3 August 2014 — Denali to Talkeetna, and beyond!
This was an early morning (5:00 wake-up, with 6:30 departure). We had one of the best drivers (according to Albert) on the roads in Denali, and indeed she was safe, yet able to point out the sights we wanted to see, and she got us to the train on time.
And Mt McKinley played hide and seek with us all though the first couple of hours. We saw far more than most people see in the summer, we were told, so we enjoyed what we could see. The morning light on the whole of the mountain range made for spectacular images.
Back in Denali, we were delivered to the railroad station. Contrary to most train schedules, they ran pretty much on time. The trip to Talkeetna was uneventful; we ate lunch in the dining car, enjoying the food, which was actually quite good. It was not really too pricy for Alaska, although the food remains pricy for the lower 48. Albert and Marlene (now accompanied by Matilda, a chiquaqua that we have hard about from the beginning of the trip. She is the apple of Albert’s eye, and you can see that the affection is reciprocated. We were delivered immediately to the local airport, as our next adventure is a small plane ride to a glacier about half an hour (air time) from Talkeetna. Gwen is not feeling well, so she decides to remain behind, which is good for getting our laundry done, and for getting her healthy, but it is my considered opinion after the trip that she missed one of the true highlights of our Alaskan vacation. The pilot, Jacques, piled the Sherman family (Mitch, Robin and Adam) into the 2nd and 3rd seat, and I get the co-pilot’s chair in what could have passed for a pre-WWII single engine monoplane. It is red, and the engine is a nine-cylinder wonder that never missed a beat. I don’t mind telling you that I had my qualms, as I had never flown in one of these small planes before. The dials are not that much different than I remembered from playing pilot simulation games on my first computer, an altimeter, engine speed, level indication, fuel consumption, and, oh yes, something not on my old computer, a GPS with a color display. Jacques starts the engine, using three pull-out controls on the dashboard between us, and proceeds to head down toward the runway. The plane has a short tail wheel, meaning it sits so that we are looking at the propeller, and can see quite well looking out side to side, but not so well straight ahead. We gain a little speed, and the plane rolls down to the end of the runway to execute the turn to take off. Full throttle now, playing a little with the fuel-air ratio and the flaps. We gain speed going down the runway, and in a remarkably short time, he pulls back on the bar and we are airborne. The ride is surprisingly smooth, and for the first time in a long time, I breathe. We gain altitude and head north, or something like north, I can only tell in that we see lots of trees, rivers, mountains, but no ocean. We do cross over the confluence of the three rivers (commemorated in the name Talkeetna, which means meeting of the three rivers in the Athabasca native tongue), which he tells us about. We had come by here on the train, and indeed the tracks are visible running by one of the rivers.
We’re up high enough now so that my fear of crashing into trees has been replaced by my conviction that we would not survive a fall at all. Surprisingly, I am not terrified, just mildly concerned, somewhat like being in a larger passenger plane. I guess the smoothness of the ride and the quality of the pilot’s handling of the aircraft have convinced me to leave the flying to him. We are all connected on an intercom system into headsets which enable us to talk to him, and of course he can talk to us, but we also hear all the communication with the control tower. There is another plane with us, carrying the other half of our tour group, headed to the same place we are, and they are ahead of us. The views are tremendous, and so much more satisfying than the two-dimensional views we have been seeing from the ground. One view we also got was again of Mt McKinley, which still had the cloud over the peak, but which was mostly visible to us in the evening sun.
