Denali: The Great One

From Fairbanks, we were supposed to take the Alaska Railroad to the junction for Denali National Park. But a week of constant rain resulted in landslides on both the highway leading into the park, and a blockage of the rail line itself. The road reopened for us, but the blocked track meant we had to divert from the train to a bus to reach our junction


For those who don’t know,  Denali National Park includes the highest mountain in the Alaska Range and the outlying wilderness area. It is the third largest National Park, trailing only two other Alaskan Parks. The “ Howlies,”  to borrow a Hawaiian slang, call it Mount McKinley. The Athabaskan Indians named it Denali, The Great One.


And it is truly a great one.  Denali begins at about 3000 feet above sea level and rises to 20,000. It is geologically different than the rest of the Alaska Range. While the rest of the mountains consist of a crumbly rock that erodes with glacier contact, Denali is mainly a magma that solidified and rose into a granite dome. Denali also makes its own weather, which usually shrouds it in clouds and fog. Most visitors never see it. On the other hand, Mrs Bear and I have been incredibly lucky… Counting our last visit, the mountain was “out” for 4 of our 5 days, so far, in the park.  The result has been a fantastic array of photos from many angles and perspectives:


There is only one road into the park. Private vehicles can only drive the first 15 miles. So most visitors hop on buses at the entrance and drive out and back 30, 50, or the full 99 miles. It is a true safari ride, as the buses stop for every animal sighting. We saw grizzlies, moose, dahl  sheep, caribou, and golden eagles on the way in. More fortunate visitors may see wolves. The ride is a slow process. But if one is fortunate and affluent, there are four lodges at the end of the road. This way, we can bus in, stay the night, go on nature hikes for a couple days, and bus back out on an early morning. The hikes and experiences have been fantastic. These private – property lodges are here because they date back to the early mining claims before the park was established. The mines are mainly closed down, but the legends remain.


One legend was Fanny Quigley. She was born into a Czech family In Nebraska and spoke no English until deciding to head off north  She learned the language from the workers on the railroad lines in the 1870s, complete with colorful metaphors. Fanny kept traveling north, and sustained herself by cooking for settlers from her dog team sled…She was the first meal delivery service. She made her way through the Yukon and married a miner. Together they filed a series of claims in Denali. Her husband worked the claims and Fanny did everything else. She fed the miners, cut the firewood, and kept the books. Fanny hung out in Fairbanks on every New Year’s Eve when annual claim fees had to be paid. If they became delinquent, Fanny bought up their claims.



One story about Fanny had her out on a moose hunt when a storm blew in. She survived by slitting the moose, gutting it, and slipping inside to weather out the storm. Not to be outdone, Fanny reportedly had the same thing happen after a grizzly hunt. She survived that by skinning the beast  and draping herself in its hide. Her dogs were not very happy with her scent for the next month or so.

We were privileged to hear Fanny’s recipe for Blueberry Pie. It starts out with cutting a few trees for firewood, mushing the dogs 200 miles round trip for baking provisions, picking bushels of blueberries, and killing a bear in order to fire up fat for lard. Then the cooking actually begins. When the pies were finished, she stored them in her permafrost cellar. Fanny divorced her two-timing husband and lived by herself at the end of the road, in a cabin built specially for her 4’9” height by the mining company that bought her claims. A life and legend well lived.

Tomorrow we leave this paradise and travel south toward the wildfires and resulting smoke of Southern Alaska  But tonight, one more Alaska Amber ( or more) before the bus back through Grizzly Country in the morning.


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