Susan Smith's Blog in Alaska 2011

Traveling to Denali May 31, 2011

After sleeping in the Anchorage airport last night and early this morning I was ready to get on my way. Our shuttle van arrived at 7:35, we loaded up, and talked about where we were going. Most everyone traveling was going to the same resort site. Most are either in college or have recently finished their degrees. These guys want to see the world before settling down to long term jobs. People have come from Tennessee, Arizona, Louisiana, and I'm not sure where else. 

We had to stop in many places because the road from Anchorage to Fairbanks is being repaved, probably widened somewhat also. The speed limit was 45 so it is easy to see why it takes almost 6 hours to get to Denali from Anchorage. The van was also pulling a wheeled luggage carrier so it could not go as fast as the driver otherwise might have been able to. 

I had to smile when we passed the entrance to Vern Halter's "Dream a Dream Dog Farm", as I spent four wonderful days there last summer. The muddy training run which goes parallel to the highway was in fine form, ready for dogs to run through it. Last summer we were in an ATV being pulled by 16 dogs and the rope holding us all together broke as we came out of the mud. That sight will never leave my mind. I didn't get to see them because it was after nine so he had most likely already taken his daily run with the dogs. It's too hot even after eight or so for the dogs so they take very early runs.

Denali, or Mt. McKinley, was able to be seen very clearly. No smoke from fires or cloud cover hid the top from us. The driver pulled over so we could all get photos of its majesty. What a view on my first day in Alaska.


About two hours from our resort we stopped at a grocery store to buy things we couldn't carry on the plane. Laundry detergent was a big seller, as was chocolate. We will be making trips into Fairbanks every few weeks for resupplying our necessities and to get a day out for fun. We can also take the Alaska Railroad for a nicely reduced price. 

Upon our arrival at the McKinley Village resort we got our room keys, unloaded the van, and were shown where we would be staying for the duration of our employment. We had a paperwork meeting at 3:00 PM (Tax documents, contract, basically signing our lives away type paperwork). Tomorrow we have a long orientation that will let us know everything we need to know to work here. It shouldn't be boring if today's meeting is an indication. Our director made sure we were entertained as we proceeded through the boring, yet necessary, paperwork. 

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Dinner is from 4:00-6:00 and breakfast starts at 5:00 AM since people have to be to work by 6:00 AM. It will indeed be interesting to see how many of those breakfasts I actually get up for. The taste will most likely dictate this.

It's quiet out, as there are very few guests at this point. Birds are singing, planes are flying overhead, the river is flowing by, and cars can be heard on the road. I am going to love this place.


Day 2 Working in AK

After attending a 3 1/2 hour orientation for new staff we had lunch. THe staff dining facility is not yet open so we're eating in the main dining room. The lodge is now officially closed for five days for remodeling and the people they did have were moved to the larger area up the road a few miles. So we, the staff, have it to ourselves. Having nothing else to do I went to my work area to find out what I might need to know for the next few days. Two days off, before I even really start! 


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Because I am free for this long I decided to take a walk down a trail or two. Once I arrived at the trail I decided the highway was a safer way to go, at least for my first walk by myself. The sky was so clear of thunder clouds and no smoke from fires. We were told to always make noise to let animals know we were near. After going about 4 1/2 miles I found a stick to carry and was using it for playing music on a guardrail. I was having a wonderful time, singing, watching for wild animals, and oops...over my ankle went, twisted and very painful. I had one more mile to walk and it was a very long mile. Luckily no one was coming to see me fall. That would have been embarrassing to say the least. 

Returning to my lodge I got a big bag of ice, went to the room to put my foot up, and chill a little from the walk. It is quite swollen, but at least it doesn't hurt until I get up to walk.

Went to dinner, icebag in hand. ate a little, but not really feeling it. So I went back to my room and left it on my ankle until the ice melted. It's going to be a long two days! The upside is I'm going to bed earlier.

I have red two books I've been wanting to read, watched youtube videos of my favorite European sled dog race, and basically chilled out today. The ankle is less swollen than on Wednesday, but man is my foot purple!

JUNE 4, 2011

Since my last post I finally got to work today, as it was my first official eight hour day. We had a great sale on last year's products for three days and today was the last day. The work was not difficult, but what I learned on the register for the sale is practically useless for a regular day's business transactions. I did enjoy seeing people come in and scarf up deals, as I did likewise several days ago. Now I work for five days, then have two off. 

Our dining room has reopened and the food is better than I have had the entire time since I got here. The guy in charge of it is bound and determined to provide quality meals and try to make everyone happy with their selections. We always have soup for lunch and dinner (yes it is cold enough to enjoy a good bowl of soup!), fresh salad and fruit, and vegetarian main courses, along with non-vegggie food. Cookies have now started appearing also! Apparently they haven't been available for about a week. Breakfast is always bacon and sausage, eggs, plenty of different breads, yogurt, fruit of some kind, either grits or oatmeal, and cereal. 

The meal hours are long enough that a person does not have to get up in the dark to get fed (oh wait, there is no dark right now!). We generally have a two-two and a half hours time frame for all meals. This way all employees have plenty of time to eat during their shifts and generally are able to sit and converse with friends until time to clock back in. Because often different departments work at different times this gives people a chance to catch up on what's going on with their friends or acquaintances who are working different hours. 