After flying around for awhile, we come into the local mountain range, and I realize we are not flying over them, but are flying at an altitude that was less than their height. This brought more concerns, as I could see us flying right into the side of one of them. Indeed, we flew through and by them, viewing them close up as we passed. I thought I might get seasick from the rocking back and forth as he maneuvered through the peaks, but I didn’t feel any queasiness at all. To my totally unpracticed eye, it looked like we passed some of the cliffs awfully close, but miss them we did, and I am sure with plenty of room to spare. We finally went by one obvious glacier, wide with steep mountain sides on either side of it, and it is here we were to land. First, he said, we have to lose some altitude so that we are coming up to it rather than coming down on it. This did’t quite make sense to me, but of course, I wasn’t going to argue. So, descend he did, but not very far, and he turned a 270 degree turn as he descended to come in as he had said, gaining altitude. I should point out that about 10 minutes before we started this maneuver, he grabbed what for me would have been the parking brake handle on our old Honda, and started pumping away at it. The copilot’s seat was so close to the pilot’s seat that his right arm came up into my left inner elbow when he first started to pump, so I quickly moved closer to the door so he could pump. He told me that this was how he lowered the skids on which we were going to land. Lowered the skids? I had seen them skirting the wheels on the plane as we got in, and had noted the use of cables tied to the body of the plane, but it looked like a home-made structure, so I could not imagine that it actually moved. Move they did.
Jacques’ dialogue on the way was not limited to descriptions of the flora and fauna of the region. He started talking about the Athabasca Indians, and a study he had read recently relating the mitochondrial DNA (which, he explained is carried by the mother only, and therefore traces the lineage via mothers). The study had been of the DNA structures collected from the native indian populations, comparing them with that of the Asian populations from which they would have been derived according to current theory of the origin of the American peoples. The study had found a strange anomaly: the small random changes that were found in the Asian populations up to 27,000 years ago are reflected in the American Indian populations, but not those after that. The implication is that the American population separated from their Asian forebears at that time. That was as far as he got with the story, before he had to come down on the glacier, so that is as far as the story went. Once on the glacier, I asked him about it. I had read recently that there was some conflicts arising challenging the “walking across the Bering Straits” theory of the source of mankind in America, and the study he quoted seemed to fit this category. The concern is the timeline. Dating of the archeological remains suggests that the American Indians started to populating the continent around 10-12,000 years ago. When did the Bering Straits become “walkable”? Study’s suggest earlier, but now if the mitochondrial DNA suggested a separation 27,000 years ago, then what happened from then until 12,000 years ago? Interesting conversation.
Once we were on the ground (and the plane felt strange sliding on the snow), we extracted ourselves from the interior and started to explore our environment. Out in front of where we were was an obvious glacier (blue color, ridges, and so on). Behind the area where the planes were, vertical cliffs rising at least 2000 feet above our already high elevation. The snow on the ground was just that, snow. Somewhat slushy, but able to support us, snow. Across from us, at least a football field away, was the other side of this ‘valley’, with rocky outcroppings projecting up. On top of the nearest one was, to our surprise, an outhouse size building. Turns out it is indeed an outhouse. Around the rock it was on top of is a cabin that Don Sheldon built there to enable him to stay overnight if he wanted to on the glacier. The cabin (we were told, as we did not actually walk over to it) is a one-room affair, with benches around the walls where one can put a sleeping bag, and a stove in the center for heating. Everything has to be hauled in, of course, but people do stay there periodically. Don, who was a pioneer of commercial glacier flying and landing in lower Alaska, built it in the 1960’s. Our tour guide, Albert stayed there for three days with his daughter a few years ago, and said it was one of the most peaceful experiences he’s ever had.
We got back into the planes and flew back to Talkeetna. On the way, we saw two bears and two swans, although seeing was a bit of a challenge. They were small, and could only be distinguished by contrast to the background. Landing at the airport was not a problem, at least it was not for me. Jacques seemed to handle it in his stride. Me, I just pushed myself into the smallest area I could occupy on the right side of the plane.
From the airport, Albert took us on a tour of downtown Talkeetna (at least the historical part), which was not a long drive. We stopped and were able to get a table big enough for us at the Wildlife Restaurant. Dinner took awhile in coming, so we were happy to get dropped off at our hotel (Susitna Lodges) shortly thereafter for a good night’s sleep.