After Cruising from Vancouver to Whittier along the inside passage many cruisers return to their home-base from Anchorage. Whilst others take land tours within the interior of Alaska. We decided to do exactly that. The cost of the airfare from the UK to Vancouver is not economical if one only stays a week. So we extended our adventure further …
DAY 8 – 5th August 2017 – Whittier to Denali
Star Princess arrives in Whittier and our Alaskan Rail Road chartered locomotive is waiting with the rake of Princess Cruises (and Holland America Line) coaches for the 9 to 10 hour journey north to Denali.
We picked up additional crew and supplies as we passed through Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city (but still not its capital) with a population of 300,000. Our high dome top deck seating gave us a panoramic view as we headed away from Anchorage towards Talkeetna and the most scenic stretch of the line as we head towards Denali National Park.
An added bonus today – some very clear views of North America’s highest point, the north and south summits of Mount Denali (20.310 feet). Was this to be a good omen for tomorrow when we would be much closer to the mountain.
Eventually, we are met on arrival at Denali depot by a number of coaches for the, all of 8 minutes, transfer from the train to Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. The log cabin style accommodation was comfortable enough although the eating arrangements left a lot t0 be desired.
Sadly, the Grizzly Bar and Restaurant was not to live up to Princess’s brand image as we were left to wait, first, for a table then to actually receive our main course, a total of 1 and ¼ hours from joining the queue to our plate reaching our table. Worse, there seemed a lack of concern amongst the waitresses – not to mention the duty ‘manager’ responsible for food and beverages.
DAY 9 – 6th August 2017 – Denali National Park
This was to be a long day but one of the most enjoyable we have experienced here in Alaska. Having listened and learnt from our experience of 2 years ago, we had upgraded our included tour to a full day in the park – the excursion included in our land tour only goes a short distance into the park and best wild life spotting is deeper into the park,,,,,,, And it was worth the long day. The coach, with our driver Chris, took us 62 miles along the park’s only road, Denali Park Road, to Stoney Hill viewing point for Mount Denali (officially renamed back in 2015 by President Obama from ‘McKinley’).
Not only was Chris an experienced and entertaining host, but he, too, showed the passion for wildlife that is part of our make up.
The day was a sunny one and the views of Mt. Denali along the way were nothing short of spectacular. If possible, even more so than yesterday. Chris made a dash for the viewing point as he sensed cloud would descend to spoil the view. And he was to be proved right.
The wildlife was all we could have hoped for. On the bird front, Northern Grouse, Ptarmigan, and – one of John’s favourites – the Golden Eagle. This distinctive bird had reclaimed its vantage point from those pesky falcons.
The snowshoe hare and the arctic ground squirrel were both busying themselves with the fall approaching.
But we were also here for the larger mammals. And our reward was to see a dozen brown bears (all threesomes with mothers and 2 cubs), moose (one with calf) and caribou. One such caribou, or was it a roadhog, blocked the road ahead as we tried to head eastward back towards the gate. We were forced to just sit, watch and wait, as it took centre stage – or road – for almost half an hour!
DAY 10 – 7th August 2017 – Denali to Fairbanks
Today, its back on board our coach as we head north up the Parks Highway and head for one of our favourite places in Alaska, Fairbanks. We follow the same course as the Alaskan Rail Road and the Tanana river as we make a refreshment stop at Nenana. This is the small community where the residents have a particularly interesting way of raising money for local schooling, a prize draw open to all who try to accurately predict when the ice will finally melt and the river start to flow again in the Spring. It was 12 noon on 1st May last time around.
Not a lot to break the journey to Fairbanks after that. Just a caribou that surprised everybody on board – including our driver – as it belted across the highway just in front of us.
And so the Fairbanks Princess Wilderness Lodge located some 330 miles from Anchorage at the end of the Parks Highway. The 100,000 people in this borough are amongst the friendliest we would meet and the whole place has a lovely feel to it.
DAY 11 – 8th August 2017 – around Fairbanks.
And so to a repeat of another one of our favourite days in Alaska’s interior. The Discovery riverboat trip and Gold dredge.
This has to be one of the best trips organised by Princess. Yes, we’ve done it before – and, yes, we’ll do it again.
We start today just a few minutes from our lodge, as the sternwheeler ‘Discovery III’ waits for us on at its landing on the Chena River.
This vessel holds 900 passengers and has been ploughing the river entertaining its guests for 30 years now just like its predecessors, Discovery I and Discovery II . Both these vessels are preserved alongside here.
The entertainment starts almost immediately with Steve, an experienced bush pilot, dropping in (literally) alongside us in his 1952 ‘piper cub’ float plane.
Then, to the Trail Breaker kennels and probably the most poignant story to come out of our previous trip here 2 years ago, Trail Breakers is the dog sled training area used by Dave Monson and his daughters, including Tekla. They are experienced in dog sledding (or mushing) this national sport of Alaska. Their goals – to win the Iditarod and/or Yukon Quest. But it is the story of Dave’s late wife, Susan Butcher, that tears at the heart strings. Not to mention her little runt, Granite. A dog with seemingly little value who was to prove everyone wrong, apart from Susan that is.
