Six Days In Alaska

Fall 2016

Subaru of America, Inc. President and COO Tom Doll Explores the Breathtaking Terrain of One of America’s Great Frontiers by Land, Sea, and Sled

Pre-Trip

A visit to Denali National Park has always been on my bucket list. So when the opportunity came up to visit Denali with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), there was no way I could pass up the adventure of a lifetime.

About 14 days before the trip, I received a packet of information outlining the details. This journey guidebook, as it’s called, was filled with information about Denali and Kenai Fjords national parks, the two parks our tour group was scheduled to visit. Upon examining the journey guidebook, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? There were so many things to know before leaving on a trip like this, including how to pack and what to bring. My usual idea of a summer vacation was visiting a national park in the lower 48 states where you know that the temperature will be hot and sunny. In Alaska, the weather in July is primarily cool, with average highs in the mid-60s to low 70s and lows in the 40s.

Alaska.
Journey map.

In preparing for the variable weather conditions, packing is more difficult because you have to layer your clothing so you can either add or remove layers depending on the conditions. At the same time, because our group would be moving from place to place, the recommendation was to travel lightly. With such temperature variations, doing so was not easy.

Our travel guide on this Alaskan adventure was a company called Off the Beaten Path (OBP), based in Bozeman, Montana. OBP has been arranging these types of excursions since 1986. As I packed, I was sure we would get to know our tour guide very well over the coming week.

Our trip was scheduled from Thursday, July 14 through Thursday, July 21. We departed from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the morning of July 14 at 7:30 a.m. and, due to the four-hour time difference between the east coast and Fairbanks, arrived in Alaska at 4:30 p.m. on the same day.

Day One: Arrival in Fairbanks

The native people of the area, the Athabascan, have inhabited the Fairbanks area for 10,000 years. It wasn’t until 1885 that Lieutenant Henry Allen, the first white man many of the Athabascan had ever seen, made his way up the Yukon River toward the city that is now Fairbanks. However, it wasn’t until 18 years later, in 1903, that Fairbanks was established.

The Fairbanks I land in is Alaska’s second largest region, with a population of about 95,000 people. The city serves as a transportation hub for northern Alaska, called the bush country. Fairbanks was booming as a result of oil pipeline construction up to Prudhoe Bay in the ’70s, but more recently has hit a bit of an economic slump as a result of low oil prices. I have to say, however, that the people I meet are all very welcoming and that the birch hills surrounding the city make it an extremely beautiful place.

Fairbanks is the spot where we are scheduled to meet the OBP guide and other members of our group the next morning, Friday, July 15. From Fairbanks, we are scheduled to drive 122 miles to Denali National Park and then another 90 miles to Camp Denali. In total, the trip will take about 10 hours because the road system is not that good. In the U.S., a trip of comparable length would take about 3.5 hours thanks to our interstate highway system.

Day Two: Fairbanks to Denali National Park

We traverse the 122 miles to the entrance to Denali National Park. As we drive the next 90 miles on our way to Camp Denali, our bus bumps and bounces along a winding dirt road that leads into the wilderness area of Denali. It is breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring. The land and forest look just as they did thousands of years ago.

Although it is mid-July, there are still very large patches of snow on the barren tundra and slopes of the mountains. As we continue to make our way along the park road, we are all hoping to get a glimpse of the tallest mountain in North America, Denali, which stands 20,310 feet. About 30 miles into the park, a passenger notices that one of the mountains is cloaked in blue and asks if that’s “it.” Our bus driver shakes his head and says it’s one of the peaks that’s part of the Alaska Range, but it’s not “the mountain.” He says, “When you see Denali, you will know it.”

Our driver then announces that you don’t typically see the mountain until you are at least 60 miles into the park and then, more often than not, you still don’t really see the “High One,” as the Athabascan call her, because it is most often cloud-covered.

