The Last Tourists in Talkeetna
By Marguerite Kirkpatrick


Posted on January 1, 0001 12:00 AM



At 10:30 p.m. the sky is still bright blue with a few puffy white clouds. As we stroll down Talkeetna’s Main Street away from Mountain High Pizza Pie and the sounds of Doug Geeting on acoustic guitar, we take note of the change in the crowd-or lack thereof. Gone are the hoards of people who arrived on tour buses to mill about the town all day.  In their stead are the locals, brassy young kids clustered in groups, a few young men and women who have that Alaska look, the look that says, “I’m tough; I haul water to my cabin in the woods, live without electricity, withstand months of darkness and bitter cold, run bears out of my yard, and deal with cantankerous moose.”  Strolling down the middle of the trafficless and quiet street, we decide we are definitely the last tourists in Talkeetna. 

I think back to the day when our adventure in Alaska began: 

On July 7 we arrive in Anchorage, spend our first night at the Puffin Inn and then hop aboard a city bus to pick up our rental car. In downtown Anchorage, we have our first glimpse of Alaska’s beautiful and bountiful flowers. Is it the many hours of sunlight that cause the flowers to proliferate? Dahlias the size of dinner plates, giant begonias and zinnias and peonies, tall larkspur and snapdragons fill a small park.

Crammed into our bright red Camry, we five friends head down the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm, the arm of water named by Captain James Cook, who sailed this way in search of the legendary Northwest Passage. The tide went out and left Cook on a silt bar. When the tide came in again, Cook decided to “turn again” and come out of the arm. 

The roadside along this famous and beautiful stretch of highway is lined with pink fireweed. Across the waters of Turnagain Arm, purple mountains stretch as far as 
we can see. To the left of the road are rocky cliffs, which we search, unsuccessfully, for a sight of Dall sheep. Suddenly, however, a bear crosses the road in front of us. Hooray! Our first wildlife sighting! Soon after we pass beautiful Kenai Lake, a twenty mile stretch of water the brilliant color of turquoise, we arrive in Seward, known as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. 

We hurry to Ray’s, a recommended restaurant overlooking the water and the myriad fishing boats that crowd the harbor, to enjoy our first Alaskan halibut. Then it is time to check out our accommodations at Salmon Creek Cabins. We are delighted to find a comfortable two-room cabin nestled in the woods along with three other similar cabins and the home of our hosts Jim and Betty. Jim is a local policeman and resident handyman, who is full of suggestions about where we should go in Seward. He even tells us about a nearby stream where we can watch salmon swimming upstream and a tree near town where we can find a family of eagles. 

Part of the décor at Salmon Creek Cabins is a rusting 1931 International truck tucked into the trees near the entrance. Jim informs us that only 600 of these trucks were built, 300 of which were sent to Russia. Other decorations include window boxes full of cheerful flowers, the ubiquitous moose and caribou antlers that adorn almost every structure in Alaska, and a little chalkboard by the door with a personal welcome.  

In our search for the promised salmon and eagles, we are not disappointed! The salmon are indeed following their age-old spawning instinct to return to the place where they were born. They create an amazing spectacle as they swim frantically upstream and even jump out of the water to navigate a small waterfall in their path. On down the road, Mama and Papa Eagle pose regally in their tree, but the chicks must have been well hidden, for we cannot locate their nest. 

Next on the agenda is Exit Glacier, located about 10 miles from Seward. A short hike leads us to the foot of the glacier and a steep climb to within a few feet of the glacial blue ice. All glaciers exhibit an amazing blue color because of the density of the ice and a resulting refraction of light rays. Exit is one of 35 glaciers that are fed by the 700-square-mile Harding Ice Field. 

After a light supper of cheese and crackers and fruit on our little private front porch, we prepare our backpacks for a possible cold experience on tomorrow’s Kenai Fjord day cruise and head to bed, this time with no blackout curtains to shield our eyes from the daylight brightness of 10 p.m.

