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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Alaska: Our trip during July, 2013 - Final Part V

Thursday, the 18th July:

Talkeetna is basically a mountaineering town and was built by miners, prospectors, adventurers, and the railroad. It is at the junction of three rivers, the Talkeetna, Susitna, and Chulitna. The word ‘Talkeetna’ means ‘where the rivers join,’ in the local Athabascan language. Talkeetna is also a great place for flight-seeing trip around Denali. One can find any number of water-planes parked in the waters of innumerable lakes around the place.

At Talkeetna, Viji had booked a cabin house very close to the river. It was quite late at night when we reached there. The cabin house was located quite interior, ten miles away from the main Anchorage-Denali highway. The road to the cabin house was deserted. Without our GPS, we couldn’t have located the cabin house. Cell phones went dead. The place, initially, looked haunted and scared all of us.
There was a small board “Welcome to Neelakantan family’ in front of the cabin house and that was the only pleasant surprise. Here too, mosquitoes flew around freely everywhere. We quickly rushed inside the house, not only to escape from the mosquitoes, but also for fear of any bear suddenly emerging from the nearby woods. ‘I will get out of this place, first thing in the morning,’ was the terse pronouncement from Viji. All her earlier enthusiasm to stay in a cabin house vanished quite dramatically. After making sure that the front door was securely locked, we all went to sleep immediately.
Honestly, to be fair, the cabin house was really a great accommodation, as we discovered the next morning. It was neat, fully furnished, well equipped with a fridge, micro-wave, kitchen-range, dish-washer, utensils for cooking and so on. It offered plenty of open space to play or party around and a quiet stay away from the din and noise of towns.  Knowing that we could be arriving with our children late at night, the caretaker lady had left some milk and other ingredients for making coffee or tea. But, we were all so tired the previous night after a long drive and scared about the deserted location of the cabin-house that we had no enthusiasm to notice the nicer things about this place.

In the early morning, there were a few more surprises, though not pleasant.  Electric power went off and so, there was no water in the taps in the bathroom. We quickly prepared to leave, but before leaving we went to the caretaker’s place. We found some wonderful breakfast – some special bread, coffee, cereals, and yoghurt. The caretaker was a pleasing woman. She explained away the sudden power tripping as something totally unexpected and rare and the lack of water supply from one of their overhead water tanks resulting from some inmates inadvertently leaving the water tap open during the night. A few other guests sitting in the dining room too spoke highly about the place.  Though we weren’t fully satisfied with the explanations, we had sumptuous breakfast and left the cabin house around 11.30 AM towards Denali.

The drive to Denali took nearly 3 hours and we reached our hotel at around 4.00 PM. The front desk at the hotel was very elegant and impressive. A coffee shop functioned in one corner and a gift shop in another corner. However, the rooms were located in a number of smaller condo units spread out in a sprawling campus. No parking was there in front of our condo unit and we had a cumbersome walk over quite a distance carrying our heavy luggage to access our room. It was drizzling too at that time.
Once we lodged our luggage in our room, the first thing we wanted to do was to buy our tickets for the Denali National Park Shuttle Tour for the next day. So, we went to the Wilderness Access Center and bought our tickets for the 66 miles, 8 hours long, Eilson Visitor Center Tour scheduled for 9.00 AM on Friday. We had also planned to return to Anchorage Friday night and so, we decided to get off the shuttle at Toklat River Point to shorten the tour to six hours.

After buying our tickets, we went for some shopping. We couldn’t do any other activity for the rest of the evening since it rained intermittently. We went back to the hotel, prepared our dinner for the night and lunch for the next day, and went to sleep after finishing our dinner.

Friday, the 19th July:

The Athabascan, the indigenous people of North America, called the high mountain, ‘Denali’ to mean ‘the high one.’ The place is habitat for wild animals like grizzlies, caribou, wolves, moose, dall sheep and others. It is also a place for gold mining. The development of a National Park in Denali owes to a great extent to the dream of one Charles Sheldon, an early conservationist and gentleman hunter from Vermont along with Harry Karstens, a legendary outdoorsman and dog musher. By 1917, after almost a decade of hard work, Sheldon and others persuaded American Congress to create Mount McKinley National Park. Four years later, in 1921, Karstens was hired as its first superintendent. President Jimmy Carter, in December 1980, with only weeks left in his presidency, signed into law a legislation that established over 100 million acres of new national parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges in Alaska that included enlargement of Mount Mckinley National Park from two million acres to six million acres into the present Denali National Park and Preserve. Mount Mckinley or Denali is visible from both Anchorage and Fairbanks and lies between the two cities. The park is a six million acres of wild land bifurcated by a ribbon road. Visitors’ vehicles are not allowed beyond the first fifteen miles of this road up to the Savage River. Beyond this, one has to use only the shuttle bus service operated by the Wilderness Access Center.
Denali is a popular destination for hikers, mountaineers, campers and for those interested in winter sports. It also forms part of bear country and visitors are advised to avoid encountering with bears. Elaborate instructions are available on what is needed to be done when one sees a bear.
We reached the Wilderness Access Center well in time to catch our 9.00 AM shuttle for the Eilson Visitor Center tour. We had to carry the heavy baby-car-seats too, as this was mandatory for children to travel in a shuttle bus too. I think a lot of fuss is made in some places in America in the name of security and safety. It was very quite an onerous job carrying the heavy baby-car-seats everywhere you go. The tour operators could have as well provided a few baby seats in every shuttle bus. The baby seats can be easily fixed and removed. It was raining and drizzling intermittently. The driver was a lady and as she drove, she also functioned as the tour conductor describing the places, scenic spots, the mountains, the rivers, the history of the inhabitants of the terrain, and so on all the way. The shuttle passed through Savage River, Sanctuary River, Tehlenika River, Igloo Creek, Sable Park, and Polychrome Overlook before it reached Toklat River. One got fabulous views from Igloo Creek stopover.