Susan died of leukemia at the age of just 51 but her memory lives on through the book and the statue to ‘Granite’ on the river bank nearby in the especially created native Chena village. Oh, and appropriately, Alaska now celebrates her life – and 4 successes winning the Iditarod – on Susan Butcher Day each year.
In the Chena village we learn how the salmon is handled by the natives, and a whole lot more about their customs, their clothing and housing, in a reconstruction as to what a typical village looks like – and the skins of the animals they have hunted for thousands of years.
Back at the landing point in Fairbanks, we enjoy a beef stew lunch before heading off to Fox to join the Gold Dredge train.
Goldstream Dredge 8 is a step back in time to the days of the gold seeking pioneers. Earl Hughes is on board to play his guitar and fiddle as we head to the dredge and back. At the dredge Yukon Yonder explains the process used in early gold extraction, including the posting of the actual bars of gold using the US mail. None ever went missing despite only being wrapped in brown paper and affixing a stamp – and each worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Our own efforts at panning were even less successful than our last visit. We manage $22 worth of gold between us and Jenny has the bracelet to prove it.
Our final stop is to see, again, the trans Alaskan pipeline which conveys the nation’s oil via am 800 mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay up in the Arctic Circle to the port of Valdez in SE Alaska. The pipeline runs both over and under the ground and has to contend with the permafrost throughout its route. At its height it was conveying 2 million barrels a day. Not so much nowadays, but it still handles over 500,000 barrels every single day. And as part of the settlement that led to Alaska becoming US state number 49, native Alaskans each receive an annual pay-out from this oil revenue – this year, $1100 per qualifying person.
DAY 12 – 9th August 2017 – Fairbanks
A quiet day relaxing in the lodge.
DAY 13 – 10th August 2017 – Fairbanks to Wiseman.
One of the aims of coming back to this enchanting country was to reach the Arctic Circle and today was the day – or at least it would be our first attempt.
Quite a bright, sunny day in Fairbanks but we were not due to leave until 1900. Ours was the last trip of the day and due to return around 0030 tomorrow morning.
We had our fingers crossed as the day unfolded and were picked up shortly before 6pm to go to the airport.
Unsure of exactly what lay ahead, we were both excited and, perhaps, a little bit anxious given the size of the plane, a 9 seater.
It turned out to be a 9 seater Piper Navajo Chieftain to be piloted by Steve. Steve had 35 years’ flying experience including a long stint flying for Hawaii Air. Nevertheless, there were reports of ‘weather’ in the area around Coldfoot landing strip….
After our safety briefing we realised that there were 3 evening flights by North Alaskan Tours, 2 going to Fort Yukon and ours which was scheduled to land at Coldfoot with 6 of us and the 2 remaining passengers, a Japanese couple with no command of English, who were due to fly even further north to an unpronounceable landing strip near an Athabaskan community.
The profitable extraction of gold is a distant memory today. But the communities of the Arctic Circle had a second lease of life with the discovery of oil off Prudhoe Bay. This lead to the eventual opening of the Dalton Highway through to Prudhoe Bay with Coldfoot a convenient half way point between the Bay and Fairbanks.
That was all part of the background commentary as we headed north over the community of Livengood (with ski slopes nearby – but not a hint of snow lying there as its summer) and following the nearest thing to a ‘road to nowhere’. We could see the Yukon River snaking its way down below us and the Trans Alaskan pipeline in parallel with the Dalton Highway at least where the pipeline was overground. But not much else…
The weather was deteriorating and our chances of landing were not looking good. Steve decided to alter course and head for Bettles landing strip and from there hoped to follow the Yukon River towards Coldfoot. A 150 mile journey was now looking to be well above 200 – if we could get in to Coldfoot.
At N 66 33 00 we crossed the Arctic Circle! Nothing of course to see on the ground to give us a clue – just Steve’s instrument panel duly recorded for posterity by our camera.
We were then to endure ¾ of an hour of not knowing what would happen next as Steve circled hoping for a break in the ‘weather’. He had already decided not to fly the Japanese couple any further north. If he could get in he could get out – once but not twice.
At last, a brief respite and he was going in. At least, that’s what he told us. It looked to us as if he was to land in – or on – the Yukon River. But no, he was in albeit very late and we touched down at Coldfoot airstrip at around 2130. Coldfoot has a year round population of 35 and seems to centre on the truck stop area adjacent to the landing strip. To our pleasant surprise, Steve said we would have the full tour and just leave that bit later coming back. So we were soon to leave the substantial community of Coldfoot for the 14 mile journey to Wiseman. Wiseman is 63 miles inside the Arctic Circle. It has a year round population of 11. Although it is shortly to enjoy a population explosion. A young couple are building their own cabin and the year round total should then explode by over 20% – and reach 13.
Wiseman is a fascinating place and is a living reminder of things we take for granted.
