August 28, 2021
A few days before we left Fairbanks, we received news that our tour in Denali National Park would be shortened by half, due to an increase in landslide activity. And then, yesterday, even more unpredictably, our tour would get even shorter.
Denali National Park is over six million acres. It was created in 1917 to protect the Dall Sheep from over-hunting. There is essentially one dead-end road through the park, which runs 94 miles from the park entrance west to Kantishna. With very few exceptions, personal vehicles are not allowed to travel this road beyond the first 15 miles or so (and then only with a permit). Tour buses and transit buses take visitors the entire distance; the transit buses haul campers and hikers to various drop-off points, while the tour buses include a naturalist who narrates along the route.
Well, normally the buses run the entire route, and that’s what we intended to do when we booked the tour several weeks ago. However, three days before we arrived, the road was shut down at Mile 42 due to increased landslide activity. There has been landslide activity at this point in the road since the 1960s, but the rate of the movement has increased dramatically in the last year. The slide runs under the roadbed, and it used to cause cracks in the road surface that needed repair every two to three years. In 2018 the road began to slump a half an inch per day. This year, the landslide began moving downhill at ten inches per day, and the road slumped three and a half inches per day. The park had to close the road because they haven’t been able to find a solution to keep up with the slide.
With this in mind, we left Fairbanks — in nice, dry weather finally — and arrived at our cabin on Carlo Creek, about fifteen miles south of the park entrance, with the understanding that we would basically be doing the first half of the bus tour, out and back. That was Thursday. Friday was a day off for us, and we used it to do some basic maintenance items.
We decided to retire early Friday evening, as we had to ride back up to the park entrance early on Saturday morning in order to make our 7:30am tour. About 8pm, I looked out the window at the bike. It was snowing. In August. And it continued to snow for several hours.
Fortunately, it let up in the middle of the night, and the temperature stayed just above freezing. When we left for Denali this morning, the view was totally different than when we rode in on Thursday.
We arrived at the bus depot at the park and stowed our gear (we wore most of our gear on the bus, just to stay warm). After the bus departed, our driver/naturalist, Brian, advised us that the road was icy and in bad shape beyond Mile 30, and we might not be able to go beyond that. We were the fourth bus on the road this morning. The scenery was definitely spectacular, especially due to all the snow, and not at all what we had expected.
Just as predicted, at the Mile 30 stop, the dispatcher came on the radio and advised that all buses would be turned around at Mile 30. So our 94 mile tour had dropped to 30 miles. We were disappointed, but still happy to have seen the amazing wilderness.
On our way back to the cabin, we stopped for lunch at Creekside Cafe and Bakery, and had a good laugh. A gentleman was buying cinnamon rolls, and the server asked him what size he wanted, “Alaska” or “Texas”. I almost spit my coffee out. That’s how Alaskans refer to “Large” and “Small”. It wasn’t the first time in the past couple of weeks that we’d been told “Oh, you’re from the second biggest state.” But it was the funniest version.
And then there’s this:
We are headed south again tomorrow morning, closer to what people here keep telling us is “the Alaska you always see in the brochures”.