Alaska – Gravel, Grandeur & Goofy Grins (Part 2)
As we said earlier, we stopped at the McKinley View Lodge where we were in for a special treat. After a brief lunch we learned a bit about the history of the lodge and its progenitor, Mary Carey. Mary was one of the first female pilots to fly an aircraft over Mt. McKinley and she also built the lodge with some of the tools and heavy equipment you see in the slideshow. Google Mary for she was a very interesting woman.
But we were in for a more interesting treat when as we were leaving, we struck up a conversation with a couple who noticed our NH plates on our bikes. After telling them about our journey and where we were headed, they asked if we would mind if they shared our email address with one of their friends who also motorcycled around the area. Of course we agreed and we were on our way.
We continued our way towards Cantwell in a dreary overcast, hoping that the cloud cover would lift a bit so we could see Mt. McKinley in all its glory, but persistent rain showers pestered us as we moved north. Although at times the clouds did appear to break a bit, they never fully opened and we did not get to see McKinley. But as the day progressed, it did brighten and we were treated to some breathtaking scenery.
When we rolled into Cantwell, it had pretty much cleared. It had been a long day of riding and we were pretty tired. We checked in to a small off the road hotel and asked them for a place to eat. It turned out that the closest place was called “The Perch” and was about 15 miles away. So we jumped back on the bikes for another ride which turned out to be quite beautiful and to top it off, the dinner was quite awesome as well.
After a long and sumptuous dinner, we lazily headed back to the hotel for a night’s rest before we headed out across the Denali Highway in the morning. I must say that I was concerned that it would a potholed, RV clogged, gravel disaster, but as we started out westerly on the Denali the following morning, it became quite clear that I needn’t have worried.
The “highway” was indeed gravel for all but 24 of its 135 miles, but it was nearly free of any traffic. As we rode along, we really could have used clamps to keep our hanging jaws shut as we were awed by one after another beautiful view or scene. Mountains rose from vast plains covered in spruce. The air was so clear you could see that the trees went on miles and miles until they reached the soaring mountains covered in snow.
Glaciers slid down the sides of several mountains leaving ice falls which glinted in the bright and sometimes almost harsh sunlight. The whites of the snow and ice at times became silver and almost clear as the refractory fire of the light bounced and reflected off the many facets of the mountains’ faces. Each time we thought we could not be more awed, we were indeed even more floored at the visual treats we encountered. It is difficult to explain the beauty of it all. In fact, we were stopping so much, we were in danger of having to stop and camp on the side of the highway if we didn’t get moving.
So with great difficulty, we soldiered on without stopping. After about 5 hours of stopping and starting on the road, we came upon the only place on the highway that serves food. We had seen only two or three vehicles the entire time we were on the highway, but as we pulled into the parking lot of the Gracious House and the Home Style Cooking Cafe we found where they all were. The dirt parking lot was packed and there was not a single seat in the house. Not one. We waited about 20 minutes and not a single seat opened. We then broke the code and decided that our lunch would consist of almonds, cashews, power bars and water, served on a bluff overlooking mountains and glaciers.
Boy did we make the right decision. It was a stellar 20 minutes of relaxation and communing. Few words were said between us while we munched on our meager lunch and soaked in all the surrounding elements would give us. It was 20 minutes or so that neither of us will ever forget. Soon it was time to get back on the road if we were going to get to our destination for the evening, the Tangle River Inn in Paxson.
We loaded up our gear and got back on the road, the scenery birthing a tranquility that I’d not previously known. We had been riding about an hour on a section of the highway that had been built up about four feet off the tundra. Steep embankments rolled off each side of the road into a thick green underbrush. I was just motoring along at about 45 miles per hour when suddenly from my right, a gigantic blackish blur darted out from the underbrush and ran up the embankment from in front of me. It was very large and it was moving fast, but then suddenly a second smaller brownish blur followed immediately behind the big black blur.
The only thing I could do was nail the brakes and try to avoid hitting the blurs. Then it dawned on me. As we were packing our gear, the agents that we used to ship Kim’s bike warned us that it was moose calving season and the moose were plentiful and wherever you might see a moose, there might be a calf with it. Well surer than heck, I’d just found my first two moose in Alaska. I managed to get my heavily loaded bike stopped about 10 feet short of and behind the adult female moose and the calf which was running with her. They both continued running across the road and down the opposite embankment.
It just so happened that we were approaching a small river at the time. I reached into the sleeve of my Stich to grab my point and shoot camera, but by the time I got it out of my sleeve, they had already dived into the river and gotten to the other side. By the time I could focus, they were in the brush and gone. I was so happy and sad at the same time. I had missed hitting the moose and avoided injury, but I had missed an awesome camera shot.
Moose avoided we only had about 40 miles to go to get to our destination. When we arrived, we found that the accommodations were less than stellar. But once again, in keeping with the Alaskan tradition, the food was home cooked and amazing and there was plenty of it. For dessert, there was spectacular scenery from our room with lake and mountain views. Well satiated after dinner, we took a few pictures outside battling our first real difficult encounter with Alaskan mosquitos, but it was well worth it. Tomorrow morning, we would head back onto the pavement towards Tok and ultimately the Canadian Yukon as you’ll see in Part 3.