Day 22-25: August 2-5: Huskies, bears, moose & beer: Denali park!
August 2: Resting, Denali info & Huskies
We woke up late, still exhausted from the previous 2 days. It was nice to relax again, while catching up on some work, emails and laundry. In the afternoon we checked out the visitor centres at the beginning of the only road into the park. The Denali park road (not to be confused with the Denali Highway, which we will cycle the next week), is a dead-end road that goes on for about 90 miles. It is forbidden for regular vehicles (cars, RV’s) after mile 15, but cyclists are allowed, as long as they pay the park fees. There are special camper buses that can take two bicycles as well as a lot of backpackers and it is actually cheaper to take that bus to the end of the road than a regular tourbus.
We decided that we would catch the Camper Bus into the park and then cycle back down the road. There are two options to camp along the road: you can reserve a paid spot on one of the 3 or 4 official campsites or you can go ‘backcountry camping’: The wilderness areas next to the road is divided into different sections and you can get a free permit to hike and camp in one of the sections, as long as there are still spaces, as they limit the impact on nature.
This is a great way to see the park, you can meet bears and caribou on every corner. The sections where there are known families of wildlife, like bears with cubs or a fox-den, are closed off for camping and hiking. We reserved the bus out and two sectors for backcountry camping, so we could stay in the park for 3 days.
Then it was time to go to the park headquarters where we could see the official husky demonstration. It was great to see the few dozen dogs, anxious to get picked for the demonstration. They all wanted to run so badly, but only a few were put into the ‘team’ that pulled a sled over gravel (!) in front of an excited audience, while the rangers explained all about the dogs. Yes, we were tourists, but we enjoyed it. As the rest of the crowd had to catch their bus back and we were on our bikes, we could stay longer and chat with the rangers and spend some time with the great dogs. Will be wonderful to come back here one day in winter..
When we stopped into the Visitors center’s bookshop, I was hapy to notice a healthy pile of my Denali Pocket Summit guidebook. When i told the staff i wrote it, they had me sign all 30 copies they had in stock and placed a nice ‘signed by author’ sticker on all of them
3rd August: Into the park: to Wonder Lake
We had to wake up at 5 in the morning to be able to catch the first Camper bus. We would only be gone for a few days, so we could leave most of our gear at Eugene’s place, nice to cycle with half the weight! The busdriver resembled Mrs Crabtree from South Park, who apparently was not informed by the reservations office that 2 bikes were coming. Good we had the reservations tickets to prove it; in the end she warmed up a bit and even stopped for some wildlife. There was not much, some caribou and foxes, but suddenly we noticed some wolves coming up the road behind us. They were aiming straight for our bus, but just when they were getting a bit closer, some other bus came up the road and chased them into the thick underbrush and we did not see them again. Still it was great to see a small pack of wolves strolling around in the wild..
Just before reaching Wonder Lake, we saw a big grizzly walking around, just a few hundred meters from the campsite. It was too far to make a decent photo, but we could feel the power of this magnificent king of the tundra..
Wonder lake is the end of the road and though we were planning to ride back about 20 miles, we liked the place so much that we asked some Dutch campers (that were doing the same trip but with a car they bought in Alaska) if we could share their spot. Actually, they left the next morning before we could pay them their $8, so if you are reading this, Guus & friends, let us know! We spend the rest of the day relaxing in the warm sun. Ivana picked a bag full of blueberries, which she turned into a great jam later and I just played patient photographer, lying on my back in the grass, waiting for Denali / Mt McKinley to finally appear from behind the clouds. She almost did, but the view of the rest of the Alaskan range was already breathtaking..
4th august: Wonder lake to Sanctuary Campground
The next day it was raining and as we were on a break, we took the easy way out and took the camper bus out until about halfway of the road. We were smart enough to get dropped at the highest point, the Sabre Pass (also called Highway pass). It was still raining a lot and cold and windy, but we got very warm immediately as we had spotted 3 bears alongside the park road! A big grizzly mom and her two cubs were feasting on the berries and did not seem to notice us, just about 75m away. We stayed a while and then went on a wonderful downhill, stopping only at the Igloo Campground where we had a rainy spaghetti lunch, shared with a nice family from Canada. Then a small hill and another downhill took us to another campground. We had planned to leave our bikes and food there and then to camp just behind as we had a backcountry permit for this section. But as the campground was almost empty, there was little point in going in to even wetter ground and we just pitched our tent in one of the empty spots.
We met some very nice people from Palo Alto, California. They were taking care of some less-fortunate kids from East-Palo Alto, so show them what The Wild really looked like. Not sure if the kids were really getting any feeling for nature conservation as they were freezing and wet, but it was nice to talk with them.
The leader, Lena, gave me a great gift: a book called “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Paperback) by William McDonough & Michael Braungart. It is a great book about recycling vs what they call ‘downcycling’. It is a new way of thinking to make the world greener, healthier and less polluting. Check out this link and read more about it. One of the great things is that the book is not made of paper, but of a new type of material, which is not only recyclable, but also waterproof! So I can have this book on the outside of my bags and whenever i have to stop and wait for a few minutes for Ivan, I can read a bit. Mud, water etc, can just be wiped off
. The nice thing was that before I even noticed the book on the table, she already had written that the book belonged to her, or that it should be passed on to an ‘extraordinary individual’. Thanks Lena, I will surely do so.
5th August: back to Denali Park Village & 1000 Americans: Eugene
The next morning we plowed up yet another hill through the muddy road, but then it was mostly downhill all the way to the park gate. The last 15 miles are paved, so we zoomed down the hill. Ivana suddenly noticed that her bike was very comfortable, which of course it shouldn’t be as we are tough biketravellers. We soon found out what caused it: her back tire was half empty! After more than 1200km we had our first flat. We were close to the visitor centre, here I could find the culprit: a shiny new nail of about 2cm long had sneaked past the defenses of our Schwalbe marathon XR…
We waited until Eugene got off work and joined him for a few pitchers of beer in the Salmon Bake bar. he had worked until midnight and had to work again on the breakfast shift, which started at about 4 in the morning, so he thought it would be best if he just drank some beer and stayed awake instead of taking a short nap. Besides, we were occupying his bed! We had a great time, relaxing in the bar filled with all kinds of outcasts that seemed perfectly in place in Alaska, so we fit right in. We talked about travelling, the thing that makes Eugene happy as well..
August 6: To Cantwell
The next morning we were still packing when he came back from work. We continued working as we could use one of many free Wifi networks in Alaska. When he woke up, he took us to the place where all Denali Park employees can eat for a low fixed fee per month. They dd not ask us for any pass, so we could feast on large slices of pizza and a great salad!
Then it was time to give Eugene back his house and we headed out to Cantwell, another 40km down the road. The George parks Highway is beautiful here and we spotted a few moose. Some were at a safe distance, another one we scared off the road (and he almost did vice versa) as cyclists make a lot less noise than the 36+ft RV’s that normally pass..
We had been in contact with Tori, another Couchsurfer, but she was out that day. Also her husband Ben had to go out, but he introduced us to his dog Scout, who became a new friend almost immediately. We pitched our tent, ready for the next adventure: cycling the Denali Highway, more hills and loose gravel, combined with rain, cold and wildlife…. And maybe we would finally find our new friend that the two polarbears in Fairbanks had told us about?….
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