We started the tour in Anchorage where, on the first night, we met our Holland America "journey host", Merrin, originally from Texas, but like so many others up there, working in Alaska for the summer. Here we are with Merrin in Skagway, just before she delivered us to the cruise ship. By that time we were very impressed with her ability to keep our group organized with such good cheer.
The next morning in Anchorage we hopped on board the Alaska Railway to head north to Denali National Park. The train cars were double-deckers, with our 31-member tour group all together in one car. The downstairs part of the car had 2 washrooms, a dining room and a small kitchen. Upstairs where we spent most of the journey, there was a bar-tender and an "interpreter" one of the few native Alaskans we met on the trip. A member of an Alaskan First Nation she had grown up in the area and she was familiar with every peak and river. She kept us entertained and informed on and off throughout the 8-hour trip.
Those people who were snoozing or reading at the start of the train trip soon woke up to the beautiful scenery out the windows.
I was especially interested in the strange looking conifers we were passing. They were tall and skinny - looked like pipe cleaners or bottle brushes.
I soon learned that although these trees look small and therefore young (I was wondering if they had grown there after a forest fire or whether they were a peculiar Alaskan species of tree), this is, in fact, an old growth Arctic forest where the trees are sitting on permafrost that's not too far under the surface. The top soil is cold and thin and not well nourished. As a result, the tree roots are stunted and the trees themselves grow very slowly, without the abundance of top growth that trees have further south. A cross-section of the trunk would show the growth rings extremely close together. We saw a lot more of these types of trees throughout our 10 days in the Alaska and Yukon interior.
In Denali Park we stayed at a Holland-America hotel, the McKinley Chalet Resort, a huge sprawling resort on a steep hillside, with many buildings and a huge log cabin main lodge with a soaring roof and numerous skylights.There were restaurants, a bar and a large gift shop, as well as a desk for organizing excursions and a large space for people to gather. The exterior doors of all the buildings had these warnings.
Statues in the main lodge helped create a sense of outdoor ambiance.
This is Balto, a legendary sled dog. Sled dog raising and racing is a popular activity in both Alaska and the Yukon. More about this later.
The morning of the first full day at Denali was at our leisure, so after breakfast
we took ourselves to the Park Visitor Centre on the free shuttle bus to get the "lay of the land". It was full of interesting stuff to look at - geologic and wildlife displays.
In the afternoon we headed off on a Tundra Wilderness Tour, 8 hours on a bus, but with frequent stops. The driver was excellent with his comments and stories and we loved his enthusiasm. Everybody on the bus was thrilled to see caribou,
numerous eagles and eagle nests and even a pair of grizzly bears working on a future family, albeit a long way away up the slope.
By the time our tour ended our initial reluctance to spend 8 hours on a bus had transformed into wild enthusiasm for all that we'd seen: rivers, mountain meadows, colourful rock faces, wildflowers, wildlife and even in the cloud-clearing evening, a great view of Mt. McKinley, Denali, the Big One, about 70 miles away.
By the time we got back it was late: 9:30 p.m. but still light out in this land of the midnight sun.
Here ends the first blog post about our trip to Alaska and the Yukon Territories. More to come!