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Alaska and the Yukon:
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The 2008 Artpoints Tour of Alaska and the Yukon continued

The train from Anchorage to Denali National Park

mckinley explorer
The Mckinley Explorer on a beautiful June day.

June 3, 2008

We joined our Holland America tour group and departed Anchorage for Denali on the McKinley Explorer, a train with domed observation cars. The train travels at a leisurely 25-30 mph allowing plenty of time for scenery and wildlife spotting.
Denali peak (Mount McKinley) is the highest point in North America at 20,345 feet, but most tourists never see the summit. It is usually wreathed in clouds. Everyone tells us that the mountain “makes its own weather”, usually cloudy.

alaska river view from the train
railway bridge railway bridge seen from the train

Private vehicles are no longer allowed into the park’s single gravel road. The only way to get into Denali is to take a tour conducted by Forest Service guides or to purchase tickets to the shuttle busses that circulate up and down the park road. The bumpy ride to the end of the road at Wonder Lake is a 12 hour round trip, so we had to be satisfied with going only half that distance, to Toklat River.

moose calf

The animals in Denali have become accustomed to the forest service busses, they ignore the busses and go about their business, Almost immediately, we saw a moose cow and her calf grazing by the road. Later, we saw a family of Dall Sheep grazing on the side of the road and were able to watch them closely for some time.

denali nat park
Denali National Park on a cloudy day in June

We also saw an owl’s nest with a parent and two large fluffy chicks, a family of brown (grizzly) bears from a distance and a large number of arctic hares and birds. The cold weather and a brief hail storm did not deter us.

Both of our mornings in Denali, we walked to the Black Bear Coffee House for breakfast. The first morning, the young staff had declared “dress like a pirate day” and were having a blast talking like imaginary pirates. We shared a favorite Stan Rogers shanty, “Barrett’s Privateers” from our iPod and enjoyed a spirited pirate’s jig.

pirate girls Aarrrgh! Mateys! Put some rum in that coffee!

Alaska is huge. One of the disadvantages of choosing an organized tour is that we spent a lot of time on motorcoaches getting from one point to another. We spent a full day on the road between Anchorage and Fairbanks, arriving just in time to get settled find some dinner. Strangely, we found some excellent Thai food at Thai House near our hotel.  Unfortunatly, as with any arranged tour, we were forced to forego something we were looking forward to, visiting the Art Department at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. This fine art program may be the northern most in North America, as it is somewhat south of town and therefore very near the latitude of the Art School in Dawson City Yukon (more on this later). We were informed the galleries at the University are definitely worth the taxi fare, but we simply did not have the time.

golddredge 8 Gold Dredge Number 8

In the morning we departed for a lesson on gold rush history at Gold Dredge #8. The dredge operated from 1929 through the 1950s extracting gold from creek and river beds. The heaps of gravel left over from the industrial mining operations still carry small flakes of gold that cannot be economically extracted, so tourists like ourselves can get an quick lesson in  the technique of panning for gold. It is more work than you might expect to extract a few flakes of gold using nothing more that a giant pie-tin and water. We gained a real respect for the work-ethic of prospectors and miners. Pooling our gold after a half-hour of labor, we had 7.7 grains of gold worth about $20.



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