As we continue down the road to Camp Denali, we have the pleasure of seeing a true cornucopia of wildlife. We pass a bull moose, lots of caribou, and a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs as we make our way through and around a glacial river. In terms of viewing wildlife, Denali surpasses its considerable reputation.

Photo: Morgan Heim.
Wildlife in Alaska.
Bald eagles.
Bald eagles.

The bus continues its journey deeper into the park, passing places like Igloo Canyon, Polychrome Pass, and Sable Pass, which is above the tree line. Our bus driver  explains that “tundra” is actually a Finnish word that means “treeless.” Our group will become much more familiar with the tundra soon enough.

We reach Camp Denali at about 8:30 p.m. and, despite the many miles and hours that have passed since we began our journey, the day doesn’t seem too long, and my traveling partners and I are disappointed it’s over. I can honestly say that the scenery was surreal in its beauty and that words are simply not adequate to describe what we saw. Our excitement is palpable as we sit and talk about the day for the next couple of hours.

Inside Denali National Park at Camp Denali: A Primer

Denali National Park and Preserve is spread over 6.1 million acres, or 9,492 square miles. To give you some perspective on the size of this park, it is larger than my home state of New Jersey, which is 8,729 square miles! As big as Alaska is, its population density is also in sharp contrast to my home state. For example, New Jersey has the greatest population density of any U.S. state, with approximately 950 times more people per square mile than Alaska. To put this in perspective, if New Jersey’s population density was the same as Alaska’s, only about 8,600 people would live in the entire state of New Jersey! Alaska is big, without much population. In fact, there are only about 750,000 people in all of Alaska.

Denali National Park is located in what is known as the central area of the Alaska Range, a mountain range extending 600 miles across the state. The Alaska Range was formed 56 million years ago by an active fault system that spans 720 miles from east to west. To this day, the two tectonic plates continue to move and periodically cause earthquakes. Indeed, within the park at various places, visitors can clearly see the fault line.

Day Two: Denali

Our first activity, after a hearty breakfast of coffee, French toast, juice and granola, is a hike up a trail at the back end of Camp Denali. The hike is described as moderate, but there is a big difference between a moderate Alaskan hike and my idea of a moderate hike. Needless to say, for me, and for many in our group besides our guide, this hike is very strenuous. From Camp Denali, we hike east along a path, but shortly after we start out, our guide takes us off the main trail onto the tundra.

Walking on the tundra is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The tundra is a layer of soil that holds a lot of rainwater and snow melt. The water is not able to sink into the ground because there is a layer of permafrost, or frozen soil, below the surface, and the groundwater isn’t able to penetrate it. As a result, the tundra is soft and gushy and very difficult to walk on, somewhat reminiscent of heavy beach sand.

The tundra layer is unfrozen only about three months of the year. During that time, the variety of plant life, ranging from flowers and berries to trees, tries to grow as much as it can. Our guide encourages us not to walk in a line or create a trail; as doing so could leave a scar. The tundra is really quite a wonderful work of nature.

After exploring the tundra, we climb about 1,700 vertical feet to a mountain overlooking the vast valley created by the McKinley River and Wonder Lake. We climb farther and farther upward, and this isn’t what any of us think of as a moderate hike. Unfortunately, despite the magnificent view, we still don’t see the High One. Hopefully, we will tomorrow!

Denali, the highest mountain in North America.
Denali, the highest mountain in North America, means "the high one" in Koyukon, a subset of the Athabascan language family. Photo: Pieter De Pauw / iStock

Day Three: Denali National Park at Camp Denali

The cabins that we are staying in at Camp Denali do not have electricity, running water, or bathrooms. Instead, they are lit by propane lights, and there is an outhouse about 15 yards away. We get our water by going outside to access a faucet running from a well.

