ALASKA VACATION 2008
JULY 14 THRU JULY 22, 2008
By Harry “Gipper” Morris
Everything was booked with Continental Airlines. My sister, Susan, was flying from Nashville, TN to Anchorage and I was flying from Palm Beach International to Anchorage. Our flights were to arrive within 30 minutes of each other. Good plan, but it didn’t turn out that way. Harry’s Law.
My flight from PBI had to abort to Ft. Lauderdale due to +TS over the airport and it didn’t have enough fuel on board to circle for a few minutes. Two hours later, it arrived. I had
already missed my connecting flight
in Houston. The gate attendant tried
one way then another to get me on a
different flight. Finally I accepted a flight that would cause me to stay overnight in Seattle, WA., out the next day, and catch up with Susan by 900am the next day. Already, we are way behind schedule, but Susan is a very patient lady.
During my flight to Seattle, some of the passengers around me told me
they had a
flight out of Seattle for Anchorage later that night and had plenty of seats available. Continental didn’t even try to get me on this flight. When I arrived, I went to the gate and asked to book passage but they told me it was full. They booked me as “Standby”. At the last minute, I got a seat and departed for Anchorage. Had to leave my baggage behind for tomorrow’s flight. I arrived about 400am AKDT, got a shuttle to the hotel and banged on my sister’s room door about 500am, announcing “Maid Service”, much to her surprise and a few choice Sailor words that even a sailor might be embarrassed to use. Well, we talked a few minutes but I was dead tired by now and quickly fell asleep.
We got up and prepared to leave about 1000am. We had to go to the airport, pick up my luggage, pick up the rental car, shop for groceries, and figure out how to get on the road to the Denali Park area, a drive of about 5.5 to 6.0 hours. At least
we were back on the schedule. And off to Denali Park we go.
DRIVE TO DANALI
Around 400pm we arrived at our cabin, McKinley Creekside Cabins, tucked between mountains along the Nenana River. We quickly settled in and just sat out on our balcony deck and drank plenty of wine, snacks, and caught up with each other. The mountains facing us from our balcony soon became “our mountain” and was beautiful to look at.
However, we soon learned that our mountain was a mountain of many faces as you will see. We had already booked seats on a bus tour through the Danali Park area with a private company, Denali Backcountry Lodge, which was to depart at 600am the next morning. Went to bed about 900pm with the sun still up. Woke up at 100am and it was still daylight outside. WEIRD!!!
DANALI PARK BUS TOUR
Up at 430am, got ready, got some breakfast and headed to the Denali Backcountry Lodge about 5 miles North to meet the bus at 600am. This tour was through the Park to the Denali Backcountry Lodge located in Kantishna, about a 95 mile drive one-way through the Park area. Total trip was about 13 hours. Well worth the time. We ran upon, stopped, and observed many natural wildlife animals; moose, bears, caribou, foxes, snowshoe hares, eagles, and the views of the Alaskan mountain range was really a spectacular site to see.
As we continued our trip to Kantishna, Mt. McKinley began to come in view. First, it was just a small view through other mountains, but as we drew closer and closer to the Kantishna, Mt. McKinley grew and grew. By the time we reached Wonder Lake, Mt. McKinley was in full view, majestic, and still 30 miles away The bus driver told us that Mt. McKinley could be seen as visible as it was today only 5 percent of the year. What an honor it was to see it. Its top peak soars to 20,320 feet above sea level and is the tallest mountain in North America.
It wasn’t but a short distance more to the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna, about 20 miles or so. When we arrived, they had a buffet style lunch laid out for us. It had everything on it, beef, turkey, chicken, cheeses, salads, soups, and more. It was included as part of the trip. A nice surprise. After lunch, they had several activities planned for which anyone could attend. There was a botanical tour, gold panning, historical film of area development, and others. Susan and I chose to just roam. We walked to the airport and looked around. Walked through the woods following different trails, and just took in the scenery. Looked for special rocks on the river bed. Susan found a special rock that weighed much more than the ordinary rock of its size. We are waiting to see what it might be. It was tinted light green with goldish veins running through it. Can’t wait to hear what it might be. By this time, it was time to reboard the bus and head back home.
On our return 6-hour trip, the winds had picked up to 20 or 30 knots. Everyone was running around trying to catch their hats which had blown off, including mine. When we arrived back at our cabin, the clouds had settled over our mountain and now only half of it could be seen. What would this turn of events mean to our scheduled helicopter flight out tomorrow morning at noon?
Just as the morning before, we woke up to rain and low clouds. We could not see our mountain at all. I called Era Helicopter Services to ask what they thought of the weather and the flight. They told us to show up about 1130am and then it would be decided. How many times have I done this flying my own airplane? By 1130am, the weather had cleared for the most part and the flight was on. This was the first helicopter flight for both me and Susan, so we were looking forward to seeing what it would be like. It was fascinating to fly right up to the face of a huge cliff, climb up vertically then over the ridge to see a big open valley beyond. Just like in the movies. The first leg of the flight was about 35 miles up the Yanert Glacier, about 8 miles from the peak of Mt. Deborah, and East of the Alaskan mountain range. We landed on the glacier and roamed around for a while. Our pilot, Eric, signed the “Duck” as an honoree Babe and we started back to base. All in all, this was a spectacular way to
travel in and around these mountains.