The next morning is bright and sunny, though there is still a haze from the forest fires that cover 100,000 miles on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula. We decide to have a hearty breakfast to see us through the long day. In town we find a unique restaurant called the Train Wreck, an old railroad car- blue and yellow- just like the famous railroad cars that transport tourists from Seward to Denali and vice-versa. As we stand undecided at the entrance to the narrow little rail car, two busy cooks and one very busy server assure us that we will not be disappointed. They are right! Some of us enjoy eggs benedict with snow crab and homemade hollandaise while others feast on a great mound of homemade biscuits and spicy gravy. 

At 12:30 we board Major Marine’s Star of the Northwest for a four-hour cruise of the Kenai Fjord National Park. These U-shaped valleys called fjords were carved centuries ago by ice. The naturalist on board informs us that the bottom of this bay is 900 feet below us. At the time the ice was carving this valley, the top of the glacier was 700 feet above us! I try to imagine a chunk of ice that large!  The water is a beautiful aquamarine color, caused by glacial silt. Because of the depth, the water temperature is 46 degrees in summer and 42 degrees in winter, making Seward an ice-free port. 

As we leave the harbor, Seward Ship Yard-- the second largest dry dock in Alaska-- bids us happy sailing with its giant American flag painted on the side of the building.  Mountains rise almost vertically from the water; sea gulls dip and swirl and fill the air with their strident calls.  

We soon reach Thumb Cove where there are a few old prospectors’ cabins accessible only by water. The cabins seem barely to perch on the tiny strip of land between mountain and sea. Our naturalist tells us about the Oceanic Plate and North American Plate located here where land meets the ocean. The 1964 earthquake changed the topography of this land, causing the coastline to drop six feet. Salt water invaded the shoreline and killed the trees that lined the shore. These “ghost forests” are still standing today, a reminder of the formidable forces of nature. 

We pass a high cliff where searchlights looked for enemy subs during World War II. After an hour or so, we reach Bear Glacier, thirteen miles long and two and one half miles wide. It, too, is fed by the Harding Ice Field. All national parks are chosen for some special feature. Kenai Fjords NP was chosen for this particular ice field, the largest in the U.S. 

We see a small collection of red balls of varying sizes bobbing in the water and learn that these are oyster beds. The oysters are “planted” here and harvested by the Alaskan fishermen. These nutrient-rich waters allow the oysters to grow to mature size in three years rather than the usual seven. Another benefit is that the cold, clean water of this bay assures that Alaskan oysters are pure and untainted by pollution. I make a mental note to try this delicacy.

As we reach the Gulf of Alaska, I am thankful for the Dramamine I took earlier and wonder if even that is going to ward off the discomfort I am feeling from the increased rocking of the boat in the choppy waters. Joining the other passengers in the cold air on the outer deck and keeping my eyes on the horizon helps to alleviate the queasy feeling.  The water in this gulf is a deeper, clearer green because there is less glacial silt. 

Wrapped in coats, hats, and scarves to brave the cold air blowing off the glaciers, we scan the water for wildlife. Suddenly, the captain announces the arrival of a pod of Dall’s porpoises- small black and white porpoises that are the fastest swimmers among the small cetaceans, capable of reaching speeds of 34 mph. Do they ever show off for us! Diving and darting to and fro, swimming under the boat, chasing each other and seemingly teasing and taunting us to “come on in for a swim,” they delight everyone on board for several minutes before they tire of this silly game and swim off to find other diversions. 

The captain maneuvers the boat close to a rock wall on the shore where we see kittiwake rookeries and puffin nests. The puffins are such funny birds. Because of their large bones, they are clumsy fliers and have much trouble with take off and landing. According to our naturalist, puffins spend the winter out in the open ocean and come in to Kenai Fjord to breed in the summer. How in the world does a creature spend the winter in the open ocean?! Nature is certainly full of wonders. Another bird we see several times is the Guillemot pigeon, a duck-like bird with bright red feet and legs. 

