7.16.2012

Alaska Road Trip: Day 17

The Denali Bluffs Hotel is not the nicest hotel, but at a hundred bucks per night, it was the cheapest in the area. It's actually quite Motel 6-ish, but the rustic look from exposed wooden beams made it a little more pleasant. I was probably suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Spending Disorder). The Grande Denali Lodge's rates weren't much higher (and it was much, much fancier), but after spending so much money for our flightseeing tour of Mt. McKinley, I felt compelled to be conservative somewhere.

 

But the Denali Bluffs Hotel had all of the amenities we needed: laundry facilities, on-site restaurant for breakfast, and a killer view: 


This is a bit of an odd picture, but it's the only one I took at breakfast. The buffet at the Mountaineer Grill & Bar was light on fruit and heavy on meat (bacon, reindeer sausage, pork sausage). And since I have to be cautious with those foods, I decided not to fork out fourteen bucks to get myself sick. The buffet for kids was seven dollars, and I'd say we got our money's worth with them. I actually heard our server tell the hostess, "Man! Those kids can really put away some food."  


We packed up and drove across the road to Denali National Park. Some families get their pictures taken in front of LDS temples. Some get theirs taken in front of state capitol buildings. I guess ours is national park signs.


(I actually wish I could retake this picture. I was sprawled across the hood of our Pilot, setting up the timer on my camera, when a man stopped and asked if he could take a picture for us. I definitely appreciated the kind gesture, but my timer shots usually turn out better than what strangers take.)

We do love national parks. I think we've had an annual pass every year since we started dating. And some years, we've gone through more than one. We tend to lose things like that. . .


We started out at the Wilderness Access Center to re-plan out our day. (I had originally planned our trip to Denali National Park as a camping trip with our trailer!) Private vehicles are not allowed beyond Mile 15 of the Denali Park Road, so a shuttle or tour bus is needed to take you any further on the 92-mile, mostly gravel, road. There are three courtesy shuttle bus routes that connect the visitor service centers: the Savage River Shuttle, the Riley Loop Shuttle, and the Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle. Visitors can purchase shuttle and tour bus tickets to travel deeper into the park. Tickets for kids 12 and under are free, but we weren't interested (or prepared) for a strenuous hike. 

First, we watched Across Time and Tundra, a documentary that shows the development of the park road and early visitor experiences to the park. Then we sat and waited for the bus to take us to the visitor center.


We looked around at the visitor center, ate lunch, and went to the gift shop to get patches while we were waiting for our next bus. I spent way to much money on this sled dog for Adam, but since it made him the happiest boy in the world, I guess it was a good purchase.


It took Adam most of the day to settle on a name, but here are Adam and Lucky, riding the bus to the sled dog kennel:


Denali National Park has about thirty dogs in their kennel. They are the only sled dogs in the United States that help protect a national park. The dogs help patrol two million acres of designated wilderness where vehicles are prohibited. They haul supplies, transport wildlife researchers, and help insure that there aren't poachers or snow machines in the wilderness areas.

Puppies, females in heat, and dogs who chew on gravel are kept in the pens:


And the other dogs are kept outside, chained to their houses: 


Adam ran around to each dog. He needed to know each of their names and pet every single one of them. 


Kaleigh liked the dogs that were kept in the pens, but as soon as we were over by the others, she preferred the safety of Steve's shoulders:


Adam thought this dog looked like it could have been Lucky's mother. We actually had to put Lucky away for a while because one of the dogs wouldn't stop barking at him. 


The boy was in heaven!


By the way, you can find out about adopting a retired sled dog here

I can't remember this ranger's name, but she was definitely passionate about her job. She taught us about the importance of sled dogs before she ran a team of dogs for the demonstration. 


Here is a link to a YouTube video that shows a different ranger giving part of the presentation. 

Rachel and Lucy watched intently:


After the demonstration, the kids posed on the sled. The dogs were looking mighty lethargic. Sled dogs prefer subzero temperatures and the warm(ish) day was too hot for them.


We actually lost track of time and spent too long at the dog kennels, which caused us to miss our bus. We had planned to go a little deeper into the park for a short two-mile hike, but at that point, we didn't feel like waiting around for the next bus.  

Denali National Park is unlike any other park we've been to. It is huge (six million acres), wild, and mostly empty. With only one road, it is also a trail-less park. (Just fifty miles of maintained trails, mostly around the visitor center.) Most of the park's terrain is rugged, open tundra, and not exactly kid-friendly. The National Park Service website says that roughly 400,000 visitors journey to Denali National Park each year and that most are in search of wildlife or glimpses of Mt. McKinley. Since we had already seen both, Denali National Park was a little anticlimactic for us. But even though we didn't really hike in the park, I definitely feel like we still experienced it. 

That being said, the sled dog demonstration (and the purchase of Lucky) was clearly the highlight of our trip to Denali National Park. 


The girls were a little disappointed after they were sworn in as Junior Rangers. Instead of a cool patch like they were given at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, they were awarded a cheap little plastic junior ranger badge. 


We "hiked" about a mile back to the Wilderness Access Center. Our walk turned out to be plenty long, since we only had two cheerful hikers in our family. (I was not included among them.)

Among other reasons, one thing I was bothered about was that we were required to bring a car seat for Kaleigh to use on the bus. It ended up being pretty silly since our bus rides were super short and our walks were much longer. (Kaleigh was cheerful, but since she wasn't actually walking, she didn't qualify as a cheerful hiker either.)


We saw lots of  pretty flowers:


And this plant that Rachel asked me to take a picture of. She called it the Q-Tip plant:


We left Denali National Park much earlier than we had planned and drove towards Fairbanks. Steve turned around and woke me up from my nap to see this odd display on the side of the road:


We were pleasantly surprised to find that Fairbanks was much more developed than we had anticipated. (Derrick just recently bought a car in Alaska. He works so many hours and had been so isolated that he hadn't realized that there were actually stores in Fairbanks.)

Our hotel was directly across the parking lot from a strip mall and the box store district, including a Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, Sportsman Warehouse, Old Navy, Sam's Club, Lowe's and even a frozen yogurt shop. (I know that being right by a strip mall isn't always desirable, but for us, at that point in our trip, it was perfect.)

We felt pretty spoiled at the Holiday Inn Express because we finally had high-speed internet and . . . drumroll, please . . . a swimming pool! And yeah, for two hundred bucks a night, it should!


I was looking at our guide book, trying to plan out our activities for the next few days when Adam yelled at me, "Mom! Can you please look at me so you can see how amazing I am?!?"

All I really wanted for dinner was a huge container of strawberries, but Sam's Club was already closed. So I went to pick up food from Irashai, a Japanese restaurant right across the parking lot. The kids devoured the teriyaki beef, the noodles, and Adam finally got his first (and possibly, last) taste of sushi. 

Adam had been asking for "shushi" ever since he learned about it from Professor Fizzy on PBS Kids' Lunch Lab, some six or seven months ago. I thought he'd be fine with a California Roll; he is, after all,  the kid who grew up drinking sippy cups full of jamaica and stealing all of the salmon from my salad. But the look on his face was that of pure, unadulterated disgust. And I'm so sad I didn't get a video of it. What made it so dramatic is that he fully expected to like it, so his strong objection to the sushi surprised even himself. He urgently ran to the bathroom to spit it out. There have been no more requests for sushi. 

That night, I attempted to run for the first time since the Ogden Marathon. And after half a mile, I decided my foot still wasn't ready. So instead, I walked across the street and got myself some frozen yogurt. Not a bad way to end the day. 

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