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Part Three: Travel In Interior Alaska

To travel in Interior Alaska is to take a journey through an awe inspiring mountain wilderness. The Alaska Range separates the Interior from southcentral Alaska and the gulf coast, with Denali its highest peak at 20,320 feet. Forests and tundra characterise the ecology of the Interior. Immense rivers have forged Alaska’s Interior. The Yukon, its most famous, was one of many rivers to provide exploration routes for the Athabaskan Indians, the earliest human inhabitants, as much as 25,000 years before the gold stampeders followed.

Susitna River and sunset alpenglow over Alaska Range Mountains
Susitna River and sunset alpenglow over Alaska Range Mountains

The modern history of Interior Alaska is one of boom and bust. From the Yukon gold rush at the end of the 19th century to Arctic oil exploration at the end of the 20th, the Interior has attracted thousands of fortune-seekers over the last century. Today tourism is the mainstay of the local economy. Ghost towns and abandoned mines are now tourist attractions. Good roads provide access to much of the region, yet total wilderness is always close by.

Tundra twilight, Alaska
Tundra twilight

The main draw for visitors to the Interior, besides the accessibility of wilderness, is its wildlife. The Interior attracts big game hunters as well as wildlife watchers and photographers. Caribou from several herds spend all or part of the year in the Interior. Moose are common in forests and along rivers. Grizzly bears, black bears and wolves range throughout the region. Dall sheep occupy the high mountains. Wolverines, coyote, red fox, and lynx are present but elusive. Beaver, marten, mink, weasel, muskrat, land otter, Arctic ground squirrel, hoary marmot and pika are all found here. Millions of birds make their homes in the Interior from waterfowl to raptors.

Glenn Highway and Tok Cut Off

This 328 mile paved route connects Anchorage to Tok is open all year. 139 miles of the 189 mile Glenn Highway is a National Scenic Byway, but nothing prepared me for the breathtaking scenery as I drove along this highway. If like me you time your trip to coincide with the beautiful fall colours you’ll be in for a treat. The 125 mile Tok Cutoff, which starts at the junction with the Richardson Highway, boasts equally impressive views of wild mountain landscapes. Although its possible to make the journey in a day, its a good idea to stop along the way and soak in the scenery of the Talkeetna and Chugach mountains.

Reflection of Fall Colors, Alaska by Tim Plowden
Reflection of Fall Colors

Palmer is a convenient place to stop 40 miles north of Anchorage. Situated in the Matanuska Valley and surrounded by mountains, this agricultural town offers an array of amenities. I picked up an old copy of The Milepost for a few bucks from the owner of the first campground I stayed at near Palmer and after feasting at the Noisy Goose cafe and stocking up on provisions at Fred Meyers, I was set to go. If you’re driving an RV for the first time its important to familiarise yourself with hooking up electricity and water as well as dumping your waste.

Alpine lake near Richardson Highway, Alaska
Alpine lake near Richardson Highway

Glenallen sits near the junction of the Glenn and Richardson highways in the Copper River Valley. It presents a difficult choice for the freewheeling road tripper, both Tok Cutoff and Richardson Highway offer superlative scenery. Whilst you make that choice, take your time to enjoy the visitor facilities that Glenallen offers in its breathtaking setting. Restaurants, groceries, fuel and car repairs are available here if you need them. If the sight of the mountains tempts you to explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, this is one place where you can arrange flights and guides. If you want to experience the remote and challenging Wrangell-St. Elias wilderness you must be well-prepared and have wilderness travel and survival skills.

Beaver dam, pond and lodge
Beaver dam, pond and lodge

Founded in the 1940s as a construction camp for road engineers, Tok has been described as more of a “stopover” rather than a destination in its own right. For me it was a pass through. 90 miles along the Alaska Highway from the border with Canada, Tok offers visitors little except food and lodging.

Alaska Highway

This 1,390 mile paved route which connects Dawson Creek in Canada to Delta Junction in Alaska, is open all year. Sometimes referred to as the “Alcan” Highway, an acronym for the Alaska-Canada military highway completed in 1942, it was open to the public after WW2 in 1948. Road conditions vary, but the highway is rarely closed due to weather or construction. However, although drivers can expect services every 100 miles or so, this does not mean that all businesses are open all year. There are plenty of government and private campgrounds along the route. Most start to shut up shop for winter from September only to re-open in May or June. Weather is a major factor here and there’s plenty of weather information available for this route. It is possible to drive the Alaska Highway in winter, but be prepared for extremely cold temperatures.

Timeless mountain scenery visible from Denali Highway
Timeless mountain scenery visible from Denali Highway

The Alaska Highway is an adventure for some and a chore for others. My drive through snow in the relatively featureless landscape along the short 108 mile stretch from Tok to Delta Junction put me into the latter category. Of course I saw less than 10% of this highway and missed out on all its major attractions. So I am not qualified to comment authoritatively. When I arrived at Delta Junction I was yearning for more mountains.

