*Banging on Door*
“Andrew! Get up…..I smell smoke!”
We were just ten days removed from a significant fire on our property when I was woken up just three hours into a night of sleep.
Nevermind it was 8am, and also the fact that night does not exist in Alaska in June.
Smoke in the Canyon
I walked out of my door and the strong odor of a forest fire was unmistakable. The view of the canyon directly in front of our property was notably obscured by smoke.
However, we were clearly not in any immediate danger, unlike the last time.
“Meet me at my truck in five minutes.”
Uke called me and we instinctively knew it was time to go for a quick ride to try to find the fire.
I put some pants on and a jacket over whatever shirt I slept in and stumbled out the door while trying to stomp my feet into my boots.
“Go south about ten miles and we will see what is going on.”
As we headed southbouth out of the Denali Park area (what locals refer to as “The Canyon”), we could clearly see an orange glow off in the distance to our left.
“That’s way out there, I can barely see anything.”
“Why didn’t we go down to Denali Highway and just go a few miles east, maybe we can see more.” – My famous last words.
Alaska State Highway 8
The Denali Highway is the more common name for Alaska SR 8, and it is a gravel road that leads across a barren wilderness.
A quote from Wikipedia….
“The highway is now little used and poorly maintained, and closed to all traffic from October to mid-May each year. Only the easternmost 21.3 miles (34.3 km) and westernmost 2.6 miles (4.2 km) are paved; whether the remainder should be paved as well is a continual source of debate. Washboarding and extreme dust are common, the recommended speed limit is 30 mph”
We were about 25 miles into the drive when we could still see a dull but obvious red glow to our due north.
This meant the fire was somewhere between us and “The Canyon” where all of the tourist lodging and eateries were located for the National Park.
A straight line “as the crow flies” distance between us and home was about 40 miles. This meant the fire was probably about 20 miles from everything.
Christmas in June
Around Mile Marker 25, I noticed a particular pine tree different from the millions of other pine trees out my window.
It was completely decorated like a Christmas tree. Upon first sight I thought it might actually be an old tree that someone threw out….but who would do that here? There were no humans or signs of civilization for that to be the case.
Somewhere a few miles passed the Christmas tree, Uke and I silently but firmly agreed we would be travelling to the end of the highway and back.
The recommended speed for the road might have been 30, but we were nearly always doing 55 to 70mph. The road wasn’t too treacherous, at least for a well built truck and even a decent driver (which Uke is more than decent).
Magic Mountain Vistas
There was absolutely not a damn thing to see along this long stretch of empty Alaska Highway 8….except for exactly what you want to see in Alaska.
Snow covered mountain peaks across the horizon. Spread around the massive open area as if you were driving through an expensive painting.
Pitstop in Paxson
Or the complete lack thereof. At the end of the 135 mile Denali Highway lies the ‘town’ (more like sign) of Paxson, Alaska.
The official population of Paxson is 43. However the ‘village’ itself offered much less than what I have seen in the past from even a town of 50.
There was one two story gas station/lodge/restaurant/lounge at the junction of the Denali Highway and SH whatever….
The place looked super cool and inviting with an old school feel.
I didn’t care however for the fact that it had been abandoned for at least 15 years, given that we absolutely needed gas to return home.
It was also 2pm and we had not eaten or drank anything at all today.
Tangle River Inn
“Didn’t we see a gas pump back there about 40 miles?”
There were actually two small road side stops we passed towards the end of the road.
One was a pizza place that wasn’t open. This provided unsatisfactory flashbacks of our visit to Panaroma Pizza the night before.
(We arrived around 10:20pm to a sign that flashed OPEN underneath a giant “Pizza” sign. We sat down with menus and were soon told they stop selling pizza at 9pm. Apparently after 9pm it becomes Amateur Hour…but I digress)
The other place was Tangle River Inn.
We pulled into an empty gravel lot and found our way in this old log cabin looking establishment.
The interior of this place would remind you of your grandma’s kitchen from the early 1980s. Well, at least the carpet and tables.
To the left of the door, was a small glass counter where all transactions were handled. There were snacks and smokes, we were in luck.
In front of us were about 10 tables scattered about in an otherwise completely empty and quiet room. We sat down at a table by a window.
“It never fails, you finally make yourself something to eat and someone walks in.” An older lady walked out from a small cubby in the wall, presumably the kitchen.
We made small talk with the woman for about five minutes while contemplating what magnificent feast we would have from this lonely carpeted log cabin kitchen located 300 miles from any discernible civilization.
The Last Frontier
“Yeah I had on young lady here last year that was great….but there was just no way she was coming back again this year.”
We were discussing the difficulties of finding people to work for the summer in this remote, isolated part of the world.
Our hamburgers arrived quite literally — with ham on them. A small but ample patty cooked on an indoor skillet topped with a piece of warm ham, bacon, lettuce and tomato.
“There’s no wifi here…we are in the middle of Alaska…..” – The woman said as we received our food.
The patty was much thinner than a normal diner burger but still thicker than McDonald’s. It was clearly frozen, and just thick and juicy enough to pass as satisfactory.
In the moment of desperate hunger, this was the BEST burger I could have possibly had at the moment.
“This is Mrs. Nataline….the owner of the restaurant and lodge.” An old woman, very old came into view.
“Mrs. Nataline and her husband have always owned Tangle Creek. Jim??? homesteaded this land. He built this building over 50 years ago. He came here by dogsled.
“I was telling them about how Jim built this.”
“We love your place Mrs. Nadine. It’s awesome. Fantastic place!”
A Forgotten Time and Place
We kept giving her short hand compliments although it seemed as if she had no idea what was going on.
I didn’t even fully realize the extent of her condition at first.
Suddenly, a redheaded woman likely in her mid 40s came in. This was fairly obviously the housekeeper we had been hearing about.
The housekeeper and the lady who otherwise appeared to do everything else were talking to each other briefly.
Meanwhile, we noticed Misses Nadine more or less wandering around in the dining area.
She came up to the two women and said “….Who am I?”
This started happening several more times as we had just finished our average yet life saving burgers.
On our way out the door we stopped at the counter and bought at least five different types of candy bars and a pack of darts. There’s nothing like staying healthy on the road.
“We have several things to discuss when we leave here.” Uke very quietly said to me.
That was an understatement and unfortunately most of those things cannot be rediscussed.
Several miles down the road towards home we began to remember the fire that had initiated this completely unplanned road trip.
“Everything in the canyon could be gone right now and we would have no idea.”
As we neared the end of the westbound trip on the Denali Highway, we saw zero signs of any ongoing fire. The sky did not look anything like what it did in the morning.
Soon, we returned to the Canyon and found everything perfectly safe and sound. This unfortunately meant I still had to shower, do laundry and be at work in five hours.