closer viewing.)

On the way to Lake Hood, where we would catch a float plane to Redoubt Bay, we spotted a moose as we got close to the airport. Our driver stopped and backed up so we could get a better view – still hard to see, but fun nevertheless.

It was red float planes-a-plenty at Rust’s.  We were on a large DeHavilland Beaver, and the skies were clear as we took off from Lake Hood.  Lake Hood is the world’s busiest sea plane base, and is located adjacent to Anchorage International Airport:

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Not long after lift off, our pilot pointed out Beluga Whales below us:

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Uh Oh, what happened to clear skies and sunshine?

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I had the co-pilot’s seat, so had a good view as our pilot was deciding what to do.  He tried to find a way through the dense fog, and circled for about 10 minutes.  Did this mean we had to abort and go back to Anchorage?  He tried to get under the fog, but gave up and flew back to better visibility.

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He told us we were going to divert to Lake Clark National Park; we would do some sight seeing and check back to see if the fog had cleared off the lake.  This turned out to be an unexpected bonus to our adventure.  Another National Park checked off the list, and some very interesting views, since there are glaciers here:

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15 minutes later we were going to try again for Redoubt Bay.  This part of the flight was not for the weak – we made quite a few ups and downs while turning to get under the clouds.

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We made it!  There’s the small lodge where we’ll start our bear hunting tour.  We were all relieved to arrive safely, and had a short time to collect ourselves before getting in a small boat to search for wildlife:

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There goes our plane – hope he makes it back to pick us up this afternoon.

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The lodge is an upscale backcountry lodge.  Not fancy, and no indoor plumbing, but they obviously cater to their guests.  Our guide (I can’t recall his name, and when zooming onto the name tag on his shirt, all I see is “Staff.”), said he was optimistic about our chances today – they’d seen a small black bear on the porch of one of the cabins just this morning:

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There were 6 of us going out to catch some bears this morning.  There were 3 guys from Sweden, and a lady from Australia. They were all Travel Writers and their trips were sponsored by one of the Alaska Tourist Agencies; Lou & I were probably the only ones there on our own dime.  The boat we were on was plenty big enough for our group (we’re on the second boat – not the little fishing skiff):

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The weather was just perfect, and we started seeing wildlife right away.  First, a loon:

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And then a juvenile bald eagle, very close to the boat:

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The first place we stopped was a prime location to see bears, and it was also a prime target for fisherman.  We (maybe just me?) were surprised to hear the Silver Salmon were already running in this area, and several times a day they would fight up the small falls in this part of the bay.  That was the most likely time to see bears.

We watched the fishermen:

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And, I got a lucky shot of a Silver Salmon leaping from the water:

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We cruised around the bay, saw some more wildlife – only birds or water fowl.  We did see a beaver lodge, but no beaver:

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The trumpeter swans were enjoying the sunshine, as were we:

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A giant mossie –

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We stopped at a boggy area – this is where there was about 2 feet of “land” floating on top of the water.  Our guide invited folks off to jump around on the bog – this was a big hit:

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A bald eagle flew over us to see what all the frivolity was about:

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We cruised around some more, going back past the lodge and then back to the “sure thing” bear location:

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No bears for us today.  One of the other guides said they’d seen a Mama black bear and two cubs at this location about 30 minutes before we got there.  We made our way back to the lodge, where we used the facilities and were treated to a nice lunch of salmon burgers.

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After lunch, it was time to return to Anchorage, and our pilot did return for us.  The journalists were discussing how to write up their article, because they’d had such a nice time and they didn’t want the lack of bears to reflect poorly on the Lodge.  We felt the same.  How ironic – we thought we might not see bears because it wasn’t salmon season.  Then we see a Silver Salmon and no bears!  We had a good laugh, and no regrets at all about taking this side trip.

The flight out was uneventful, and the gallery below shows some of the interesting patterns we saw coming back into Cook Inlet.

June13-45

 

It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the Clarion.  We were both whacked.  Later that evening, we decided to just grab something to eat from the vending machine in the hotel.  Oops, only sodas.  I slipped over to Benihana and they kindly prepared some take-out sushi rolls for us.  Less than $20 and we had a great last dinner – they were the best and freshest sushi rolls we’ve had in a long time:

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Early to bed on our last night in Alaska – we have a shuttle to catch in the morning … groan … now that we’ve adjusted to the time change, a 4am departure time was not appealing.

