Friday, July 16, 2010
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Princess has really done a great job of acquiring/leasing land and building their lodges. While they are all very similar and you feel immediately at home in each, there are of course some major differences:
- Copper River Lodge - the newest and smallest of the Princess Properties, this one is all contained (at least for now) in a single large building with ~130 rooms. The entire building is Wi-Fi with only a couple of computers available for guests (and naturally those were commandeered quickly by children satisfying their gaming fix).
- Denali Lodge - boasting over 650 rooms, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is the largest hotel in all of Alaska. It is spread out over several buildings, including various shops and the Music of Denali theatre (where they serve an amazingly delicious breakfast buffet in the morning in addition to their fun dinner/theatre at night). Wi-Fi is only available in the Main lodge or in the satellite lodges for the out-lying room. Denali is actually a "city" with a vintage Alaskan strip mall directly across the highway (use the darn cross walk at the only stoplight for hundreds of miles please!) with a single gas station (again, no price posted because you pay whatever they charge!)
- McKinleyLodge - clearly the oldest, this lodge is also arranged with several buildings. The Main Lodge contains the more formal dining area, a bar and of course registration and the tour desk. Both Denali and McKinley lodges have small shuttle buses (or in Denali trolleys) that you just flag down in order to get quickly from one place to another. Gerry & I did a great job of continuing the our walking program in Denali logging many more miles between places, but since it is pouring rain here in McKinley we are opting to stay a bit drier and shuttling back and forth.
One of the best parts, for me, of staying in these lodges is chatting up all the seasonal help. Where you find people from all different countries working on the cruise ships, here you find kids from all across the states - either because they enjoy coming to Alaska each summer (many have done this for several summers) or because they've got student loans to pay off. Last night's server (Matt) was originally from Wisconsin but is currently attending ASU in Arizona. This is his second summer here and he really thinks he's got the best of both worlds - he summers in Alaska and winters in Arizona!
I truly appreciate Princess' efforts - they made sure that in each of the lodges we've stayed we would have had an excellent view of any mountains, had there been any mountains to see. I'm leaving Alaska wondering how the heck did anyone ever discover "the High One"? Seriously, they probably woke up one day and said "what the heck?" and then the next day saying "where did it go?"
Next time, we're coming in early May or late September. It might be colder but we might actually get to see a mountain!
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
On our visit to Denali National Park. I discovered that Alaska weather here will permit only one of the following on any given day:
- Cloudy or overcast and slightly cool - you get to see the park's wildlife but no mountain
- Hot/sunny - you may get to see the mountain but fat chance of seeing any animals
- Rainy - no animals, no mountain, pretty much a waste of time and money!
We lucked out with choice #1 (okay, it would have been nice to see the mountain but maybe we'll get a chance tomorow or the next day when we relocate to the McKinley side of the park). First up, some Dall sheep (a cousin of our Rocky Mountain big horn sheep). They were pretty high up on the hill but fortunately with our newly acquired binoculars we were able to see them.
There were other animals we saw as well: golden eagle, arctic ground squirrel, shrew and a ptarmigan (aka "chicken") but if you're having trouble spotting the animals in the photos above, you don't stand a chance with the other pics!
- four grizzlys
- two moose
- five caribou
- seven Dall sheep
- one golden eagle
Monday, July 12, 2010
Sunday, July 11, 2010
After our brief sojourn to Copper Center, AK (pop. 300 and I think that actually includes the larger wildlife), we shuttled out to the main visitor center at Wrangell-St. Elias NP. I've been to a couple of these so I feel qualified to say that this was the best NP Visitor Center I've ever seen (but since this is one of the newest national parks - 1980 - I'm thinking they've had some practice at setting these up by now).
We visited the exhibit building, the main visitor center building (which had a great interactive display) and learned that 9 of the 15 tallest mountains on this continent are in W-St.E (or the neighboring Canadian park) and all of them are taller than Rainier.
I had some pictures of random mountains that we took on the drive out here on Saturday that I was going to insert here but we'll just hope for sunshine tomorrow and then I can insert the real thing here!
(PS - A woman on the bus was explaining to her husband that Princess has other Lodges. Specifically she was telling him about the one in Kenya. Took me a couple of minutes to realize she was actually talking about KENAI! I mean I know that Alaska is big but I didn't know it extended to Nairobi!)
We were off to meet our team and then settle in for our ride. Due to the time of the year (making it difficult to transport male and female dogs together), our team comprised 6 males of varying ages. Pirate, a spirited youngster was learning (hopefully) to be a good lead dog (his lack of focus is holding him back a bit...squirrel) from Red, a really good lead dog with a lot of pride (his only problem is that they can't keep him running all the time. Whenever he has some down time he bites...himself and chews up his back pretty good but he has a new red coat as of today and they are hoping that will solve that problem).
The middle dogs, both 8 years old and brothers, are the most mellow, laid back dogs you'd ever want to meet, well-suited to being in the middle since they neither do much leading or much pulling.
The "wheel" dogs, the ones responsible for doing the most of the pulling, were already ready to run (even when we stopped to give them a rest). It amazed me when they told us that if the dogs get tangled, they let them untangle themselves when they're running (unless they are hopelessly tangled). That way they don't get used to the musher always stopping and fixing things for them. Just after we started out for the second time, the wheel dogs were tangled up pretty good and sure enough, we watched as they figured it out between the two of them and got it all straightened out.
