As we reached our last day in Alaska, a group of twenty students and teachers decided to venture out and enjoy a small plane ride tour over the dramatic Alaska Range and especially Mount McKinley. When we reached the runway we stood in awe of the beautiful Alaskan landscape. As the first plane came in sight, the students rushed to grab good footage of the landing. Jon Nierenberg, our guide for the week, arranged for the two small planes to fly down from Fairbanks and land on a tiny runway with no terminal at all. An abandoned cabin and an unused RV were the only objects in sight. After the tiny planes landed, we boarded and took off. The mountains of Alaska were even more breathtaking from this point of view. We all sat in silence as we took in every minute of these outstanding sights. Snow covered peaks and giant glaciers were laid out below us. The plane ride was so relaxing and peaceful, with the sound of the engine running and the warm air inside the plane, some students even dozed off, later calling it the most expensive nap they will ever take. We flew around the tallest peak in North America and the pilot even flew close to the sides of the mountain so we could feel the wind pushing the plane around. After a dramatic hour and a half flight, both planes landed safely and we rushed back to the Touch of Wilderness B&B to pack our things as we were heading for our flight from Fairbanks to Seattle and our next adventure.
Alaska welcomed us with a sunrise so picturesque I could post it on Instagram with a #nofilter tag. After a hearty breakfast at the Touch of Wilderness B&B, we started our day. We drove in Skelly’s (A.K.A Yellowjacket) Suburban and blasted Avril Lavigne and sang along to Kelly Clarkson, a secret Skelly will take to his grave, until we arrived at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali National Park. The park is over six million acres, roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts. We would only be able to see a small fraction of the entire place.
Upon our arrival at the learning center there were a few civilian casualties courtesy of the black ice lining the walkway. After a very informative talk about climate change and its effect on the Alaskan landscape, we embarked on a short hike into the park. In the winter, the park road is only open for twelve and a half miles up to the Mountain Vista Rest Area. The park was originally founded in 1917 to protect the area around Mount McKinley, which at 20,320 ft. is the tallest mountain in North America. In 1980, the park was expanded to its current size. During this hike we learned more facts about the ground we were walking on, and even got to witness MJ (our teacher) pick apart a piece of moose dropping to show us the difference in their diets during the winter time. She said that in the summer they are full of nutrients like a fully topped pizza but in the winter they are dry as a cardboard pizza box.
During our hike we were able to take really cool photos and some of the more daring photographers (with waterproof shoes) jumped into a stream to take shots from under a sheet of ice. We got to see Luca fall a couple more times and then we retreated back to the learning center.
At the learning center, MJ kindly let us interview her on all things climate change and her own personal experience with Alaska. After we interviewed MJ we were able to interview Chris, a park ranger from Ohio, who was able to shed some light on why people choose to move to Alaska and the dichotomy between life in Alaska and life in the rest of America (what they call “the lower forty-eight”).
Finally, once Ivan was satisfied with the interviews and we managed to get enough footage in between phone calls and door slamming interruptions, we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the lodge. It was a great way to be introduced to the Alaskan landscape and wildlife and I now have a much better understanding of the place where we are living for the next few days. All of this being said, I can’t wait to go dog-sledding tomorrow!
What better way to get into the swing of Alaska than heading into the wilderness with Frodo, Dos, Python, Cora, Pirate, Willow, and another sixty Alaskan sled dogs. We drove down to the kennels at Earthsong Lodge after breakfast and got acquainted with the dogs. John Nierenberg, the owner of the lodge, gave us a rundown on how to control the sled, and it was soon time for us to mush on our own. It began snowing. We stood anxiously on the sled brakes, bobbing up and down as the dogs tugged feverishly at the towrope. Running is clearly in their blood, and all they want to do is go. The guides gave the go ahead and we released the brakes. The dogs exploded off the line, leaving us at the mercy of their jet fighter-like acceleration. We hung on for dear life as the dogs reached a blistering cruising speed of eight miles per hour. All right, so they weren’t quite jet fighters, but for all of the adrenaline junkies on the trip, it definitely did the trick.
It wasn’t long before we had gotten the hang of it and were mushing through the open tundra. We could now relax a little and take in the spectacular views that Denali has to offer. We were surrounded by miles of rolling hills dotted by spruce trees with a backdrop of towering peaks that pierced the clouds. We traversed fields, lakes, and narrow tree lined paths along our twenty-mile journey. By the end of the day, though we were exhausted, all we wanted to do was keep sledding. The fresh air, the amazing views and the incredibly friendly dogs themselves made for the perfect post-travel day. They gave us an adventurous and lively start to our journey and got us all excited for the rest of the experiences to come in the next three weeks.