The days are very long in Alaska, with 18 hours of sunlight. Even when the sun goes down, it really never goes down, and it’s light all night long. When I get up at 2:30 a.m. to go to the bathroom it’s like daytime outside. It’s quite strange for someone not used to it. However, as I make my way to the outhouse, I look up and I see “it” for the first time: Denali is absolutely huge and magnificent in its grandeur. I can now see what the bus driver meant when he said that when you see Denali, you’ll know it! Denali only revealed herself for about five hours that morning before retreating back under cloud cover. Fortunately for our group, though, we did get to see the mountain in its full glory.

Usually when I get up in the morning, I brush my teeth, shave, and put on some aftershave. Here, I brush my teeth, shave, and reach for the bug spray! The bugs, particularly mosquitos and flies, are a constant force to be reckoned with.

The next day, we head out for another “moderate” half-day hike past the Eielson Visitors Center.  We pass numerous glacier rivers and see all the stones the rivers have carried down from the mountains. The rivers are what Alaskans refer to as braided rivers, constantly changing the course of their flow depending on the amount of glacier melt. While it might look like these rivers are shallow, they are actually quite deep, and it’s not advisable to cross them.

We also learn why the terrain is so green and lush, given that we’re at a latitude above the tree line! Many of us assumed that this part of Alaska receives a lot of rain, but it does not. In fact, it’s like a desert, receiving only 14 inches of precipitation per year – about the same amount as Arizona! The real reason? Global warming has caused the top layer of the permafrost to melt, releasing water for trees, bushes and other greenery to thrive in the short growing season. This, combined with the 14 inches of annual precipitation, provides a moist layer to support all kinds of vegetation. Tellingly, we see pictures of Camp Denali from 50 years ago, in which there was no vegetation at all. Over the past 50 years, however, with warming temperatures, large amounts of the tundra are beginning to support vegetation.

On our way back to Camp Denali, we have the unexpected pleasure of meeting the Rock the Park television series personalities Jack Steward and Colton Smith as well as producer Ben Hammock. Broadcast on ABC, the show is dedicated to exploring and showcasing the off-the-beaten-path beauty of America’s national parks. They happen to be here the same time as our group to film an episode on Denali National Park. They are extremely friendly and energetic, and they truly love America’s national parks. It’s enjoyable to hear about their experiences in the parks and how their red Subaru Outback is able to get them through various types of weather and terrain while, at the same time, hauling the extensive amount of gear required for the show. They use the Subaru Outback to travel throughout the U.S., they say, and they have never been disappointed in its performance.

Jack Steward, Theresa Pierno (President of the National Parks Conservation Association), and Colton Smith.
Jack Steward, Theresa Pierno (President of the National Parks Conservation Association), and Colton Smith.

Day Four: Camp Denali to Anchorage

Our trip out of Camp Denali to Anchorage begins promptly at 6:45 a.m., as we have to travel over the gravel road 90 miles to the park entrance to pick up the main highway, the only highway to Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage.

At the park entrance, we discuss the zero-landfill activities that Subaru is sponsoring at three national parks: Denali, Grand Teton and Yosemite. The zero landfill initiative is being spearheaded by Denali National Park’s superintendent, Mr. Don Striker. Under Mr. Striker’s leadership, the concessionaires, cruise ship lines, and local community have been activated in support of this project. I am very impressed with their level of commitment and passion for the project. I truly believe that, within a short period of time, Denali National Park will not be sending any trash to a landfill. Once that happens, it is my intention to return to Denali to celebrate the conclusion of this epic undertaking with Mr. Striker and the wonderful people of the park service who are working so hard to make this happen!

We arrive at our hotel in downtown Anchorage at about 7:30 p.m. We need to use the showers, take advantage of the electricity to charge our cell phones, and check emails before leaving the next morning at 8 a.m. for Kenai Fjords National Park.