Its small group of log cabins – one of which is unoccupied and is rather grandiosely described as a ‘museum’, share one outside non’flush ‘restroom’. (The nearest ‘flush’ is back in Coldfoot)
There is no internet, cellphone, TV – in fact, no mod cons whatsoever. And no snow. A landline is provided by A T & T’s telephone exchange. And there is a hand written ‘advertisement’ reminding readers that the Chapel service is at 11am on Sunday.
Pleased we went? Of course! Was it what we expected? As Jen put it ‘didn’t know what to expect’…
Back at Coldfoot, take off for Fairbanks was a giant climb of faith – into the clouds. As Steve put it, I am on the runway and there’s nothing out there in the clouds. Oh, except for the mountains…..
High above those clouds, we could see the moon. It cast a yellowy glow across the barren land below.
Just under 2 and ½ hours later we were back in our comfortable beds. Some day!!
DAY 14 – 11th August 2017 – Fairbanks.
A leisurely lie-in and a quiet day. Supper was taken next door at Pike’s Landing.
DAY 15 – 12th August 2017 – Fairbanks.
Ditto – these were contingency days if the weather hadn’t allowed us to fly and we hadn’t made it to Coldfoot last Thursday evening. We ventured no further than John’s brief stroll to have a look at the airport perimeter.
DAY 16 – 13th August 2017 – Around Fairbanks.
Time to officially start our second ‘back to back’ cruise excursions. This time the pipeline, gold panning and riverboat ‘Discovery’ were in reverse order with, again, the beef stew in between. Our gold ‘yield’ raised an unprofitable collective total of $12.00 lol.
DAY 17 – 14th August 2017 – Fairbanks to Denali.
Time to bid farewell to Fairbanks after our week long stay. Our coach was again to take us on the Parks Highway. This time we stopped for a break at Tatlanika, a camping and RV park, before crossing the Jack Cogill bridge to the Interior and on to Denali.
DAY 18 – 15th August 2017 – Denali National Park.
Another full day in the park today. Our driver was less keen this time. A little too keen to move on – almost as soon as wildlife had been spotted. Nevertheless, we still kept up the ‘full house’ of larger mammals. Bears, moose and caribou. But not Mount Denali. The weather had changed. And changed quite dramatically in the brief period since we were last here. The summer had a noticeable chill to it as we moved into ‘the fall’.
DAY 19 – 16th August 2017 – Denali to Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.
Our transfer today was by coach for the 8 minute ride to Denali depot and another chance to ride the Alaskan Rail Road as we headed for Talkeetna, about 4 hours away.
There, we were again met by a convoy of coaches to head out for the 30 mile journey to Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Our ‘hippy’ happy coach driving lass did her best to entertain for the 50 minute journey. We were to arrive mid afternoon for the briefest of stays – we were on the road again in the morning.
DAY 20 – 17th August 2017 – Mount McKinley Lodge to Kenai.
Brad arrived with his coach to host the remainder of our land cruise. Our run was to take us around 130 miles to Kenai with a 2 and ½ hour stop over in Anchorage.
We were disappointed to find that the city’s Trolley Bus ‘tour in an hour’ was booked throughout our stay so we were confined to a spot of T-shirt shopping and a quick coke before returning to the coach.
The journey along the Seward Highway is described as one of the most scenic in the whole of Alaska. It didn’t disappoint as, first, we hugged the shoreline of Turnagain Bay and then climbed to a 1’000 foot elevation up in the mountains before dropping down into Cooper Landing and our home for 2 nights, the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge.
This lodge is restricted to just 86 log cabin style rooms – we didn’t brave the lighting of the wood burning stove although the large log fire in reception was inviting.
And an added bonus. Well, 2 actually. First, the friendly service and, secondly, the best food we’ve had on these land cruises – by far. Prime Rib steak….
DAY 21 – 18th August 2017 – Around Kenai Lodge.
A day to enjoy doing nothing – well, almost nothing – in the absolutely idyllic surroundings of this lodge. We were to enjoy 2 local nature walks. The first took us down to the edge of the Kenai river. Jen’s idea of a walk this – use the legs for the downhill section and then, when we had finished at the river’s edge, stroll to the bus stop and ‘ring for the shuttle’ to do the uphill stretch back to base. It appeared less than 5 minutes later. Bliss!!
The second went for a mile or so from the back of our log cabin. No bears, indeed no wildlife at all – apart from a squirrel. Just peace and quiet (except for Jen’s singing which certainly worked in keeping the bears away !!)– and a lot of mushrooms/toadstools.
Back in the lodge, another dose of the service, the reception log fire and 2 plates of Prime Rib. Stories from amongst the fellow guests suggests no whales sighted on tour and one grizzly eating salmon on the river bank seen from the rafting tour.
DAY 22 – 19th August 2017 – Kenai to Whittier.
Brad, the driver, had a lie in – and so did we. Bags out at 0830, humans ready for 11am. And we were, for the hour long transfer back to Star Princess in Whittier.