The shuttle stopped once in every one-and-half hours for restroom facility. At other places, it just stopped for a few minutes for tourists to take pictures. Tourists were advised to bring their own lunch or snacks, as no facility was available on the way. Besides, we were not allowed to eat anything outside the shuttle bus to avoid attracting animals and birds. The rain was a real dampener and many of the scenic spots were covered by mists. Sun came out partially here and there, but mostly not seen.
We reached Toklak River at 1.00 PM. We got off from the shuttle to take another one for getting back to the Wilderness Access Centre. In Denali, there are tours go up to Kantishna after crossing Wonder Lake and Reflection Pond. We understand, on a clear day, one gets a view of 20320 feet high McKenly Mountain, the tallest in U.S.A, from many viewing points. In Wonder Lake and Reflection Pond, on a clear day, one can see a reflection of the McKenly Mountain in the waters of the lake. However, these trips could take anything about 11 hours. For a visitor to Denali, I think one would need at least three days to do full justice.
At Toklak River, there was a tented souvenir shop and a number of restrooms. Tourists were allowed to get down from and change into the shuttle bus anywhere, subject to availability of seats. We didn’t get proper seats in the 12.20 PM shuttle from Toklak River; I felt the driver could have been a little more accommodative to ask a few fellow tourists to move over to other seats to accommodate the small children with us, but he didn’t. So, we had to wait till 1.00 PM. In the meantime, as the rains stopped temporarily, we walked around a bit taking pictures.

We boarded the 1.00 PM shuttle. The driver was quite accommodative requesting a few other passengers to move to other seats to make room for us and for the kids, so the kids could sit by our side.
We returned back to Wilderness Access Center by around 3.00 PM. We went back to our hotel, did some shopping, packed our things, put them in our car and left Denali around 5.30 PM for Anchorage.
On the whole, I felt, if weather was better, we could have enjoyed the Denali tour much more.
We stopped over at Taco Bell at Wasila on the way, for dinner. We reached Embassy Suites Hotel in Anchorage by around 11.00 PM when it was still not dark. Viji and Sanjay went out to take pictures, after we checked into the hotel room.
Saturday, the 20th July:
We got up leisurely around 8.00 AM. The hotel offered cooked-to-order breakfast in addition to regular items. We had a rich breakfast. In the meantime, Viji and Balaji went to return the rented car. The hotel arranged an airport shuttle to take us to the airport. We were there at the airport around 12.45 PM. Viji and Balaji along with the children left by 3.00 PM flight to Phoenix via Seattle and we left by a 4.20 PM flight to Chicago via Seattle. We reached Chicago on 21st morning around 6.30 AM and our flight was delayed by an hour.
On the whole, our trip to Alaska was very satisfying. I am very happy that one of my long time passions was fulfilled during this year. I thank Viji and Balaji for that. I thank Sanjay and Sahana for their excellent cooperation for most part. They are small children and become restless when they are bound in a car seat for continuously long hours. That was understandable. They just want to be free. Only we lack the ability and innovation to keep them cheerful when they become restless.
A trip to Alaska is very costly too. The flight tickets, the hotels, the rented car, the groceries, the entrance tickets to various tours, facilities and shopping are all prohibitively costly. I thank Sri Amma Bhagawan for making this tour possible without any discomfort.
Now, Kailash and Manasarover in Himalayas seem to be my next target.
Alaska is a must see place in one’s life, if one can afford. It is in places like Alaska where one finds Nature’s play in full. The scenery, the serene and clean atmosphere, the quiet ambience, the whispering cool winds, gurgling rivers and waters, expansive land and space, frightening mountain heights, tantalizing lakes and most importantly the clean and smooth road systems of Alaska are something to be remembered for lifetime.

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