Here we are in Tok, Alaska, the first town on the Alaska Highway. Population of Tok is about 1,200 and was originally built as a road camp for workers on the Alaska Highway. I don’t think it has changed much since those days; just a few stores, visitor’s center and RV Park make up the town. Being the first town after crossing into the state, and known as the “Sled Dog Capitol of Alaska,” make it much more important.
Our next stop was Fairbanks, our northern most stopping point, some 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, population around 32,000. The longest day in Fairbanks, June 21, has about 22 hours of daylight and the shortest day, December 21, has about 4 hours of daylight. Because many of the roads outside the city are gravel, the rental car agencies have special “gravel road” rental cars!
We stayed in an RV Park just outside Fairbanks in the town of North Pole. We met two men there who had driven from Iowa, one in a 1926 Model T truck, the other in a 1927 Model T truck and pulling a 1927 pop-up camper. They drove 30 miles an hour the entire way!
On one of our morning walks we walked across the Bridge of Flags, presented to the town during a 1984 festival, saw a WWII memorial and other statuary, and an antler arch in the China riverside park, known as the gateway to Fairbanks. This is where we saw our first Copper Birch Tree. It was spectacular! Who knew there is a tree with copper colored bark!
The University of Alaska has a campus in Fairbanks; its main campus is in Anchorage. The Fairbanks campus is quite modern looking.
On our way to Denali National Park, we were anxious to see the famous mountain, the highest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet, visited by more than 500,000 people yearly, and visible from Anchorage to Fairbanks, a distance of 360 miles.
In 1980, President Carter signed legislation changing the name of this mountain from Mount McKinley National Park to Denali National Park and enlarged it to 8 million acres. We noted many satellite businesses use the name McKinley. Apparently, the locals are happy with the name change, which had been used in the far past. It is an Indian word meaning “the high one.”
There is only one road in and out of the park. You can drive the first 15 miles but after that there is only bus transportation in the park. The roads are dangerous and they don’t want cars, etc., on the road, scaring the wildlife and leaving litter. On our first day, we drove the 15 miles. We were told that at mile 9 we could see “the mountain”. We got a glimpse of it about 50 miles before we got to the town so could tell it was spectacular. We had also been told that only 30% of those who visit get to see the top of the mountain because it is usually covered in clouds. Soooo, at mile 9 we slowed down, looked to the left and there it was, in all its glory, top unobscured by clouds. We learned later that we are now members of the 30% club so I bought a t shirt saying that on the front! The next day we took the 6-hour bus tour thru the park but the view of the mountain top was obscured by clouds from every angle!! I texted my picture of the mountain to one disappointed person on the bus so she, too, would have a pic of the mountain top. During our trip, we saw a moose and a couple of caribou along with a mama Ptarmigan and her babies.
Upon our arrival to the RV park in Denali, we immediately went driving around looking for the nearest grocery and liquor stores. We found that the nearest real grocery is 100 miles away, in Fairbanks. Folks say they go to the grocery store once a month. In between, they go to a small grocer in a small strip of stores outside Denali Park, where we paid $7 for ½ gallon of milk.
The following day we went back to the park to see their demonstration of sled dogs and how they are trained. That was very interesting.
When the park was first established, it was 2 million acres and there was one ranger to watch over all those acres. He decided the best way to do that in the dead of winter was with sled and dogs, so that is what he did.
Now the park is 8 million acres. The first 2 million acres have been dedicated as wilderness where “man is not dominant” and no motorized vehicles are allowed. The sled and dogs are the only means of transportation into the wilderness; all supplies, tools, etc., needed in that area are pulled in by dog sled.
We learned from the demo that a dog can pull about 60 pounds and run at 6 – 8 miles an hour. Each dog is trained to perform in the position assigned and through lots of practice, they learn to work as a team. In a single winter, the dogs will run 3,000 miles each, the distance from the east to west coasts of the lower 48 states!
There is a special event each year in the park so the pups from that year’s litters are named specific to that event. For example, this year is the 100th birthday of the park so some of the new pups were named, Party, Cupcake and another name we forgot.
When the rangers get the dogs to tie them up to the sled, they hold them by their collars, pulling their front legs off the ground. This prevents the dog from pulling the ranger down in their excitement and prevents the ranger from stepping on the dog’s delicate paws.
We visited the town of Talkeetna, which means “where the rivers join.” Three rivers join there. It is where the climbers leave/return from Denali, so as you walk around the town you see symbols of its ties to “the mountain,” like photos and maps, Tibetan Himalayan prayer flags, etc. And, of course, there is a beautiful view of the mountain. In the past 113 years, over 43,000 climbers have attempted to summit Denali, 52% made it to the top. The climb takes about 20-days, temps dip to minus 35 F in the summer with hundred mile an hour winds!!
The Alaska Railroad runs through the town; the last whistle-stop train in the US goes through Talkeetna. The town is small, with lots of shops and restaurants. Princess Cruise Lines buses people in to spend the day. Pretty amazing stuff for such a small town of 876 people.
After a one-night stay in Trapper Creek, we head toward Anchorage.