Everyone is back in his or her respective state, toting a duffel bag or two of Alaska-themed memories. The first-ever Salmon Berry Tours Ultimate Family Field Trip came to an end on Friday, and everyone; parents, kids, and guide moi are exhausted and happy at the outcome.
In the last post I shared our adventures between Anchorage and the village of Talkeetna, just north of the Iditarod Restart in Willow. Our explorers had enjoyed sled dog rides, cross-country skiing, and even a flightseeing trip over the Iditarod race route before settling in at Talkeetna Denali View Lodge.
Here, guests stayed in two cozy cabins, enjoying the hospitality of Dora Redman, a noted aurora borealis photographer yes, but also a curator of northern lights information. “Aurora Dora,” as she is known, gave a fascinating presentation to a houseful of guests, wowing all of us with both the science and the mystery of the lights. Owner of Aurora Dora Photography with a tiny studio in downtown Talkeetna, Dora is a witty evangalist for both Talkeetna and the aurora.
Family Field Trip explorers arrived in Talkeetna via airplane, and departed aboard the Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train, headed north toward Denali National Park.
Denali is open all year, a surprise to most first-time visitors. While it is true the park’s main visitor center, restaurant, and gift shop are all closed, winter operations in Denali are very much thriving, thanks to the Murie Science and Learning Center near the park entrance.
What did we do? We skied. And skied and skied, thanks to an open Park Road to the Mountain Vista Day Use Area at Mile 13. Salmon Berry Tours provided our guests with skis, and after a short lesson on navigating untracked backcountry powder, off we went through the spruce forest and shrouded shrubbery of Denali.
Most Denali visitors never see this side of the park. Wide, blue sky against a palette of snowy land with nary another human in sight. The road was quiet, as opposed to the rumble of shuttle buses and the loud voices of summer arrivals eager to catch a glimpse of the Alaska they think they know.
We followed pine marten tracks, looked at the scuttle of ptarmigan wings upon the snow, and marveled over and over at the mountainous scene unfolding in front of our skis as we made our way toward a tributary of Savage River.
In the evenings, we were treated to visits from presenters from the Denali Education Center who filled our heads with information about the park’s unique ecosystems as much as the place itself filled our hearts. 36 mammals make their year-round home in Denali National Park, and now we know how they do it. Question after question caused us all to linger long after the each speaker ended his or her presentation, even as our eyelids were drooping with sleep after a busy day.
A highlight was dinner at 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern, owned and managed by Top Chef contestant Laura Cole. The fresh cod was sublime, the homemade pasta, al dente-perfect, but it was the homemade pop rocks that blew our minds (almost literally). Who knew pop rocks were a real thing in Alaska?
Thursday morning our crew loaded up the Family Field Trip van, waved goodbye to our hosts at Denali Dome Home Bed and Breakfast, and headed north toward the Golden Heart City of Fairbanks.
Fairbanks in the winter, of course, is another story.