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Alaska Land Tour

Author: caneable
Date of Trip: September 2007

There was a run on maps at Talkeetna, and I started it!!!

Once on the train we found ourselves sat with a lovely couple from Wyoming. No announcements were made about changing sides but halfway through they (sitting face forward) offered their seats to us (facing backwards) and we were happy to change. There was no general announcement as I had read on the boards, and lots of tables stayed where they were, but we weren't to know the make up of each table group.

The journey was very good. Lots of fine scenery, good and less expensive food than we had expected, great conversation (we virtually put the world to right in 4 hours) and all in reasonable comfort. The dome cars give good wide views wherever possible and there weren't many stretches of non-stop tree! Our commentator Michelle was very good and always seemed to get messages across in time so that cameras could be at the ready. In addition she had a good thing going with bar tender Ryan and they kept up an entertaining patter through the journey. I'm not much of a lunchtime drinker, I'm usually still sleeping off the previous evening, but Ryan seemed to keep his customers satisfied, with a good tally on empty vodka bottles! As a result four hours wasn't that long at all and we were soon at Denali Lodge.

Denali Lodge - shudder! What a place! It seemed to us that the accommodation was getting worse and worse as we travelled north. There is nothing wilderness about a glorified motel in a strip mall! We even got interconnecting rooms complete with rowdy neighbors at 11:15pm! Denali Lodge is a good reason not to do the Princess land tour! However, there's plenty of good stuff to do. We heard great tales about McKinley Flyover trips and rafting rides, and we had a great time at Jeff King's Husky Homestead. So that's another reason for promoting the kind of independent land trip that we didn't do!

I'm a big sports fan, and have always had huge admiration for the long distance eventer. I'm not talking marathon running, although Paula Radcliffe SHOULD be queen. I'm not talking decathlon, although Daley Thompson is still the greatest living Englishman. I'm talking the events that go on for days. As a kid I loved to see highlights of the Monte Carlo Rally. I have long admired the Tour de France, despite all its recent troubles. I suppose it's the same thing with enjoying 5-day cricket matches. Its just respect for those athletes who can sustain their level of fitness and meet the mental challenge of day after day.

I had never heard much about the Iditarod, but I'm a fan now after a steep learning curve. When you meet up with an apparent legend of a sport, see the glint of competitive spirit in his eye and listen to the fervor of his words, you know you are in the presence of greatness. Step forward Jeff King!

On arriving at the Homestead we were welcomed by his wife, Donna, and a whole pack of enthusiastic husky pups eager to be petted. Numerous of photo opps later, and a glimpse of some 6 day old melt your heart puppies, and it's on with the show. One of the staff takes us over to the dog kennels to explain how they are trained. The bond of dog and trainer is evident, and as the staff prepare to demonstrate a training technique the dogs are bursting to do show and tell! Once selected they're also up for a quick na-na-na-na-na at their mates! When one of the staff moves over to the quad bike used for training runs the mood is positively deafening with all the dogs yapping and yelping determined to get their chance for a run! But funnily once the buggy sets off all is quiet!

Next up Jeff's daughter Cally took us inside to talk to us about her experience growing up in Alaska and you really got a feel for the difference. She also explained that she now has her own dog team and has competed in and completed the Iditarod. Each of the speakers gives 100% credit to the dogs and sees themselves as minimal in the process but you know it can't be like that, but then Jeff comes in.

As I commented, you know you're in the presence of greatness. Remember, I don't know this event, this person, this country, but I know what I see. Jeff King comes in as a slight man but he's really a giant of an athlete. He invites our questions and he answers them one by one with patience and politeness. All of the time his energy and enthusiasm burns through, but he never fails to entertain as he gives us an experience that I would heartily endorse to all fellow cruisers. Patiently, he poses for photos and signs books, videos and other mementos acquired by his visitors, but it's all over too soon and all that is left are the memories. But I tell you this, I know whose name I'll be checking out at www.iditarod.com next March!

Wednesday, September 5

When I first came across these boards I discovered a great review by Larry Feinberg. At the time it was both entertaining and informative and I used many of his tips along the way. I faced this day with trepidation, for it was here that he became "Stuck inside Denali with the Larry Blues Again!" (Sorry Bob). Now he became afflicted because of his lack of awareness of the importance of the left hand seats in the park visit buses, and I determined that that would not happen to me. Sadly I was struck down earlier.

Breakfast was a terrible experience. Our fault perhaps, but King Salmon was heaving, the food was stodgy and the service was non-existent. Others in our party stayed up at Kings Canyon and had a passable breakfast snack in the lobby. If our impression of Denali Lodge was bad before, it was sunk without trace now.

Onto the buses, ON THE LEFT HAND SIDE, we set off to the Wilderness Visitor Centre where we watched a very good film about the early establishment of the park. They used lots of archive film and commentary to put together a very enjoyable presentation, but that was pretty much as good as it got.

In fairness, wildlife can't be guaranteed, so the fact that we saw virtually none would not be good reason for getting the sulks. It was a collection of things. It was the constant inane drivel from our coach driver. It was the excruciating "in Character" performance by one of the park staff at a wooden hut masquerading as a pioneer cabin. It was the awful stand up routine of the guide supposed to be bringing to life the life of the Athabascan tribe in the park. All of these just added to the sense of "we could be doing something else infinitely more rewarding".

In truth I hadn't the patience to stand listening to infant school jokes from the ranger at Primrose Ridge and I wandered away from the crowd. It was the best decision I could have made. There I was above the valley floor looking out over miles of wilderness. Goodness knows how far I could see. Goodness knows what acreage I looked over. I'm sure that it's possible that the entire animal population of Denali Park could have been within the range of my sight just then and it still wouldn't have been possible for me to disturb them. There was just so much! That's when you have to recognize the vision and determination of those pioneers who set about establishing this land as a protected space. It's not words that count, it's just the width of your own eyes, and you can drink it in.

On our return to the lodge we saw a moose. It was our second brush with wildlife, the first being a Ptarmigan near the security gate below Primrose Ridge. Our coach driver stopped and we enjoyed a few minutes watching it about 200 yards south. After a while we noted a second and there was some thought that a sparring session might begin, but no animation was forthcoming.

Once back we wandered around the shops for a while and ran into our Wyoming friends from the previous day. They had skipped the Nature trip and had done a flight around the summit of Denali instead. Clearly, they had had a good time! Soon we boarded the train and were heading for Fairbanks. The journey was dull. After a promising start the scenery died away and all we had was mile after mile of trees. Occasionally we would pass signs of life but all too often our commentator, who seemed as lifeless as us, missed it. We had declined the chance to eat initially because they wanted to take us down to the restaurant car at 5pm - way too early! However, not long after 6 they came back up to say that they had finished serving everyone who had wanted so if anyone else was interested they would be happy to find them a seat. We figured that they would be pushed to serve before 6:30 and since we wouldn't get to Fairbanks until 8, now was as good a time as any! That was a good decision. Both food and service were excellent and I must say that the restaurant car quite impressed us both days.

On returning to the dome car we swapped places with our table companions, a friendly couple from Idaho, and completed the journey facing backwards. I was only sorry that we hadn't told them to move before we went down. Towards the end of the journey everyone was starting to flag, but we were all animated when one of the guys yelled "COWS!" It was the first life we'd seen since a Dall Sheep just outside Denali. Shortly afterwards the cry was "Moose!" and we were all up again. Sadly this meant that Joan didn't see a thing as she was on the wrong side of the carriage. Shortly afterwards we pulled into Fairbanks a little later than expected and transferred to the Fairbanks Lodge.

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