Day Nine: Blue Babe, Denali, Giant Igloo

Another day, many more adventures.

I woke up in Fairbanks, which I have found to be a nice town, not “built on yellow snow” as my brother Mickey always used to say about it. It feels very spread out, but when land is not at a premium, I think that’s what happens as a city grows.

While I was there, I wanted to check out Blue Babe. No, not Babe the Blue Ox, but Blue Babe, which is the amazingly well-preserved remains of an Alaska Steppe Bison. Here’s what Blue Babe looks like, as preserved in the Alaska Museum of the North, at the University of Alaska:

The remains of Blue Babe was found during a mining operation in 1979. The miners, Walter and Ruth Roman, recognized that they had found something unusual, and called the University to preserve it. When carbon dating was done, Blue Babe was found to be 36,000 years old. It was so well-preserved that, based on teeth and puncture marks, scientists were even able to determine how it died – killed by an Ice Age American Lion, which must have been pretty huge to bring down something like this all alone.

The Steppe Bison likely died just as the weather turned very cold, and so the body froze and was maintained in immaculate condition for 36 centuries. I spent a long time staring at it, trying to imagine the world it lived in.

The rest of The Museum of the North is excellent too, but it is not too large. For me, it was just the right size, with excellent displays on local wildlife, history, and culture. Admission is only $12, and if you’re in Fairbanks, it is highly recommended.

After I spent an hour or two in the museum, I headed south, as I had a long list of things I wanted to see and do today.

My first stop was in Healy, Alaska, right around noon. Like most rural Alaska towns, there’s not much to Healy. It’s more of a wide spot in the road with a few businesses like a gas station, small store, and a restaurant or two. One of those restaurants is the 49th State Brewing Company, which hadn’t opened for the season yet. Nonetheless, I was able to see what I came to see. First, is this very cool sign post, with directional arrows pointing toward many different locations, with mileage:

At the top, you’ll note it says, “Magic Bus, 35 miles.” That is referring to the bus that Chris McCandless of Into the Wild fame, found and died in, out in the Alaska wilderness. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie Into the Wild, it is the story of a well-off young man who rejected society and its rules and walked off to live in the wilderness. Eventually, he came across an abandoned Fairbanks city bus that a construction company had left behind, and set up camp there.

Eventually, he starved to death, which many locals felt was inevitable, based on the scant provisions and survival knowledge he had. By the way, the movie seemed to indicate that he poisoned himself by eating deadly berries, but that seems to not be the case. In any case, that bus has now come to be known as “the magic bus” and it is the focus of many people who make the hike out to it like a pilgrimage.

That hike is long – more than ten miles – and dangerous – one person died trying to get to it a few years ago – so I had no interest in attempting it. Still, I am interested in the story, so I stopped to see the full-size replica that director Sean Penn had built for the movie, which is on display at 49th State Brewing.

Here’s a shot of the interior, which hews very closely to the original as it was when Chris McCandless found it. The real bus, sitting in the wilderness, has been stripped by souvenir-hungry hikers.

I know, it’s just a reproduction, but it was cool to see it.

South of Healy is Denali National Park – my first national park of this trip. Denali is an immense park. With 1.33 million acres, it is bigger Yellowstone, but accessibility isn’t nearly as good. In Yellowstone, there are good paved roads that will loop you through the entire park. Today, I was only able to drive into the park about 30 miles. As the weather warms, you’ll be able to drive further in, but even in mid-summer, the vast majority of the park is only reachable by flightseeing on a small plane. It truly is a wilderness.

Of course, the big attraction is Denali is the mountain by the same name, which is the tallest mountain in North America at 20,000+ feet. Mt. Denali is about 80 miles south of where the park road is, though, and even on a relatively clear day, the mountain is likely to hide behind clouds. That was the case for me today:

That mountain in the foreground is called Double Mountain. To the right, where all the clouds are, is where Denali is. I drove the road for an hour, and never got a better shot of the mountain than this until later in the day.

Denali National Park is just starting to wake up for the season, and it felt like that as I drove through it. There was virtually no traffic, and I saw no wildlife, but I might have been surrounded and missed it because I needed to keep my eyes on the road. Even without Denali itself, or any wildlife settings, the park is a jewel, with amazing scenery that changes every mile. I would like to come back and tour it again in warmer weather.

I think I say this every day, but I found another section of road where the scenery is so beautiful, it is slightly overwhelming. I drove south on the Parks Highway, through the small village of Cantwell, and a few miles past that, I felt like I was surrounded on all four sides by towering, snow-capped peaks.