Snow covered mountain near Richardson Highway
Snow covered mountain near Richardson Highway

Delta Junction is a small town where the Richardson and Alaska highways meet. The Richardson Highway heads south from Delta Junction through more spectacular mountain scenery. After waking up to more snow I decided to take the road south and had the privilege of following a flock of migrating Sandhill cranes taking the same route.

Richardson Highway

This 366 mile paved route connects Valdez to Fairbanks is open all year. Much of the Richardson Highway is a National Scenic Byway. When I stopped to take some landscape photographs I heard the unmistakable sound of a large flock of cranes calling as they took flight. I was transfixed by the sight of them rising on the thermals and wheel over the snow covered mountains and continue their migration south.  The Richardson Highway takes you through the Alaska Range and Chugach mountains. This was Alaska’s first road and its history is deeply connected to the history of the gold rush. Back in 1898 it was known as the Valdez to Eagle trail and four years later it led prospectors to Fairbanks for the 1902 gold strike.

Northern Coyote (Canis latrans incolatus), Alaska by Tim Plowden
Northern Coyote

80 miles drive from Delta Junction to Paxson offers more than good views of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Along the way I stopped to take walk closer to Delta River to create a time-lapse sequence of the dramatic scenery and as I finished setting up the sequence I noticed I was being watched by a predator from a distance. At first I thought it might be a lynx as it sat bolt upright. As I got closer I could see it was a canid. Could it be a lone wolf? No, it was too slender around the muzzle and the fur lacked distinctive black markings of a wolf. It was a Northern Coyote (Canis latrans incolatus) and it seemed hypnotised by the sound of the shutter release triggered like clockwork for the time-lapse. It seemed to be unfazed by me so I grabbed my long lens and spare camera body. I was then able to slowly walk up to it within a dozen yards and call it closer. It was a beautiful encounter with a curious but shy wild animal. As I walked back another flock of cranes skimmed over the mountain tops.

Sandhill Cranes Fly In Formation On Their Migration South Over The Alaskan Wilderness
Sandhill Cranes Fly In Formation On Their Migration South

The highway follows Delta River much of the way to Meiers Lake where I would spend the night. The beautiful mountain scenery is dotted by lakes. Fielding Lake, Summit Lake and Paxson Lake are all close to the road along the way and are inhabited by trumpeter swans and loons. I thought it perfect habitat for wolves and the roadhouse owner confirmed it. Bald eagles are also plentiful around Paxson, look out for them in the trees lining the river near the Denali Highway junction.

Denali Highway

This 134 mile mostly gravel route connects Paxson in the east to Cantwell in the west and is closed in the winter. This routes boasts breathtaking mountain scenery and abundant wildlife. The Denali Highway takes you into the Alaska Range mountains with peaks from Wrangell-St Elias and Chugach Mountains visible all around. The Denali highway offers some excellent birdwatching opportunities with over 100 species found along the route. Autumn is a perfect time to visit, fewer tourists, caribou easily seen, tundra turns red and gold – perhaps best of all there’s negligible numbers of mosquitoes. The highway has its origins in the Veldez Creek gold rush when supplies were carried in on trails from Cantwell and Paxson.

The Alaska Range visible from Denali Highway
The Alaska Range visible from Denali Highway

Having read about it while doing my research on Alaska, the Denali Highway was high on my wish list. Due to the unforgiving road conditions I wasn’t sure if the RV rental company would allow it (some don’t). Fortunately, I was given the all-clear by Great Alaskan Holidays and I decided to brave the legendary pot holes of the Denali Highway. I am glad I did, for nothing prepared me for the views of the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range rises from elevations as low as 300 m, some of the Alaskan mountains have the highest base-to-peak heights in the world.

A bull caribou follows his harem during the autumn rut
A bull Porcupine caribou follows his harem during the autumn rut

The Denali Highway proved to be an excellent place to photograph the Nelchina caribou. The 40,000 strong Nelchina herd spends the summer calving months in the foothills of Interior Alaska. Pretty much as soon as the paved road ended and the dirt track started, I could see caribou dotted around the wilderness. The temptation to stalk them with my camera was too much, I’d had plenty of experience photographing the wild deer of England and was up for the challenge of getting close to these robust animals. So I parked the RV on the side of the road and followed one herd through the tundra for a few miles. A brief snow blizzard came down and helped to cover my approach. I got within a few metres but the sound of my camera shutter spooked them and they fled. The long hike back to the RV through the snow gave me plenty of time to reflect on my bad luck. It wasn’t long before I came across another herd and I managed to use the terrain to my advantage and get some nice shots of the caribou with the wilderness backdrop.

Aurora borealis above the Alaska Range mountains
Aurora borealis above the Alaska Range mountains

Later that evening I managed to get a room at the only place open all year along the Denali Highway, Alpine Creek Lodge, run by Claude and Jennifer Bondy. Claude is a true woodsman and generously imparted his local knowledge with me. I really enjoyed hanging out with him and with his help I was able to get close-up images of ptarmigan, parka, muskrat, beaver and moose. The highlight, however, was watching wolves hunting caribou. We turned to each other and both said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” A display of the Northern Lights over the mountain wilderness rounded off the day perfectly.

