Category: Week 4

6/10: Travel Day to Denali …

June10A-2Monday morning was an early start. It had rained off and on yesterday, but it was just cloudy this morning. Transportation was not an issue today, the Resort Busses were ready to take us to the Train Depot.

If you’ve not been to Alaska, you might be asking, “Another Travel Day?”  This wasn’t just any travel day, this was a whole day of scenic touring, starting with a trip on the Alaska Rail Road from Fairbanks to Denali.

 

We were at the Rail Station in plenty of time.  In our packet, it said to check in with the Holland America Rep.  It turned out we would not be traveling in an “Official Alaska Rail Car,” but would be going in one of the cars the cruise lines use for their tours.  I think I had figured this out before we left for the trip, but Lou was disappointed – authenticity is important to a Train Geek (I was wishing I had checked this out better before the trip).  The Rail Station was very modern, just like the airports:

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They even had a large model railroad set up at one end of the terminal:

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I had a sense of foreboding that all might not be well as we were walking … and walking … out to board our rail car:

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We walked passed the Holland America Cars and onto the Princess Cars – this wasn’t good.  The Princess Cars are configured with a four top table, and two at each table end up riding backwards the whole trip.  Plus, there’s not a lot of leg room for someone who is 6’5″.  We were seated with a very nice couple who had also been on Week 3 of the Un-Cruise.  Lou didn’t say much at the time, but he did stand a lot of the way to Denali.  Fortunately this was the short leg of the trip – only 4 hours.  I spent a lot of time downstairs in the vestibule between cars taking photos (I thought the description said we’d be able to step out of our Luxury Dome car onto a viewing platform?).  Oh well, it wasn’t all that bad, and there isn’t a lot to see between Fairbanks and Denali anyway.

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We passed the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and this is the Alaska Satellite Facility:

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The view was mostly trees for a couple of hours:

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There was a dining room on our car on the lower level.  Lou wasn’t hungry, but I had a nice breakfast of pancakes:

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We had a good view of the abandoned HCCP (Healy Clean Coal Project) – this facility cost about $300 million when built in the late 1990s, only to be abandoned in 2000 … it would make a good backdrop for a science fiction movie about aliens taking over the Satellite Research Center …

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A big curve provides an opportunity to capture a photo of the front part of the train. All of the blue and yellow cars are Alaska RR cars, then come the HAL and Princess Cars. Note – Lou and I kept arguing because I said we were not supposed to be in a Princess car, and he said they were all Princess cars … well, he turned out to be kinda right, since I found out that Carnival owns just about everybody, so they are all sister-companies. But, more about the rail car snafu later.

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June10A-14We saw some river rafters from the train.

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There wasn’t necessarily a lot to see on this journey, and some say you’re better off just driving to Denali from Fairbanks, but I enjoyed the train ride and the scenery.

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Here’s a partially frozen waterfall, reminding us it’s still cold in this part of the country:

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Finally, we could see snow-covered mountains:

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We arrived at Denali – you can see the many hotels that provide lodging for Park visitors in this photo – I think part of this area is called “Glitter Gulch” because of all the tourist shops and restaurants:

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Once we got off the train, no one knew where to go to get our luggage, or whether it was being transferred straight to our hotel. Finally, we found a RR guy who pointed us in the right direction.  We soon had our luggage, and we watched as most all of the other tourists were picked up …

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We knew we wanted to store some of our luggage, so we walked over to the baggage check (near the Visitor’s Center) and took care of that.  Our paperwork said there was a strict 1 bag per person limit for the bus ride to our lodging.  We weren’t going to one of the nearby hotels; we were booked into a “backcountry lodge” located in the heart of Denali National Park, and would have a 95 mile bus ride to get there (those of you who know Lou well are probably having a good chuckle about now – actually, he knew about this because he had been to Denali in 2008, and did this same bus ride).

We waited another 10 minutes or so, and we saw the “Kantishna Roadhouse” bus coming to pick us up.  Kirsty was our driver; she seemed surprised (and not too happy) that the person who was supposed to meet us at the depot didn’t show up.  But, she quickly took charge of loading the luggage and had us on our way.  There were no issues with those who had multiple bags – there were only 20 of us on the bus, so there was plenty of room.  Here’s a photo of our bus – this was taken later in the afternoon, it was all nice and clean when Kirsty picked us up.

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The only way to Kantishna is by bus or airplane.  And, the only way to drive further than 15 miles into Denali National Park is to take a bus.  The Park Service runs continuous shuttles that take you to various destinations.  Our bus was more comfortable than a shuttle bus, and it was nice to be able to spread out.

We were soon on our way – here are some of the photos as we drove into the Park:

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Soon, we saw our first four-legged animal in Denali; a caribou crossed right in front of the bus:

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A couple more foggy view shots:

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Kirsty stopped the bus and quietly pointed out something to the port left side of the bus; it was a Ptarmigan, the Alaska State Bird:

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I was delighted to see the Ptarmigan, since I’d read about them but didn’t think we’d have any luck spotting them from a bus. Kirsty is a pro at what she does – both driving the bus (I think she had named this one Charley), and spotting wildlife.  It turns out she is a professional photographer as well, but she didn’t even hint that she had photos for sale at the Lodge and the Alaska Geographic Center at the Park.

