Midway through our tour of Denali State Park, Alaska bush pilot Don Lee asks if we're ready to look for bear. Because we're airborne, we’re game.
Our 45-minute flight turns out to be the highlight of a recent 10-day trip to Alaska. Lee delivers handsomely on two things we really want to see: mountains and wildlife.
My wife, Diane, and I had just competed a seven-day cruise of the Inside Passage. Figuring we might never get another opportunity, we opted to stay three extra days to visit Denali National Park and Preserve, Talkeetna (purportedly the inspiration for the television show “Northern Exposure”) and Fairbanks, a community known for dog mushing and gold mining. We let our cruise provider (Princess Cruises) work out most of the details of our extended stay.
6:30 a.m. Saturday: While we are sleeping, our Princess Cruises ship docks in Whittier. We efficiently disembark and head to the Alaska Railroad depot for a scenic ride to Talkeetna. We tunnel through Maynard Mountain on our way out of Whittier, on the western edge of Prince William Sound. www.alaskatrain.com
We share a domed car with Al and Nancy Heakin of Rapid City, South Dakota, who are recently retired and celebrating with a seven-day Alaskan cruise and add-on land tour. “We figured, we’re here," Nancy says. "Why not stay a little longer?” Besides, she wants to see a moose in the wild.
Greg Vancil, our guide for the 200-mile rail excursion, says we can hope to see glaciers, wildlife and Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. The glaciers are easy to spot from our train car, which has large curved glass windows, and he points out several. The wildlife require patience and a watchful eye. A memorable view of Denali will come later.
8:55 a.m.: Chatter among some passengers ensues. One woman is almost yelling, she’s so excited. Dall sheep have been spotted, and word quickly spreads throughout the train. Nineteen minutes later, a passenger spots a moose. Actually, several.
3:20 p.m.: Shortly after arriving in Talkeetna, we’re airborne, and Don Lee, our pilot, is headed toward a “peek-a-boo.” He wants us to see Denali, but the clouds aren’t cooperating. He sees an opening and heads its way. We get to within 40 miles at 5,000 feet of the mountain formerly known as Mount McKinley. Denali looks good from above. So does a sidekick, Mount Hunter.
Then, we’re off for bear and, later, moose. We first see the grizzly, which appears to be on a leisurely jog in a clearing. Then, a moose, which is stationed at a lake’s edge. Before we finish our ride, Lee explains why he loves to fly and train other bush pilots: “My office comes with a great view.” www.alaskafloats.com
5:15 p.m.: Diane and I discuss our day over dinner at Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna, which does remind me of “Northern Exposure” – without the tourists. www.talkeetnachamber.org
9:30 p.m.: We’ve made it to McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge for the evening, where we walk the grounds. The clouds have cooperated, and we get another stunning look at Denali.
4:15 a.m.: It’s light outside, and I am temporarily confused. We averaged three hours of daily darkness during our stay. The clouds cooperate for the next three hours, and we can see Denali – first just its top, then all 20,310 feet.
9:54 a.m.: We’re headed by bus for a day at Denali National Park and Preserve when someone yells “moose.” Our bus driver slows and we watch one cross George Parks Highway. The moose is in no hurry, and neither are we. I also learn that I had slept through an earthquake the night before. “They happen all the time,” I hear someone explain. www.earthquake.alaska.edu
2:14 p.m.: Take a deep breath. I follow the instructions, and Philip Thorson, our tour guide for a four-hour bus ride, informs us that Denali (the park) ranks No. 1 for air quality among national parks. I also learn from Thorson that Denali covers 6 million acres – roughly the size of Massachusetts, but is still just the third-largest national park in Alaska. I also learn that a 92-mile road, only a portion of which is paved, cuts through Denali.
3:59 p.m.: Thorson pulls the bus over and points to foxes scampering on a hillside. He’s heard the den includes eight kits; we see at least three of the youngsters and one adult.
5:50 p.m.: Guided tours are great, but it’s time to break from the herd. Diane and I set out on a trail near the Denali visitors center. A sign that tells us what to do if we encounter a moose (run away), wolf (shout) or bear (stand your ground). We are encouraged to make noise so any nearby bears know we are around – so Diane claps. It apparently works. None cross our path.
9:42 p.m.: During dinner at King Salmon Restaurant, I notice an odd-looking American flag hanging above the bar. It has 49 stars and was made during the months between Alaska’s admission as a state and Hawaii’s.
10:40 a.m.: We’re headed by bus to Fairbanks and slow down on our way through Healy. Our guide asks if anyone has seen the movie “Into the Wild.” I have, and she points to a green-and-white bus that was used in the town scenes. A second bus, where Christopher McCandless (the focus of the movie) stayed while living in the wild, remains deep on the Stampede Trail.
12:03 p.m.: We stop in Nenana, site of the annual Nenana Ice Classic. Locals place a tripod on the frozen Tanana River and wager on the date and time it falls through the ice. Last year: 1:18 p.m. May 1. I also learn Nenana’s train depot was the site for the beginning of the 1,000-mile sled ride to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome – which inspired the Iditarod and was portrayed in the Disney movie “Balto.”
1:30 p.m.: We spend the next part of our day in Fairbanks cruising the Chena River on the sternwheeler Discovery III. I expect this to be just another boat ride, but I am mistaken. Along the way, we are entertained by a bush pilot who lands and takes off near our boat. We also stop at Trail Breaker Kennel for a mushing exhibition of Alaskan Huskies. With no snow, Tekla Monson – daughter of the late Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod winner – has her team pull an ATV. She tells us curiosity and excitement are the qualities she looks for in a lead dog. www.trailbreakerkennel.com
We also manage to squeeze in a walk through an antler arch and a visit to an ice museum, which features a short toboggan run made of ice. www.fairbanksice.wixsite.com/icemuseum
7:45 p.m.: We end our day with dinner at Gambardella’s Pasta Bella in Fairbanks. We had spent our time in Alaska fittingly eating seafood, so pizza for our final meal means we are headed home. www.gambardellas.com.
Kevin Warneke lives in Omaha and is a frequent contributor to Inspired Living Omaha and other publications of the Omaha World-Herald.