Date of Trip: July 2006
My wife and I wanted to do something different after our seven-day northbound cruise through the Inside Passage of Alaska (celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary). We decided to break away from the cruise cult after disembarkation in Whittier and carved our own path into the interior of the state.
We took the Alaska Railroad from Whittier to Anchorage. Spending a full day in Whittier when it is pouring rain is a story in itself. After spending the night in Anchorage, we got back on the Alaska Railroad en route to Denali. We opted for the Gold Star service – the first class version of train travel. This was a wise choice – the Gold Star service offered a two tiered domed car with a private dining facility below. The food (meals) were incredibly expensive, but the coffee was free and light munchies were affordable. This car also had a private outdoor viewing deck that provided some great photo opportunities throughout the 8-hour trip.
Unlike 99% of the people who got off the train in Denali, we were not headed to the park. We were booked at a fly-in lodge (Denali Wilderness Lodge) about 50 miles east of Denali National Park. The only way to get to this lodge is by plane. Because of the severe winds, the bush pilot who was scheduled to pick us up at the Healy Airport was unable to land. Therefore, we had to drive to the Fairbanks Airport – a 2-hour drive north. Once we got there and met Sean (pilot), we quickly got on the small single engine plane and thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful scenery during the 35 minute flight to the lodge. During the short flight, we were only 300- 400 ft above the ground. Because it was early evening, numerous moose were visible in the marshy areas that we flew over. We landed on a small private landing strip adjacent to the Wood River near the base of Mt. Anderson.
The owners/operators of the lodge (Sean & Lucy Crotty) have done a great job transforming this old hunting lodge into a rustic home-like environment in the Alaskan wilderness. The lodge consists of a main building (office, dining facility, lounge/living room) amid a variety of accommodations. All the cabins and rooms have heat, electricity, and running water.
There is also a nature center and coral/stable area for horses. The dress is quite casual, yet the food is quite refined. The entire staff is committed to the environment. The naturalists are friendly and knowledgeable. They regularly lead hikes and trail rides.
My wife and I are both pretty athletic and love the outdoors. We were scheduled to hike Mt. Anderson (6,900 ft) the first day. One small problem – at breakfast, one of the naturalists, through a telescope in the dining room, noticed a grizzly bear on the trail. Regardless, we started up the trail and stopped at a clear spot (about 400 yds from the bear) and noticed that the bear was just hanging out in the same spot eating berries. We ended up going on a different trail (wise choice) – Middle Ridge in an effort to avoid a confrontation.
We stayed at the lodge for 4 days and did something different each day. On our last day, we went on 4 different hikes – Black Butte was by far the longest and most scenic. Keep in mind that you can hike until 11 – 11:30 pm during the summer months because the sun never really sets – just gets very “dusky”.
For our next to last day, we had made independent arrangements to visit a small native village (Anaktuvuk Pass) 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. This was a very expensive trip but we knew it was going to be interesting and unique – my wife and I were the only two on the trip. We left the lodge at 6:15am. Sean agreed to fly us to the charter air service at the Fairbanks airport.
From there we were debriefed about where we were going and what we would be seeing. The 1.5 hour flight went smoothly – even saw Denali (Mt. McKinley) from the air. Our flight took us above the Arctic Circle, above the tree line, and over the Brooks Range into the Gates of the Arctic National Park, which is where Anaktuvuk Pass is located. Anaktuvuk Pass is a settlement of Nanumiat Eskimos, the last semi nomadic tribe of Native Americans. Although the village is quite up to date with all the technical amenities that most Americans enjoy, they still rely quite heavily on subsistence living. Caribou meat is a main staple for most families and everyone hunts.
In fact, until just recently hundreds of thousands of caribou would migrate through the immediate area of Anaktuvuk Pass, thus providing ample hunting for the Nanumiat people. It was somewhat disconcerting listening to our local guide tell us how difficult the hunting has become because the herds of caribou have changed their migration paths – likely due to climate changes on the north slope.
It was an interesting day to say the least. When we were there on July 27th 2006, a gallon of gas cost $6.06 and a gallon of milk was nearly $6. Everything they have must get flown in and the prices of all goods reflect this. We saw the school, the health center, power plant and church. At the health center, we were told that pregnant woman are flown to Fairbanks and put up in an apartment two weeks prior to the due date – all at the expense of the Nanumiat Corporation. However, husbands have to pay their own way. Almost all residents in the village have snowmobiles for winter transportation and 8 wheeled ATV’s (called argos) for the summer. We even had lunch at the only restaurant in the village. The Simon Paneak Museum is by far the nicest building that we saw in the town . Here, the heritage of the Nanumiat and history of the town is very well preserved and presented. We were so impressed that we bought two native masks that were made by female elders in the village. The curator of the museum told us that all the money that we paid for the masks went directly to the elders who created them.
The trip back to Fairbanks and the lodge was uneventful yet quite scenic, crossing the Yukon River and offering frequent views of the Alaskan Pipeline as it meandered above and below ground.
When it was time for us to leave the lodge, we were sad, but ready to get back to our 4 children. We missed them dearly and were anxious to share this unique experience with them.
I can only hope that someday we will be able to return to Alaska and continue to experience the natural beauty of our “last frontier.”