Parks Highway

This 362 mile paved all season route connects Alaska’s two largest populations, Anchorage to the south and Fairbanks to the north. The Parks Highway is a National Scenic Byway. The Parks Highway provides direct access to Denali National Park, home to Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) which at 20,320 feet is America’s tallest mountain. Some of the best views of Denali are actually from Denali State Park. That is if you’re lucky enough to see it. The peak is usually shrouded by snow-bearing clouds most of the summer.

Remote view of Denali and Alaskan Range at sunset by Tim Plowden
Remote view of Denali and Alaskan Range at sunset

The small town of Cantwell sits at the junction of the Denali and Parks highways. It provides essentials such as fuel and accommodation. The drive to Denali National Park is 27 miles north of Cantwell. If, like me, you choose to visit late in the season you will miss the park bus service that shuttles visitors along the 92 mile park road. Instead you can drive yourself into the park as far as Teklanika River (Mile 30) without there being any congestion on the road. In autumn the moose are rutting and its possible to see their breeding antics from the roadside. My trip to Denali was all too brief as I was running out of time before I needed to fly back home.

Hatcher Pass Road

This 49 mile mostly gravel route connects the Glenn Highway in the east to the Parks Highway in the west and takes you into the Talkeetna Mountain Range. Much of the road is rough, narrow and steep. The road over the Hatcher Pass summit is open from about early July to mid-September, depending on snow conditions. I thought I’d missed the boat when I arrived at Willow to refuel. The old man from the Willow gas station suggested I did take the Hatcher Pass Road as it would be closed on 1 October. Typically RV’s are “not recommended due to the steep grades, rough roads and tight hairpin corners”, but as Hatcher Pass offers access to beautiful mountain scenery, I couldn’t think of a better place to spend my last night in Alaska.

A pair of Trumpeter swans swimming on a beaver pond
A pair of Trumpeter swans swimming on a beaver pond

From the west entrance the road follows Willow Creek. Although there are no salmon here there are dolly varden and rainbow trout. Willow Creek still has active gold claims and is popular place for gold panning. One of the many beaver ponds here was also used by a pair of trumpeter swans before they migrate to the Yukon for winter. The area does boast an array of elusive wildlife including black and brown bear, wolverine, wolf, coyote, fox, lynx, moose, caribou, sheep, hare, Arctic ground squirrel, collared pika and hoary marmot. You’re more likely to see a bald eagle than any other animals which are highly adept at staying hidden. The view from the summit is worth the drive. As snow clouds were gathering around the peaks I continued down the road to Independence Mine entrance. After a hairpin turn the road follows the gold-bearing Little Susitna River which still supports some spawning salmon.

Little Susitna River, Hatcher Pass
Little Susitna River, Hatcher Pass

This was the final evening of my Alaska adventure. Having driven over Hatcher Pass I parked up by the Little Susitna River for the night to wake at a frosty dawn under the watchful eye of a bald eagle before I drove back over the Hatcher Pass to watch sunrise over the golden leaved valley below. I drove back to Palmer for breakfast at Noisy Goose where my adventure had begun. 

Wildlife Photography in Interior Alaska

Challenges for the wildlife photographer in Interior Alaska are plenty. Hunting pressure makes approaching species such as caribou and moose problematic. Acquiring local knowledge was vital to achieve many images. Wildlife safety skills are important, but can get in the way of stalking around unnoticed. More than once, while stalking caribou, I heard the sound of twigs brushing against fur of a large mammal – either a moose or grizzly bear making a slow retreat through the dense bush when I’d got too close. More often than not the risks are hidden and you’ll not even be aware of the presence of a potentially dangerous predator in your midst. 

Bull moose in Alaska Range Mountains
Bull moose in Alaska Range Mountains

After successfully approaching on all fours through stunted bushes to within thirty metres of a herd of caribou. I observed the herd as they rested amongst the scrub. A few young males tested each other’s strength by locking antlers and wrestling each other. After a while I decided to start photographing the caribou. My presence was soon given away by the sound of my camera shutter and the caribou took flight. To my surprise within a minute they had turned around and were trotting straight towards me. Their approach concerned me less than what had spooked them enough to stop them in their tracks and force them to make a dramatic U-turn.  I hazarded a guess it was wolves that were watching this herd quietly from a distance before deciding to approach. I moved out of their path, but whatever had spooked them remained a mystery.

Arctic Ground Squirrel, Alaska
Arctic Ground Squirrel

Nothing during my Alaskan adventure compared to the sight of a pair of wolves running effortlessly through this challenging terrain while hunting caribou just one day later. Coupled with the setting of the Alaska Range mountains, the Interior of Alaska is the most spectacular I’ve ever watched and photographed wildlife in.

North American Beaver with a shard of ice on its head
North American Beaver with a shard of ice on its head
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