"yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him." I Cor. 8:6

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Last Frontier: Day 3

Mission for the day: FIND SOME ANIMALS!!! Jason and I joke that the "amazing wildlife" that Alaska boasts about is just a ploy to lure tourists. We can't believe we haven't seen a single creature (besides the insane amount of mosquitos....who knew??) But, certainly, today will be the day. We start off by taking an ATV through the upper portion of Denali Park. We actually drive around the part of the park where Christopher McCandless spent most of his time and eventually died (for those of you who haven't read and/or seen Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless was a college grad who sold all of his possessions and decided to "live off the land" of Alaska. He survived only a few months and was eventually poisoned and paralyzed by a plant he ate. It's an interesting story and definitely a good read...I never saw the movie, so I can't really speak for that.) Anyway, back to the ATV.... we drive around for about 10 minutes and then pull over to take pictures and, more importantly, get out the binoculars to find us some animals!!

                                             Cool hats, I know

Jason's looking through the binoculars and he swears he sees a moose. Now, he's been trained nearly his whole life to spot wildlife from far away so I don't doubt that he saw one. He passes me the binoculars and casually tells me to look "over there..past the tree"...like there aren't a thousand trees?? How in the world am I supposed to know which one he's talking about?!? Anyway, after about 5 minutes of back and forth between us ('oh, you mean over there?' 'No, over there!') I finally convince myself I've found the moose. Looking back, I'm pretty sure I was just staring at a tree stump. Needless to say, I don't really count this as an animal sighting. And unfortunately, that was as close to an animal as we got on the ATV. Jason did decide to climb a big mountain of natural sand and gravel, so that was fun :-)

Fortunately, Jason and I have the rest of the day to hike in Denali and really get into the wilderness. The interesting thing about the park is that there are buses that run up and down a 15 mile road (the only road in the entire park) and at any point you can ask the bus to stop and just get off to camp or hike. It seems a little odd for as large of a park as Denali is (more than 6 million acres) to just drop someone off and leave them. Apparently, quite a few people do it but Jason and I decide to go the safe route and actually stay on a trail. We hike up Mount Heely for about 30 minutes and finally get to a clearing with a beautiful view. We sit down for a bit and rest because at this point, we're pretty tired. It is so quiet and peaceful...we haven't seen a single person the whole time we've been hiking and it's nice to enjoy a quiet that I rarely get to experience. 

As we're taking in the scenery, Jason and I are trying to figure out whether this is the end of the trail. It's certainly not the top of the mountain, but there's no signage anywhere to indicate whether the trail goes further or not. We're leaning towards just going back down the mountain and to the hotel when we hear a rustling in the woods. Could this be it? Our long-awaited animal sighting? We stand still and wait as the noise gets closer. Finally, we come face to face with....an elderly couple. Something that we had already seen plenty of on this trip. We say our 'hellos' and come to find out they are on their way down from the very top of the mountain. They carry on about the beautiful view of Mt. McKinley and how it's only another 30 minutes to the top. Not to be outdone by an elderly couple, Jason has already slung on his backpack and headed up the mountain. And I'm so glad he did...the views from the top were even more beautiful then what we had already seen. 

                                         A view of Mt. McKinley, about 120 miles away

 And you know what? We finally spotted an animal! This guy:

Alright, so not exactly what I had in mind but whatever. I'll take what I can get. On our way down the trail, we take this video of Jason walking on the ground. It's the craziest thing I've seen and it's due to the permafrost being partially melted underneath the ground. Kind of freaked me out a bit walking on it.

Back at the hotel, Jason and I eat dinner at a seafood joint across the street. And would you believe I actually ordered halibut for dinner? Those that know me well know that this is a big deal. And I liked it. Major breakthrough here, folks.

On the agenda tomorrow: 8 hour train ride from Denali to Anchorage

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Last Frontier: Day 2

Jason and I have to wake up super early this morning to catch the shuttle over to the Alaska Railroad Depot. We'll be boarding a train at 8:00 am and riding it for 4 hours over to Denali National Park. The first couple of hours or so on the train are pretty uneventful...not a whole lot to see but a bunch of trees on either side. There was supposedly a moose next to the train at one point, but by the time I was looking in the right direction it had already taken off into the woods.

