Denali – the Mountain

Friday, 17 August:

The trip to Mt McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge only took about 2-1/4 hours (still in Denali National Park) and we set off mid-morning for our final stop. Arrived to find yet more spacious, comfortable lodge-type accommodation and very attentive, friendly staff.

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Denali, once called Mount McKinley, is North America’s highest mountain and you need a very clear day to be able to see it. In fact, we were told that in summer there is only a 30 percent chance of seeing this mountain, due to clouds and changing weather conditions. It was quite cloudy while we were there, so no chance of getting that “30 percent club” tee shirt! But that didn’t stop lots of us gathering around with cameras at the ready, looking for that elusive mountain – in all directions!

 

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In the afternoon we checked out a list of things to do and there were several free activities offered by Princess. We decided on a nature trail hike with a naturalist with a very wide knowledge of all the plants and berries we discovered along the way, some edible and some not.  We had a fun time exploring the area.

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When we got back, we caught a presentation on everything you could ever possibly want to know about moose and later a very inspirational talk by Todd Huston, an amputee who holds records for climbing mountains. It was an amazing and very humbling experience to meet him and listen to his story.

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Our bags were collected for the last time that night and we spent Saturday morning relaxing in the sun on the deck of the lodge, drinking coffee and enjoying the amazing mountain scenery for the last time.

All too soon it was time to jump in the coach for the 3-1/2 hour trip back to Anchorage for the night and Sunday morning to the airport for the 14-1/2 hour (!) flight home.

We really had an awesome time and enjoyed every minute of our time in Canada and Alaska.

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Denali Park and Preserve

Thursday, 16 August:

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Denali Park encompasses 6 million acres of wild land. Founded in 1917 it was initially established to conserve wildlife.  Today, it remains relatively unchanged, except for the completion of the Denali Park Road; at 92 miles long, it is the only road in the park and during summer, private vehicles may drive the first 15 miles.  Beyond that, you will need to be on a bus, bicycle or on foot.

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By riding a bus, everyone can enjoy the wildlife and scenic beauty of the park without the traffic, noise and pollution that thousands of individual vehicles would create.

DSCN2652DSCN2656 This morning we set out by bus on a Natural History Tour with a naturalist on board, travelling 30 miles to the Teklanika River. We visited the Savage Cabin, the original ranger’s cabin, and listened to a very interesting presentation on the area and how this cabin is still used today by winter patrols.

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At Primrose Ridge we found out about the local native culture, their stories and how the land has been used for nearly 10,000 years.

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We saw some caribou grazing near the road and the driver was happy to stop and give us plenty of time to observe them. We were interested to find out that there is no intervention with the animals in the park.

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The scenery was fantastic and varied and the staff so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. We learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed our tour.

In the afternoon we went to a sled dog demonstration at the Denali Kennels. Very excited to see huskies up close for the first time. One particular dog drew the crowd; he was the one that the staff were encouraging people to interact with.  He got lots of petting!

 

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We were then called over to the track where we watched as five dogs were chosen to pull the summer sled (on wheels). The dogs were very excited and vocal, all wanting to be chosen. While we waited, the ranger explained how the dogs are chosen and trained for the different positions. Once the dogs were harnessed, we were told that if we wanted a photo to be quick; they would only go around the circuit once!

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After they were done, the dogs were given treats and we watched as each dog was individually unharnessed and ran at top speed back to its’ kennel. All except one – who suddenly ran back out and had the ranger in hot pursuit! Probably part of the show, but it was entertaining and gave everyone a laugh.

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We found out that huskies work until they are 8 years old. When they are retired, people can apply to adopt them. The applicants must write an essay as to why they would be suitable. Criteria – they need to be active and live in a cold climate. Average ideal temperature being -10 deg F. Also, when the dogs retire, their names retire with them, not to be used again.

We all enjoyed this free demonstration immensely and the ranger gave a very interesting talk about dog sledding. Even without snow, it was a magical moment just watching the dogs do what they absolutely love to do the most – run!

Travelling to Denali National Park

Wednesday, 15 August:


After an early breakfast, we left the ship for the last time and boarded the Princess Tours Ultradome rail cars, taking us on the 9-hour trip direct from the ship to Denali National Park.

On the way we went through the Whittier Tunnel (or the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to give it its’ correct name). What an experience. It is the second-longest highway tunnel and the longest combined rail and highway tunnel in North America. We saw many parked cars waiting for their scheduled access times at each end. It is a single highway lane with the railway tracks slightly beneath the surface of the road.

We hadn’t heard of this tunnel before, and as we made the 10-minute journey, it was mind-boggling to think that we were travelling in a single lane designed for motor vehicles and trains travelling in both directions.

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The countryside is lush and green. We’ve left the rain behind and we really enjoyed the experience of travelling on a luxury train with attentive staff, lovely food and gorgeous scenery. We even saw some moose along the way.

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Arrived at our accommodation, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, which was in a lovely setting. Warm and comfortable, but the mattress and pillows a bit too hard for my liking.

