Alaskanada – Denali and Fairbanks

Alaskanada – Denali and Fairbanks

As we approached Denali the overcast dropped slowly, leaving us flying down a tunnel topped by cloud and bounded on the other sides by forbidding rock. As we landed, it was drizzling with rain, and cold. We’d phoned ahead to ask about camping and been told that all sites were full, but when mentioning that we were arriving by air (and hence could not camp at the suggested alternative 20 miles away) they let us know that sites were still available for walk-ins. I set off down to the camp site office to check in while the others prepared dinner; easier to do it in the cover of the wing than to haul all the cooking gear to the camp site and cook in the rain!

Elsa preparing dinner

Our first stop the next day was the dog kennels. Denali National Park bans all motorized transport from within the main 2 million acres of the park, except along the park road. Sled dogs are used to service the park all through the winter, for ranger patrols and for hauling items in and out. The kennel visit included a sled dog demonstration, although given that it was summer, they were pulling a wheeled cart instead of a sled!

From the kennels, we made our way back to the visitor center to catch our guided bus tour, that would take us along the first 20 miles or so of the park road. Our excellent guide filled us in about the history of the park and all about the local flora and fauna. Along the way we were lucky enough to see Elk, and even a large Grizzly bear foraging for berries. We stopped off to visit a park cabin, originally built by the road crew to deal with the problem of bears breaking into the food tent, and now used by rangers when on winter patrols

That evening a new neighbour turned up at our campsite, a traveler from Brazil who was spending months touring the US. He and I went for a walk to find the river, and ran into a British tour guide who roped us in to act as their official photographer for the group photos.

In the morning we packed up early, as we were anticipating a long but exciting day. Jay, the owner of the bear viewing company in Kodiak, had arranged for us to visit his other company north of Denali who do flight seeing tours of the national park. We had three seats waiting for us on a turbine Beaver equipped with skis, and would be enjoying a scenic flight past the mountain followed by a landing on a glacier! Our first flight though would be to refuel the airplane; the first time we’d had to do so since Anchorage, given the large tanks.

The route to Chena

Nenana airport, like several others we’d been to in Alaska, had three runways in parallel; tarmac, grass, and water. The stop was smooth with the self serve working as advertised. Tucked off to one side of the apron were the remains of a C54-G, looking very much the worse for wear. Apparently it had suffered an engine failure in 2007 when carrying 3000 gallons of heating fuel to a mine. Being on fire with 3000 gallons of fuel in the cabin presumably demanded swift action, and they landed gear up in the closest available location without injuries.

Replete with fuel, we departed south back to Healy River. Poor fuel availability in Alaska meant that we’d had to overfly it and now retrace our steps; but it made sense to use the time now while waiting for the glacier flight instead of later. The great folk at Fly Denali gave us a lift to a local bar and grill, which rather irritatingly was serving only German food to celebrate “Aug-tober” fest; none of us were big German food fans! Oddly, the bus from the film version of “Into the Wild” was parked at the restaurant. The events of the famous book and movie had played out just miles away, not nearly as far from civilization as I’d supposed. If he’d just walked along the river a few miles in either direction he’d have come across people and been fine.

Back at the airport, we were loaded into the turbine Beaver and off we went! Conditions were great; smooth, without too much cloud. Just a few days earlier a similar airplane from another operator had slammed into a ridge ultimately killing all on board. We tried not to think about that.

The flight was smooth, and the weather ideal. Denali itself is usually hidden behind cloud but it was our lucky day and it was clear and bright. We circled a few times to view the mountain before heading closer in to the rocks and making our way towards the Ruth Glacier for landing. This glacier is the location that famous bush pilot Don Sheldon built his “Mountain House”, now built out in more luxury and available for somewhat highly priced stays!

Back at Healy River, we swapped airplanes and headed out northwest to Chena Hot Spring resort. This resort has its own beautifully groomed gravel strip, hot springs (obviously), sled dog kennels, geothermal power plant, camp site, all kinds of other outdoor activities. Also, bizarrely, a museum of ice.

Dinner was camp-stove cooking, and was followed up by a long soak in the hot springs. The night at Chena was relaxed and comfortable.

We woke refreshed and ready to check out the resort. After breakfast we took a walk down to the sled dog kennels. It was an order of magnitude bigger than those in Denali! Guests could take trail rides on dog carts, although we elected not to partake this time.

Next on the agenda was a visit to the ice museum, next to which an old cargo airplane was for some reason being mounted on a stick (apparently it was going to be turned into a bar..) Completed in 2005, all the ice in the museum melted in the first summer. A rethink of the cooling system led to a successful re-opening, and now it stays at -7 Celsius all year round. Of course in the winter in Alaska, one could step inside to get warm. The museum is full of ice sculptures designed and carved by Steve and Heather Brice, multiple times world champion ice carvers. Appletinis are available in carved ice glasses at an ice bar inside, and you can even take your glass home with you…

For an exorbitant fee, you can stay the night in one of the four ice guest rooms, although the guide informed us that nobody ever did. It was also possible to be married in the dedicated ice chapel section!

The resort had been purchased from the government who were running it as a loss and is now a showpiece for renewable and other green technology. We took a tour of the geothermal plant and greenhouse. But first off, the animals. The resort had been gifted 6 reindeer, with a promise that they’d return more (I think 20?) years down the road. At the time of visit they had 5, the breeding program not quite going to plan. Next, the geothermal plant itself. The rock doesn’t offer the heat needed to boil water; so they use a refrigerant instead with a lower boiling point.

As the afternoon drew on, it was time to get going. That evening we’d be camping at the very well-reviewed airport campsite at Fairbanks international, but before that my passengers were keen to be able to say that they’d set foot inside the arctic circle. The closest option was Fort Yukon, and so off we went.

A quick run to the Arctic Circle

We explored the town a little, chatting with some of the residents who were a little surprised to receive casual visitors in this town with no road access. At the airport, a gentleman was relaxing in the little lounge reading, and took the time to tell us a bit about the town and the challenges of living in such a remote location.

From Fort Yukon, we set out south again to Fairbanks International. This airport is a real model for how great airports can be; as well as international airline traffic, it is buzzing with general aviation, including a float-plane lake and a beautiful fly-in campsite with fire rings, a pavilion, and clean modern shower facilities.

We refueled a little in readiness for the next days flight, and then to our pleasure discovered that Dominos pizza would deliver to the airport camp site! The evening passed pleasantly with pizza and dessert around the camp fire.

The next day, the weather had turned somewhat. I had two choices for the flight; low level visual flight and hope that the pass through Denali Park was clear, or file for instrument flight and hope that the freezing level wasn’t too low. A call to the weather briefer in the morning prompted me to choose the latter option; freezing levels looked like they’d be at least a couple of thousand feet above the minimum safe altitudes and no airframe icing was forecast below that. If I encountered any icing, I’d have an escape route of descending or turning back.

South to Anchorage

Happily, conditions were good enough that we didn’t have to resort to plan B – sending the other two south by bus to catch their flights home! Fairbanks issued us our clearance and we were off with no delay, and climbing over the airport before proceeding south. Winds from the south were strong, at times reducing our ground-speed into the 50s. Further along the route we started to pick up some icing. I requested, and was given, a lower altitude and things became no worse. By now we had passed the high ground and could descend to much warmer temperatures if necessary.

We were cleared for a straight-in approach to land back at Lake Hood, and I swapped Elsa and Juvy for a new passenger, my friend James from West Virginia, and his rifle. The areas we’d be flying through from now on would be even more remote, and protection from wildlife could be a real issue.

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