About 30 minutes away from Denali the landscaping changes drastically. All of a sudden we are in the mountains and near the Nunana River.

Once our train arrives in Denali, Jason and I quickly realize we are in the minority in a couple of ways. 1) We didn't travel to Alaska via a cruise and 2) We are not members of the AARP. I kid, but seriously, up to this point in our trip we have not seen another couple even remotely near our age.

We catch a shuttle over to our hotel, check in, unload our bags and get ready to get on a helicopter to Yanert Glacier. After yesterday's little "incident" aboard the paper airplane, I'm a little apprehensive about how my stomach will handle the helicopter. Thanks to a miracle patch given to me by a fellow nausea-prone tourist, I don't feel a thing on that helicopter and I'm able to enjoy the amazing landscaping around me.

We get out of the helicopter on top of the glacier and walk around a bit. It was so beautiful and overwhelming...and then we come upon a couple of pools of water with the bluest hue you could imagine. I've never seen water so blue. Amazing.


I could stay up on the glacier forever. It's so beautiful and by far my favorite spot on the trip up to this point. Soon the pilot tells us it's time to go and Jason and I reluctantly board the helicopter. He takes a different route back to Denali, weaving in and out of the mountains, up and down the peaks, and all the while I'm saying a prayer of thankfulness for the friendly tourist and her miracle patch.

So far, the wildlife in Alaska has proven to be sparse. Aside from the disappearing moose on the train ride, the only animals Jason and I see are some dall sheep from the helicopter. I don't really count them...they look like cookie crumbs from where we are. But we are not going to panic yet. We still have an ATV tour tomorrow morning and in the afternoon we are planning to go hiking in the middle of Denali National Park. We're bound to see something there, right??

**A funny side note: We arrive back at our hotel after the helicopter tour around 6 pm. Jason and I are exhausted so we decide to set the alarm for 8 pm and take a little snooze before dinner. We must have been more tired then we thought because that alarm went off and had nothing on us. I don't know who turned it off but what I do know is that I wake up and the clock says 10:30 pm. Jason and I are still completely clothed, down to our shoes, ready to go to dinner. I wish that I had the next 10 or 15 minutes on video because it was a flurry of disorganized conversation and actions. I nudge Jason, tell him it's 10:30, and he says should we go to dinner? I inform him that I doubt any restaurants are open and we should just go to bed. At that point, I realize I have my shoes on and make the decision to change clothes. My brain is seriously confused (I suppose because it's 10:30 and bright outside) and I think it's already the next day. So, naturally, I start putting on my clothes that I have planned to wear for the following day's activities. About half way through I realize I should, in fact, be putting on my jammies instead. I manage to do this, quickly get back in bed, and don't wake up until 8 am the next morning. We must have been tired :-)

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Last Frontier: Day 1

I roll over in bed and see that the bright daylight is peeking through the curtains. I'm wide awake and feel like I have slept for a good 10 hours. Ahhhh. 10 hours of uninterupted sleep and waking up when my body is ready to....not when other little munchkin bodies are ready for me to :-) I take a look at the clock thinking I should get up soon so that I can catch breakfast downstairs before it's over. That's when I realize.....it's 5 am. 5 am?!? Breakfast hasn't even started yet. I've only gotten 6 hours of sleep and as much as I try to convince my body that it's too early to wake up, it's just not happening. Adjusting to the time change here is hard....

Jason and I had just finished eating our breakfast when we called the taxi to hitch a ride. What, you ask, was our first destination on this most exciting trip in a land so beautiful? This place:

See what I mean about unexpected? Visiting the Fairbanks Wally World was definitely not on the "to-do" list, but we needed to get some essentials for Jason that got lost along with his luggage on the way here. We could have let this whole situation really get us down, upset, frustrated, whatever. But when those thoughts and feelings would trickle into our hearts, we remembered that we had so much to be grateful for and that God is in control of every situation (even something as seemingly silly as lost luggage!)

We arrive back at the hotel, grab a quick lunch, and head over to the Fairbanks airport to catch a flight to the Arctic Circle. We get assigned to an 8 passenger plane that I'm pretty sure is no sturdier than a paper airplane on a windy day.

