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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Bushwhack to the Chulitna River

Hi Blog!

It was pretty wet and rainy on Wednesday, so we spent the day being tourists in Talkeetna. Since Thursday, July 25, 2019 was our last full day in Denali State Park, we wanted to do one last hike. While not actually raining, conditions were still very wet. We donned our rain gear and drove over to the Lower Troublesome Creek Trail. As the sign said, the Chulitna River was only a kilometer away.

The hike on Monday up to Curry Ridge had us high above the Chulitna Valley. We could see the river far below us. By following the Troublesome Creek Trail, we hoped to reach the banks of the Chulitna River. We had the trail to ourselves. However, we did meet one fun guy.

The trail starts in a small tent camping area in the woods. It soon turned into a primordial jungle. Even if there were moose or bear in the area, there was no way to see them with vegetation this thick. So, we did our best to talk really loud and sing off key.

Before reaching the Chulitna, we had to cross Troublesome Creek.

Once we made it out of the woods and onto the mud flats, we saw plenty of tracks. Here moosey, moosey, moosey....

The Chulitna River flows south from Broad Pass east of Denali, one of only two breaks in the Alaskan Mountain Range. Much of the water comes from glacial meltwater. The glacial dust gives the river a grey color making this photo look almost black and white.

To get a sense of how large this river is click the link for this view up and down the river.

We still find it amazing that, in as little as one mile, we can leave civilization behind and have all this wilderness to ourselves. Well, us and the eagle looking down on us.

We followed a few trails along the river to see what we could see. The river seemed to go on forever.

While we had the place to ourselves today, we were not the only ones to follow this trail. Looks like momma bear....

and baby bear.

By the time we were done tromping around the mud flats, we had left quite a few of our own muddy footprints.

Getting back across Troublesome Creek wasn't as troublesome as we thought. A fallen log made for a convenient footbridge.

As we have said before, you never really know a place until you put your boots on the ground, or, in this case, put your boots in the mud!

On our return trip to the trailhead, we stopped to check out this really big old tree. The sign had faded, so we know not what it's significance was, but it must have been important enough to post a sign. Some questions just don't have answers.

While our hike was barely two miles, we found ourselves immersed in a completely different environment.

We've really enjoyed our time here in Denali State Park. Our next stop is Grand View on the Glenn Highway. 

It may be a few days before we blog again. Until then, stay thirsty my friends.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Denali's Peaceful Waters

On our second full day camped at Denali State Park, July 23, 2019, we took advantage of a warm and mostly sunny day to paddle our kayaks on Byers Lake, which is in the park.  Named for a fisherman who was flown there many times by bush pilot Don Sheldon in the 1950's, it now prohibits motorized craft, which makes for a serene paddle.  While the lake originally boasted large lake trout, they have mainly been fished out.  But we weren't here for the trout fishing -- we wanted to snag some photos of Denali and trumpeter swans!  We were not disappointed.

We were fortunate that the lake has a campground with a convenient, simple boat ramp, which made launching our kayaks easy:

Much of the lake was still hidden from the sun in the shadow of Kesugi Ridge, which, together with the morning mists, gave the lake a mysterious, spiritual look:

The lake shore was graced with accessible banks leading up to wooded slopes filled with spruce, cottonwood and alder.  Unfortunately, with warming climate, the spruce in Alaska are being decimated by the Spruce Beetle, leaving innumerable dead spruce trees that are giving rise to a frightening risk of wildfire.  The lakebed itself, while occasionally containing large rocks or boulders under the surface, is mainly a fine, granular granite gravel over which a silty topsoil of about an inch or so lays.  This silty lakebed nurtures a variety of aquatic plants, including these very interesting long, thin blades of grass that, when they reach the surface, continue growing, flattening out, fanlike, across the surface of the water:

Here and there along the shore, old unoccupied cabins peer out over the water, making us imagine what a wonderful refuge this would have been prior to the formation of the park, when perhaps only bush planes could bring the residents in:

We paddled down to the south end of the lake, where Byers Creek empties it.  There, a pedestrian bridge for the lakeshore trail crossed the outlet on stone pilings:

