Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Day 10 - Denali to Fairbanks

Denali weather:  High 52, Low 50 with rain, rain, rain all dang day!
Fairbanks weather:  High 57, Low 48, sunshine with some clouds until about midnight when clouds came down and covered the whole sky.  Brilliant full moon before that though, but no northern lights to be seen.
Steps walked:  Shaun 13,936 steps and 43 floors climbed; Shannon 13,245 and 41 floors climbed.
Critter count:  2 moose cows, 3 moose calves, and 1 moose bull, plus a bunch of arctic ground squirrels, a chickadee, and some reindeer at the University of Alaska

Today we had to catch the train to Fairbanks, but we really wanted to hike some of the trails in the area, so after breakfast we checked out, left our luggage at the front desk, and caught the shuttle into the park.  We visited the Murie Science Center first.  Adolph Murie was instrumental in changing the attitude of the folks who ran Denali so that they would leave all the wildlife alone and not try to "manage" the natural processes.  His research showed that the ecosystem has to balance itself out from the largest predator to the smallest insect or it will not survive.  The Center had all kinds of displays and computers set up that showed where different birds and wildlife had been spotted in the park, as well as 360-degree views of the vistas we'd been seeing from the park road with captions telling the names of the mountains and rivers and all that.  There was even a dinosaur footprint discovered in 2005 on display!  It was definitely our kind of place, and we really enjoyed it.

From the science center we began our hike.  We had mapped out a route we thought we could handle that would be challenging but still doable.  We verified our plan with the woman at the center and were on our way.  It was raining but not terribly so, and the paths were well marked and not slippery.  We were well dressed, but it turned out that my double whammy waterproofing of my winter jacket and backpack didn't work so well.  By the end of the day, I was soaked and freezing, but that's okay.  I bought a fleece in the bookstore and was just fine.

Anyway, on to our hike....our ending destination was Horseshoe Lake, which was 200 feet down into the valley.  We made our way past the railroad tracks and up into the woods, and the first people we came upon told us about some moose in the area, so we were very excited.  We made our way down the stairs made of timber buried in the dirt and didn't stop to take pictures or anything (gasp!).  We got to the overlook, and some folks told us that we'd just missed the moose and showed us some pictures of them in the water and everything.  We were so bummed!  All the people we passed said that they'd seen the moose until we got to the bottom of the valley, and a couple of people said that they had to turn back because there was a moose on the path!

Now the situation was looking up, so we kept going, and what should we come upon but a bunch of people on the trail taking pictures.  We look up, and holy cow, it's a frickin' moose mama and baby right on the side of the path.  They were both eating just as pretty as can be.  Shannon and I couldn't remember the amount of room you had to give a moose (they had placards everywhere that said how far to stay away from moose and bear and all that), but I'm pretty sure we were too close.  I'm not a good judge of distance, but I'd say we were about 50 feet away.  The mama kept her eye on us the whole time, but she wasn't spooked at all.  They kept walking towards us but off to the side of the trail, and we just kept walking past her, so it was all good.  I was so excited I almost wet my pants!

We continued to descend down into Horseshoe Lake, which was beautiful.  We stayed awhile because one of the folks had said that the bull was in the area, but we didn't see him and were actually kind  of glad that he hadn't just popped up somewhere along the trail.  I kept hoping he would appear across the lake from us, but no such luck.  That's okay, though, because we were totally psyched about our close encounter with a moose.  The only bad thing was that we had to climb back up the valley, and it was challenging but doable.

We combined the Horseshoe Lake Trail with the Tiaga Trail which took us back across the railroad tracks, thru more of the boreal forest, and then back to the Visitor's Center.  We climbed a hill  just past the railroad tracks, but just as we got to the top of it, we heard the train.  We looked at each other and started running back down the hill and got to the bottom just as the train passed us.  It was so fun, and we laughed like loons as we turned around after having taken the picture and realized we had to climb back up the dang hill!

The Tiaga Trail was very nice.  The forest here was completely destroyed during a wildfire 100 years ago, and we had read about the way forests re-grow with the different types of vegetation, so it was really interesting to see Mother Nature's hand at work.  There was an area where lots of birch trees dominated, rather than the white and black spruce that are so prevalent here.  It was very pretty, but the pictures don't do it justice.  We saw unusual mushrooms and trees that a bear had clawed as well.  All in all, it was the perfect way to end our time in Denali.

We spent the rest of the time before boarding the train in the cafe because it was pouring down rain at this point.  This is where I bought the fleece that saved my life, and Shannon bought a vest as well.  We got on the train and had a completely different experience this time because a lot fewer people were on it.  We were able to have 4 seats each with the front ones turned around, which made a little nest for each of us.  Fewer people also meant we were freer to stand up since we weren't blocking anyone's view, so I took a bunch of pictures through the rain.  

About halfway through the trip, though, the sun came out and the skies turned blue, and it was beautiful.  One of the many things we're learning about Alaska is that the weather is as changeable as it is in Michigan...probably everywhere I guess, but we appreciate the blue skies whenever we can get them.  Apparently, they've had an exceptional summer here, so we're seeing the tail end of it during our trip.

After we arrived in Fairbanks, it took some time to get our luggage (which arrived safe and sound, despite being left in the care of the lodge to take to the train depot) and then find a cab to take us to the Minnie Street B&B and on to the airport to pick up our car.  After that we ate at a place suggested by the train folks, and then we decided to find a place to watch for the northern lights.  Now mind you, it's only 10:00 at this point, but the place we found said that you should check it out during the day because it was so dark at night that you'd never find your way there....and boy were they right!  Holy crap, it was called Ester Dome, and it was only about 20 minutes outside of town.  It claimed to have views from horizon to horizon, so we were all over it.  When we got there, we staked out a place to watch for the lights, but we had to wait for darkness.  Also, it was a full moon, so that made it light for an even longer period of time.  It was absolutely freezing up there, so we just sat in the car and read....every once in a while turning the car off and checking out the skies.

Unfortunately, about the same time as the sky got truly dark (which was about 12:45am, thank you very much), the clouds came down over the dome and we were covered in thick, mucky fog.  No northern lights for us, and to top that off, we had to drive down off of the dome...and we were tired....and did I mention that it was REALLY dark?  Well, it was really dark and foggy and scary, and we're not doing that again....ever.

We finally made it to bed around 2:00am, so our first full day in Fairbanks will start a little late. That's no problem, though, because we have 2 1/2 days here with nothing scheduled, so we're good.  Tomorrow will be the Visitor's Center, hopefully a city tour, and the farmer's market.

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