Right after the Ptarmigan, we saw more caribou – and, we kept seeing caribou.  So many, Kirsty suggested we just wave to them as we drove by, otherwise we would never make it to dinner.

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Even though it was cloudy, and it rained off and on, the scenery as we drove deeper into the park was impressive.  Those of you who’ve followed our travels know I enjoy “drive-by shooting” and there were many opportunities from the bus as we drove along. Lou just enjoyed the ride, although he did borrow the camera once in awhile when there was something interesting on his side of the bus.

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Hikers wait for one of the shuttle busses to come along:

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We saw some Dall Sheep up on the hill, and Kirsty said we’d get a better look soon.  First, we had to wait for one of the Park Shuttle Busses to clear the turn.  We thought about Grandma at this point, knowing she would not like this drive!

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Sure enough, after we made the turn, we had a better few of the sheep, and the little ones as well.  Kirsty stopped the bus so we could all get photos of the Dall Sheep:

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Continuing on to our first stop for the trip.  We had a 15 minute restroom break at the Toklat Visitor Center – the first of two Visitor’s Centers that are actually located within the Park – you can see the tent like structure with some shuttle busses parked beside it:

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We all hopped back on the bus, and Kirsty continued her narration and wild life spotting.  Let’s break for now, and come back to finish up the day in the next post.

 

 

6/9: Travel Day to Fairbanks

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This will not be a very exciting day to read about, but I’m including it just so we have complete documentation of our trip.  We had to leave the hotel at 4:00am in order to catch an early flight to Fairbanks.  Actually, we were flying

Sitka >Juneau>Anchorage>Fairbanks.

I should back up to explain why we’re doing this.  We tacked on 5 days to the end of our Un-Cruise Adventure in order to see some more of Alaska.  Our primary destination was Denali National Park, and we were also going to get the chance to ride the Alaska Rail Road.  The arrangements for this part of our tour were handled by Knightly Tours.  We will not be totally complimentary about some aspects of this part of the trip.  Even though this was booked as an add-on from Un-Cruise (through an independent travel agent), there were no Un-Cruise people involved.  Un-Cruise offers this as a convenience for their passengers.  We also added an extra day in Anchorage for a day trip to try and see some bears (these arrangements were made by us). Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad, and we’re not sorry we added the Land Tour to our trip.

Back to our travel day from Sitka.  There aren’t a lot of options for flights out of Sitka, which is why we were on the 6am flight. When we stepped outside the Westmark to catch the van to the airport, there was confusion; there’s no way the van was going to hold all of the people waiting (I think there were 14 from Un-Cruise and another 4 or 5).  We opted to pay $10 for a quick taxi trip and avoid the confusion.  As it turns out, Knightly had arranged for a van, and it arrived to pick people up – it’s just that none of us and no one at the hotel knew this.  Not a big issue – we all made it safely to the airport which was about a 7 minute drive!  I only mention it because it’s the start of a few issues along the way …

Waiting at the Sitka Airport – notice the bear – this was a common theme in all the airports we visited in Alaska

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Our flight stopped in Juneau, but we didn’t get off.  Continuing to Anchorage, here’s a photo out the window (taken by randomly reaching across a sleeping Lou):

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We had a 3 hour layover in Anchorage – originally we had a short layover, but they changed the flights.  Lou was concerned our camera gear would not fit in the overhead on a smaller Regional Jet, so we opted to wait for the larger plane (we didn’t know we would be sending stuff back when flights were arranged).  Our long layover turned out to be a good thing – Lou was able to catch up on his internet stuff (he always says it’s bill paying, but this looked suspiciously like a model railroad forum site):

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I wandered around the airport, which was actually interesting:

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It was a beautiful day in Anchorage, and I was surprised to see so many flowers in bloom:

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You can see that the Anchorage Airport is a very modern facility; all of the airports we saw in Alaska were modern and very clean. Not surprising, since air travel is so important to people who live where highways don’t connect all of the cities.

We’ve now reached Fairbanks, and there was another bear waiting for us in the baggage claim area:

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We had a short wait for the van to our hotel for the night – we were staying at the River’s Edge Resort.  The Fairbanks Airport reminded us a lot of the airports in Australia – maybe they were designed by the same people:

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The River’s Edge Resort was a nice place to overnight – it’s not right in the city, but it is possible to catch a tour bus from there if you want to go see some of the sights.  Since we arrived in the afternoon, we limited our excitement to doing laundry.

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We had a cute little cabin on the River’s Edge … I would have taken a photo of the river, but was worried the Gigantic Mosquitoes would carry me away:

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Lots of people take their RVs to Alaska, or rent one for their vacation, and the RV park was a happening place.  It was convenient to do our laundry, since there was no way it was going to magically appear in our room like it had the previous two weeks:

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We opted for an early dinner at Chena’s Grill – the onsite restaurant.  It was raining off and on, so we elected not to dine on the patio with the skeeters.  The food was not memorable, but we had a nice time visiting with the bartender/manager before dinner. She shared a lot about living in Alaska.

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We found out we could have taken a small plane charter, or “air taxi,” from Anchorage to Denali.  That might have been a good idea, but we didn’t really mind chilling on a travel day.

Tomorrow is another early start, so we went to bed early.