The gang goes North: Part 4- Old Denali Highway and Talkeetna

July 3-5

“Get off my dog!” Jamie yelled at the mosquitoes.

Ever since entering the Yukon several day prior, mosquitoes had been our unwelcome company. These ones were unlike any we’d encountered before. I was describing them to my dad over the phone as, “it’s like they have a lieutenant and they get their mission and fully commit to it. They’re not haphazardly flying and maybe biting. It feels like a coordinated attack, and when they get you, you can visibly see their bodies swelling red with blood.”

We left Delta Junction that morning, happy to start our Alaska adventure. Jamie and I decided that it was the worst of the campgrounds we’d stayed at. Unkempt, overgrown, ragged. Situated a stones throw from a helicopter-field for wildfire management. We were treated to the whooshing of heli-blades for a good portion of the night.

The old Denali Highway is exactly that: the original approach route to Denali National Park and its surrounding wilderness. But first, we rode the Richardson Highway southbound to catch the old Denali highway in Paxson. We passed stretches of wide, rubble filled drainage areas, with grey serpentine rivers meandering through the massive glacial valley floors. So much water. The Alaska Range came into view as we ascended into the tundra of the Old Denali Highway, furthermore known as the 8.

The tundra seemed to stretch forever in the highlands. It ran into its end at the Alaska Range- massive heaps of rock that rose from the landscape as if god had disturbed the blanket flatness of the earth with a pinch and a pull.

The 8 stretches 135 miles, from Paxson to Cantwell, along almost entirely dirt path. Archie would need a good bath when we were through with the 8.

We stopped at Tangle Lakes Recreation Area, about 20 miles into the 8, for a short hike and lunch. Being July 4th weekend, the 8 was teeming with patriots getting out and celebrating our great nation. And everyone, EVERYONE, had a side-by-side or 4 wheeler they were towing, along with trailer, motorhome, cab-over, you name it. Off-road tracks run in all directions off the 8, and most are used as hunting trails come fall, when caribou and moose make their way onto the menu. 

We crested Maclaren Pass, the highest point along the 8, and descended into another trough. Heavy green shrubbery coated the hillsides and valley, glimmering kettle ponds dotted the floor. Streams ran like nature’s veins through it all.

We spotted a mother and baby moose from high on a perch overlooking another valley before descending into. They worked into a slow trot and disappeared into the thick tangle of pines far beneath us. Dang, maybe next time.

All along the 8, there are innumerable pullouts to set up camp. On the weekend of Independence Day, it was bit more congested, but still quite easy to find a decent spot. We scoped out a large gravel pullout around mile 88 of 135, enough to fit 8-10 full size RV rigs. It was half full. We considered it, then Lisa, with a big wave of her arm, corralled us in.

Lisa and Kim were old friends, and biking the 8 to prepare for some upcoming long-distance treks. Both from Anchorage, they were full of knowledge of nature and culture in Alaska. They explained that Caribou had changed their migration route, as the lichens haven’t been as plentiful of late in the Denali highway corridor.

They shared their tips on bug-control, and how to best navigate the ins and outs of our upcoming ferry trip back to Washington in August. I asked Lisa how long they’d be up on the 8.

“Heading back today, going to finish the Denali highway today and make it home for supper is the plan. Got a sea-kayak trip in 2 days I’ve gotta get ready for.”

“Holy cow, you don’t stop, do you?”

“It’s Alaska. Go hard in the summer, you know?” Lisa replied.

That evening, Lisa assured us that the storm we saw behind us would stay to the south. It did. Another cell came up through southeastern gap in the mountains, and it looked a bit more troubling. Jamie and I prepped camp for the impending rain and wind (we decided against initially setting up the awning, for this exact reason) and climbed in the Nest.

We watched the storm gather energy as it rolled through the lowlands before us. The Alaska Range was north of us, across the wide flat valley. Then a rainbow appeared at the storm’s head, seeming to guide the storm along through the valley. Then another rainbow joined it. We watched through the tent windows as long as we could, til the rain drops pattered hard on the roof. A beautiful, wet, windy, wonderful night.

The following morning we breakfasted lightly on yogurt and oatmeal with mugs of coffee. Lisa and Kim were taking their breakfast as well. I sat on the tent’s ladder, a few rungs up, to get a good sightline of the valley below, over the shrubs that lined the pullout. Two moose (meese?) strolled out from their place of cover and into a pond below us, for a morning soak. Likely to get the pesky skeeters off them. I alerted our friendly neighbors, and we all took a moment to enjoy nature’s theatre, arriving organically at our camp’s doortstep.

It was Sunday July 4th, and most folks were packing up their camping rigs and heading home. We continued west on the 8 for a bit. I decided to go for a run along the highway. “Meet me down the road a few miles,” I said to Jamie and Charley, and set off.