Dogs begin their training when they are only 4 months old (getting used to the harness) and by the time they are one year old they are full-fledged members of the team. They usually work for about 10 years but Jackson (one of our wheel dogs) is still going strong at 11. In the summer they pull wheeled carriages as opposed to the sleds of winter. Today, because of the rain, they had a pretty good day but they generally like it better when the temperature is around 0 degrees.
The Copper River Wilderness Lodge seems out in the middle of nowhere but it is just south of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (more on that later). A fairly remote location (which we found out makes life sometimes challenging for restaurant staff. This morning our waitress asked if we were through with the ketchup bottle explaining that they had not yet received their shipment of ketchup and so she needed to squeeze the little packets into this bottle to refill it!)
The view from the central lodge area (and indeed our hotel room) looks directly across a valley at (from left to right) the Mts. Drum, Zanetti, Wrangell and Blackburn. Or so they tell us...apparently the sun was out on Friday and naturally we didn't arrive until Saturday night. It has rained all morning here but the skies are starting to lift a bit and my view from the upstairs lobby area is of a mountain range with what looks like fresh snow and topped by the clouds.
Even though it has been a rainy day, people have found something to occupy their time. In the morning Gerry & I went dogsledding (really fun! - but would have been even more fun in snow!) and to visit the park (more on both of these later).
The Lodge has a wonderful great room with (what would be) an excellent view, a large stone fireplace and a crackly fire (with real wood - no gas or "lincoln" logs here!) and it is a cozy place to curl up with a book (like Gerry here - it's good to be on vacation), play a board game, build a puzzle or visit with new friends over a glass of wine or Alaska Amber Ale.
Our view is unspoiled by power lines of any kind - there simply aren't any. If you want power out in this wilderness, you make your own (with I would imagine a REALLY BIG generator that is located somewhere on the large property away from guests). But they do have unlimited free access to the internet.
There are two restaurants - "Two Rivers" a more formal dining room where you can actually make reservations and the "Whistle Stop" bar/restaurant where the worst kept secret is that you can order off either menu without having to get all dressed up for dinner! Last night we enjoyed salmon (Gerry) and halibut (me) and it was delicious! Of course the fact that it was only about 9 hours from being caught to being on our plate might have had something to do with that.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Once safely back on shore we were introduced to our bus and driver (Ashley. As we were travelling in two coaches, her husband was the driver/guide for the other bus). She took us on a brief tour of Valdez, which mainly consists of a couple of restaurants, the bar where Capt. Hazelwood (of Exxon Valdez fame) enjoyed his last meal (and drinks) before setting sail that fateful night, a large chainsaw sculpture (apparently this guy does one for each of the 50 states and Valdez is where Alaska's is located) and LOTS of RV parks - the population of Valdez is something like 4,000 unless it's fishing season and then lots and lots of people come to "put a pole in the water!" Then we were off on our own to further explore (and find our lunch and a dry place to hang out until it was time to reboard the bus).
Friday, July 9, 2010
After inspection of the dessert buffet (as usual lovelier to behold than to eat) and a bit of lunch (seriously - did you expect me to pass up shrimp? I’ve got to get my fill before the existing supply runs out!) and then (sigh!) get a bit of packing done before the wine tasting in the afternoon. The last night of a cruise is such a sad thing - the only small consolation in it this time that we still have another week of vacation before us (and I’m really hoping that the weather is as gorgeous…or even somewhere close as I don’t want to appear too greedy…so that we get some views of Denali, one of the major reasons for this trip!).
Then we enjoyed the "Landfall Dinner" at our favorite table (Pacific Moon restaurant, table 427 with our favorite waitstaff - Henrik from South Africa and Pya from Thailand) and our bottle of champagne (Chateau Last Week) courtesy of Frank (Sinatra that is - we won the Frank music contest last night). The view out the window was stunning as we drifted by the College Fjord Glaciers (each one named for a different Ivy League school).
Then all at once it was time to get a move on. Someone needed to get to the Front Desk to get envelopes to leave a little something for Marlon, who had taken such good care of our cabins all week long; I had to run to the Photo place to pick up a reprint I had purchased so I could get it packed to send back with the Helmers to Anchorage since we wouldn't need it (or have room for it) while on our "road trip". While I was down on Deck 7 I could hear the "oohs" and "aahs" outside on the promenade deck. Fortunately I had the camera with me - the naturalist was trying to get out complete sentences but she was constantly interrupted by the Harvard Glacier calving. Suddenly the events were closer together and larger. What initially sounded like Rice Krispies snapping and popping became thunderous roars as larger and larger chunks of the glacier dropped into the bay. It was incredible to witness (and since I can't really show the movement of the glacier here, this picture really doesn't come anywhere close to the actual experience!)Tomorrow morning early (6:40 am - and we’ll have to get a walk/showers/breakfast/final packing done before that!) we will arrive in Whittier and proceed directly to Valdez and then on to Copper River. Since I don’t know what internet service might be available to me for the next week, it may be some time before I continue with stories of our adventures!