Along the way we are treated to sightings of sea lions and sea otters, funny little creatures that lie on their backs on the surface of the water, eye curiously the passersby, and stay busy cracking shells with rocks on their tummies. But the piece de resistance is the sighting of a humpback whale, which breaches several times, then dives deep with a wave of its tail only to break the water again in a different location. This magnificent animal entertains everyone for several minutes. 

As we motor back toward Seward, our on-board naturalist reminds us of the oft quoted, “Do not measure your life by the breaths you take but by how many experiences take your breath away.” We certainly had many breath-taking experiences on this beautiful excursion.

On July 10 as we bid farewell to the charming little seaport town of Seward, an eagle flies across our path- a good omen for our next adventure, which will be in another fishing village, Homer. 

Before reaching Homer, we stop in the tiny little town of Ninilchik, an old Russian fur trading village, to visit a Russian Orthodox Church built in 1900 and listed on the National Historic Register. The white frame church with several onion domes atop its roof is surrounded by a cemetery and enclosed with a white picket fence. A sign at the gate reads “Persons with Loved Ones Buried Here Are Welcome.” Each grave is marked with a white wooden Russian Orthodox cross, which has three bars. The top bar represents the plaque that hung over Christ’s head; the middle bar is the cross bar on which Christ’s palms were nailed, and the bottom slanted bar represents the two thieves who were crucified on either side of Christ. The downward slant is the thief who did not accept Christ as a Savior and taunted him along with the crowds. The upward end of the slant is the other thief who recognized Christ as Savior and called out for His mercy.

The little church sits in quiet solitude on a hill overlooking Cook Inlet. Wildflowers, including fire pinks, the prolific cow parsnip, and lavender-colored wild geranium, fill the hillside and even some of the gravesites. Two golden eagles calling to each other glide on air currents overhead. The sun is bright and warm. “God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world.”

A short time later we are sitting in Fat Olive’s, a busy restaurant in Homer, enjoying delicious portabella mushroom sandwiches and rockfish chowder. Sated, we drive down Homer Spit, a narrow, five-mile-long strip of land filled with gift shops, charter tour companies, and fisheries. The harbor is teeming with fishing boats, as Homer is the halibut capital of the world, and this harbor serves 1500 commercial and pleasure boats during the summer. At one of the fisheries, groups of fishermen stand proudly behind their catch, displayed prominently under a sign proclaiming Buttwhackers. After pictures, the catch is weighed, gutted and processed by half naked young men dressed only in rubber coveralls, the straps of which have been cast off their shoulders resulting in pants that sit precariously low on their narrow hips. 

We visit the famous Salty Dawg Saloon whose tiny interior is crammed with people; the walls and ceiling are covered with dollar bills, rescue rings, and tee shirts. After a few minutes in this lively pub, we are ready for a quiet walk on the rocky beach.  The day ends with our not-infrequent feast of cheese and crackers and fruit on the deck of Land’s End Hotel. A few fishing boats are still chugging across Katchemak Bay; hoards of gulls are feeding in the waters just off shore; two eagles careen overhead, then dive into the bay for their supper, and tomorrow is another day….

The next morning dawns with fog and misty rain, but this does not dampen our spirits as we board the Rainbow Connection’s ferry to cross the bay to Seldovia, another little town originally settled by the Russians and accessible only by seaplane or boat. During the two-hour boat ride, we visit Gull Island, which, true to its name, is full of gulls as well as cormorants, kittiwakes, and common murres- a bird that looks much like a penguin.

Arriving in Seldovia, we have lunch at the Tide Pool- more halibut and salmon- then visit St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. It is much like the church in Ninilchik with the white fence, the Russian Orthodox cross adorning all the graves, and the hilltop location. This time, however, the bright sun is hiding behind gray clouds, and a light mist is falling.

