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Destination: Alaska

Making Tracks to Denali

Relaxing on the train and hitting Mt. McKinley's park with a tankful of energy

July 19, 1998|LORNA H. PFLUKE | Pfluke is a freelance writer who lives in Placentia

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — Somewhere outside the train window, Mt. McKinley stood tall on the horizon, North America's highest mountain and the second-biggest tourist attraction in Alaska. It's what we were hoping to see on this two-day rail tour, and we were sorely disappointed by cloud cover far below the 20,320-foot summit. Imagine our disappointment if we'd made this 233-mile trip as most people do--by car on a highway where the speed limit is whatever the bumper-to-bumper RV traffic will allow. Instead, we were gliding along through unspoiled wilderness, with guides pointing out the sights and with lunch awaiting in the dining car.

We chugged lazily along at 30 to 40 mph for the 7 1/2-hour trip through forests and over gorges and past the odd settlement of houses and barns. The hostess in our car, a high school student, told us about points of interest and wildlife we might see, along with stories of comedy and tragedy from Alaska's narrative history.

On our way out of Anchorage, she pointed out the mudflats of Knik Arm, where, she said, a bicyclist was caught and lost in the tidal wave that accompanied the great earthquake of 1964. Later she spun tales of gold rush days and told us that we were crossing land where the woolly mammoth once ruled and the Navajo originated.

At one point, we rushed to one side of the car to see beavers at work, but alas, no beavers, only their dams.

When we got within 50 miles of Mt. McKinley (Denali is the preferred, native name, meaning "the high one") our imaginations struggled to make out its snowy outline among the clouds. Denali makes its own weather, we were told, and only 35% of visitors get to see the top. There was still the return trip.

All of the hosts and waiters on the train were high school students. They told me it was a highly popular summer job. Their first task was briefing us on the seat rules: The seats we chose upon boarding were the seats we "owned" for the whole trip, while the observation car was to be shared in rotations of 10 to 15 minutes a time.

My seatmate was a college student from Phoenix who had been working in an Alaskan cannery and was off to backpack through more of the state. We stuck together for the trip, taking turns in the window seats both in the coach and the observation car.

The Alaska Railroad is state-owned, an all-weather link between the port of Seward on the south and Fairbanks in the northern interior. It runs express trains daily between Anchorage and Denali during the tourist season. But this definitely is a serious, hard-working railroad. It's a lifeline for rural Alaskans who live along its route. To go to town, people travel to the tracks by dog sled, snow machine or all-terrain vehicle. The train stops wherever it's flagged down. On the return trip, it stops wherever the local passengers left their overland transportation.

When making arrangements for an overnight trip to Denali on the train, I discovered that booking directly with the railroad was at least $250 cheaper for the identical trip and same moderate hotel as booked through Gray Line Tours. The only difference, as I accidentally discovered later, is that the tour line has its own private cars, which are luxuriously appointed.

We all stayed in the Denali National Park Hotel, a cluster of converted Army barracks that was thrown together after the original burned down some years ago. The park people are still waiting for Congress to allocate funds for a permanent replacement.

Plain as it was, the hotel was comfortable enough. My single room was minuscule, but it had a decent bathroom and a view of a trail head.

After settling in quickly, since we arrived around 4 p.m. and I had only that day to hike around, I headed for the steepest of the two mile-long hiking trails closest to the hotel. Both trails go immediately into the forest, where moose and grizzlies are known to wander. With daylight lasting until near midnight, after dinner I hiked a little of the second trail, which was not so steep. I saw no grizzlies or moose. But I did surprise a big brown snowshoe hare and got a quick picture of it before it hopped into the underbrush.

*

The next morning at 8:30 I boarded a school bus for a 3 1/2-hour natural history tour. Our driver pointed out flora and fauna, stopping when he spotted a caribou posing in a wash and ptarmigans (the state bird) in the brush near the roadside. We weren't allowed to get off the bus, so we opened windows to take pictures.

The Alaskan summer comes late and is very short, so July was more like springtime. Deep-pink fireweed was just starting to bloom. A week earlier it was already out in force on the Kenai Peninsula, where I was visiting a friend. We passed through forests of black and white spruce, then the broad valley of the winding Savage River, which is fed by Savage Glacier on Fang Mountain (I love those names). Globs of "witches broom," similar in look to mistletoe, draped many of the trees.

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