We got back together near mile marker 105, and continued west to a lake in the Ahtna people’s land. The lake was still, and the bugs were…not bad actually. “Let’s blow up the kayak and float for a little.”

We did just that, watching some really beautiful ducks and swans along the way. Dragonflies hovered the lake, keeping watch for mosquitoes. We were happy to have them around.

After an hour or so, gently paddling around the lake, we pulled the kayak out, deflated and packed it. Again it was westward, to the end of the 8. We reached Cantwell in the early afternoon, and drove 30 minutes north on the Parks highway to Denali National Park.

There isn’t much in the way of hiking trails in Denali NP. Much of the wilderness must be trailblazer and/or bushwhacked. Pretty neat, but with Charley not being allowed in the park, we didn’t stay long. The Park was packed, which made us scratch our heads. If there aren’t any trails, what are all these people doing? A rare few seem to be the type to grab their pack and brave the real wilderness.

We reversed course, heading back south. “Wanna just camp on the 8 again?”

We did. We found a spot, right at mile marker 112, and set up shop. We watched distant storms come and go, had dinner, went for a couple walks along the highway and off-road trails. The highway seemed deserted. Only 2 cars passed in the span of an hour. It was quiet again, after the chaos of the weekend. We turned in early.

July 5 morning. Escape from skeeter city. We woke to dozens of mosquitoes plastered on the screens of the tent. It was decided that we’d pack camp as quickly as possible, skipping breakfast for the time being and try to evade the swarming masses. A tip: these suckers will bite right through your clothes. Wear rain gear, top and bottom if possible, when they’re real bad.

We made breakfast at the same lake we’d floated in the day before. It was a bit better. Then it was west again to the Parks Highway. This time we headed south to Talkeetna. It was smoky- wildfire haze had arrived in the night, and we seemed to draw nearer to it as we rode the Parks highway southbound. We’re not going to see Denali today, we told ourselves, and each other.

Denali is incredibly good at hiding, considering how massive it is. At over 20,000 feet above sea level, it’s the highest peak in North America. But people say that its far more likely it’ll be shrouded in clouds than clear and within view.

We pulled up to a lookout along the Parks highway, and Jamie got out to see if it was worth hanging around at.

“It’s out. Denali’s out, and it’s awesome.”

I grabbed the camera, all three lenses, the binoculars. Through the haze, there she was. Looming in the distance, 40+ miles away, it rose far above the other peaks of the Alaska range. We stayed for a bit, not knowing if we’d ever see it again- it could cloud over rapidly and be gone from sight the rest of our time.

We continued south. Talkeetna is situated at the confluence of three rivers, and is a lovely, crunchy little town with a mixture of hippie and hard-work blue collar feels. We loved it. The town center is small, one road really, a couple blocks long. We walked the road, down to the riverside path, where again Denali stood watching. We watched back for a bit, before grabbing a beer at the historic Fairview Inn ad heading to our AirBnB. It marked three weeks on the road for us, and also 3 weeks straight of camping and car-living. Jamie had booked an off-the-grid cabin in Talkeetna for the night, and we settled in to our cozy spot briefly before going back into town. Charley would be sitting the next activity out.

Jamie booked a flight seeing tour with K2 Aviation in town. We’d be setting out from Talkeetna in a fire-engine red prop plane to see the Alaska Range from above. It exceeded all expectations. Phil took us up from about 400 feet above sea-level at Talkeetna and into the thick of the mountains. From rivers-filled glacial valleys littered with brilliantly contrasted ponds and marshes, to rocky moraines of glacial outflow, to craggy, sheer, majestic slabs of snow covered peaks and collection areas, our jaws continued to drop further. My soul couldn’t help but smile.

Phil landed us on a glacier. The Pika glacier, to be precise, named after the cute rodents of the rocky mountainous debris. We deplaned, walked around the glacier for 15 minutes or so. I tasted the snow. “I wouldn’t eat too much of that. Plenty of bacteria live in glacial flow, and our planes land here quite a bit, probably leave some oil residue.”

I spit out the snow.

We took photos, videos. Phil stopped us all at one point. “Let’s all just be still for a moment. No phones, cameras.”

Silence filled the glacial basin we stood in. Nothing but a soft breeze stirred. I was glad he said that.

We loaded back up, zagging through passes of high peaks along the way. We took in Ruth Glacier, 4000 feet thick at its most impressive. A chasm larger than the Grand Canyon, were it not filled with an ice river.

Touching down back in Talkeetna 30 minutes later, we were still floating. What an incredible experience. Jamie and I agreed that it surpassed out float plane we took out of Lake Washington to Mt Rainier last July.

We debriefed over drinks and bar food at Denali Brewpub.

We returned to our dog and cabin later that evening, bellies and souls full.

Next up: Hatcher Pass and beyond.

2 thoughts on “The gang goes North: Part 4- Old Denali Highway and Talkeetna

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