Sunday, September 18, 2016

Alaska 2016 - Day 11 (8/30/2016) - Denali

The first item on the agenda this morning was the Denali Natural History Tour, which was included with my cruisetour package.  For breakfast, I grabbed a couple of items to go from the express café in the main lodge as I met with the group for the 9 AM departure.  The tour was OK, and we had another great guide/driver, Dalan – interestingly, he immediately recognized my name as West African due to having spent some time living in Ghana as a Mormon missionary.  The tour included 3 stops while riding the first 20 or so miles on the lone road into the park – one was a video about the history of the park using archival video and pictures, the second was a stop at Savage Cabin where a guy play-acted as the chief ranger from 1930, and the last was a history/culture talk by a young lady of Athabaskan descent.  Side note: with some exceptions, only park buses are allowed past mile 17(?) on the road into the park.  As it was another picture perfect day with no clouds in the sky, we also got a couple of scenic views of the Denali mountain.  We didn’t have as much luck with wildlife, though, as the best that we could do was a few Dall sheep high on a mountainside, and a family of willow ptarmigan (the state bird) by the side of the road.  Another side note: Dalan was the second guide/speaker within the week whose favorite bird is the raven.

The tour lasted about 4.5 hours, dropping us back off at the main lodge somewhere around 1:30 or 1:45.  At that point, Jeff, Tammy, and I walked across the street to a hotdog and burger place to grab lunch.  After a brief respite back in my room I met back up with Jeff to embark on the main attraction of the day: a flightseeing tour to Denali.  We were picked up by the Fly Denali shuttle van right around 3:15 and then driven to the Healy airstrip where the office was located.  We signed in and then waited to depart on our 4 PM flight, which began just about on schedule.  Our plane was a Piper Cherokee Six, a piston engine powered propeller plane that seats up to 6 people.  I had the fortune of taking the copilot’s seat – though I did my best not to touch any of the controls in front of me.  Our pilot was Jamie, a 36-year old lady who had been flying for literally half her life.  There were two other passengers besides Jeff and me - both worked for Fly Denali.

The take-off and landing portions of the flight were a bit bumpy, as were a couple of sections through the mountains and around the side of Denali.  Otherwise, though, the turbulence wasn’t too bad.  I did sweat a bit during the flight, but that could partially be attributed to the direct sunlight that beat into the cabin (luckily they provide a selection of loaner sunglasses, one of which I wore over my glasses).  And while my stomach was pretty much ready for the flight to be over by the end, I was never in any real danger of airsickness.  The flight path took us south to the Wickersham Wall on the northwest side of Denali (I can’t remember all the other stuff that we passed by on ingress and egress), ascending to 11,200 feet (above sea level).  Considering that the base of Denali is at around 2,000 feet and the peak at 20,000 feet, this was *incredibly* only halfway up the mountain.  We loitered above Peters Basin and then flew in and out of the pass above Traleika Glacier.  We also did a fly-by of Mount Brooks and Brooks Glacier below it before heading back to Healy.  We did not fly around to the south side of Denali because there was too much turbulence going around the west side, but we did get good views of both the north and south peaks.  The total flight time was somewhere around 90 minutes.  All in all it was an amazing experience with spectacular and truly awesome views; hopefully my very amateur pictures (mostly with my Nexus 6P smartphone) do it some justice.

After landing at Healy we thanked our pilot and hosts, and were driven back to the Princess lodge.  Jeff then left to meet up with Tammy for their evening excursion – we were thankfully back about 25 minutes before their scheduled 6:50 departure.  I headed back to my room to mentally process all that had just happened and marvel once again at the pictures.  After making sure that they were all backed up to two clouds (Google Photos as well as Sugarsync), I walked over to check out a Thai/Chinese food take-out place across the street that I had spotted on the drive back.  My expectations were pretty low for Thai food in Alaska, so I wasn’t disappointed by the so-so Pad Thai (as far as Pad Thais go, a so-so Pad Thai is still pretty enjoyable in my book).  The Thai iced tea was a little better, so it wasn’t a waste of $16.  On that note, Jeff, Tammy, and I noticed over the past few days that the food had been on the expensive side.  We hypothesized that it was a combination of the increased costs of getting the food to the remote areas as well as an ability to charge higher prices to tourists.

The aurora forecast for the night was a 5 on the Kp scale.  However, to my understanding the auroral activity never materialized – neither from the hourly forecast nor from looking out my window.  I gave up around 1 AM and went to bed.

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

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