White Water Rafting

I have been given the pleasure of having a few friends who pointed me in the right direction as far as giving me great ideas of things do to with my time. One suggestion that was made to me about a month ago was the idea of a white water rafting trip I could take with a group from The Alaska Club. They had scheduled a few dates to do it and got a group rate and so I signed up.

Now the time has finally arrived and here I sit ready to go…more or less. It’s a 4 to 4.5 hour drive up to the head of the river which is just above Denali National Park and not far outside the town of Denali. I’m scheduled to be there at 11:00am so I’m going to have to get up and leave awfully early, but I’m actually looking forward to the drive as it should be relaxing, and hopefully it’ll remain as clear and warm out as it has been the past few days.

I’ve heard rumors of a beautiful weekend, but I don’t want to necessarily count on it yet. It would just be a great thing to be able to see Mt. McKinley which tends to be a difficult task. A mountain that size really tends to make its own weather, despite how the rest of the area is. It could be a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky…except around that mountain. You can see McKinley from Anchorage on a good day, but even then you couldn’t count on the fact that if you got into your car right at that moment and drove straight there that you could see it by the time you got there. I tend to think of the mountain as being just plain moody. It totally has a mind of its own…and uses it. It knows when people are coming from thousands of miles to see it and so if it happens to feel anti-social that day, too bad. You just came all that way for absolutely nothing. It’s an amazing thing…and quite comical when you really get down to it.

Well, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer day. Sunshine dominated the clouds, and the clouds were relatively light and soft looking like they might just disappear altogether later, which was my hope. Part of the drive up to Denali from Anchorage doesn’t have a whole lot of scenery, but the mountains are constantly teasing you by peeking in through the surrounding trees with promises that soon you will be able to see them in all their magesty, and indeed you do! At last you reach a clearing and it seems that from here on you’ll have all the mountains you can take. Some are snowcapped and delicate, others are covered moss-like vegitation with the warmest shade of green. You are in awe. The mountains continue on, and the whole time I’m scanning the horizion for McKinley, but either I have no clue where it is I’m supposed to be looking, or it’s just hiding in the clouds. I glance at the clock. It’s only 8:00am so maybe all the clouds will have lifted by early afternoon. I’m also pleased to see that I’m making such great time. I should easily be in Denali by 9:00 at the latest, just in time to get some breakfast before having to report to Mt.McKinley Raft Tours, Inc.

As I hit Denali, I immediately zeroed in on Lynx Creek Park Mart for food. I had neglected to pack a lunch for the rafting trip so I wanted to at least pick up a snack. Not to mention I was starving. After glancing over the prices, I really wished I had planned better and at least stopped at the last grocery store I had seen on my way out of Anchorage. This is something that I think everyone needs to be aware of as it’ll save you a lot of money. Any town, village, etc. that’s more than 10 to 15 miles outside of a city in Alaska charges you about triple the price for staples like food. Just to give you an idea of what I mean, an 11oz bag of Cheetos are selling for $4.69. A snack pack of Hostess Frosted Donettes are going for $1.29. Outrageous prices. Now of course I can understand why this happens, Alaska being as remote as it is, things just cost more to bring in, so if you live here, I suppose it’s just one of those little quirks you have to learn to live with. On the other hand, if you’re just passing through, there’s really no reason why you should pay $5 for a bag of chips when if you plan ahead enough to stop for food in town, it can be avoided completely.

Unfortunately there aren’t any real convient café’s or diners in Denali. The town mainly consists of a couple of RV parks, the Denali Princess Lodge owned and operated by Princess Cruises, and a couple of other lodging places (Lynx Creek Pizza, Husky Homestead, McNeil River Enterprises, Rafting, Cripple Creek Ranch Trail and Wagon Rides, Denali Raiinbow Village RV Park, Cruiser’s Café (Princess Lodge), Flight Seeing advertised for $99. Check local listings and call.

With McKinley, we started out immediately getting into all our gear…the gear they said we would need. I appreciated not having to bring things myself. Our gear consisted of a raincoat, rain pants, boots, and a life jacket. I felt more like a firefighter than anything else, but they promised that these items were all necessary and would keep up warm and somewhat dry. Of cours it was near 70 out so I didn’t much feel like wearing all those items of breathe-less clothing, but what choice did I have? Then they drove us out to the starting point which was about 10 miles south. Our first 12 miles were relatively relaxing. Not many rapids, but a few little bumps. It was fun nonetheless. When we stopped for lunch, I dsicoved that one of the other people I had been talking with earilier that came up from Anchorage had fallen out of the raft during that first couple of hours! She was alright…just a little wet and cold. I was very impressed, though, because she changed clothes and finished out the trip with us.

Our guide was Roy and he was nice, it was funny though because I think I had always assumed that guides were generally from whatever area they are working in, or at least they’d be from the state at large, but not Roy. He was just about as much of a tourist as some of the tourists! They had trained him well, though, and he was able to point out types of flowers and various names of mountains along our journey. He even gave us a few interesting local tales and legends which I found more interesting than the biological stuff.

“If you look over there to your left,” he said at one point pointing to a bunch of trees, “you can see a red roof of a cabin through the trees. That is a cabin of an old trapper they say was killed in a fight with a bear. They found him all mangled up with a knife in his hand. They say that if you hike over to his house, you can still see the small mound where they buried him and there are 5 shovels that point to his grave.” Nice.

Pretty much every rapid that we went through had a name and a story behind it as well. It was an informative trip. I’d like to go again and do the paddling end of it so to actually be a participant. That would be more fun, I think, and you get to wear a wet suit and far more “fashionable” stuff. The people that went on the paddling tour were outfitted in very new looking wet suits and shoes. Everything appeared to be in very good repair and I felt safe which is a good thing on a trip through water that has a history of drowning people who get caught up in a whirlpool or the like. I’d go again. They even give you the option of purchasing a photograph of your raft at some point along the trip. There were a few shots that I think I’d have paid the rather hefty $13 for, but the shot of my raft was nothing worth showing to anyone else so I decided to keep my money for another time.

A couple I met on the tour told me of a white water rafting trip that they did up past Palmer. They really enjoyed that one and said that they felt it was a little more adventurous.

“I think it had more class 4 rapids than this one did,” Linda said. “At least I seem to remember it being a more exciting trip.” So we’ll see…maybe I’ll try and do that one in a few weeks.

Another key tip you might want to keep in mind if you’re planning a trip up to the Denali area of Alaska: Some “locals” (in the sense that they live and work in Denali for the summer) that I met in one of the lodging places in Denali told me of some good things to keep in mind. Mostly it was hiking trails and stuff, but at one point I said something about wanting to really see a good view of Mt. McKinley. Michael and Kathleen were quick to let me know that you don’t have to do the day-long bus ride into the park to see the mountain.

“One of the best views that’s easily accessible that we’ve found,” Michael told me, “is not far from here and great if you’re coming to or from the Anchorage area. There’s a little access road back near Cantwell. If you’re traveling from here, you’ll see a Chevron station on your left and just past that there’s a little road. If you turn left there and follow it down about 2 miles, you’ll run into some power lines that are positively the worst eye-sore, but if you park your car there and just walk a little ways in, you’ll get one of the best views of the mountain that I’ve ever seen.”

I found that road on my way back to Anchorage, but I didn’t check it out on this trip – it’ll have to wait for another time.