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Denali National Park and Preserve
Today's the day I had booked a couple of months in advance for the Denali bus tour—the echo, 33 years later, of the one my dad used to drive. We got up at 7:00 this morning and ate some light breakfast from Safeway (cereal and fruit), then got on the road to Denali by 9:30. I had called as we ate breakfast and confirmed our reservations for the bus tour for this afternoon, but was reminded that we had to pick up the tickets by noon. So it was with some dismay that we found ourselves faced with 25 miles of road construction on the Parks Highway, complete with three flagged stops and a detour; this added some twenty minutes to an already 2-hour drive, and we arrived at Denali on the dot of noon. Got the tickets without incident, though (the bus left at 2:10; we got little cheese sandwiches at the Riley Creek Mercantile), and our bus was a vintage Blue Bird packed to the gills with about 54 tourists and a tour guide with an absolutely awesome delivery and schpiel. Seriously: he should have been on Broadway. (And considering the sibilance in his voice when he said things like thick layers of ice, maybe he does work there in the off-season.) He recited facts and stories about the park's history and the current events in the dramas of the local wolf packs without missing a syllable or losing track of a subordinate clause; I couldn't help but think of my dad giving the same monologue—must have been quite something to see, if he was anything like our guy.
Our tour was the Tundra Wilderness Tour, for $71 per person, turning around at Stony Hill; I mentioned my dad to the guide, who told me that some of the drivers (not him) had been doing it for 30 years, since 1975. Not early enough to remember him, though. Anyway—we saw a lone caribou at Savage Creek (lying in the gravel) and another one at Sanctuary River, and then a bunch of Dall sheep on Sable Mountain, clinging to the vertical surfaces. The thrilling experience was marred somewhat by yet another grumpy guy who'd apparently been badgered into the tour by his family; he seemed to have a mad-on for wolves, and kept muttering to himself as the guide talked about the Toklat and other wolf packs, occationally bursting out with some sidelong remark like "Those two wolves' descendants? How the hell can they know that? Wolves don't get married! Jesus Christ!" or "You know why we're not seeing any caribou, don't you? Because the wolves eat 'em all. I'm tellin' you." I ignored him as best I could, given that he was sitting next to me; my camera and I enjoyed the stunning landscapes of the Teklanika and Toklat Rivers and additional caribou sighted between Sable Pass and Polychrome Pass (trotting under the East Fork bridge). One thing I've really noticed about the geological features we've seen everywhere since Banff/Jasper is the "braided" rivers, with many crisscrossing channels all within a gravel bed; the guide didn't discuss this in detail, but I imagine the braiding has to do with there being no soil smaller than gravel for the rivers to carve through, which I guess in turn is the result of the low timberline and lack of trees to create it in these northern alpine climes. Anyway, we got many fantastic photos at Polychrome Pass, and then we went through the Toklat flats and up to Stony Hill, where we pulled off at the Mt. McKinley viewpoint, and took more great shots of the enormous mountain that heaved beautifully into sight in front of us. The guide was enraptured, and said, "The mountain is clearer than it's been in weeks!" And so it was: no clouds in sight, except for a few inconsequential ones on the lower flanks. Definitely an outstanding view and amazing to experience first-hand. I recognized the location from publicity photos as soon as I saw it. In fact, the whole park's layout is very memorable—I can say I know very well where all the areas and features of the road are, the various rivers and mountains and passes and wolf ranges. I really felt like I'd been there before, somehow.
GPS tracking was a little bit of a challenge; the eTrex was on standalone battery power, as it had been in Barrow, instead of on the car adapter, so we had to watch its power consumption. Fortunately it seemed to last a lot longer than the 8 hours its documentation said to expect from it. I had spare batteries along just in case. We wedged the unit in behind the last seat and the rear window (we were right at the back of the bus), and it had a pretty good view of the sky, though there were so many twists and turns in the road that the GPS track log file is full of partial segments where it lost track of the satellites and had to reacquire the signal.
On the way up Stony Hill, Grumpy Man had muttered in my ear again about how those damn "woofs" must have devoured the whole vast caribou herd we should be seeing; I turned to him and said, "Yeah, I'm sure that's it. I'm sure four wolves are going to kill dozens of caribou." He growled, "You'd be surprised..." and then curled back up into his ball of staring-straight-ahead and sulking. But after the turnaround, he somehow seemed seized with the need to bury the hatchet, and he started telling me stories about people he knew, asking me details of my life, asking about my camera, pointing out wildlife for me to photograph, and reciting nature facts about bears and such that he'd apparently read at the visitor center (I think maybe he wanted to give the impression that he'd been paying attention to nature after all). Anyway, we saw two bears foraging in the flats below Polychrome Pass, and we spent time at various opportune viewpoints getting extremely long-range shots of them and pointing them out to those who hadn't seen them yet. We saw more caribou as the evening grew cooler, at Sable Pass and again in the low valley of the Teklanika River, where we saw a group of seven or eight grazing on a hillside right next to the road, and one member of the group right on the road ahead of us. (I like to think maybe this satisfied Grumpy Man.) Then we got our real highlight of the day—a lynx right on the road, near Primrose. The driver brought the ponderous bus to an amazing short-range stop as soon as we rounded the corner and saw it; it walked calmly around the bus and I got a few great shots of it before it vanished into the brush. It was an adult, but very small; the guide said a lynx sighting was much rarer than a wolf sighting, and that we were astonishingly lucky, what with that and the clear mountain view and all. So add the ptarmigans we'd seen near the big group of caribou at Teklanika River, and all we hadn't seen were moose and wolves. Imagine our pleasure, then, at seeing one moose on the left and then another (a male, on a distant hillside) on the right, from the paved road beyond Savage River. Just as my dad had said, the wildlife really came out once the sun got lower and the air colder.
Definitely a great day—saw lots of animals and one stupendous mountain. We arrived back at the Wilderness Access Center at about 9:30, and then drove the two hours back to Fairbanks without incident. Got in at midnight and, after eating some sandwiches with Safeway lunch meat, went straight to a much-needed sleep, not setting the alarm any earlier than 10:00.
© 2005 Brian Tiemann