MOUNTAINS, GRIZZLIES AND MAGIC, the "Real Alaska" Part 1, Guest Post by Nora Gould

Denali National Park, Alaska
My friend Nora and her husband Frank went on a memorable trip to Alaska in August, 1996. Nora recalled the trip in a recent essay she wrote for Kendalights, a literary magazine published by the retirement community where she lives in New Hampshire. She has graciously given me permission to reprint it for readers of The Intrepid Tourist. Nora and Frank's trip brought back memories of a similar trip to Alaska that Art and I took in 2002. Unfortunately, the photos of Nora's trip were lost when her computer crashed. I have used a few of our photos as a substitute to illustrate her report.
My husband Frank loves to travel and spends a lot of time designing the perfect trips for us. In 1996 both of us were still working, Frank as an orthodontist, I as a school principal. We had arranged for a two-week vacation as Frank planned our trip to Alaska.
On August 1st, Frank suggested that I pack warm clothes and hiking boots. “Won’t I need a few dresses for dinner on the boat?” I asked. “No, no boat. I’ve designed a different trip. We’re going to see the real Alaska,” he said.
I always thought the perfect vacation involved sand and warm weather. Ideally, the sand would be on the coast of New Jersey, and there would be excellent restaurants within walking distance of our shore-front house. Not this time.
Denali. Susan Butcher was the first musher to summit Denali (Mount McKinley) with her dogsled.
We fly to Fairbanks. It feels like a frontier town, a working guys’ town. We spend the night in a modest motel. The next morning Frank leads me to the Chena River where we board a paddle steamer. There are lots of tourists on board. We paddle and steam along the river noting the dense woods on either side. Suddenly eight dogs emerge from the woods, pulling a sled. A young woman is driving. Her name is Susan Butcher. She tells us that she has raced with her dog team in the 1,150-mile Iditarod and won four times. Susan talks about her training methods with her dogs, which are year-long. Susan and her husband train dogs at their kennel, Trail Breakers, near Fairbanks. She is gracious and answers all the questions asked by the passengers. A few years after this, I read her obituary in the New York Times. She had died of leukemia at age 51 after a heroic battle.
Entrance to Denali National Park. Private cars are not allowed inside the park. The only way to see the park is on an organized bus tour.
The paddle boat cruises back to Fairbanks. We board a train the following morning. Frank recommends that I wear my hiking boots for the two-hour ride on the Alaska Railroad. We arrive at a small station and find buses waiting for us. Frank points me and my suitcase to the bus that says North Face Lodge. As we board, the driver says, “We’ll be traveling 98 miles into the park to the lodge. That is farther than any of the other buses go.
On the bus to North Face Lodge
North Face Lodge is very old and has the only sleeping accommodations in the park. It has 15 rooms and no plan to expand.[Note: Since 1996 North Face Lodge has expanded to a second site but it is still small.] The lodge is full. There are four industrialist and their wives from Milan, Italy. There are serious photographers and other couples who like adventure.
Blueberries and small plants are typical of the tundra
After lunch we break up into groups for hiking. Frank opts for a long, challenging hike. I choose the least strenuous over the tundra. It is springy underfoot because it rests on permafrost. The vegetation is composed of dwarf shrubs, sedges, grasses, mosses, lichens and rare trees. You never go out without a guide. There are 350 grizzly bears in the park. The wolf population is smaller, only 100. Earlier, from the bus window, we saw a bear crossing the road. On my leisurely walk we see only a badger. His size surprises me—he’s bigger than I expected.

Hiking in Denali
The next day we choose to stay together on a five-mile hike through the park with a guide. About twelve people are in our group. The Italian wives all have very chic hiking outfits. My outfit might be described as utilitarian. Our hike takes us to the Nenana River. It has creamy-colored water because its source is the Nenana Glacier. We take off our boots and socks and run across this frigid river. As we are hiking down toward the lodge, Frank and the guide spot a large, male grizzly heading in our direction.
Grizzly bear
The guide says, “Okay now, I want you all to stand as close together as you can. We need to look formidable to the grizzly.” We follow his directions immediately. The large, brown grizzly is known to the guide. He is about 100 yards from us, running fast, as though on a mission. He has no interest in us.
The lodge, the people, and the guided hikes are so interesting that we choose to stay a few more nights. One thing we have not seen, due to fog and mist, is Denali, at 20,310 feet, the highest mountain in North America. The next day I hear excited voices outside. “Guarda! Guarda! C’e la montagna!”
Denali viewed from Mirror Lake
I go out in the courtyard to see what is happening. The Italians point toward the mountain. The fog has lifted, and we now see the majestic mountain. It is so near to us that it takes my breath away. We are all laughing and congratulating one another.
A flight around Denali
That evening Frank takes a flight in a small plane around the top of the mountain. I choose not to fly. My brother, who is a Navy pilot, has warned me off small planes and high mountains.
Early in the morning of the fifth day we leave North Face Lodge. The bus has not gone far before we stop—the road is blocked by a mama grizzly and her two cubs. She stands on her hind legs and watches the bus and us. She must be eight feet tall. After a few minutes she signals to the cubs, and they go off into a nearby field where we see caribou grazing.
 This is what Frank meant by the “real Alaska” I think to myself.

Look for the second half of Nora's report next week.

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