The third day of our Alaska adventure offered, yet again, an experience of a lifetime. After waking up to one of the most beautiful sunrises of all time and eating a mouthwatering breakfast, we put on our snow gear, packed into the Suburbans, and headed off for a day of cross-country skiing. After a short drive to the meeting point, the highest point accessible by Stampede Road, we became acquainted with Chris Mayor, a Denali local and our ski instructor for the day. Chris gave a short spiel about safety and the basics of cross-country skiing and then we laced up our ski boots, snapped into our skis and headed off to the races. Well to be honest, it wasn’t exactly the races yet.
The first hour of skiing consisted of a lot of falling, struggling to get up, followed by more falling. Cross-country skiing is best described as walking with 5 foot planks attached to your feet; in other words, very awkward. Even so, by the time we skied down the first hill and stopped in front of Eight Mile Lake, most of us had got the hang of the skiing. In front of Eight Mile Lake we were also forced to take off a couple layers of clothing during our short break due to the clear skies and the rigorous aerobic workout of cross-country skiing. We were midway across the lake when we were able to sit down for a well-deserved lunch. It was an amazing experience to be able to eat lunch on the middle of a lake with nothing but frozen tundra hundreds of yards in every direction.
After lunch we kept skiing for the rest of the day. We skied in every type of terrain imaginable. We skied up hills, down hills, across vast catwalks, on top of dog sled trails and over frozen lakebeds. By the time we returned to the starting point, we had skied over seventeen miles. We packed our bruised, beaten, and exhausted bodies into the Suburbans and drove home knowing the only thing you can do when you fall off the skis is to get back on.
Our Fire and Ice trip began with a 38 hour journey to the depths of the tundra. Unfortunately, that tundra was Newark Liberty International Airport. New York snow, stronger, heavier, and more cumbersome than the snow in Alaska, covered the runways and turned our departure into an overnight adventure. After hours of sitting on the plane, getting off the plane, singing a karaoke version of “Stand By Me” with the Alaska Airlines gate agents for the entire terminal, and getting back on the plane, all in hope of taking off, the pilot finally called it quits and rescheduled our flight for 9:30 the next morning. So instead of spending night 1 in Alaska, we had to spend it in lovely Newark; unfortunately we didn’t know where. The sweet Alaska Airline crew understood our situation, offered up a closet in the airport to stuff our sixty oversized bags into, and put us up in a Hilton Hotel for the night. But even the trip to the Hilton wasn’t a breeze. The air train took a solid 40 minutes to show up, and Skelly (code named Yellow Jacket) unfortunately realized he misplaced his wallet and passport and we did not find it until the following morning—phewf. At last the air train showed up, and about 25 children (and one random Newarkian) smushed into a tiny train car for an uncomfortable ride to the hotel shuttle. Just when we thought we would escape the cold and get to our beds, we had to fight to the death with other strangers to fit onto the small shuttle buses and arrive at the Hilton. After about 45 minutes of waiting, we went to our rooms and finally got a good nights rest—or more like we got a good few hours of rest. At 9:30 the next morning, we finally took off and six hours later we were in Seattle. We landed there and looked at our boarding passes for the next plane and noticed that we had 13 minutes to get off the plane and hustle to the other terminal to make our connection. Three and a half hours later, we were finally in beautiful Fairbanks, Alaska where the temperature was a balmy 39F, almost twenty degrees warmer than New York! Once we collected all our bags (none were missing!), we realized that there was no way we were going to fit all 60 of them plus 35 of us into five suburbans. We strategically stuffed all of the cars to the brim of people and bags, but there were a handful of bags that were not going to fit. Thankfully, Walgreens and AutoZone had the right tarps, bungee cords (and candy) to fit the rest of thebags on top of the cars. With all five CB radios hooked up, we finally ascended into the mountains on the icy roads, each car blasting music and constantly bantering on the CB’s. After another two hour drive, we were warmly welcomed by Becky and Vangie at the Denali Touch of Wilderness Bed and Breakfast—a remote and comfortable log cabin—with a wonderful dinner and plenty of cozy beds and hot showers. After our delicious dinner, we slept soundly through the night to regain our energy for a busy day of dog sledding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing!