ALASKA - THE LAST FRONTIER

PART 1

I guess the story starts at Heathrow airport eating an overpriced burger that resembles Satan’s arse. I suddenly had that strange feeling that I was missing something.

Oh god no, not my passport, panic followed as I get up and shot off around the airport and in Guy’s words, It was like watching Benny Hill waddling between the shops. I eventually find my passport at in HMV where I had been buying a screen cover for my brand new iPhone.

8 hours later and we touched down in Minneapolis, and yet again I another bizarre exchange with an immigration official.
“Where are you going?” He said as he was busy sifting through my immigration form and passport
“Alaska, Sir” in a very well to-do posh British accent.
“Alaska?” He stops and looks up at me.
“What are you doing up there? You know they have bears up there, right?”
I laughed, “So everyone keeps telling me, i’m going hiking.” At this point i’m never to sure if I should become buddy’s with these guardians of the stars and stripes.
“You know, a lot of people go missing in Alaska and are never found.”
“Oh, right” My smile drops to a concerned look.
He carries on flicking through my passport “Have you seen the film Into the Wild?”
“Yes,” I proudly announce  “It’s one of the reasons why I picked Alaska.”
“Exactly” He carries on slowly “People go missing… make sure you don’t.”
At this point what am I suppose to say? Something like ‘ok, thanks, I’ll try not to die’ But I didn’t, as soon as he handed me his passport I slipped quickly and quietly away. Welcome back to the USA.

The next five hours in the air were, I shall put it bluntly, were hell. No food, one glass of water, no entertainment and squashed into a seat with the least leg room I have ever had on a flight. Crammed in like cattle on the way to Alaska. Are all internal flights like this in the US? I thought flying with Ryan Air was cramped, but it was nothing compared to this. Thanks American Airlines.

On arrival to Anchorage we hailed a taxi straight to our hostel, threw our bags in our room and headed out to the bars, well, it would be rude not to sample the nightlife. The Jagerbomb’s and Alaskan Amber started to flow freely and we were soon introducing ourselves to the locals in our sophisticated Hugh Grant accents. Only to be kidnapped by bunch of wild drunken girls on a bachelorette party, we were not complaining though. The rest of the night was a blur involving dancing to country music in Anchorages main club.

After a healthy American breakfast to sort out the hangover (We forgot how big they make them in America) it was time for some last minute shopping for our trek in Denali National Park.
Guy was still sweating about bear encounters so we had to go hunting high and low for Bear Mace. Yes that’s right, you heard me, they make pepper spray for bears.

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We had an early start the following day as we were catching a train north to Denali National Park. I had been looking forward to this day since I found out about the Alaskan Railroad. Having travelled some of the greatest train journeys in the world this was another one to tick off. Unlike flying I believe travelling on a train is one of the best ways to see the world.

Now i’m clueless and know nothing technical about trains, but I have a passion to travel on them when I can. I always get carried away with the excitement when I see that huge diesel engine rumbling into the station, blasting off its horn to announce its arrival and waking up the whole town.

In the summertime this daily service is mainly made up of tour groups from the docked cruise ships, they even have their own luxury carriage bolted on to the back of ours. Huge groups of hyperactive Americans swarm around the carriages like bees around their hive, making sure they take photos of every angle of the train.

I find my seat and make myself at home by scattering my bags and food around my seat and on the table, creating something of a man nest. We wait patiently for the train to shunt forward as I scan the carriage checking out the other passengers I will be sharing the next 8 hours with. It has a neighborly feel as everyone is chatting to each other, The average age of the carriage is between 50 to 60 years old and the feelings instantly bring back memories of the California Zephyr which I caught from Chicago to San Francisco in 2007.

The Denali Star slowly starts moving and we soon find ourselves crawling passed the Elmendorf Air Force Base and out of Anchorage. The train doesn’t break any records for speed, with it’s top speed of 60mph and in some areas as low as 30mph, but it doesn’t matter, speed isn’t an issue as the 8 hour journey is quite incredible beyond all proportions. Sweeping passed mountain ranges heavily clouded in blazing red and yellow trees, and over bridges that cross wild running rivers, you never know where to look next. Even at this pace, the 175 mile trip to the park seemed to flyby, and soon enough we had arrived on the edge of Denali National Park, wanting even more of this beautiful landscape.

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After pitching our tent we headed over to the back country office to buy our permit which allows us to stay overnight in the park. After picking a zone  and filling out the various safety forms, Guy decides to drop a bomb shell by sheepishly owning up that he couldn’t use a compass or a map. I just shook my head and for the rest of the holiday he was known as GPS Guy.

DDAY, no more campsites, no more hot showers or clean clothes as we were heading in to the wild for 4 days, I’ll try and put Denali in to perspective. At 9,492 mi² the park is bigger than Wales. It has no trails and only a handful of campsites which are dotted along the 91mile road, at the end of the road is the mysteriously named Wonder Lake. The park is home to the largest mountain in North America, Denali, or just simply ‘The Mountain’ as the locals call it.