Day Five: Travel to Kenai Fjords National Park – Seward, Alaska

On the way to Kenai Fjords National Park, we make a couple of fascinating pit stops. The first is at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which cares for animals that get hurt in the wild. The second is the Punch Bowl Glacier to visit the summer training ground of the Iditarod dogs! These dogs need to train all year round in cold temperatures in order to run in the 1,000 mile Iditarod race from Anchorage/Willow to Nome. The dogs are being trained under the direction of Mitch Seavey, an Iditarod champion. The dogs have been bred to thrive in the cold temperatures. In fact, the dogs like it best when the temperatures are below zero! We have the opportunity to ride with an experienced Iditarod musher and the dogs on a 2-mile trail on the glacier. Our musher, Pete, advises me to hold on to the back of the sled as we take off because the dogs pack a lot of power at the start – kind of like the turbo on the STI kicking in from a dead stop! I don’t think I’m quite ready for the Iditarod, but I sure get the sense of what it must be like and, believe me, being around these magnificently trained dogs out on the snow gives me some thoughts about my day job. It’s the thrill of a lifetime!

Me and the Iditarod Sled Team.
The Iditarod Sled Team.

Day Six: Kenai Fjords National Park

On our sixth day in Alaska, we get up early and head to the docks in Seward to pick up our tour guide for the day and the boat to take us to Kenai Fjords National Park. Ironically enough, our ship’s captain, Captain Kenneth, hails from West Chester, a suburb of Philadelphia near our company headquarters in Cherry Hill.

Captain Ken came to Alaska in the early 1990s as a ship’s deckhand, fell in love with Alaska, and never went back to West Chester. He diligently saved his money to purchase a boat and does sightseeing and fishing excursions into Kenai Fjords, Resurrection Bay, and the Gulf of Alaska. While his job is now mostly seasonal, Captain Ken is pursuing his passion of being a charter boat captain for tourists and fishing expeditions.

On this particular day, our tour is heading to Holgate Glacier, which meets the sea in Aialik Bay. The Holgate Glacier is part of the Harding Icefield, which is advancing toward the ocean. Our plan for the day is to land on a rocky beach and then kayak the remaining 2 miles to the glacier.

As we begin our kayak toward the glacier, the first half mile or so is pretty easygoing. However, once we start to get closer, the cold wind off the glacier begins to affect our progress. Once we get about a mile from Holgate, the wind and current stops us in our tracks. Nevertheless, the kayak trip is fun because, among other reasons, we continually have to dodge chunks of ice in the water that had once been part of the glacier. Taking pictures is a challenge. I try to remain steady and not drop my camera into the frigid waters. The wind and current almost steer me into rocks, but I listen to my guide as she shouts commands to backstroke.

Me kayaking in Aialik Bay at the Holgate Glacier. Holgate Glacier is part of the Harding Ice Field.
Me kayaking in Aialik Bay at the Holgate Glacier. Holgate Glacier is part of the Harding Ice Field.  

On the way back to Seward, we see humpback and orca whales as well as sea lions and harbor seals. During the day, as the wind picks up, the sea gets a little rough and some of the people in our group become a little seasick, but the trip out to Holgate Glacier, and witnessing all of the sea life, makes the trip worthwhile and memorable.

Our last activity of the day is visiting Exit Glacier, which is also part of Harding Icefield.  This particular glacier is a great example of how climate change has forced glaciers to retreat. As we drive toward the glacier, we see signs that indicate where the glacier was by year dating back to the 1790s. What is truly amazing is to see how far the glacier has retreated over just the past 20 years.

Beautiful Seward.
Exit Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park.

Day Seven: Return

On the morning of the final day of our week in Alaska, we return to Anchorage for our flights home. The group says good-bye and, as we do so, we all talk about what a great experience this trip has been. After you visit Alaska, you can certainly understand why some people who visit, like Captain Ken, never return to the lower 48. Alaska and our national parks are breathtakingly beautiful and are places to revitalize your soul.

Me, third from the left, and some of my traveling companions from the National Parks Conservation Association.
Me, third from the left, and some of my traveling companions from the National Parks Conservation Association.