Kathy couldn't resist exploring, to see how far down the creek she could paddle.  After only 50 yards or so, the creek shallowed out and made passage over the rocky rills impossible; so, back out she paddled:

Along the eastern shore, we finally reached a spot where we could see Denali itself.  There was still quite a bit of haze in the air -- whether from wildfire smoke or humidity off the Chulitna River, we weren't sure.  So The High One appears very shy in this selfy:

A little later in the day, with mists mostly evaporated, we got a better view of Denali, with large clouds threatening on either side of it to take away our precious view.  The cabin in this photo is the same one we had paddled past earlier in our trip:

Because Byers Lake is so close to our campground -- K'esugi Ken -- we got on the lake much earlier than usual: 9:30 am.  As a result, about 11:30 we were already famished.  We found a fine gravel beach to put out at, almost directly  across the lake from our launch site.  We planned a short stop to eat and stretch our legs:

But, this was not to be such a short break, because, as we sat munching our sandwiches, we looked up behind us to see that the lower hillside bordering the narrow lakeshore trail was completely covered in wild blueberry bushes -- and, somehow, the resident bear(s) had failed to find these!  Using our sandwich bags as convenient containers, we spent maybe a half hour eagerly picking enough blueberries to make another batch of blueberry pancakes and a blueberry glaze for our recently-caught Sockeye salmon.  We paused from our picking only long enough to enjoy the dramatic panorama across the lake:  Denali and its consorts in the Alaska Range, with Denali National Park hidden behind it:

Off we paddled again, working our way around the lake, and, almost immediately, we spotted a loon family.  We've never seen a female loon with two chicks, but here they were.  Dad was fishing nearby.

To get the loon photos, David had to approach cautiously and obliquely, with short, silent paddle strokes, getting the mother loon to let her guard down as she thought he had passed her.  Then, drifting along a pre-plotted course, he got to the position where Denali could look down on those crazy waterbirds:

The upper end of Byers Lake, with its inflow from a shallow, sandy creek, is graced with beautiful green grasses.  Kathy paused to appreciate the scene --

-- and to hop out to explore a small island that clearly is the nesting ground for a pair of trumpeter swans and their three young:

Interestingly, the island was also full of grizzly bear scat, which implied a few things:  first, Mr. or Ms. Bear can easily cross to the island from the nearby shoreline, and thus does so; second, the bear does this regularly; and, third, the bear probably does so to see if it can score a baby swan snack.  From the fact that the swan parents had three kids in tow, we guessed that the bear had not yet been successful this season.

The swans' island was also littered with feathers, which we assumed fell from moulting or grooming.  Kathy grabbed one of the larger ones and clipped it on her hat as a souvenir of our visit:

Having seen The Ancient One, and the loons, and the trumpeter swans, we felt our visit had been pretty successful.  We spent the remainder of the afternoon paddling slowly along the shoreline, enjoying the beautiful scenery.

When we arrived at the lake, there were two other groups of kayakers -- another couple who, as it turned out, were visiting from Southern California, and a larger group that had been shuttled over from the nearby Denali Princess Lodge for their hour or two of paddling.  During the middle of the day, the lake emptied out, but as we approached mid-afternoon, more boaters appeared on the lake.  Kathy snooped on them from time to time with her spyglass, and also tried to keep track of the comings and goings of the loon family:

Afternoon brought more mist.  Because the snow on the nearby mountains seemed to have a pinkish hue, we surmised that this was drifting smoke from the wildfires to the north, although we could not smell any smoke.  Nevertheless, it gave our last view of the lake a romantic look, with Kesugi Ridge in the background:

We were lucky to get this paddle and our previous day's hike up Curry Ridge, because these two were the only rainless days in the forecast for our five day stay at Denali State Park.

