Monday, September 4, 2017


When I published the initial post of this five year blog on my 45th birthday, I made some commitments to myself. One of those commitments was to make it to either Alaska or Hawaii or both. Four years and a couple of months later, I've made it to both. 45 states down, five to go!

When I first committed to the idea of going to Hawaii, I had one destination on my list: Volcanoes National Park on The Big Island. When I first decided it was time to head north to Alaska, I also had one destination on my list: Denali National Park. I wanted to go to Volcanoes because I wanted to see lava flowing over the cliffs of the island and turning instantly to rock when it hit the ocean. I didn't get to see that. Instead, I saw the glow of the bubbling molten rock in the Kilauea Caldera from a distance of about eight miles. I wanted to visit Denali because I wanted to see how massive the mountain is and to get a good look at the amazing wildlife in the Park. Consider this paragraph some foreshadowing. Remember that I wrote "some".

When we landed on The Big Island last February, we headed straight for Volcanoes National Park. It took us about 45 minutes. When we landed on mainland Alaska last month, we headed straight for Denali National Park. It took us about seven hours. If you are planning on stepping off a cruise ship in Seward and heading straight north to Denali, be prepared for a long ride. And make sure you fill your gas tank before you leave Anchorage. You might regret leaving Anchorage with less than a half a tank. Just saying.

Before I continue with this post, perhaps a quick stop is in order to provide some background and clarify some terms. Denali National Park and Preserve is an area of Alaska about 4.7 million acres in size set aside as the third largest National Park in the United States (number one and number two are also in Alaska). I'm going to refer to it in this post as Denali National Park or just the Park. Running throughout the south portion of the Park are the Alaska Range mountains which includes the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet above sea level. That mountain was called Denali by the Athabaskan peoples but was named Mount McKinley by a gold prospector in 1896 in support of then presidential candidate William McKinley, who went on to win the office. The name Denali was restored officially by the Obama administration in 2015. I will be using Denali for the mountain name and not Mount McKinley. If you are somehow a McKinley supporter and object to that, get over it or just hit the close button.

Day one's best wildlife sighting: a snowshoe hare. Seriously. They'll turn white in the winter.
Driving north to Denali gives you a lot of time to take in the gorgeous scenery and watch out for moose at the side of the road as advertised about every two miles. After a few hours depending on your point of departure, you'll reach Denali State Park and a pull-off called Denali View South. You might want to get off the highway at this point and see if you can see the peak if it's a sunny day. Remember it's Alaska.

Because we were anxious to just get there and we'd been driving long enough already, we skipped this stop on the way up and kept going to the National Park, which is north of the State Park. But from the point we skipped Denali View South until almost the time we got to the Park, we kept trying to guess which mountain was Denali. It's a difficult task on a cloudy day (read: a typical Alaskan day) because the top of just about every mountain around you is shrouded in mist. And that's considering you already know in which direction the mountain lies. Which we really didn't.

After a few mis-fires (maybe that's it? or that? that looks big!) we started to wonder if we'd be impressed at all with how high it was. Would the mountain even appear to be that big if it's embedded in a range? Would we be astounded by something obviously higher than anything else in sight or be faced with a peak just a few hundred feet higher than its neighbor? Clearly we hadn't done much research on this subject and didn't know really what to expect.

Then at around mile marker 214 on Alaska Highway 3 we found ourselves driving towards a massive wall of a mountain, something so wide that it filled the entire windshield. It was also engulfed in clouds at such a point that it seemed like this peak could get really lofty. This had to be it, right? I mean it was just huge.

Nope. Nowhere close. We drove around that mountain and kept going. After that, embarrassed by our failures, we just gave up and drove, convinced we could just ask a ranger at the Park to point it out to us. We were fools to expect this, although we didn't know it yet.

As it turned out, we weren't really anywhere close to Denali at any point along the drive. The visitors center is a good 40 plus miles from the mountain and we never really got closer than that on the way up there. All our speculation was for naught. To make matters worse for us, we couldn't even see it when we got to the visitors center because of cloud cover. We never saw it at all that first day of our two day visit.

Willow ptarmigan. Another of Denali's residents who will turn pure white in winter. Very excited. No sarcasm.
Of the 4.7 million acres in Denali National Park (which is larger than Connecticut by the way), vehicular access is restricted to about 92 miles into the Park. And that's not your own vehicle; if you want to drive yourself, you can only go about 15 miles before you have to turn around and go back. We wanted to explore the Park as deep as possible in our limited time there. To do that, we had two options.

Option one: hop on one of the free shuttle buses that takes you further into the Park than mile 15 and let the driver know where to let us off so we could go hike around some. Now I don't know about you but the thought of walking around in the woods where I could stumble upon a moose in heat (it was rutting season while we were there), a grizzly bear mama with cubs (read: extremely protective) or a pack of wolves (no explanation needed; I mean it's a pack of wolves) didn't exactly appeal to me. Let's take a look at option two.

Option two would be to take one of the paid bus tours available through the National Park Service website. We opted for the seven to eight hour version called the Tundra Wilderness Tour which would take us right to the Stoney Hill Overlook just a bit more than 60 miles into the Park. We hoped along the way we'd get some quality wildlife sightings (see above for the spectacular look at animals we got on our own on day one) and maybe a clear look at the mountain at the end of the drive.

Up at 5:45 a.m., check out of the hotel 30 minutes later, a half hour drive to the Wilderness Access Center, a quick breakfast of a half bag of White Cheddar Cheez-Its washed down with some water and I was ready for a morning and afternoon on a slightly deluxe schoolbus, complete with the almost-impossible-to-open and just a bit more almost-impossible-to-close single hung windows. Ahh the unexpected memories of junior high and high school that this trip evoked.

Four hours later, after passing beyond the public access point and making our way over the one way and totally unpaved Polychrome Pass about halfway on our route that featured breathtaking (I mean that not in a good way) un-guardrailed drop offs about four feet from the bus and I was ready to be shown the highest mountain in North America. Bring it on! After a long drive and a few stops for restroom breaks, I was ready to be awed at Stoney Point Overlook. What we found was fog and the view below.

Spot the Denali. Can you see it? No way, right? Total disappointment.
Yep that's right. A flight from Dulles to Toronto then Toronto to Vancouver, followed by a seven day cruise northward and a seven hour drive and an overnight stay and all I got to see of Denali in the Park was the view above. Bummer. If there's one thing for sure about Mother Nature, it's that she is not one to cooperate every time you need her to. She denied me the Aurora Borealis in Iceland in 2013 and she denied me Denali this summer. According to our bus driver, this year has been especially bad. Instead of seeing the mountain for 20 to 30 days in a summer, this year his days visible count was 11. Told you there was some foreshadowing.

We came to Denali for two reasons, remember? The mountain was obviously a disappointment. But as it turned out we made out pretty well on the wildlife side, although it didn't necessarily seem like that was going to work out at first either.

We entered the Park on day two with a 15 mile drive into the park under our belt and an already seen wildlife list which consisted of about six magpies and maybe a dozen snowshoe hare, which apparently breed like rabbits, or so I'm assuming. Our luck had to change on day two, right? And it did. About five or ten minutes into the drive we spotted a young bull moose on the road. Of course, we didn't get in line for the bus quite as soon as we could have so we ended up near the back of the bus and didn't see the moose well from that position. We certainly didn't get a picture. Bummer on that account, too.

Ten minutes further down the road though, the back of the bus got its look at some willow ptarmigan. Now, I can sense maybe you are feeling some sarcasm but I'm not disappointed with my close up look at these birds. I might have been if that's all we'd see that day but it wasn't. Checking out a ptarmigan or two close up was a treat. If I'd been there about three months later they would have been totally white and the ultimate winter survival bird, able to keep their body temperatures up in outside conditions way below 0 degrees fahrenheit. Cool stuff!

