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Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Alaskan travel brings daily adventure. Today’s full-day journey along the Denali Highway conjures up tremors of expectation. The entire route promises outstanding opportunities for scenic views of the Alaska Range, boreal vegetation, glacial features and wildlife—caribou, moose, fox, ptarmigan, trumpeter swan and other waterfowl. BUT this 135 mile highway, open only from mid-May to October 1, is one of just 13 highways in the state. Denali Highway is paved for only the first 21 miles. The remaining 114 miles is a primitive mixture of dirt and gravel, and that description is quite kind. It is a rocking back and forth, jaw-cracking, laughable and fun potholed ride that comes with distinct warnings in the form of a Bureau of Land Management Recreation Guide:
  1. Don’t attempt to travel from Oct 1 through May; snowdrifts may block your way.
  2. The maximum recommended speed on gravel is 30 mph. Slow down when passing another vehicle.
  3. Make sure your car is in good condition. Check your spare tire and make sure you carry a lug wrench.
  4. Carry extra water and sufficient food for an emergency situation. You cannot predict how long it will take to get help if you become stranded.

Where else do you see road signs like these? Yes, that does say "Dog Team Xing." I add for the sake of fairness, the state of Alaska cannot pave this road because the heaving atop the permafrost makes it impossible. Truly this is another world. So with booklet in hand, a hopefully carefully maintained coach from Princess, and faith in our driver and excellent tour narrator, J.J., we embark. J.J. has us play a game. We will count every vehicle we see on this journey. I’ll tell you the number at the end of this post.

(look at the road in this photo)

Our heavy coach crosses the Susitna River driving over a 1.326 foot wooden bridge made of black spruce.
At some points we drive over eskers which are ridges of silt, sand, gravel and cobbles carried and deposited by streams flowing within a glacier. When the glacier melts away, these deposits are left as mounds. Amazing! We stop for lunch in the McClaren Lodge, (follow this link to their website) mile 42 on the Denali Highway, a thriving blip on the map named after the McClaren Glacier, 16 miles north.

Beneath the mountains, the flowing patch of white is the glacier. The McClaren River is the result.

I’ve already shared the winter road conditions with you, but in true Alaskan spirit, the owner of this wonderful and very charming inn is a young couple who live here 12 months a year with their baby. There's the pioneering spirit alive and thriving. Their phone bill begins at $600.00 a month because there’s no cell service. They apologize for the prices on their menu, but it is incredibly expensive to get supplies to them. Just sayin’ We dine on a hearty chili, a delicious soup, a thick, dense bread (all the bread up here is thick and dense; I guess it’s left over from the hearty sourdough breads). Our cutlery is plastic and our dinnerware courtesy of "Solo." It's fine with us and it somehow fits with the warm, homey atmosphere that is the McClaren Lodge. I imagine how wonderful this must be for some snowmachiner or dog musher, the only passerbys in the winter, here on a dark, snowy night becoming part of the family, sharing the stew and watching one of the dvds. Then he'd delight as we did in a nice slice of McClaren berry pie, a combo of strawberry, rhubarb, apples, raspberry and blackberry. Pretty darned good!

Back on the road we pass kettle lakes. These are small lakes and depressions formed when chunks of ice broke off retreating glaciers and were buried in the glacial debris. The ice eventually melted leaving circular-shaped depressions called kettles. Nature has a way of making even debris into things of beauty. The Denali Highway ends at Paxton, a town founded in 1906 and now boasting a population of 43. We make a pit/snack stop in the Paxton lodge before heading down the Richardson Highway to our destination, the Copper River Princess Lodge. Paxton Lodge Artistic Humor

J.J. shares a factoid I shall never forget as he points to a road sign. Alaskans are so independent and so hate government intervention that road signs are shot full of bullet holes! There’s an Alaskan joke that the least safe place in Alaska is behind a “No Hunting” sign! Ha Ha. I try to get a photo, but we are moving too quickly; yes, this road is paved. But J.J. is 100% correct.

Here’s the vehicle tally. On the entire 135 mile stretch, we see a total of 34 cars/trucks/campers. It’s still tourist season, so this is a busy day! J.J. says we’d had a good day. I am surprised Disney hasn’t invented a Denali Highway ride, complete with bumps, water, and animals. It would really be something else!

My daily conclusion remains the same. What a wonderful, beautiful, and diverse country we are! It brings tears to my eyes to see this beauty and to experience this state.

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