Friday, July 20, 2007

Fifth of July: Denali and Savage River

Continuation of Tuesday’s post

On July 4th we had camped at Riley Creek Campground located at the entrance of Denali National Park. The next day after breaking camp we piled all fourteen of us into two vehicles and headed off to explore the park.

Our first stop was the Denali National Park Visitor Center. Now Denali actually has at least four visitor centers, but this one is the main one. It is located two miles into the park just after the roundabout. You can’t miss it.

The Denali campus is quite large. Since the National Park Service considers Denali one of its jewels almost everything at the park is state of the art and new. Since I have occasionally worked for the National Park Service I have had a chance to visit many of their facilities around the state. And Denali’s main visitor center really is one of their jewels. We were amazed at its size and displays.

The first thing we did was watch their movie Heartbeats of Denali. This was perfect for us since we weren’t going to take any of the park bus tours. We couldn’t image sitting on a bus for several hours with three infants in our group. Heartbeats of Denali has a concise overview of the park’s history, environment, wildlife, and geography. It also had amazing photography. This was especially nice since we never did see the mountain on our trip because of the weather. Several of our visiting family members felt that was a perfectly acceptable backup to see the mountain in person. Heartbeats of Denali was a worth the 30 minutes.

After the movie we started to explore all the displays at the visitor center. Once again it didn’t disappoint. They had full-size mockup of a trapper’s cabin which you could go into. They also had a huge display which included a life-sized wolf with a caribou carcass. There were even had ravens picking the bones. They also had displays for a bear, moose, beaver, pica, and other animals. There were lots of hands on stuff for the kids to touch and play. It also had some really interesting facts and trivia about the animals and the park. We probably spent an hour running around and looking at the displays.

Gwenna's Favorite, PicaAfter a tailgate picnic, we all piled back into the cars and head into the park. We drove about 20 mph and took lots of stops and photos. It was a really pleasant drive. The scenery was beautiful even though it was cloudy. Just before the Savage River Bridge we saw three caribou cooling themselves along the river. Rebecca was excited because she had never seen a wild caribou. She promptly exclaimed that the whole drive was worth it just to see them.

In order to preserve its wilderness, Denali only has one road. And only the first 12 miles are open to private vehicles. Only park buses are allowed further into the park. So at mile 12 we had to stop at the Savage River day area.

The kids went straight to the river and began throwing rocks. Fortunately they never got near the nesting gulls. After exploring and taking pictures of the beautiful river valley we went for a hike. There are several trails. One heads along the river and one up to a large rock outcrop above the parking area. The kids chose the steep one and we had to catch up with them. The trail was one of the neatest I have seen. The park service had made steps out of the scree boulders which made the steps look almost nature made.

As I neared the top, I thought I heard a baby cooing. I stopped and looked around a boulder. There was a family of ptarmigan pecking its way along a trail. The mother and eight babies were in their brown summer molt. The father, with his red crest, still had about half of his white winter feather. I watched and took pictures until William came running down the trail shouting.
Ben Climbing, Savage River
Benjamin, our four year old, had run off ahead and they couldn’t find him. So I headed up the trail at a trot. I wasn’t too worried because he couldn’t have gone that far. Well, I was wrong. Ben had decided to do some rock climbing. I found him 90-percent up the back side of the rock outcrop. I had to scramble hand over hand to get up to him. When I reached him there was a group of teenagers who had stopped him from going further. They were thoroughly impressed with Ben. He had made it up in a fraction of the time it had taken them. I guess being so small and having a lower center of gravity really helps. Under protest, I picked up Ben and carried him down, which was no easy task.

It was then when everyone was up at the top we noticed the outcrop was only a false peak. The trail went upward to a higher point. We decided we were done hiking and headed back to the parking lot. After more wet shoes, rocks, and pictures we all piled into the cars and headed back.

On the way back we saw more caribou running along the river plain. The drive to Savage Creek was well worth the effort. There were plenty enough to do and see to keep anyone busy for a day.

Once we were out of the park we headed north. About a mile north of the park entrance is where all the non-park hotels and gift shops are. We spent a while going through the shops and picking out t-shirts and stuff. Then we were off driving back towards Anchorage.

We spent the night at my parents’ cabin in Willow. We did the usual things like running around, throwing rocks, riding the four wheelers, and in honor of the Fourth belated fireworks.

The next day I played river guide as I took two groups down the Kashwitna River. The river conditions were perfect for floating. Even though we didn’t get a chance to fish, because the fishery was opened yet, we had a great time. That afternoon we headed back to Anchorage. On the way back we stopped out Miller’s in Houston and got ice cream cones. It is a tradition that the kids won’t let us forget. And I am ok with that.

It irony of the trip came on the next day. We drove all the way up to Denali National Park, but never saw the mountain. It was always covered in clouds. On Saturday morning, my in-laws look out there hotel window and there was Denali as clear as a bell. I guess the only thing you can count on in Alaska is that the weather will be unpredictable, but you can still have fun.
(I will post more pictures later)

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