I didn’t make very good time on this leg of the journey, because I had to stop and take it all in every few miles.

South of Cantwell, I found my last roadside attraction stop of the day – Igloo City. Okay, it’s not really an igloo, and not really a city, but that’s what it is called.

I am hopelessly attracted to people who tilt at windmills, who have an outsized dream and do everything in their power to make it happen. The other JFK, who I met last year, who has the world’s largest ball of twine, springs to mind, or Robert Asp, the Minnesotan who built a Viking ship to sail to Norway. I love those guys.

To that list, you can add Leon Smith, who dreamed of building a giant, 80 foot tall igloo in the middle of the Alaska wilderness, and opening it as a hotel. He got part way there. As you can see, he got the multi-story igloo built, mostly, but he never finished it. Did he run out of money? Lose interest? Realize he was building a giant igloo in the middle of nowhere? I have no idea.

It’s never been finished, and it sits on the side of the road like the ghost of an unfulfilled dream, now nothing more than a target for vandals and graffiti artists:

If you look at that picture, you can see that there is a concrete block to discourage people from sneaking inside, but to the right of that, someone has ripped away enough of the boards that a very skinny person could sneak inside. I am not a very skinny person. I did, however, stick my camera inside and take a picture:

Pretty spooky looking in there. Also, I heard odd, eerie sounds emanating from inside, which encouraged me to hotfoot it back to the Emerald Bullet, 100 yards away.

I finally got an almost-shot of Denali from a pull-off about 70 miles south of the National Park entrance:

Yeah, I know it’s not perfect. She hid behind her veil like a nervous bride today. I’ll be around the area for a few more days, though, and I will keep my eyes open for a better shot.

I eventually made my way to Wasilla, where I am crashing for the night. Let me answer the two questions many people are asking: No, I haven’t seen Sarah Palin since I got here, and no, I can’t see Russia from my hotel room.

I spent time in Wasilla in the summer of 1975, riding horses through the hills in full daylight after midnight. Happy memories.

What’s up for tomorrow? I’ll probably drop down the few miles to Anchorage, a city I knew fairly well back in the seventies. I have a hunch I won’t recognize much. I’ll probably knock off pretty early tomorrow, because a client has asked me to help them with an exciting project. No, not a movie version of Feels Like the First Time, unfortunately. Wouldn’t that be fun?  However, Feels Like the First Time is on special for just .99 for the next few days, if you’d like to check out the book that made me semi-famous for a brief period of time four years ago. I’m totally not still riding that book’s coattails all these years later, right? Right.

Until tomorrow, then, cheers, and safe travels!

Shawn

 

 

11 comments

  1. What a day you had Denali, a museum which I know you love, Igloo city and the famous bus. Chris’ story has always fascinated me, his sister Carine wrote a book “The Wild Truth” which is a must read book IMHO
    Stay safe

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  2. I’m really enjoying this trip. So many interesting things to see. Who knew? The scenery is beautiful. We just don’t get to see enough mountains here in the midwest 🙂 Keep on truckin’ Drive safe!

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  3. Thanks for sharing your pictures and insights on this trip! I have to admit, Alaska was never on my bucket list of places to travel to, but seeing it through your eyes has changed my mind. Continued safe travels, Shawn.

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    • From what I’ve been able to read, both the lion and some scavengers took portions off the bison. It’s only conjecture, of course, but one theory is that a storm or massive cold front froze the rest of the carcass before it could be consumed.

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  4. Once again, I loved reading about your day’s adventures. Your stories are captivating and the photos are breathtaking! The setting for Igloo City is gorgeous. How sad it never came to fruition. Thanks so much for sharing so much of yourself with us. Continued safe travels!

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  5. Oh, and I remember hearing about Chris McCandless’ story. It’s great that he followed his dream, but so sad for the tragic ending. And, oh my goodness, how cool was it to see something that used to be living and breathing 36,000 years ago?! I think I would have stared into his face for at least 20 minutes thinking how he lived, where he went, what he ate, etc.

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  6. Truly a great journey by a great author and all-around nice guy. My morning coffee goes down so much better with your tales of Alaska and all the wonderful pictures. Thanks so much for taking all of us with you! 🙂

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  7. I am so looking forward to doing this trip someday! You are inspiring me to get out and see the world. Glad your travels are safe and you are sharing with us. Cannot wait for the book!!! Safe journey

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  8. I agree with everybody…love your story and wow the blue babe! Your doing everything that I would do…now I don’t have to rush, your doing it for me! Lol

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