An Educational Road Trip

Week Six

This week we took the ultimate road trip around the interior part of Alaska, hitting up major parks and field offices near our own Wrangell-St. Elias. We left Monday morning up the Richardson Highway to Paxson, where we veered off to the left and down the Denali Highway. From there the road transformed from smooth pavement into winding gravel. I felt like jackhammers were attacking our van from all sides as we bumped along in a seemingly aimless direction. It turns out this is because the road was constructed on top of an esker. Apparently an esker is the result of a tiny stream cutting up into a glacier. As the water melts the ice above it, the stream deepens and thus the sediment deposit at its bottom rises as well. Once the glaciers recede, an uplifted trail is left behind surrounded by marsh, providing a perfect location for a road.

I learned all this from Glenn throughout our full day of driving during a fascinating conversation about drumlins and glaciers and the different levels of land conservation (although most of it seemed very familiar, probably thanks to geology lessons from my father). At least I found it fascinating. I’m pretty sure the kids were just trying to stay awake for the very real fear that if they didn’t Glenn would pull over and make them hike through marsh for an hour, in frigid rain, without bug spray – because they are getting paid for a full eight hour work day, they are expected to stay awake for the full eight hours. I, of course, receive merely a living stipend, not the ten bucks an hour salary of those under me, but am also expected to stay awake nonetheless.

By Tuesday afternoon we had made it to Denali National Park, home of the famous Mount McKinley, although everyone in Alaska refers to it as Denali, which means “the Great One.” I’m sorry to say that our visit to Denali National Park turned out to be completely underwhelming. We took a picture by the sign, spent half an hour in the Visitors Center, and checked out the bookstore before leaving. I bought a magnet and pin as proof but I don’t know if I can honestly say that I even saw the park. I hardly had enough time to learn anything from the displays in the Visitor’s Center. But I did see a moose and a caribou! The moose was eating grass in the corner of one of the parking lots and the caribou was at least a mile away, so not the epic sighting I had imagined, but I’m still counting it. That brings my total animal count to: two moose, one caribou, one lynx, one porcupine, countless birds, multiple salmon dinners and one supposed grizzly running around Headquarters in Copper Center (but I never actually saw that one).

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An hour later we were heading out of the park again toward Fairbanks, high up on a twisting road, with braided rivers and murky marsh below us, and mountains towering above us. We made frequent stops along the way, and also once in the city, to visit regional offices for the park and other divisions like the Bureau of Land Management and Wildlife Refuges. We were supposed to continue on to Chena Hot Springs from there, but there was a very large fire in the region, so we decided against that and went to Tok instead. While there I fished in Alaska for the first time, which is shameful because I have been here six weeks now. The YCC kids were shocked to hear that this was also my first time holding a fishing rod in the past decade – and I was shocked to realize that a decade ago I was able to hold anything. I must be getting old.

We spent our last day driving far north, completely out of our way, to Chicken, Alaska. I’m not sure there was much motivation to go to Chicken besides the name because we didn’t do anything in the town but set up our tents and go fishing again. Glenn and I prepared a huge dinner of steaks, baked potatoes and ice cream for the last night, and that about knocked everyone out. In the morning we packed up and drove the remaining five hours home to Glennallen.

To be honest, a large portion of this trip was spent in the car and, while there was a lot of nature to see, it’s pretty hard to take it all in when you are whizzing by at 65 miles an hour. But I would prefer to just see a glimpse of these awesome places to not getting to see them at all, so I really shouldn’t complain.

Next week we are going to some beautiful places within Wrangell-St. Elias so hopefully we will get to spend more time and really see them. It’s crazy to think that I only have four more weeks here. Time is truly flying by.

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