Friday night I went to the kennel that started my obsession with sled dog racing. It was raining but I didn't care- I wanted to see the older dogs I was introduced to four years ago and of course meet the new puppies. Our bus driver and outdoor presenter is a teacher during the school year and wife of a guy who runs the Iditarod among other races. She gave a great overview of how dogs are trained, what a musher looks for when selecting who will breed with whom, what makes a husky a husky, and she kept everyone awake with her excitement and knowledge. While she did this the musher took the dogs on a short run which makes for one loud dog yard until the ones selected to go out have left the yard.


Next we went to the indoor classroom (for lack of a better term) and listened as Jeff explained why he raced for as long as he did, what he had to do to prepare himself as well as the dogs for the Iditarod, the summer training he does, and what a musher actually does before and during the race. I had heard most of this before, but actually got a little new information to add to my lessons. He talked about the dangers on the trail and took us on a slight detour to explain how caribou lose their ANTLERS, complete with a re-inactment of how a caribou prances about with huge antlers before they fall off. This whole routine of his was quite hilarious, but the message was clear about how dangerous animals can be to sled dogs if the musher is not paying attention.


I was quite glad I was able to take photos of his trophies because my students do not have many resources to use when researching awards and now I have up close photos to show them. There were only a few I did not get, mainly because he has not won them. Red Lantern, the last place finisher's award, is a red camper's lantern so those are not hard to find in a catalogue or store advertisement. I did forget to ask about the Spirit of Alaska First to McGrath mask. Guess I'll have to go back out there!



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Now that my twisted ankle is well on the way to recovery I'm able to get out more, but for the past three days I've been icing it for most of the day. I missing walking everyday and I have a goal of walking at lest 100 miles before I leave in July. There's a T-shirt with my name on it (not literally) that I want to get for finishing this goal. I'll just have to be more careful while I'm walking the highway, playing music on the guardrail with a stick!

JUNE 8   Alaska…no better place to be

I have now officially worked for one week, but it does not seem that long. It is not difficult work, but it is certainly more tiring than my nine month one. I have nowhere to sit, even when there is no traffic in the store. When there are no shoppers we have endless stocking, dusting, rearranging, and putting back of items people have put down wherever. I have met such fun people from many states and countries. Most of them come up here after a train ride from either Anchorage or Fairbanks, spend two or three days, then get on another train or a bus, take it to Anchorage and Seward, and board their cruise ships for a seven day trip down through the Inner Passage. The stories they tell about their wilderness adventures in Denali National Park have made me excited to see it also. There is plenty of time for that before I leave. 

Our gift shops have many of the same things you'll see in any gift shop at any tourist area. However, we do have a few unique items. You can buy necklaces made from caribou and moose antlers (they do fall off you know- no animals are killed for this jewelry), bandanas that say "Bark Ranger" and "My family only bought me this bandana" for the dog, Beer soap, thimbles made from the soft fur of several animals (it sheds-it's not harvested by killing the animals), park ranger uniforms for babies, and everything has a carabiner attached to it- key chains, bottle openers, compasses, whistles, etc. One of my favorites is a bear bell- used to let the bears know you are in their area- the bell is attached to a piece of leather or strong cloth and hangs on a carabiner. There is a downside to working in a gift shop- people find way too much stuff to buy! Maybe by the middle of July I will not want all of what's on my list.

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I am back on my walking schedule. Because I am so unfamiliar with the trails here and cannot find anyone to walk with at this point I am only walking up and down the Parks Highway. I do have a whistle just in case I do see a bear, but none so far. Wednesday night I decided to go toward the main part of the tourist area which is where Denali National Park's main entrance is. I had no intention of going all the way, just about three miles and would turn around to make the return trip. I thought the distance from my hotel to our sister hotel was only six miles so I decided what the heck, I'll go the distance. Once I had gone over the three mile distance it would only make sense to keep going. What I did not realize was the distance was not six miles, rather eight! This trip was quite uneventful, as I hoped it would be, but it took 2 1/2 hours (remember I'm still a little gimpy on one ankle and didn't want to push it!). Several shuttle buses passed me going each direction and at several points I really wanted to flag one down. I knew they wouldn't stop though so I kept pushing on. I did get some beautiful photos at 9:00 PM of areas I had not previously photographed.

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I love walking at this time because it is fairly quiet, the sun is not burning down on me, yet it is very much still daytime at 9 PM, and the clouds tend to be pretty cool looking. On Wednesday when I was almost finished my walk I walked by a bridge with a surprise under it.


Apparently it has not been warm enough to melt everything, especially things shaded by a bridge.

The stillness is very peaceful, the plant colors are vibrant, (due to the amount of time the sun does shine in the summer) and the whole experience is so calming. I hear birds in the distance, I see chipmunks and squirrels cross the road, and am attacked by many, many mosquitos. Even at this time of day/night there are flightseeing trips still going on. The sound of airplanes echoes in the mountains and small prop planes can be seen circling the mountain peaks and preparing for their descents. 

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This is Alaska and I am so thankful to be here.

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