As we write this, we are taking shelter from a rainy Wednesday in the Talkeetna Public Library, during a day's visit to the touristy spot.  We visited the ranger station in charge of managing climbers who want to ascend Denali, and watched a fascinating video on climbing the mountain.  We also visited the Susitna Salmon Center and learned about the salmon that spawn in the Susitna and about the fight that was successfully waged by conservationists and fishermen to save the Susitna River watershed from the depradations that would have come with a large hydroelectric dam project on the upper reaches of the river.  We hope to end this visit with a late lunch at Denali Brewing Company (oh, and perhaps a little of their beer).

We hope to do a small hike tomorrow morning (weather permitting) and then we-know-not-what during the rain.  Stay tuned.

Hello, Denali!

Well, hello, Denali
It's so nice to see you out from behind the clouds
You're lookin' swell, Denali
I can tell, Denali
You're still glowin', you're still crowin'
You're still goin' strong!

Hi Blog!

It's been a few days since we last blogged. We left Anchorage on Sunday, July 21, 2019 and drove up to Denali State Park. When we were in Alaska back in 2016, we stayed just outside Denali National Park. We had to drive through the State Park to get to Anchorage. We made a promise to ourselves that if we ever came back we would take the time to explore Denali State Park.

There are several campgrounds in Denali State Park, but the one we had our sights set on is called K'esugi Ken Campground. The name is translated from the Ahtna and Dena'ina People to mean "South of the Ancient One." K'esugi Ken is a relatively new campground and provides electric service to its RV sites. Camping there put us yards away from one of the best hiking trails to view Denali - The Curry Ridge Trail.

Just because a trail claims to have great views doesn't mean you'll see them. Denali has been know to frustrate tourists over the years. Less than 30% of the visitors to this area actually get to see the mountain. We knew our best bet was to get up early before the clouds begin to form around the mountain.

On Monday, July 22, 2019, we set our alarm for 5:30, had breakfast, stuffed our lunch in our packs and hit the trail. We were not the only ones using the trail. We saw lots of moose prints as we climbed:

In just about a mile, we came to our first viewpoint. We had a better view than the camera caught. The smoke particles in the air made it hard for our little camera to focus.

At another viewpoint, our official photographer does his best to capture the immense grandeur before us.

From our vantage point, we could see from left to right Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter and Denali. The glacier coming down from the mountains is the Ruth Glacier. It is over 40 miles long and 3,800 feet thick! The river in the foreground is the Chulitna River. With all this to look at, it was hard keeping our eyes on the trail as we hiked.

In doing our research for our stay, we found it difficult to get accurate trail maps. The campground was just opened in 2017, and the trails around it are still being developed. We knew there was a proposed trail through an alpine meadow near Lake 1787. When we came to an unmarked trail junction, we took the right fork in hopes of reaching the lake. As we traversed the alpine meadow, we could still see the top of Denali peeking over the trees.

The trail meandered back and forth around the meadow. We startled this mamma grouse as she was taking a sand bath. She quickly scurried her little chick into the brush while leading us away down the trail.

There were a couple small stream crossings. Here Dave stands with the tallest fireweed we have seen in our travels.

In addition to great views, the trail also provided lots of snacking opportunities. We found blueberries, cranberries and a new favorite - cloudberries. We learned about cloudberries when we were in Newfoundland. They only grow in artic environments. The ripe fruits are golden-yellow, soft and juicy, and are rich in vitamin C. 

As the trail continued up the ridge, it looked like a giant "S" working its way up the slope. It reminded us of the stylized "S" enblazened on the backs of our Scranton Domination Team Jackets!

As we climbed the next ridge, the mountains came back into view.

We got our first look at Lake 1787. We found the survey markers for the proposed trail around the lake.

The trail took us high above the lakeshore toward the South Denali Viewpoint.

A lone tree stands guard over the summit.

Having reached the high point, Kathy adds a rock to the cairn with Denali watching over her shoulder.

From our vantage point, we could see the entire valley. To see what we saw, click the link to this 360 degree video from the top of the knob on Curry Ridge.

Since we had the place to ourselves, we decided to stay awhile and have lunch looking over at the mountains.

Our return trip was filled with lots more views and frequent stops for blueberries. There is nothing quite so good as fresh blueberry pancakes the morning after a spectacular hike.