Alaska’s fickle summer weather threw a wet blanket on my plan to camp in Denali National Park for a few nights. Rain splattered down as I drove from Fairbanks to Denali, and the forecast for the next week warned of more of the same. There are no doubt many people tougher than I am who would have camped anyway, but I balked at the prospect of hiking and sleeping in the cold rain, especially since the weather would also put a damper on photo opportunities.
Instead I decided to spend a day riding the Denali park bus to Wonder Lake and back, something I’d already done on a memorable family trip back in 2007. The night before the ride I stayed in a small cabin near Denali, and the next morning I joined about 30 other people on the 6am bus. The rain was as relentless as advertised and a thick layer of clouds covered the landscape all day.
Our bus driver claimed that Denali’s wildlife is often more active in the rain, but – while we did spot many of the usual suspects over the course of the day, including a grizzly bear, mountain goats, moose, and caribou – the animals were almost always tiny dots in the distance. The best exception was a cooperative moose that made an appearance late in the afternoon.
From Denali I returned to Fairbanks and finalized my plan for getting to Glacier Bay, the only one of Alaska’s eight National Parks I hadn’t yet visited. Having a car, frustratingly, made things a little tricky. Most people visit Glacier Bay on a cruise ship or as part of a trip to Juneau, which is nearby. But, like Juneau, Glacier Bay isn’t reachable by road. I eventually decided my best option would be to drive to Skagway and take a ferry to Juneau, where I could then take another ferry to Gustavus, the tiny town that serves as a gateway to Glacier Bay.
All the travel logistics went smoothly – although I wasn’t happy about leaving my car in the Skagway ferry terminal parking lot, where the car next to mine appeared to have just had its window smashed – and I arrived in Gustavus on a Wednesday afternoon. I caught a ride to Bartlett Cove, where I registered for a camp site and set up my tent. Bad weather had followed me all the way from Denali, and, while I wasn’t thrilled about two days of camping in the rain, the only other accommodation was an expensive room at the Glacier Bay Lodge, which would have demolished my already out-of-balance budget.
I stayed nice and dry in my tent that night, and whenever the rain took a short break I could hear the whooshing sound of whales spouting in the bay. Early the next morning I boarded the Baranof Wind for a full-day cruise up Glacier Bay, all the way to the Tarr Inlet and back. We never saw the sun, but the clouds and thick gray fog created a subdued, melancholy mood that was fun to photograph.
Our best wildlife sighting was a grizzly mom with three cubs. They were flipping over rocks on the coast in search of small marine animals hiding underneath, and at one point the foursome wandered reasonably close to our boat. We also saw puffins, sea lions, whales, sea otters, dolphins, mountain goats, and a bald eagle.
Visiting Glacier Bay checked off the second-to-last U.S. National Park on my list. With 58 of the 59 parks under my belt now, only American Samoa stands in the way of a complete collection.
After a great dinner at the Glacier Bay Lodge I spent another night in my tent, and the next day I took the ferry back to Juneau. The driver of the taxi that took me from Bartlett Cove back to the Gustavus ferry terminal turned out to be John Spute, the owner of the TLC Taxi Company and a true Alaskan character. Without any prompting, John proudly declared his allegiance to Donald Trump.
“Why are you voting for Trump?” I asked.
“Lots of people are looking down on Trump voters,” John said. “But without us knuckle-draggers nothing would get done around here. Without us who’s gonna swing a hammer?” John then referenced some kind of historical event involving Muslims and Thomas Jefferson. “So you see they’ve always hated us, and ain’t nothing gonna change that,” he concluded. I didn’t follow his logic but decided not to wade in.
From Juneau a short flight in a small plane returned me to Skagway, where – happily – I found my car undamaged and ready to roll back onto the Alaska Highway.