I mean, the thing is tiny. But in we climb and, fortunately, the pilot had asked that Jason and I sit in the first row directly behind him. I convince myself that it will benefit me to be able to see directly out the front of the airplane windshield. Before I know it, our headsets are on, we've taken off and we're up in the air. The views were absolutely breathtaking. I cannot do it justice. I look around and we are surrounded by hills and mountains as far as the eye can go. All of it completely uninhabitated except for the wildlife that calls it home. You just cannot believe how much land it is until you see it in the air.

We were also able to see the Trans-Atlantic Pipeline, the Yukon River Valley, The Brooks Mountain Range and a whole lot more (more pics to come later). The most anticipated part of the flight, though, was entering into the Arctic Circle. The pilot tells us that we're about 10 minutes away from entering the Arctic Circle, which is at 66 degrees, 33 minutes latitude. He even suggests we take a picture of his GPS at the exact moment we enter to show the latitude measurement, which I thought was a cool idea. Or at least I would have thought it was a cool idea....had my head not been buried in the "air-sickness bag".

I did okay for the first 30 minutes or so of the flight, then I felt it coming on. I did everything I could to keep from getting sick; I fanned myself for air, I took off my scarf, I found a focal point outside the plane. Nothing worked. And wouldn't you know? The pilot is showing everyone his GPS, we're inches away from the Arctic Circle line, he says "And we're now in the..." and I didn't hear the rest. The timing was impeccable. As soon as the words "Arctic Circle" came out of the pilot's mouth was the exact moment that I gave in to the air-sickness. And wouldn't you know? At that exact moment, everyone else on the plane had their cameras aimed at the front of the plane (where I'm sitting) to take a picture of the plane's GPS. I'm fairly certain some of those poor people inadvertently captured me in a very vulnerable moment.

About 20 minutes later we land in Coldfoot, Alaska. After apologizing profusely to the other passengers, I stumble off the plane with so much thankfullness in my heart for good, solid ground to stand on. Our pilot was so gracious and understanding and assures me the flight back will be smoother. Oh yeah...hadn't really given much thought to the fact that I have to do that all over again.

In Coldfoot, Jason and I are quickly greeted by Nicolae who will be taking us to a tiny community that is literally in the middle of the wilderness. Nicolae is from Russia but has been living in Alaska for many years now, so he has this kind of funny Russian-Canadian accent. I liked listening to him talk and boy, did he talk. He gave Jason and I so much information that I think I'm still digesting it all.

He drove us up to Wiseman, Alaska...population 13. And quite honestly, this was my favorite part of the day. We met a man named Jack who lives in Wiseman year round. In fact, all 13 people in Wiseman stay there year round, which is remarkable considering it can get to -50 degrees in the winter. He showed us a moose he shot last year that would be his family's meat for the remainder of the year. He told us how he has to cut down firewood all year because that's the only way to heat his home in the winter. No gas. No electricity. No plumbing. This may sound really naive, but I just did not realize that people still lived like that.

We walk around the community for another hour or so before we start heading back to the van. We seem to be wrapping up, saying goodbyes, etc. when out comes this man from one of the cabins nearby. His name is Clutch and he is a real-life, genuine gold miner. He's lived in Wiseman for many years and he had some stories to tell. We say hello, nice to meet you and then he shows Nicolae and Jack a large load of dirt he purchased in hopes of finding some gold. I mean, this guy is for real. All he does is pan for gold. All day long. Then he looks at Jason and I and asks if we know how to pan for gold. We politely explain No, we're from Texas and that's just not something we do everyday :-) He smiles, then asks, you want to learn? Clearly, this was not part of the tour but since Jason and I were the only ones, Nicolae gives us a nod and says we have time.

This is Clutch :-)
Sadly, no gold was found. But it was fun and interesting to learn from a real prospector. Afterwards, we drove back to Coldfoot to catch our plane ride to Fairbanks. The flight was definitely a lot smoother and I at least got to see us leave the Arctic Circle this time.
On the agenda tomorrow: Train ride to Denali; helicopter ride to Yanert Glacier