A short distance from the church is Seldovia School, behind which is the Otterbahn Trail, a hiking trail that leads through dense, dark woods filled with spruce. The understory is a mass of huge ferns and rather threatening Devil’s Club or Devil’s Walking Stick, a large plant with deceptively lovely white flowers; however, the prickly spines can cause severe irritation of the skin on contact. Juniors and seniors of Seldovia School created the Otterbahn Trail as a class project in the 1980’s. Along the way are little handmade wooden signs bearing quotations about the beauties of nature. When we reach Outer Beach, the sight of loons and sea otters in the quiet cove delights us. 

Though we are enjoying this lovely place, we must hurry back to town to make the four o’clock departure of the ferry back to Homer. There is, however, time for a short visit in a gift shop and a cone of homemade ice cream. 

The next morning is again foggy with a very cold wind blowing across the Spit. After breakfast in the hotel, we drive into the town of Homer (where surprisingly it is sunny and warm!) to visit the Pratt Museum, a wonderful museum detailing the history, art and science of this region and the native Alaskan people as well as the lives of early pioneers. Especially interesting are the webcams that show live pictures of seabirds and bears in their natural habitats. 

Leaving the museum, we visit some of the local art galleries before driving up Skyline Drive for a spectacular view of the Spit and Kachemak Bay. The Homer climate and locale must be especially conducive to the growth of the beautiful purple lupines, for they grow in great masses along the roadsides, more than any other place we have been. 

At noon we drive back down the Spit for lunch at Coal Point Trading Company, a fish processing business with a small lunch counter that serves delicious seafood chowder and oysters on the half shell-fresh, delicious oysters from the cold clean waters of Kachemak Bay. 

On our way out of Homer, we discover Bear Creek Winery and Inn. The grounds are beautiful with gardens full of ice blue Himalayan poppies, yellow and orange poppies, wild geraniums, and huge rhubarb beds. We later learn the rhubarb is fermented and used in some of the wines. Above a hot tub for the guests is a sign that reads, “Swimsuits are optional unless you are ugly.”  In the winery we are treated to a wine tasting as well as crackers slathered with cream cheese and smoked halibut “caught and smoked by the owner.” Delicious!!!

While talking to the girls working in the winery, we meet Jillian Rogers, who is training for the Iditarod Race. Her mentor is Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the famous Iditarod Dog Sled Race, with whom she lives and trains. Jillian owns 23 dogs, which she says is “not enough.” She gives us her internet site so that we can keep up with her progress. It is www.wannabemusher.blogspot.com.

Monday, July 13, finds us in Girdwood, a charming little town not far from Anchorage. Our lodging is the Girdwood Garden Inn, aptly named because of the beautiful gardens, baskets of begonias and one really giant tub of fuchsia that adorn the house, which is a residence for our hostess, her husband and three boys as well as our apartment. We settle in, do some laundry, and enjoy another supper of cheese and crackers on our private deck. 

In the morning we head south again to make the 10:30 tunnel opening so that we can drive to Whittier for our scheduled day cruise on Prince William Sound. A controlled one-lane two and one-half mile long tunnel with alternating train and vehicle use is the only inland access to the little town of Whittier.  Some 180 people live here in only one condominium. There are no single dwellings. 

Whittier, like Seward, is located on a fjord and thus is an ice-free port. However, Whittier boasts the second largest snowfall of any city in the world with a record of 47 feet! During World War II, the U.S. Army built a large building to house four to six thousand military personnel. This building now stands condemned and empty. Demolition is not feasible because of asbestos in the building and also because of the difficulty of removing the refuse of the demolition through the tunnel. 

Whittier is a port of call for many cruise ships because it is an access point for passengers to take the train to Anchorage, only 60 miles to the north, or to Denali National Park. This little town is also an important departure point for tours on the beautiful and pristine Prince William Sound. 

After a light early lunch of clam chowder at Tunnel’s End Café, we board another Major Marine tour boat for our excursion on the Sound. Unlike the sea in the Kenai Fjord, the waters in this sound are calm and smooth as glass. Rarely do we see another boat or any sign of human activity. We seem to be afloat in a rare corner of the world that is pristine and unspoiled. It is disheartening to imagine the devastation that was visited on this beautiful place during the Exxon-Valdez disaster in 1989.  

