Once again, we are camped within feet of a lake, but this time we are not just dry camping in a primitive campground, we are actually boondocking. We are just a bit more than 8 miles east of the Parks Highway and Cantwell on the Old Denali Highway 8. This road continues east to Highway 4, the road to Valdez, and then back north to Delta Junction where we were a few days ago. I am terribly behind in writing, and it seems the only way to get going again is for me to start with the here and now, this moment.
Mo is cutting some dead wood nearby along the lakeshore and feeding our campfire while we watch the evening sky shift and change across the lake. It smells wonderful. A very occasional car or truck passes our site, but we aren’t really visible until they are almost right on top of us, so that works just fine. This morning when we drove this highway, for a very long time we were the only ones on the road.
We began our day in the Riley Creek Campground at Denali National Park, with a 5:30 am drive west on the park road to Savage Creek, the extent where private vehicles are allowed in the park. Except for the green and white shuttle buses, already taking people into the deeper recesses of the wilderness, we were the only ones on the road. We thought perhaps an early morning drive might yield some critter viewing, but it wasn’t to be. Again, we saw squirrels and snow shoe hares and nothing else. Unlike yesterday, this morning the Mountain was clouded over and if we hadn’t seen it last night we would have had no idea where it was on the horizon.
The tundra was beautiful at dawn, though, with pale shades of misty green on the high hills to timberline glowing in the morning light. Once at the parking lot at the Savage Creek trail, we were delighted to be the only ones there. Rules said that we couldn’t leave Abby untended in the car, and of course she couldn’t go on the trail, so Mo sat with her while I took off on a beautiful, silent walk along the river. The only sound breaking the silence was the river, the sounds of birds calling, and an occasional rumble as a shuttle bus crossed the bridge to the security point. When Mo was here so many years ago, she was able to drive to a campground farther into the park, but even back then the only animals she saw were a small herd of caribou in the distance. There are no guarantees that you will see any wildlife at all, even on the bus that travels the entire 85 miles to Wonder Lake.
I have a friend, Jeanne, who lived in Alaska for several years and told me we should try the Denali Highway for a true wilderness experience without the crowds of Denali. So after our morning drive, we packed up the MoHo and headed south on the Parks Highway 3 toward Cantwell and the Denali Highway junction. Mo checked in with the owner of the Tesoro station at the junction and he said it would be fine to leave the MoHo there while we took the Tracker on the gravel road leading east through the wilderness.
I owe it to Jeanne, because we might not have taken the time and trouble to travel this long gravel road. Even though unpaved, the road was in much better shape than the Top of the World Highway, and we could have driven the MoHo all the way to the eastern junction with Highway 4 without any problems, I am sure. We spent many hours on the trip, mostly because I had to keep stopping to take pictures and walk out over the hills for wider vistas. Along the way, we saw many places that would be perfect for boondocking, but this one at mile 8 was our choice because of the lake and the proximity back to our route on Highway 3 south to Talkeetna tomorrow.
We drove as far east as the Susitna River crossing where the landscape changed dramatically. This is about the half way mark of the road, and also marks a great landscape shift where the Sustina River flows south to Cook Inlet, and the Nenana River we had been following for many miles flows north into the Tanana River, the Yukon, and eventually the Bering Sea.
The reward for our many miles of gravel road highway was the expansive wild landscape of the Nenana River valley flowing at the southern base of the Alaska Range. During the morning, on our route east, the skies were clear enough that we could see Mt Deborah and Mt Hess among the rugged peaks of this beautiful range that also is the home of Denali as well. The Susitna River lodge, east of the river, was boarded up, and when we decided to turn back at mile 77 we were starting to get a bit hungry. Silly me, I was so excited about the trip that I completely ignored the possibility that we might need sustenance, so we had nothing with us. A few miles west of the river is a tiny enterprise called Gracious House Lodge B&B at historic milepost 82, with the supposedly famous Sluice Box Bar, and a café.
We stopped thanks to the handwritten sign on the road proclaiming pie and espresso, but the restaurant was closed and the only pie available was a wondrous creation that had been frozen for $30 bucks each.
Carol was delightful, and assured me that her pies were world famous, and that if we weren’t outsiders, we would know that they were a deal at any price. I agreed with her, but still couldn’t quite opt for a 30 dollar pie. I did buy an espresso for me and a latte for Mo and enjoyed visiting with Carol who told me all about the lodge, the slow summer, the reason for closing the restaurant, and all about her kids, grandkids, and husband. They have lived here for 31 years, (her husband actually lived her for 55 years), have traveled the Highway to the south five times because they get cabin crazy, and are really wanting to sell the place and leave the wilderness.
With a good jolt of java we continued west, enjoying the views. For a day or two now, the exhaust pipe on the Tracker has been loose and rattling, and Mo tied it up with a piece of wire till we can get it welded. But the sound we suddenly heard on the gravel road was something new, and Mo pulled out immediately to a beautiful spot overlooking the Nenana River Valley and the Alaska Range to see one of her brand new tires going very flat. The spare was ready, the lug nuts were loose enough to actually remove, and we got the tire changed without a hitch. We were both amazed to see that the puncture was caused by the 1/2 inch hitch latch bolt that had run right into the tire. Who knows how it managed to get in there but it had punctured it and was all the way inside the tire.
We continued west back to Cantwell, checking that our chosen boondock site was still unoccupied, and asked the nice Tesoro guy where we could get the tire repaired. Of course, there was a tire repair shop right in Cantwell, although I say that loosely. We paid 40 for a used tire and 20 to mount it and it was worth every penny. Especially considering the old man who wandered out of the house to help us. By the time he was done, Mo knew most of his life story as well. Folks in Alaska are very friendly it seems, and like having someone listen to them.
We picked up the MoHo and drove back to our lake, which I since discovered aka the Milepost, is Joe Lake, used by a local air service, and that our boondock site south of the road can flood. I don’t think that will be a problem tonight. After our evening kayak, we are still sitting out by the fire with a glass of wine, enjoying the evening unhampered by bugs, wind, or rain. I somehow never envisioned moments like this when I imagined what this trip would be like. I was ready for mosquitoes, for rain, for dreary skies, for hordes of other RV’s on the road. Tonight at least, we have none of that. Just wilderness all around us, a sky that is many shades of blue and white and gray, a glassy lake all to ourselves, and a free campsite.
One last thing. Erin asked the other day about how I manage the Pelican Waterproof Camera case in the kayak. First of all, we have Adirondack boats from Swift Canoe in Canada, and bought them specifically for the roomy cockpits so that Mo could paddle with Abby. For me, that equates to plenty of room for the Pelican. I lock it up while launching and if the water is smooth, I’ll open it up and can even switch lenses mid stream if needed. Seems to be a great system and I no longer have to be afraid to take the good camera out on the water. Hmm, that wide angle lens does really great things for my legs. ewwwww!
Miles traveled in the Tracker on the Denali Highway 150 or so
The rest of the photos for this day are linked here