The Alaska Mountain Range by Air

The next stop on our side trip took us into the interior of Alaska to see Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park.  It’s interesting to note that “Denali” is the native Alaskan (Athabascan tribe) name for the mountain – it means “the high one” and at 20,230′ it is the tallest mountain in North America and third tallest mountain in the world.  Alaskans have officially changed their maps to reflect the Athabascan name, but Federal maps have not been changed yet – every time it comes up the elected representatives from Ohio raise a fuss to keep it named for one of their native sons, the 25th President of the US.  We call the mountain “Denali” since the Athabascans were here first.

The best way to see the mountain is by air, so we traveled to the tiny town of Talkeetna for a flight to Denali.  Talkeetna is geographically closer to Denali than the National Park is, and it’s also where people who want to climb the mountain meet with the Park Service to assess their readiness and to fly up to the base camp.  Here’s a map to show you where Talkeetna and Denali National Park are in relation to Anchorage and SE Alaska.  The Alaska Mountain Range is that arc of snow between Talkeetna and the National Park on the map.alaska map seward denaliThe town of Talkeetna consists of a few hotels, a busy small-plane airport, a pizza joint, roadhouse, and a handful of tourist shops spread over about 1/2 mile.20140829 1788 talkeetna sign jim rWe were only in town for one day to take the flight to see Denali, and of course we woke up to pea soup fog and drizzle.  Our flight was postponed a few times, but we got lucky when the weather finally eased and we could see a little blue sky between the clouds in the later afternoon.  We headed to the airport and boarded a De Havilland Otter for our flight.  Note the skis on the landing gear – ready to land on a glacier just in case.20140829 1947 jim and otter rRegardless of the visibility, it’s just so much fun to fly on a small plane like this, and Jim particularly LOVES to fly.20140829 1925 aerial jim rI lucked out and got the co-pilot’s seat since I had the most number of cameras, and I had a great view despite some scratches on the window that were hard to hide in photos.  As we flew across the flat valley we could see “braided rivers” – caused by glacier run-off full of silt that shifts and changes with the water flow, forming  “braids”.20140829 1805 flight braided river rI love to see the patterns of the land and rivers that can only been seen from the air…20140829 1816 talkeetna flight river pattern r…and we took it as a good omen that we could see a rainbow as we headed into the foothills.20140829 1820 flight rainbow river rWe headed up into the Alaska Mountain Range and saw a number of glaciers – rivers of ice converging and running down to the lowlands.20140829 1850 aerial rivers of ice converging rThe cloud cover was still pretty heavy around Denali (Mt. McKinley) though we could see it, but the clouds were thinner around some of the other peaks in the range, and they were dramatic – craggy and densely covered in snow.  It was just fantastic, and we hated to return to earth.20140829 1908 alaska range mtns 2 rThe next day we headed up to Denali National Park for a different view of the mountain (THE mountain!) and surrounding landscape.

Exploring Different Parts of Alaska

The summer season was starting to wind down and we wanted to see a few other places around the state before winter sets in – places we couldn’t get to with our boat.  During the last week in August we flew from Petersburg up to Anchorage to begin a little side trip, starting with a scenic ride on the Alaska Railroad to Seward.  Here’s a map to give you some perspective of where things are.alaska map seward kenaiThe train follows along the shoreline of Turnagain Arm as it heads from Anchorage south to Seward, and the scenery was dramatic with misty clouds and early morning light.20140826 1550 arr coastal turnagin arm r20140826 1557 arr coastal train rAs the sun got higher in the sky we could see beluga whales out in the water, some coming close to shore as the tide rose.  The train actually stopped when we were near a large pod so we could see them better – awesome!  Our train car was one of the special “dome” cars – well worth the extra cost to have such great views from our seats, and access to a little outside area for taking photographs.20140826 1622 arr dome car 2 rThe train guide gave an informative narrative as we traveled along, and I was struck by the story of this ghost forest – a remnant of the 1964 earthquake, the 2nd largest on record.  The trees here were killed when the land dropped more than 10′, exposing the roots to salt water.20140826 1586 arr coastal dead forest rThe scenery along the route continued to be spectacular, with water views as well as mountains, glaciers, and valleys.  We saw mountain goats high up, and moose down in the low marsh.  The train made a few more stops for good wildlife sightings – you can’t beat that kind of service!20140826 1668 arr mountain reflection 2 rWe arrived in the small town of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, access point to the nearby Kenai Fjords National Park.  More glaciers!!  We took a 6 hour tour by water to see some of the glaciers, figuring that we might see more if we didn’t have to drive the boat ourselves.  Unfortunately the weather for our little boat trip was just horrid – heavy fog, rain, and building wind and seas as we got out into the Gulf of Alaska.  We didn’t get to see or photograph as much because of the bad weather conditions and crowded tour boat, but we can always find things to put a smile on our faces.  Sea otters still win my vote for cutest animal…20140827 2465 kenai fjords sea otters 2 r

20140827 1735 funny tourist rAnd sometimes people-watching can be a great source of entertainment too.  The tour boat had some loaner binoculars available, but this gal was perfectly happy with her toy store model.  We ended up sitting with a fun couple from North Carolina who are both glass artists, and they were a bright spot on a gloomy stormy day.

We got up to the Aialik Glacier and could barely see it through the heavy fog and rain, but we haven’t gotten tired of looking at glaciers yet – what we could see was dramatic and beautiful.20140827 1748 aialik glacier kenai fjords 1 rThe pack ice near the glacier’s snout was very thick, and in such a monochrome setting I thought the photograph shows it better in simple black and white.20140827 2477 kenai fjords pack ice bw rAfter the boat ride we took some time to poke around the shops and to spend a good chunk of time at the Sea Life Center – we love aquariums, and it’s a great place to channel one’s “inner child”.  Both the Sea Life Center and the Anchorage Museum had artistic and poignant displays of plastic trash found in the ocean – this one was done by the local high school.20140826 1689 trash-to-pus r20140826 1703 sea life center puffin rWe try hard to be good stewards of the environment, and these displays are a good reminder of how fragile our oceans are.  Many of the sea birds at the Center were rescued from injuries ultimately caused by humans – ingesting plastics, oil spills, etc. It’s wonderful and exciting to see puffins, razorbills, guillemots, otters, seals and sea lions up close, but sad to think about the reasons that they aren’t able to be released back into the wild.

20140826 1686 seward mural r