During the afternoon we see many of the same marine animals and seabirds that were evident on the cruise in Kenai Fjord with an interesting commentary from Ranger Don, who even does a pretty good rendition of Willie Nelson. 

The highlight of this cruise is our visit to several glaciers where the captain takes us very close to the blue walls of ice that rise out of the blue green waters. As we sit quietly waiting for the glaciers to “calve,” we are not disappointed. Several times we hear the loud pops and rumbles and cracks created by huge chunks of ice breaking off the glacier and crashing into the sea below. 

About mid afternoon, a sumptuous all-you-can-eat buffet of fresh salmon, prime rib, rice, salad, and dessert with plenty of hot coffee and hot tea is served. As we head back toward Whittier, the captain announces, “There she blows,” and once again we watch in awe as a lone whale breaches, then disappears into the milky aquamarine water several times within our vantage point. To top off this exciting experience, we enjoy a Hot Otter-- hot chocolate with Kahlua, Irish cream, and peppermint schnapps with whipped cream on top. YUM! This is a warm reprieve on a cold, damp day!

Early Tuesday morning, July 14, we set out in search of Virgin Creek Falls Trail, described by our hostess as a beautiful little trail close to our lodging. A short drive takes us to the trailhead, which leads through a dense forest to a rushing waterfall that tumbles over the rocks into Virgin Creek. Gone are the gloom and dampness of yesterday. Today is a lovely warm sunny day just like most of the days we have enjoyed in Alaska. There’s been little need for the cold weather and rain gear taking up all that space in our luggage. But we’re not complaining. We are very grateful for this lovely weather, especially after hearing from the locals that Alaskans saw only 16 days of sunshine last summer!

Next on the agenda for today is a trip to Alyeska Ski Resort, where we take a tram to the top of the mountain and hike on Alyeska Glacier Trail. At an altitude of 4,000 feet, we find ourselves precariously traversing what seems to us a hairline edge that falls on one side to the glacier below and on the other to the valley below! We enjoy beautiful views of the town of Girdwood as well as Cook Inlet as we watch paragliders silently soaring with the eagles.

After another tram ride down the mountain and a delightful brunch at the Bake Shop with delicious homemade orange marmalade and giant cinnamon rolls, we are once again on the Seward Highway, this time with Turnagain Arm on our left. We pass Baluga Point, a spot where Baluga whales are often seen, before stopping at Potter Marsh to walk the boardwalk that leads throughout the marsh. A sign lists all the wildlife that has been seen spotted in the past two days, but alas, all we see of interest are a red neck grebe and a lesser yellow legs. 

Arriving in Anchorage in the late afternoon, we visit Earthquake Park, which commemorates the 1964 earthquake, and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail before stopping at the Millennium Hotel to enjoy a very delicious salmon melt sandwich. 

The next day we head north on Highway 1 toward our next destination, Denali National Park, 175 miles away. This drive is unremarkable until we reach the taiga, a biome that has extreme winter weather and thin soil. Most of the trees are coniferous because they can adapt to the harsh conditions better than deciduous trees. The trees are short and scruffy-looking as well as sparsely spaced. Though the landscape looks forbidding, there is a certain beauty to this land, especially today with the grayness of a gentle rain and the clouds that shroud the ever-present mountains in the background, but one is eminently aware of the harshness and dangers of life in this climate.

Our first moose sighting is along this stretch of highway. We stop to snap her picture. She seems oblivious to the small crowd that gathers to watch her graze. Once though, she looks up at us with her mouth full of the lovely pink fireweed that grows along every roadway. It seems as though she has decorated herself for this chance photo op!

Our lodging for this leg of the journey is at the Denali Education Center, a cluster of small rustic cabins in the woods. There are no amenities, just two tiny bedrooms and a very utilitarian bathroom with delicate plumbing that sighs and sings. Just a few feet from our cabin runs the Nenana River, on which we see occasional rafters with experienced guides, part of the large network of outfitters in this area. 

