Saturday, June 1st
Anchorage - Denali

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Alice in Talkeetna, Wonderland

This is the first day trip.  We have only 236 miles ahead of us, so we can take it easy.  We also have to adapt us to that mile-stuff, even our Chevy counts like that and I don’t like to calculate on vacation …

I return the keys of our room to the reception.
“You need a drive to the airport ?”, asks a friendly telephone operator.
“No, thanks”, I reply, “we’ve just arrived in Alaska !”
“So, were are you heading to today ?”
“Denali”, I say proudly.
“Well, watch out for the mosquitos !”
“Already ?”, I ask  surprised, “At this time of the year ?”
“Look over there”, and she points at a little red spot on the white wall, “The first victim !”
I thank her for the good advice.  We haven’t bought any insect-repellent yet.

The weather is beautiful again : sunny, not to much wind and they expect 70°F. “Hot for this time of the year”, the radio says.  We don’t object.
For a Saturday morning it is not very busy in Anchorage.  We leave the city by then Glenn Highway, already familiar since our failed moose-adventure from yesterday.
While crossing the Knik River, I notice that the Alaska Railroad will be our truly companion until Fairbanks.
We pass Matanuska and Wasilla, almost idyllic names, but these villages don’t represent much.

The Mat-Su Valley, the one we are crossing now, is in fact a contraction of two valleys : the Matanuska and the Susitna valley.  This means that we’ve entered the Interior.
Mount McKinley We pass Willow Creek and in the distance the Mt. McKinley comes into sight.  We first thought it was a big cloud, a cumulus or something.  But even in Anchorage they told us that this mountain could be visible by clear weather.  Even from 90 miles away, he is huge, a white wall of snow !
I just discovered the cruise control.  I knew the system before but I’m not familiar with it as we don’t have it on European cars.  Its handy because exceeding a speed limit would only spoil the fun.
The 3 liter V6 engine pulls us through the valley of the Susitna River, direction Talkeetna.

At Talkeetna Junction we pay a visit at the Denali/Talkeetna Visitor Center.  The lady overwhemls us with information about Talkeetna. 
“The village is marvellous and the region is really what I call Arctic Africa.  The scenery is really like in Africa, only a little bit colder”.  A manner of speaking, we think.
Talkeetna is known as point of departure for the Mt. McKinley expeditions.  Mountaineers fly from there with a bush plane to the base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier.  She lives here for 20 years now, but she had never done the trip to the base camp, until last year.  Just to please her daughter who is a mountaineer.
“I’m afraid of heights, it’s stupid but I can’t help it.  But you should do it, it’s really amazing !”
We thank for the idea but we have booked something else for tomorrow, a Wildlife Tour in Denali Park.
“Oh, that’s also great, you’ll see bears and wolves and caribou.  Yeah, that’s nice.  You’re gonna love it !”
So, an exciting outlook, I think while we get back to our car.
The air-conditioner has proved his use already.  It would be unbearable in the car without it.

We stop at a scenic viewpoint.  The view on the mountain range is extraordinary.  The three highest peaks, Mt. McKinley (20320 ft/6194 m), Mt. Foraker (17400 ft/5304 m) and Mt. Hunter (14573 ft/4442 m), are gigantic and beautiful.  I have never seen such a high mountain before and, apparently, I am not the only one.  Other people’s impressions are similar.
“What a view ! This doesn’t happen to everyone !”
“Yeah, Mt. McKinley makes the weather here !”

Downtown Talkeetna14h55
We enter Downtown Talkeetna.  A description that I noticed earlier today does noy give much information :
“Elevation 350 ft., lies 60 miles south of the summit of the Mt.McKinley,
 population approx. 375 and 1 grouch.”

“Talkeetna ? It’s a great little town !”
Now I understand this expression that I heard at the viewpoint, it is definitely a great little town.  Some say that this village is actually Cicely from Northern Exposure but I don’t recognize it.

We walked up and down the 5 streets that make up the center of Talkeetna and are now visiting the museum.  Alice, who runs the museum, tells us that she arrived here three years ago.
“Where are you from ?”, she asks.
“Belgium”, I say with some proud, knowing that mostly Americans don’t know where this ‘city’ is located.
“I knew it !  These people don’t look American, I said to myself when you came in.  Well, I’m from Germany, Frankfurt.  You don’t speak German, do you?”
“No, sorry, we don’t.  It was our 4th language at school, you know.”
“And what does bring you here to Alaska ?”, she asks with a smile.
“I suppose, the same thing that keeps you here”, I reply.
“Yeah, I lost my heart here in Alaska.  I’ve been to many places in the world, but Alaska, ...”
She can’t find the words for it.
Alice narrates us her whole ‘new’ life.  As a student she came here for three months, backpacking.  She bought a pick-up for $600 and she sold it afterwards again for $500.
“Much cheaper than hiring a car !”
Talkeetna MuseumShe drove on almost every road that was accessible.  She couldn’t get enough of it.  So, she returned a few months later after spending some time in Japan.
“A place like hell”, she says, “never again”.
She worked in construction, building cabins and lodges in the bush and she once had ‘a private talk’ with a grizzly.
“I really thought this was the end !  But, eventually, after two hours shaking and playing dead in my tent, he went away”.
Some time ago, she married en she is now building a house with her husband somewhere outside Talkeetna.  She shows us some pictures of the wooden structure ; it will be a magnificant country house.
During the summer time, she works 4 months in the museum.  Th erest of her free time is spent on “hiking and backcountry-skiing.  That’s great in winter with a full moon.  I always take my dog with me, it’s a young wolf.”  Proudly she shows some pictures of her dog.
Will she ever return to Europe ?
“Well, yeah, to see my mother.  And my husband wants to visit some things over there, Italy and Greece.”

This enjoyable chat even made us forget to take a look in the museum.
We continue our way via Trapper Creek to Denali.  We didn’t find the grouch. Fortunately, we can surely do without it.

The radio has difficulties in receiving.  The only broadcasting station that we receive at 120 miles from Anchorage only gives some country music.  We try to live with it.

Cadillac Coup de Ville 18h20
While entering the Denali State Park, still 40 miles to go, I notice that Mt.McKinley shows more and more details.
Meanwhile, we don’t even receive country music anymore, not on FM, not on AM.  Are we really out of civilization ? 

Summit Lake, 10 miles form Cantwell.
Like the name hints us, we must be somewhere on a top of something.  A research in our tour guides brings some clarity.  We are on Broad Pass, also named Caribou Pass, altitude 701 meters.  As for altitude, nothing important, but it is measurably colder here.  The lake itself has some ice on it, while the shrubs get their first leaves.  It’s a rough and bare valley with some lonely spruce trees.  The mountains around are all covered with snow.
A horn blows through the valley, this must be the Alaska Railroad.  Three enormous locomotives are pulling with difficulty about 80 freight cars over the pass.  As a young brat I wave to the driver and yes, the horn blows again.  Friendly people, those Americans.

Cantwell, the crossing of the Parks and the Denali Highway.  Cars coming from the Denali Highway, get a clean-up at the local gas station.  A gravel highway combined with dry weather, makes the high-pressure cleaning lance the most popular tool in this area.

Denali National Park.
We just got our tickets for the Wildlife Tour that I had booked.  One thing is for sure, we have to get up early tomorrow morning : 6h50 at the entrance of the park.  We hurry to our hotel because the night will be short …

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