Monday, June 4, 2007

Arriving in Denali

OK, so. Denali isn't exactly next door to Anchorage.

We woke up early and were piled into the bus for a two hour trip. Not to Denali. To Talkeetna.

In Talkeetna, we caught a train to Denali. That was about four hours long. (We could've taken the train all the way from Anchorage, but the bus is slower than the train, so the whole process would have taken eight hours, rather than six.)

In the train, we rode an old-fashioned train car. It was a double-decker car. Our group of about 30 people had it all to ourselves. We had comfy seats in the top level (and there were plenty of emply seats so we could move around) and there was a dining area below. (And bathrooms, although I declined to visit them.)

While in the rail car, I heard a repeated chiming, like from a watch alarm. I looked around but could not find the offending watch. I looked at my watch. It was 2:00 p.m. I mention this because this was the second time a watch had gone off in this group around 2:00, and just rang itself out, and I was getting a little peeved about it.

A moment about the ownership of the train car. The Alaska Railroad is mainly for freight. (Indeed, the passenger trains have to pull over and wait so that the freight trains can run on time.) Rather than putting boatloads (literally) of passengers on the train, the major cruise lines own their own train cars, which they then (for a fee) attach to the Alaska Railroad trains. Cruise West is a pretty small cruise line, so it hires a vacant car from one of the other lines. We were in a Holland America car.

When we got to Denali, we stayed at the Princess Wilderness Lodge. It wasn't Princess as is "daughter of the King" -- it was Princess as in Princess Cruises. The Princess Lodge, I was told, is the biggest hotel in Alaska, which gives you some idea of the amount of ships Princess operates in Alaska. Most folks in the Lodge were from Princess cruises. As with the train, Cruise West came along for the ride.

How to explain the Princess Wildreness Lodge. Imagine a Disney wilderness-themed hotel. Buildings are not actually made out of logs, but are faced with fake logs to look that way. Many gift shops. Many restaurants (all carrying on the Wilderness Lodge theme). One "dinner theatre" with a tacky musical production (requiring singing and clapping along.). The only difference between the Princess Lodge and a Disney Wilderness Lodge is that the Princess Lodge actually has real wilderness right outside the windows. Well, that and that Disney does it better. And that nobody wants to buy a t-shirt with the Princess logo on it. But, other than that, just the fact that it was set in real wildnerness. Photo from the front of my room to be attached, if I ever get internet access again.

(See, I was told there was free wi-fi in the hotel lobby. Brought my laptop into the lobby and easily connected to the "Netgear" network. Except the web page I kept getting was the front page of the internet service from the Anchorage Hotel which had wanted my $10. Apparently, once you hit that page, it sorta takes over your computer and diverts you there from any other webpage you might want to visit, even if you're on a free wireless network. Annoying. I deleted all old files (and cookies) from IE. I restarted. Now, it wouldn't go to the Anchorage page, but it wouldn't give me any websites either. It said I was connected to the network, but I was getting nothing. I messed around with this for about an hour, then did a whole system restore to sometime back in May. Now, when I restarted, it again hooked me up to the Netgear network, but this time it told me Netgear had "limited or no connectivity." Argh. I gave up, waited in line, and used the free-ten-minutes-to-check-email computers they had hooked up.)

So, where was I? Oh, Denali.

OK, this is a huge bit of advice for anyone using Cruise West to go to Denali. I'm talkin' super-mega-life-changing sort of huge. Cruise West gives you one full day in Denali. During this time, they give you a choice of two free bus tours of the Denali National Park. One is five hours long; the other is eight. Now, here's what they don't tell you: If you take the eight hour tour, you can do one optional excursion, but if you take the five your tour, you can do two. Cruise West will automatically book you on the eight-hour tour. And, by the time they tell you this extra-excursion-possible-if-you-take-the-five-hour-tour tidbit of information, it is too late to switch tours.

The fact that they don't share this with you until the morning you're actually travelling to Denali is made slightly less bad by the fact that you are also told (for the first time) that if you really, really want to, you can fit in a second excursion on the evening you arrive in Denali. But you'll miss the (included) talk by a Denali expert. And (most likely) the included dinner, too.

Mom and I were the only people who opted for a tour the night we arrived. There was a flight trip that circled the summit of Mt. McKinley (aka Denali). That's, like, 20,000 feet. Tallest peak from bottom to top in the world (i.e. other mountains are higher, but they start from a higher point). Tallest peak in North America with no qualifications. In big honking mountain range (the Alaska Range). So big in generates its own weather. What I'm trying to say here is: big mountain; we wanted to fly around it.

So, the train gets to Denali Station and everyone else gets on their busses to go to the Princess Lodge and me and my mom are whisked (really, a Cruise West guy came up the train and said he was there to "whisk us away") to another city where they have a small airstrip (and, y'know, planes).

We just barely get there in time. In fact, we're there so near take-off, they don't even have us sign waivers. We just hop right on the plane.

The pre-flight talk is a little different from most pre-flight talks. In that, since the cabin is not pressurized, and since we'll be going to, like, 20,000 feet, we will have to use oxygen. He has us all unwrap our shiny new oxygen masks and makes sure we all know where to plug them in and start the oxygen flowing when the time comes. We also are alotted little Capri Sun juice bags, to drink to help equalize the pressure on the descent.

OK, we're off. We're flying over lower mountains in the Alaska Range and shooting pictures like there's no tomorrow. Andre, our pilot, is pointing out sights. We can see Denali in the distance and look forward to circling the summit of that puppy.

Remember where I said Denali makes its own weather? It proceeded to do so -- bringing clouds in over the summit. Andre decides it isn't safe to come at it from the North, so we'll cruise around to the South side of the range and see if he can't find a way in that way. Meantime, we're over 11,000 feet. I know this because that series of little dots on the mountain is the 11,000-foot camp for hikers.

I don't exactly feel queasy enough to grab my barf bag (a plastic hefty bag, called "a Denali parachute" by Andre), but something is not right. If I'm looking out the window and decide to transfer my gaxe inside to plane, my eyes take too long to refocus on the point inside the plane. I keep breathing slowly and reminding myself thatI do not get motion-sickness, but I start really hoping that we'd get higher soon so that Andre will turn on the oxygen. I'm thinking some nice clean oxygen would be mighty tasty just now, as I randomly speculate that perhaps I'm someone a little more susceptible to altitude sickness than other people.

It does not dawn on me to push the little button on my headphones and actually mention this to Andre. He seemed like a nice guy; I'm sure he would've hooked me up.

But he's busy with things like flying the plane. And I'm busy taking pictures of deep dark mountains devoid of vegetation (we are way above the tree line, here) lightly dusted with snow. They remind me of a big chocolate dessert with powdered sugar on it. (When we landed, my mom would admit having the exact same thought.)

Bad news -- no getting to Denali from the South either. We'll continue "flight-seeing" over the Alaska range, but we won't go any higher so won't need our oxygen (damn). I make with the controlled slow, calm breathing, and keep snapping pictures. Pretty much until we land.

We are then not-quite whisked to our hotel, where we are met by the Cruise West rep and most-definitely whisked to the meeting room. We had missed the presentation, but not the dinner, so we chow down. Then, off to bed (after my vain struggle to get internet access) as we've got an eight-hour Denali National Park tour starting at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.

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