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Sunday, December 27, 2009

ALL ABOARD FOR SOME JAW-DROPPING ALASKAN SCENERY

Give me a comfortable, glass-domed train, stunning Alaskan vistas, a little more Denali, a wilderness beyond belief, and incredible stories narrated by an enthusiastic guide, and I’ve got a perfect way to travel the vast distance between McKinley Wilderness Lodge and Denali Wilderness Lodge. Thank you, Princess.

We board our train in Talkeetna, a long, long train with several beautiful domed cars labeled Princess or Holland America. Rob and I have our private table for a four-hour experience filled with mythic beauty.

The train rumbles out of Talkeetna and curls its way around the mountains leading up to Denali. Throughout the trip, high, high mountains, glaciers, and peaks often surrounded by puffs of white, white clouds reach for the bluest sky. The wilderness stretches across and up the most untamed country I’ve ever seen. It seems as if we time-traveled back to the unexplored west of the early 1800s. There’s no place this big, open, or majestic anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s jaw-dropping beautiful.

We get better glimpses of Denali today. We drop the name McKinley and call this mountain Denali as Alaskans do. Its peak, however, is still shrouded by clouds and remains a mystery to us. Even so, it is breathtaking.

Forests of evergreens appear to march toward the mountains. They are so deep and wide that the sight seems more painting than reality. The Susitna River, Alaska’s biggest whose name means First River in Athabascan, and then the Chulitna River cut through the green and leave us with memories of rushing, white-capped rapids. We learn that “na” at the end of a name means “water” in Athabascan, hence Susitna and Chulitna. Along the water we see huge beaver lodges that house Alaskan beavers, many which run to 55 pounds! Eagles and swans are only part of the bird population we spy.

Bunches of fireweed already turning white announce six weeks until winter, and similarly the first signs of fall—the browning of the ferns—hearken the approach of the long, dark, cold season. But what a beautiful world to enjoy this day.

Lunch on the train is a scrumptious reindeer chili in a sourdough bowl accompanied with chips and pickles. This tasty treat is not something we’re likely to find in Warwick, New York.

Our guide, Jan, regales us with stories as we pass what I must describe as settlements with misnomers like Honolulu, Alaska.

This is a photo of Sherman, Alaska, population—two. They are Mr. & Mrs. Lovel. Mr. Lovel has been the mayor of Sherman since 1972.

Off to one side we see that there are other means of transportation in these parts.

This is Cantwell, Alaska. Until relatively recently, the only electricity in town was in the local saloon, and it was there that the population gathered to watch TV. One night while watching America’s Most Wanted, who should appear but the very bartender who was serving them and their very own mayor. The rest is history….

Those little buildings off in the distance are in Windy, Alaska where the only limestone mine in the state exists. Know why it’s called windy? One hundred mile an hour winds are the norm. Talk about inhospitable climates.

Occasionally we see “bush” houses where independent Alaskans practice sustenance living. Their food supplies are in caches high off the ground on legs smeared with bear grease to keep clawed predators away. These citizens are outdoorsmen and women who survive by hunting, fishing, and berry picking.

Once again the Princess Denali Wilderness Lodge is gorgeous. The rooms are still rustic, and the facilities are wonderful. We sit out and sip our bourbon on a gorgeous terrace and luxuriate in the gorgeous scenery. We take the Riverwalk down to the main lodge and restaurants, loving the wild view of rivers and mountains that surround us. Our dinner: Dungeness Crab and Sweet Corn Bisque, Wild Alaskan Salmon grilled with Lemon and Dill Sauce, and Slow Roasted Prime Rib of Beef (I finally broke down). Rob continued his education in Alaskan brews with some Alaskan Amber. What a glorious day.


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