Monday: Denali Highway, Richardson Highway, and Fairbanks
I’m the first to get up, just before sunrise, while the northerly summer pre-dawn sky glows orange and the distant mountains look purple.
Breakfast is a combination of oatmeal with toppings and scrambled eggs for protein. Jayden devours the eggs, but Daphney laments that the eggs don’t taste as good as the free-range ones from home.
Retracing the Denali Highway, we parallel the Alaska Range, this time to our left. At a pull-out, we step out onto a small outcrop and take in the expanse—pristine Sevenmile Lake, the vast alpine tundra, glacial streams, and snow-capped peaks that punch into the sky. After a quiet moment, we have to leave.
Dirt cakes our Subaru after miles on gravel roads. It clings to you every time you open the rear gate to get something. I’m craving a car wash, and I’m also craving Thai food. We find a place online and pull up to find them closed. A man with a toothy smile lounging in a nearby gazebo shouts that the food truck will reopen at 1:00 pm. But within minutes, a car pulls up and unloads at the truck, and the family sets up the food stand. I order and get my car washed in the meantime.
The portions are big: pineapple fried rice with plenty of curry seasoning, thin drunken noodles, and basil tofu vegetable stir-fry. After a nap in the gazebo, I’m ready to venture north.
Outside of Fairbanks, we pull into Gold Daughters and pay $20 each for three bags of panning dirt. First, we get our hands wet from the practice pile. Nervously, we move onto the real stuff. Flecks glimmer in the water, and with some technique, they separate in the pan. Later, I will weigh out the gold that we got from the three bags: a total of 0.25 grams.
The kids want to do more paddling. Canoe Alaska in Fairbanks is still open, so we drop into the Chena River and kayak upstream. I cheer on teenagers who are daring each other to jump off the bridge. The kids are onlookers.
Tuesday: Fairbanks to Denali
After breakfast and laundry at the hotel, our morning excursion begins at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. I learn that the Athabascans have footprints in Alaska and also in the desert of the American Southwest.
The sandhill cranes are in. During our visits to Texas while Yan was a fellow at Baylor, we missed these cranes by about a week. Now, we’re seeing them up close at Creamer’s Field. They strut, eat, fight, and maybe dance. Daphney, binoculars in hand, says they are dancing.
Oishi Kitchen surprises us. Around some vacant land, at the end of a dirt road lined with empty containers, we reach this restaurant near the heart of downtown. Alcohol wipes decorate the countertops. The entire place is spotless.
We head northwest out of Fairbanks and wind up some mountain roads to arrive at Running Reindeer Ranch. Tyrone gives us a long but informative talk about reindeer. Then, we hike along the trail and meet the rest of the herd.
From there, we drive down to Denali Cabins and check in. It’s been a long day, and instead of going into the park, we decide to simply get dinner at Prey next door and relax.