More 6/12: The Great Rail Road Snafu: Part 2

We saw some of our travel mates, and they said they’d seen five bears on the bus trip this morning!  I was happy for them, but not disappointed because our flight was spectacular.  We had a short wait to board the train:

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Here it comes !!!  Locomotive No. 4326.

June12-28

 

We climbed up to the top deck of the Alaska Rail road dome car, and found our seats.  Score!  Since we’d bought the last tickets, we had a couple of empty rows behind us, and were able to each have our own row on opposite sides of the train.  This meant I wouldn’t have to disturb Lou as I got up and down to take photos, and he could sneak a nap or two if he was so inclined.

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This worked out so well, and there were no regrets about getting the new tickets.  I heard our travel mates had a good ride too, and having us missing gave them a couple spare seats as well.

This car had a viewing platform just out the back door on the same level as the seating, and that was very convenient for stepping out to take photos or just enjoy the view.

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The scenery from Denali to Anchorage was superior to the Fairbanks – Denali leg.  We enjoyed perfect weather and several good looks at Mt. McKinley – we hit the jackpot, seeing the mountain 2 out of our 3 days in Denali.  Narration isn’t really necessary; here are some photos of our journey.

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We pulled into modern downtown Anchorage at 8pm.  We grabbed a taxi to our hotel.

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We were booked into the Clarion Suites hotel for two nights.  It was fine, about 6 blocks from downtown Anchorage, but we didn’t need to do more touring – we were just about done with playing tourist.

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Fortunately, there was a Benihana restaurant right next to the Clarion and we walked over there for dinner after cleaning up from the long train ride.  It was nice to enjoy a meal together, sitting at our own little table for two.

June12-53

 

This was officially the end of our add-on adventure with Knightly Tours.  Technically, we ditched them when we decided to take the flight out of Kantishna and go our own way for the rail journey (this is no reflection on those we were traveling with – I just wanted to make sure the Alaska Rail Road experience lived up to expectations – and it did!).  I heard there might have been some confusion when we were missing from the bus, and from the train, but we had gone out of our way to make sure people responsible knew we would not be joining the group.

We had to get some sleep for our last adventure – tomorrow is the big bear hunt.

6/12: Goodbye, Denali … We’ll Miss You

We missed the 5am wake up call to catch the bus back to the Train Depot!!!  No worries, Lou had booked us on a flight from Kantishna to the park entrance when he stepped into the Kantishna Air office the day before and we weren’t leaving until 8am. No long bus ride for him today.  I was fine with this decision, even though I didn’t mind the bus ride.  This gave us a few hours to spend visiting the main visitor’s center for Denali National Park, and meant we’d be more rested for the 8 hour train ride to Anchorage.

June12-1

We included a fly by of Mt. McKinley on the trip back, and this turned out to be just as awesome as the day before.  Different, because there were so few clouds, and we had much better views of the mountainous terrain surrounding Mt. McKinley.  We were the only passengers, so it was like having a private viewing of the mountain.

This was our view as we topped the first hill the day before:

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This is what we saw today:

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Seeing the full majesty of Mt. McKinley in clear skies was worth missing a long bus trip:

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We have more photos of the mountain, but they are much like the previous day’s, except we didn’t see the climbers.  As we turned towards the park entrance, we got a much better look at the mountains we’d missed on our bus trip to Kantishna.  The colors of the Polychrome Mountains are just amazing:

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We had a clear view of all the shuttle busses that take over 425,000 visitors into the park each year.  Denali National Park covers more than 6 million acres.

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We landed on the railroad tracks – not quite, but the landing strip is adjacent to the tracks and you get to walk across them on your way to the depot.

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We walked the short distance to the Visitor’s Center, and enjoyed an overview of the history, flora, and fauna of Denali:

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We failed at mosquito love …

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Do you have Prince Albert in a can?  This display reminded me of Dad, who used to roll his own.

