Sunday, September 18, 2016

Alaska 2016 - Day 10 (8/29/2016) - Denali Highway

Today was all about getting from the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge to the Denali Princess “Wilderness” Lodge.  I use the quotes because there is a stark difference between the Copper River Lodge and the Denali Lodge – the former has about 80 rooms and is on an isolated property, while the latter has probably 1000 rooms across several buildings and is within a semi-bustling (by Alaskan standards) town with stoplights.

We departed the Copper River Lodge around 8:15, and headed north on the Richardson Highway.  We then turned west on the Denali Highway.  Though these are their actual names, I use the term “highway” loosely here because these are mostly 2-lane (combined) roads, with tiny stretches where a lane is added in one direction to make the total 3.  Additionally, the Denali Highway is unpaved for about 100 miles in the middle.  The abnormally high rainfall this summer had also caused an increase in the number of potholes, making for an even bumpier ride.  Our driver Braden reported, though, that the unexpected late-season maintenance had drastically improved the road within the last week.

Our streak of excellent weather continued, despite a chilly start in the morning.  By the afternoon the temperature was in the 60s, and the sky was once again mostly clear.  After a scenic stop at MacLaren Summit, we stopped for lunch at the Maclaren River Lodge.  Though the menu was limited there, it was respectable what they could offer (including running toilets) at such a fairly isolated location.  After we left the lodge Braden made the mistake of telling the passengers that he had intentionally failed to notify the lodge proprietors that this was his last highway drive of the season in order to avoid the tradition of having to wade into the river.  At the urging of the passengers, he relented and performed this duty at the crossing of the Brushkana River.  I must say that he was a great sport and a genuinely nice young man to have as our driver.

We made a few more scenic stops to admire the Alaskan Mountain Range, including a couple specifically for the rare viewing of Denali – Braden informed us that in his 9 trips across the highway this season this was the only day that it had been clear enough to see Denali on the drive.  By the time we turned north on the Parks Highway and made it to the Denali Lodge, we were close to an hour behind the scheduled 9 hour travel time.  Nobody on the bus seemed to mind, though, as we had been fortunate to have such pleasant weather and the chance for extra scenic views (as well as a fun stunt from the driver).

When I made it up to my room at the lodge, I was surprised to find someone else’s bag waiting there (mine wasn’t to be delivered just yet) – I did note, though, that the last name on the tag (Oj-something) was somewhat similar to mine, so the mix-up was understandable.  I called down to the front desk to inform them of the mistake, as well as request a wake-up call if the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) made an appearance that night – a service I found out about that morning after some people had used it to see the lights the previous night.  I then met up with Jeff and Tammy to plan our flightseeing tour for the next day – we went with a less expensive third party instead of a Princess excursion.  We then had dinner at the pizza joint on the property, during which a conversation with the couple at the next table revealed that they were the parents of Annie Westhoff (a girl that I used to play soccer with in St. Louis).  On the way back we stopped at the front desk to inquire more about good places to view the lights if they did happen, then walked down to the spot by the river that the clerk had suggested.  After making it back to our J building, we said our conditional goodnights in hope that we would meet again in the middle of the night for the lights.

I was still up (and was in fact looking at the aurora forecast) around midnight when Jeff called saying that he and Tammy had noticed that the sky was looking a little lighter and were about to walk out to check it out.  I bundled up in a few layers (the temperature was down to about 35 degrees) and joined them.  We could see a bit of the green aurora from in front of the main lodge, and there were others around getting a look as well.  We walked down to, and past, the suggested viewing spot on the river to try to get a better view, but it didn’t help.  On the plus side there were fewer lights around (though there still a couple of annoying lights from buildings on top nearby hills, as well as the intermittent passing car on the nearby road), but it was at a lower elevation so we actually had a more obstructed view toward the horizon with the most activity.  We could still see some of the faint activity at the edges of the aurora overhead, though.  Like several other people that I saw, I tried in vain to get a picture of the lights, but they were far too dim for both my phone and my camera (plus I didn’t know how to work the manual controls).  After a while we decided to walk back to the lodge to try to see more of the hotspot on the horizon.  But the lights had just about begun to fade when we made a move, and they were gone by the time we arrived back at the lodge.  I made it back to my room a little before 1 AM, so the whole ordeal lasted a little under an hour.

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My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:
https://goo.gl/photos/4ikrCSuPvRpRkXTKA

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