A change of plans greets us on our first full day in Denali. Our reservation with Kantashna Air Travel for a close and personal look at Mt. McKinley is cancelled because of the weather and the lingering effects of smoke from the wildfires that have plagued the state since our arrival.  Undaunted, we make alternate plans beginning with breakfast at what is to become our headquarters for the three days in Denali, the Creekside Café- a small pull-off in the woods that serves the most delicious food! Breakfast on this first morning consists of mounds of scrambled eggs, crispy potatoes, flapjacks, big biscuits, bacon, reindeer sausage, and rhubarb/strawberry coffee cake, all served up by Scott. Between bites we question him about what he will do in the winter when this café is closed. He, like so many young people who live and work in Alaska, says he claims no place as “home.” In the winter he finds work in Vail, Mexico, Guatemala, wherever his heart leads him. And- I suspect- wherever he can find a job. Scott, like most of the people we have met in Alaska, is super friendly and accommodating and interesting. 

Well fortified, we head to Three Lakes Trail for a hike that leads us through bluebells, lupine, monks hood, and other beautiful wildflowers to a lake that is home to a very large beaver lodge.

Returning to the Denali Visitor’s Center, we board a bus that takes us to the sled dog demonstrations. These dogs are very important to the rangers’ work, as the dog sleds are the only means of transportation into much of the park during the long, dark, snowy months of winter. In the summer, however, their job is to entertain and educate the tourists. 

The dogs loll about the top of their individual houses and don’t seem to mind the constant petting from adoring visitors. They appear very docile and friendly until it’s time to “go to work.” Hannah, the young ranger in charge of the demonstration, tells us that the dogs love what they do and get very excited when it is time to be harnessed. She warns us that we’ll see the handlers bringing them out in a “kangaroo walk” and assures us that it does not hurt but actually prevents the dogs and the handlers injury from over exuberance!

Sure enough, as the dogs are released from their cages, they hop towards us while the handlers pull up on their collars until only their hind legs touch the ground. This prevents an accidental stomp on the dogs’ very important paws, which must remain healthy for travel in the snow, as well as an accidental injury to the handler, caused by an excited seventy-pound dog!  In short order, the huskies are harnessed to the wooden sled, and Hannah climbs aboard for a “dry run” around a gravel circle. At the finish, Hannah gives a command;  the dogs lie down to await the next command, and the tourists line up for a photo op behind the sled and dog team. 

During a question and answer session, we learn that Hannah has her own team of huskies, and she travels around this immense park, alone with her dogs, in the wintertime. 

Late in the afternoon, we drive the 15 miles into the park on which private motor vehicles are allowed without a permit to reach Savage River and a loop trail that follows the shallow river, crosses it, and returns on the other side. We hear from other hikers that a bear was sighted in this area earlier in the day, but the only wildlife we see are a bunch of playful ground squirrels that scurry over the rocks and stand on their haunches to peer at us inquisitively. For a time we follow on the trail a family of ptarmigans scratching in the gravel for supper. Ptarmigans are Alaska’s state bird, and though they are a brownish color now, in the winter they turn snow white. The sun sits low in the sky casting a golden glow to the rocky hills, which we search, again unsuccessfully, for Dall sheep. 

Friday, July 17, dawns bright and sunny without the fog of yesterday, and the smoke from the forest fires has abated. Kantishna Air says visibility is good. We can fly!! In fact, if we can be at the airstrip by 10 a.m., we’ll get a discount. Well, of course we can!  

The airstrip is a small clearing with woods on both sides. Ain, our pilot for this adventure, is busy filling the gas tank of the single engine Cessna 206. Just as we prepare to climb aboard with pounding hearts and a sense of great adventure, a moose cow and her calf come lumbering across the airstrip and disappear into the woods on the other side!  I can’t help but wonder what Ain would have done if the moose had made their appearance during take off!