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After a good tour of the displays, and watching a movie about the park, we went over to the gift shop and cafeteria.  We still had an hour or so to go before boarding the train.  It was a beautiful morning in Denali:

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We picked up our checked bags and walked over to the train station.  There was no one available from Holland America to check on the configuration in today’s car, so I made another executive decision.  After finding out there were still a few seats available for Gold Star service to Anchorage, I booked two seats – we weren’t taking a chance on riding backwards for 8 hours.  And, this way Lou would get to ride in a real Alaska Rail Road car.  As I was paying for the tickets, Lou saw the rep, and she tried to get us to cancel the new tickets.  She apologized profusely for the ride from Fairbanks, saying that wasn’t how it was supposed to be. She confirmed today would be all forward-facing seats.  That’s okay, we said, we’ll stick with our new tickets.

Check out the next post to see if we made the right decision …

6/11: Our Lucky Day

There are several activities to choose from at Kantishna Roadhouse; you can do a guided hike, flyfish for grayling, or pan for gold. I’d already taken care of our plans for the morning, having reserved a flight seeing tour of Mt. McKinley with Kantishna Air Taxi. Given the weather on arrival day, this was iffy.  It was still foggy and cloudy after breakfast, but the Lodge received a call that the flight was on.  Will this end up being as good as our flight over Misty Fjords?

We were joined by a couple of gals from our cruise, and a van picked us up at 8:30am.  It is just a short ride to the “airport,” which is a simple unpaved landing strip.  Let’s go for a flight!

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As we took off, we saw ………… mostly clouds:

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Once we rose above 7,000 ft., we were above the clouds and Denali came into view.  I was impressed – it looked just like I thought it would:

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Oh, wait.  That’s not Denali, that’s one of the neighboring peaks (I should have paid more attention to the display at Eielson). Here’s Denali – we were able to see both the North and South peaks.  The lenticular cloud layer hovered over the top, but we did get clear views as we flew around on our tour:

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We cruised all around the mountain at 12,000 ft – perspective makes it seem like we are level with the peaks, but the summit is 10,000 ft higher still.

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What’s that?  See those two small dots in the bottom clearing?  Turns out we could actually see one of the places where planes land when dropping climbers or supplies.  Some climbers start their ascent half way up the mountain, others start in Talkeetna.

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More flying around – this looks like a peak of meringue:

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We can actually see one of the base camps – a closer look:

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(I was using the small camera with a short zoom, but it was exciting just being able to get glimpses of activity on the mountain)

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Andy, our excellent pilot, said we could even see climbers on their ascent.  Of course, Lou spotted them right away.  I looked, and looked; finally saw them after we landed when I reviewed the photos.

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Do you see the “S” shaped curve on the left side of the photo above?  Guess what that is?

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And, there are more up in the shadow in the top left quadrant of that same photo:

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I can’t imagine how people do this?  Denali NP limits the number of climbers on the mountain to 1500 each season – which runs late April to mid-July. Statistics for 2013 show 1,151 people starting the climb, and 68% actually make it to the summit.

It was time to go. Our trip back was fine, as we descended through the clouds and landed back at the airstrip.  This was an incredible morning, seeing Denali above the clouds, and getting a perspective on the climbers made for a very special experience.

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We were driven back to the Lodge and were there before lunch.  On the way, we made a quick stop at the Kantishna Air office, and Lou stepped in to take care of our paperwork.  He may have also had a plan up his sleeve.  I waited in the van, and learned what the tennis rackets in our room are for:

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They are skeeter zappers – you press a button and swat the suckers, and a jolt of electricity takes care of them.  Cruel – perhaps. Necessary – definitely!

I walked around the Lodge grounds for just a short time after lunch – the giant mosquitoes were annoying, but they did a lot more buzzing than biting.  We might have availed ourselves of more lodge activities, had we not just finished three incredible weeks seeing the Inside Passage.  We were “activitied” out.

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Fresh moose poop – of course, we didn’t see a live moose.  Our moose repellant aura seems to be in full force on all of our travels.