We spent the rest of the day driving around and visited the airport in Healy, AK. We dropped in on Talkeetna Aero Services, said hello to everyone and was able to take some photos next to their Navajo and Turbo Otter. I was still asking if anyone knew “Dave” that Tom Downey asked me to say hello to. No one knew him.
Friday’s weather was again low clouds and rain. We had planned it as a “Free Day” so decided to take off North to Fairbanks and see if we could find Tim Berg. It was a nice drive and the further North we traveled, the better the weather got. There was some very nice views along the way but didn’t stop to see. The drive was about 2.5 hours.
I called Tim as we got near the city limits. I had no signal on my cell phone until reaching the city limits but finally was able to leave a phone message to Tim. We drove around downtown for a while then started looking to find the Fur Company where Susan wanted to visit. We were just about there when Tim called back. Turned out that we were only a mile or so from his home. We met and stopped in at Brewster’s Restaurant on the Chena River, for food and drink and talk. Then went to the Fur Company where Susan shopped and Tim and I caught up on each other. Afterwards, Tim treated us to a personal tour of the Fairbanks Airport and around the water landing strip right in the middle of the airport where Tim kept his C170 float plane. We took some photos and then it was time to get on the road back to Denali. Tomorrow we drive South to Talkeetna where we are scheduled to fly a C172, at 100pm, up through the glaciers on the South Side of Mt. McKinley. The plan was to fly Ruth’s Glacier, around the Don Sheldon Ampitheatre and over to the Kahiltna Glacier. This is to be the highlight of our vacation.
We awoke to the usual rain and low clouds over our mountain, packed, had breakfast, and was on our way to Talkeetna, about a 3- hour drive South. The weather improved all along the way and when we arrived in Talkeetna, it was sunny and scattered clouds. Perfect for our mountain flight at 100pm. We stopped by Talkeetna Aero Services to say hello and look for “David” Tom Downey wanted me to say hello to but still, nobody knew him. We drove down to “Above Alaska” to meet up with our Flight Instructor, Matt Rombach, and prepare for the flight. Only problem, the plane wasn’t there. They couldn’t find it, and we had to cancel the flight on a perfectly beautiful day.
Hoping they could get the airplane to the airport later, we left it to them to call us. About 800pm they called and told me the plane was there and that we could plan to fly tomorrow at noon. So we puttered around downtown Talkeetna and finally checked into our Cabin late in the afternoon. The Cabin was situated on the banks of the Talkeetna River, right under the departure end of runway 18, and was a pretty nice place to stay for a few days.
The next morning, weather, rain, ceilings, wind and no one is flying. Maybe by noon it will improve. We showed up at noon, weather, ceilings, winds gusting to 26 knots, and no one is flying. We drive over to the FSS and talked to the briefer and looked at the weather cams for Mt. McKinley. You can’t see the mountain. So we talk about it a while and finally decide that the flight is a no-go. We leave it, that if weather is better tomorrow morning, we will consider trying again. But it doesn’t happen. Still low clouds, wind, and rain. So Susan and I spent most of the day wandering around town, taking in the sites, visiting the museums, stores, etc in mostly light rain, until it is time to start our trip back to Anchorage for our flight home.
The trip to Anchorage was uneventful. We had a little time to kill before turning in the rental car and getting to the airport, so we found a nice local restaurant called Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant on Spenard Road, which was really a great place to eat and have a glass of wine. I tried a sampler plate of Halibut which I had never had before, and it was pretty good, but not as good as wild Salmon. Had a couple glasses of wine, then off to the airport.
Susan and I were flying back to Houston together on the same airplane, where we would then split up. She would go back to Nashville and I to West Palm Beach. Now, when I thought all the “war-stories” had been written for this trip, there was one last war-story Continental Airlines had saved up for me. The flight was delayed 45 minutes because one of the flight attendants showed up late. I only had a 45 minute ground time in Houston to connect with my flight to Palm Beach When the flight attendant showed up 45 minutes later, all the passengers gave her a big ovation. I can imagine how she must have felt. The pilot made up a few minutes time during the 7 hour flight from Anchorage to Houston and by the time I got to the gate of my connecting flight, I was the last person to board. Susan and I hardly had enough time to say goodby, and I’m off to Palm Beach.
If there is a moral to this story, it would be this. Alaska is a Great place to visit but don’t count on any pre-planned schedule. Don’t count on good weather. Play things by ear and enjoy the moment you have, when you have it. I know that I enjoyed our trip to Alaska for the second time. My Sister, Susan, was a perfect companion, but I’m not about to book passage on Continental Airlines again. Susan and I both made it back home safe and sound and are now trying to get used to the Time Zone Change.
The Photographs below were taken by professional photographers to whom credit is given.
Harry “Gipper” Morris