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That night we went to a theatre restaurant in the grounds. The waiters doubled up as entertainers. The entertainment was reasonably good, but the food was average. Not particularly hot and with our waiter so busy on stage, when we looked around we were the only table to miss out on a pot of coffee.

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However, after being away for so long, if we’ve only had these couple of minor inconveniences to complain about, I think we’ve been pretty lucky and the scenery next day more than made up for it when we went on a tour of Denali National Park.

Glacier Bay

Monday, 13 August:

This morning we entered Glacier Bay National Park. Comprised of 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, forests and waterways, it is a highlight of the Inside Passage and part of the 25-million-acre World Heritage Site.

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One of the National Park Rangers came onboard and provided a running commentary about the area, its history and wildlife as we made our way to Margerie Glacier. The temperature has dropped to around 6 deg (c) and there are showers of rain, but nothing can take away from the breathtaking sight of this glacier, soaring 20-25 storeys high and over a mile wide.

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As we sat with our chairs pulled close to the sliding glass doors, a waiter arrived with all the ingredients for Irish Coffees, which he made for us to enjoy without having to leave the warmth of our stateroom.

DSC_2530 The captain took the ship as close to the glacier as was possible, and we enjoyed the view from our balcony for around half an hour, after which he turned the ship for those with balconies on the other side.

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What a spectacle! Every so often there was a thunderous roar of an iceberg as it calved into the icy water, the term used when chunks of ice break off glaciers and fall into the water. We looked for wildlife but only some seals were in evidence.

Tonight there was a formal dinner and we were invited to the captain’s table. This only occurred because most of the passengers had not done much cruising. We don’t stand a chance of this happening on the larger ships, so we made the most of it!

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We are coming to the end of our cruise. Tuesday, we sailed into College Fjord and saw more glaciers on both sides of the ship, so we made the most of the morning, basically drinking coffee and enjoying all the spectacular scenery.

Busy afternoon as there were bills to be paid and bags to be packed – tomorrow morning we will arrive in Whittier and say farewell to the Island Princess.

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Skagway

Sunday, 12 August:

Skagway marks the most northern point of Alaska’s Inside Passage and we arrived at Railroad Dock early this morning looking forward to seeing the birthplace of the Klondike gold rush. There was no shortage of jewellery shops with staff just waiting for us to arrive in town, all of them trying to entice us in with “special deals” on tanzanite. I resisted!

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I was more interested in looking at the restored storefronts and wooden sidewalks, which makes you feel that you’re stepping back in time. Skagway is now a restored gold rush town and the headquarters of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

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We started off the day experiencing the legendary White Pass Trail of ’98 from a different perspective; travelling the Klondike Highway by coach over the White Pass Summit, into Canada’s Yukon and ending with a ride on board a vintage car of the historic White Pass & Yukon Railroad while our train agent recounted fascinating local legends.

The weather is noticeably cooler at 17 deg (c).  Also cloudy, so hope it doesn’t rain!

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While on board we had the opportunity to meet Aliy Zirkle who, together with her husband Allen Moore, has been involved with sled dogs in Alaska for over 20 years. She has raced the Iditarod every year since 2001 and is the first, and only woman to have won the Yukon Quest. We had lots of questions about long distance sled dog racing and she gave a very interesting and informative talk and took the time to walk through the train to talk to everyone individually.

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad is one of the precious few places in the world where you can take an authentic journey back in time, witnessing the engineering wonders of this railway and the same breathtaking scenery and rugged terrain that the gold seekers experienced during their race north to the gold fields over a century ago.

After our train trip, we jumped on the coach for the trip to Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp. Liarsville got its name when journalists, dispatched to the gold rush, went no further than this location and invented tall tales about how easy it was to find gold. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

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We had a delicious baked salmon lunch, all you could eat, a walk around the recreated tent city then moved on to the show tent with some very talented performers, singing and entertaining in a funny melodrama, not to be taken seriously! Then a lesson in gold panning, where everyone found a few flakes of gold in their pan if they did it right, and even a little baggie provided to take it home in. Our little bits of gold looked very small indeed by the time we bagged them. But it was fun, and we enjoyed it immensely.

To end our tour, we were dropped off in town at the famous (infamous, maybe?) Red Onion Saloon. This used to be a dance hall, saloon and bordello. We went upstairs for a champagne tour of the Brothel Museum conducted by one of the “madams” dressed in brothel attire, complete with money tucked into her dress.

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She was very entertaining, practically everything she said was a play on words, but all in (reasonably) good taste and she had us laughing as she explained the workings of the brothel.  It was fun, we learnt some history and saw two of the 10 small cribs (rooms) with the period furniture just as it might have been in the day.  Also a beautiful dress that was discovered under the floorboards.

Interesting to note that as a customer chose a girl, the bartender would take one of 10 dolls from behind the bar and lay it down.  Once the customer came downstairs, the bartender would sit the doll up and then everyone would know she was available again.

We didn’t have to be back onboard until 8.00pm, so there was plenty of time to explore the town and the ship was very conveniently located within walking distance.