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Back in the room, Lou is checking out the Skeeter Racket (he ordered two once we arrived home):

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We took it easy for the rest of the day, and enjoyed a much-needed nap.  Dinner tonight was the low point of our trip.  I won’t bore you with the details, but our experience was enough to mark the Roadhouse off our list.  Kirsty, John the bartender, and the nature guides were all helpful.  The kitchen and serving staff left a lot to be desired, especially given the cost of staying at the lodge.

I still had one event left for the evening.  At 8:30pm, some of us loaded up in a van and drove a few miles to Wonder Lake.  We walked about a quarter of a mile to the lake. It was a beautiful evening looking over the lake, with Mt. McKinley in the background:

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We were back at the lodge at 10pm – giving an opportunity to show just how late the sun stays up in Alaska during the summer:

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And that completes another day in Alaska.  We leave early tomorrow for the trip to Anchorage.

More 6/10: Predator and Prey

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Everyone back on the bus, we moved out and soon came upon more caribou:

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Kirsty stopped the bus and pointed up on the hill – how did she spot this guy?  It was a Cross Fox, meaning it is a mix of red and black.  He’s an evil looking little guy:

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We soon saw what he was going after – they were too quick to get a good shot, but you can barely see the little arctic ground squirrel running for his life …

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This was even better than seeing a bear!  Kirsty and everyone in the bus kept a look out for more wildlife, and I enjoyed the views:

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There was barely room for two busses to pass, so the drivers have to know what they are doing:

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We passed a lone hiker walking along the ridge – you are allowed to hike through parts of Denali, but there are no trails in most of the park.

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We saw our cross fox once again – not looking happy at having missed dinner:

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Dinner was keeping a diligent lookout for Mr. Fox:

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We stopped every 90 minutes or so for a restroom break.  The next stop was at the Eielson Visitor’s Center.  There wasn’t much time for more than a quick look around, so we definitely have to go back.

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There was a display describing the peaks of Mt. McKinley; we couldn’t even see the tops of the mountains below Mt. McKinley, let alone distinguish the various peaks:

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Mt. McKinley is also called “Denali,” meaning The Great One, or The High One.  It is the highest mountain peak in North America with a summit elevation of 20,237 feet above sea level.  It also stands out because the base to peak rise is considered the largest of any mountain entirely above sea level (source: Wikipedia).  It sure would be nice to see this majestic mountain; but we knew only a third of Denali National Park visitor’s are lucky enough to see the peak.  We weren’t in the lucky third today!

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Lou found some delicate flowers, and almost froze walking around taking photos – no jacket as usual.

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Kirsty had chocolate chip cookies and fruit for us after our Eielson stop.  We did have one other stop before Kantishna, but the few photos we took seem to be missing – probably on the same memory card as the Giant Grizzly and cubs (note – we didn’t see a single bear or moose on the drive into the park). We saw a number of small ponds near the road as we continued towards Kantishna, and the water fowl didn’t seem to mind the cold:

And, it was still cold – there was ice on the lakes.  The road into Denali had just opened the previous week, so we were very early in the season.

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Wildlife sightings on the rest of the drive were limited to caribou, some birds too far away to identify, and a small weasel.  The terrain leveled out as we approached Kantishna:

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We passed the North Face Lodge; Lou stayed here on his Photography Tour in 2008 (I had to cancel due to work commitments – fortunately not a problem now!).  This would have been his choice for our trip, but it is impossible to get into if you don’t reserve over a year in advance.

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We had a quick view of Wonder Lake as we kept driving to our destination:

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We pulled into the Kantishna Roadhouse at 7:45 pm – about 6 1/2 hours after leaving the train depot.  I enjoyed every minute of the bus ride (it’s a long time on a bus for Lou, but he enjoyed it too).  We may not have seen all of the big animals, and the weather was inclement, but it is impossible to describe the feeling you get looking out into the expanse of Denali National Park. Kirsty was such a great driver and guide, we felt fortunate to enjoy the ride with her and Charley.

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Now that we had arrived, we had just a short time to wash up for dinner.  Our cabin was good – spacious and clean.  Dinner was ok; food is served family style and you’re assigned a table for dinner.  Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style.

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We were ready to hit the sack after our long travel day, so that’s what we did. More adventures coming up tomorrow.