7am and we board the camper bus to take us the zone we would be camping in for the next few days. We had picked an area called the Polychrome mountains. It was hard to pick an area because we didn’t have a clue on what to expect in the park, so I did what any novice hiker would do, pick a wacky sounding name – Ahhh, yes the Polychrome mountains, That sounds futuristic.

Let me explain the backpacker quoter system, The park is split into over 30 zones. Each zone is well over 50mil², so you have plenty of areas to explore. Each zone can have a maximum of 12 overnight backpackers, the idea is to keep the human impact down to a minimum, and to make the experience feel even more remote.

The green painted ex-school bus was loaded with backpackers & gear, and I wasn’t really surprised to see a full bus of excited people, armed with giant DSLR bodies with large lenses hanging off them. I wondered how many of them would regret bringing such a large heavy camera when hiking in the backcountry.

The road gets even more spectacular the further into the park you go. The beauty of this park I cannot put in to words, I have seen some incredible places in my time but I have never seen such enormous beauty than in Denali. The bus feels microscopic as it slowly snakes around the side of the epic mountain ranges. It takes us at least four hours to reach our drop off point and we’re not even more than half way through the park.

Geared up, GPS on, and Guy with his bear mace attached to his holster like some kind of gun slinging cowboy we set off hiking along a dry river bed. A few miles down the river we find a gully to hike up, and it looks like a fine area to set up camp.

The valley took my breath away, the tundra glowed red and shimmered yellow from the spruce and willow trees that make up the majority of flora in this valley. It looked as if we had stepped into a world size Monet painting.

After food and a game of Starwars Top Trumps it was time to hit the sack. However we had a classic Denali moment, let me divulge. Guy had never taken a poo in the wild before so reluctantly he goes into a brushy area of the tundra to do his business. Time passes, but I didn’t think anything of it. I thought he may have been just admiring the view from his throne, it wasn’t until later he told me that he had managed to somehow crap on his shoelace and he spent most of the time washing it off in the river. He was not amused. Things got even worse when the next morning I woke to find a very grumpy faced Guy as he had no sleep because part of the tent was whipping him in the face during the night.

“I wanna go to a campsite, I heard something sniffing outside the tent” he grumbled at me.

I was trying not to laugh and keep a straight face as he looked very pissed off. I told him to give it another night and see how he feels. After breakfast we headed on to the Tundra which was a big mistake, it was such hard work walking as we would sink into the spongy grass. After two miles we turned back to the gully to see if we could find an easier way round.

Guy perked up once we saw our first moose, I didn’t know they were such big animals. About the same size as a small horse, it scoped us out for a minute before getting bored before heading off into the thick wirie tundra.

After a well deserved break and curry in the bag it was time to follow the stream up the gully and find another spot to camp. At the top of the mountain we came across a bunch of guys from North Dakota. John, Randy, Zimma, & the Doc. They were carrying so much gear with them Inspector Gadget would have been suitably impressed. We set up camp with them and had such a great afternoon hiking up to a ridge which overlooked the whole valley.

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The next day we hiked back down to the road to flag down a bus to take us to Wonder Lake. Being a forgetful idiot that I am, I left my camera and map somewhere on the river bed when we stopped for a quick shot of rum with the guys from North Dakota. Luckily I could back-track using the GPS to find them both, I really shouldn’t be trusted with passports, cameras, or anything important.

Stinking of sweat we boarded a tourist bus full of day trippers. The bus was packed with Asian and European tourists who happily chomped on their Subway Sandwiches in front of us. Unlike the camper bus, this bus takes tourists into the park and for 90% of the people who visit Denali, they only see it from the window of the bus. The driver was a bit odd to say the least, she talked in such a quiet but abrupt manner, like a school librarian who hates children. Every time we stop for a photo or wildlife, people would get excited and start speaking, this disgusted the bus driver.
“Shhh you don’t need to speak, be very still” as her voice piped through the P.A system.
She continued to patronize everyone “Embrace nature, Shhh, you don’t need to speak, just take in the view”.
We had 8 hours of this, as well as quizzes and facts about the park, by the end of the bus ride I was literally going mad. It was a school trip to hell.

I think Guy will agree but the first sight of ‘The Mountain’ was the most breathtaking sight in the world. Standing at a whopping 6,194 m (20,310 feet) this monster is the largest mountain in North America. It’s so large it creates it’s own weather system, causing the clouds to stick to the mountain like glue. The park rangers say you have a 1 in 10 chance to have a clear view of the mountain, so we were very lucky indeed to have such a unforgettable memory.

Wonder Lake seemed a pretty special place, however we only spent a short time there, so we ended up picking blueberries and relaxing around the lake before it was time to catch the last bus out of the park. The bus would take us to the train station to continue our journey north to Fairbanks.

In part 2 of Alaska – The Last Frontier, we would loose our memories, be hunted by cougars, and meet a one eyed man and his moose.

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