North to Talkeetna 4/23/11
Could there be anything better than joyriding through rural Alaska on a beautiful spring Saturday? I had CDs of Bruce and the E Street Band from a live 1975 concert at Hammersmith Odeon London (my favorite Springsteen) and 40 Licks from the Stones. Not bad.
I had to drive up to Willow, Alaska. That is almost 70 miles north of Anchorage. Willow is the place where the Iditarod actually starts. What with the weather being picture perfect, I figured it would be a great chance for Denali viewing. After my Willow stop, I headed farther north.
Once you get past Eagle River, a suburb of Anchorage, the road is reminiscent of Route 4A, north of Wilmot, New Hampshire. 4A is a moose alley: a two lane road surrounded by expansive woods. You know the moose are there. You don’t know when they will jump out and surprise you. The road north of Anchorage features moose warning signs.
The major difference with 4A is the mountain factor in Alaska. The mountains are numerous, bigger, hugely snowcapped, and strikingly vertical. I am reminded of the old saying: size matters.
As an easterner, I am conscious of the scale of things Alaskan. Alaskans are conscious of it too. In the summer at the Anchorage Farmers Market, there is a guy running a booth selling paraphernalia contrasting how little Texas is next to Alaska. He sold a teeshirt with a scaled map of Texas superimposed easily inside the boundaries of Alaska. Texas is teeny-weeny!
Back on the road, I did want to mention that you pass through Wasilla before you get to Willow. While Wasilla is famous for things Palin, I would suggest it should be better known for nearby Hatcher Pass. Last summer with my friends Cliff and Theresa, we went for a hike there. Hatcher Pass has stunning views. It would be a great place for a family hike.
Wasilla itself looks dumpy from the road. It features plastic urban sprawl with shockingly poor quality housing visible from the highway. I guess it should not be surprising that the media has lavished so much attention on the fascinating superstar and zero attention on the living conditions of other lesser mortals who inconspicuously inhabit the same regional turf.
Driving north at around 100 miles from Anchorage, you hang a right for Talkeetna. Fourteen miles later you approach the outskirts of the downtown. On the left outside town is a turnout, Talkeetna Bluff, which is an awesome site for Denali viewing.
I hit the jackpot for a clear day. Denali is massive and dominant. There is something stirring about mountains, especially those of breathtaking size, and the trip was worth it just to see the Alaska range. That range includes Mt. McKinley (Denali) 20,320 feet, Mt. Hunter 14,573 feet, and Mt. Foraker 17,400 feet.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to see Mt. Everest but there was an unworldly shimmering blue background to the giant white peaks which jutted up across the skyline. Denali is the highest mountain in North America with the greatest vertical rise of any mountain on earth. And I would note that Talkeetna is well over 100 miles away from Denali. The mountain has staggering size for such a distance way.
There is an interesting political and historical dispute over the mountain’s name. Denali is the traditional Athabascan name, translated as “the great one” or more accurately “the high one”. Athabascans and Native Alaskans would not name a geographic area after a person. It is not in keeping with Native Alaskan tradition.
The name Mt. McKinley was foisted on Alaska. In 1896, a prospector, William Dickey, wanted to make a political statement in favor of the gold standard by naming the mountain after Presidential nominee, William McKinley of Ohio. McKinley, as nominee and later as President, never visited Alaska and he had little to do with the state before he was assassinated in 1901.
In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali. Then Alaska Governor Jay Hammond, with support from the Alaska Legislature, appealed to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names for an official name change so the mountain could be Denali.
The Ohio Congressional delegation fought back by introducing legislation to attach the name McKinley permanently to the mountain. One Ohio member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Ralph Regula from Canton, fought the name change for many years. When Rep. Regula testified before the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, he stated:
“This action would be an insult to the memory of President McKinley and to the people of my district and the nation who are so proud of his heritage.”
Considering how undistinguished a president McKinley was (another captive of robber barons) and also considering the fact that he had nothing to do with Alaska, the McKinley name is like a bad joke. Without getting too P.C., calling Denali Mt. McKinley has been an arrogant and blatant act of cultural imperialism. The insult is to the Native Alaskans whose long-term historical presence has been ignored and denied.
The Denali/McKinley name fight has remained a stalemate since 1975 because the U.S. Board of Names has a policy of not considering names changes while legislation is pending. The Ohio Congressional delegation has continued the efforts of Rep. Regula and has put in a bill every session to prevent the Denali name change.
Alaska did gain one victory though. In 1980, the National Park Service changed the park name from Mt. McKinley National Park to Denali National Park although the mountain has remained Mt. McKinley. Regula could not stop the park name change.
Heading into town, Talkeetna (population 772) is tiny with one main drag. It is a big tourist destination with quite a few Alaskan tschotske stores. You can find all trinkets, moose and bear, not to mention aurora borealis. Talkeetna is famous for having been the reputed inspiration for the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska in the TV show Northern Exposure.
I did go for a wonderful lunch at Mountain High Pizza Pie where pizzas, strombolis and calzones are made from scratch. I also stopped in a used book store, Tales Told Twice Books. I bought an early S.J. Rozan novel, Concourse, and an early William Kent Krueger, Iron Lake. (I have a weakness for mysteries) The lady behind the counter asked if I wanted the senior discount. Surprised, I told her I was 60. She said I qualified. Somewhat uneasily, I took the discount.
For anyone who gets near Denali, you might seriously consider renting a small plane. Air taxi service will fly you around Denali and will land you on a glacier. I expect it would be memorable.
One last thing I did want to say: Alaska weather has proven very different from the stereotypes I held before I arrived. Since February, the weather has been consistently nice. New Englanders: don’t go to Florida! Come to Alaska in March or April. Good time to get away from both those late pesky snow storms and mud season. And you can return in time for black fly season.