We all don headphones with mikes so that we can communicate during the flight and buckle up. The initial rise into the air is quite bumpy because of a stiff breeze, but we soon rise above that turbulence and settle in for a smooth ride.  As the park unfolds below us, we become acutely aware of the immensity and the isolation of this six million acre national park. Only one narrow, mostly gravel, road stretches 90 miles into the interior of the park and is traversed only by the park’s buses that transport thousands of tourists who come to see the primal and unspoiled beauty of one of America’s most beautiful places. 

But we are feeling special. We are soaring above the madding crowd on the way to our first glimpse of Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. We fly over mountains with craggy, treeless tops; shallow rivers wind through the valleys below; the hills of Polychrome Pass are painted with varying shades of orange and russet; Baldoon Glacier, streaked with black gravel that has been ground from the face of the mountain by the movement of the glacier, appears below us. Suddenly the gleaming white face of “the Great One” looms before us, majestic- awesome. Here is the mountain that lures so many climbers who attempt to reach its summit, the mountain that has claimed the lives of many who failed in that attempt, the mountain that only 33 percent of visitors to Alaska are privileged to see because it is so often shrouded in clouds and fog. Hooray! We shout; we are members of the 33 Percent Club!

Ain flies to within one-fourth mile of the face. She banks left, then right, then circles so that everyone has the perfect photo op. Our cameras click incessantly to capture the ever-changing view of the brilliant white Denali. 

Too soon Ain must turn our course toward the small airstrip at Kantishna Skyline Lodge, a ten-room rustic lodge located ninety-five miles into the park and the home base for Kantishna Air Taxi. After offering Ain our grateful thanks, we hike up an old road once used by the gold miners; however, a hot sun soon urges us back to the lodge where we sit on the deck and eat our peanut butter sandwiches while we watch a bear amble down the road below us. He leaves the road and disappears into the brush just before a lone biker makes his way up the hill. 

At two o’clock we board one of the buses that ply the park road delivering and picking up campers as well as providing a day trip for tourists who spend the day on the bus in order to see the wonders of this beautiful park and the wildlife who inhabit it. These buses are little more than school buses and so the five hours we spend on our exit from the park are quite enough for us! Our bus driver is constantly on the lookout for wildlife and stops for sightings as well as to pick up the occasional hiker along the road. Alas, our wildlife sightings are few. Aside from a couple of distant bears, some caribou, and a few eagles, the main wildlife we encounter are a group of young Germans who board the bus carrying amazing cameras sporting ten-foot telephoto lenses. At least they appear that long to us! 

During the three hours remaining, these boisterous young men yell “Stop, stop, stop, stop,” whenever they see the tiniest ground squirrel or the largest caribou and then proceed to hang over our shoulders and shove their cameras across our line of vision to find the most advantageous spot for a photograph.

The park road is narrow and dusty. As we bump along Polychrome Pass, those of us “fortunate” enough to have a window seat are peering down at the valley thousands of feet below from a very curvy road with no guardrails! At least we’re peering when our eyes are not clamped shut with fear! We encounter a bus going in the opposite direction. That driver must pull over as far as possible toward the wall of rock and stop. I hold my breath as we inch past. In my mind I visualize our bus fairly teetering on the edge of that road as I watch our driver who seems to be handling her mission with great confidence. 

After a long day full of adventure, we arrive back at the Visitor’s Center, weary and hungry. We hurry to our favorite restaurant for a last meal of salmon and halibut.

The next morning we head south once again toward our last destination, Talkeetna, the town on which the TV show “Northern Exposure” was based and the town famous as a starting point for climbers of Mt. McKinley. It lives up to our expectations. We are especially pleased with our accommodations at Talkeetna Guest Cabin, a relatively new two-story cabin on a hill with a magnificent view of “The Great One.” 

On Saturday, the Talkeetna Roadhouse is our destination for a gargantuan breakfast. The Roadhouse was built between 1914-17 and is the oldest establishment still in business on Talkeetna’s Main Street. There are several guest rooms with the bathroom “down the hall” in true roadhouse fashion. Gue




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