Dall's sheep rams. Not a great picture but considering the half mile or more distance, pretty good after all.
Ultimately though, we didn't come for the ptarmigan and I am happy to say that we got a good look at three of Denali's signature residents later in our tour: the Dall's sheep, the caribou and the grizzly bear. No wolves (sorry to spoil the suspense) but some pretty amazing looks at the other three species. And being at the back of the bus really didn't hurt us after the non-photographed moose. The school bus actually facilitates double sided viewing and photographing of wildlife in a way that shocks me even as I am typing these words. Plus it helps to have some fellow travelers that are interested in getting everyone in the bus a good look at what's outside. Thanks to the total strangers on the bus with us for that.

Ever heard of Dall's sheep? Nope? Neither had I. Had no clue there was such an animal. They are sort of like a bighorn sheep (in that they have big horns) except the ones we saw were totally white. We spotted several groups of these animals way up on the slopes of some of the higher mountains at three locations on our drive. Carry a good pair of binoculars or a good camera if you want to get a decent look at them walking calmly and steadily over a landscape that seems to be littered with loose rocks ready to plummet down the sides of the mountains in a rock slide at any time. Dall's sheep were definitely a surprise. Check a new animal that I never knew existed off my "seen in the wild" list.

I don't usually get too excited about sheep, but throw a pair of enormous curved horns on them and I'm all about checking them out. The same sort of logic applies to deer except even more so because even with pretty big horns on them I can't find much to get excited about with deer. I can see some variety of deer species (albeit mostly dead on the side of the road) with horns near my home in northern Virginia. Heck, I saw one running through downtown Washington, D.C. one day on the way to work. I can't see what the fuss is here.
Three caribou grazing on a hillside on the way to Stoney Point Overlook.
Unless...they have like really really big antlers. And caribou have enormous and extremely lavish racks. Caribou are worth checking out.

While the attraction for me about the caribou is clearly their headgear, there are some other pretty notable aspects of caribou life to get excited about. Their herds can get to be enormous. By that I mean like half a million animals enormous. And some species of caribou have the largest migratory range of any land animal, sometimes with individual caribou traveling up to 3,000 miles with the total herd covering a range almost 400,000 square miles.

We didn't see herds as big as this, although honestly that alone would have been worth the price of admission for the bus ride and way way more. We spotted seven or eight of these animals a good distance off the bus on our way out to Stoney Point Overlook and managed to get a closer look at a pair on the way back. The couple on the return trip got us a great look at the sheer size and complexity of the horns these things grow. It's amazing these things even walk around with such horns on their heads, although I suppose the weight of the curved back portion of the antler is somehow well balanced with the two prongs and the fan-shaped appendage on the front. I doubt I'll get a better look at these animals in the wild ever. Their habitat is not somewhere I usually end up traveling.

A closer up look at two caribou on the journey out of the Park.
And then there were the bears. We saw a total of three bears in Denali. That might not seem like very many bears, although it's not like these things travel in huge packs. Yet it was a completely unforgettable experience.

There are five kinds of bears in Alaska: polar bears, black bears and brown bears with brown bears coming in Kodiak, coastal brown and grizzly varieties (listed in order of size from largest to smallest). In Denali, it's all about the grizzlies, which in many respects are the coolest of all the bears despite their smallish (for a bear) size. You can argue with me about polar bears being the coolest and I'd probably concede but I haven't yet seen a polar bear in the wild in real life yet so I'm partial to grizzlies right now.

It had been years since I'd seen a grizzly in the wild. We spent maybe 15 or 20 minutes years ago in Yellowstone National Park watching a grizzly dig in the ground looking for food at a distance of maybe a quarter to a half a mile away. This encounter was closer and cooler. About a mile or two before we got to the turning point on our drive we came across a female grizzly and her two cubs and we were able to watch for a little while on our first sighting and then again on the way back.

Mama bear in search of some food. Or just on patrol maybe.
Mama bear and the cubs finding food together.
Mother grizzlies keep their cubs with them for two to three years. It seemed to me that these cubs were about half the size of mama so I'm guessing they were likely about two years old (there's admittedly some speculation on my part here). The majority of the time we watched, the cubs spent their time eating with maybe a little bit of play under the watchful eye of mom. We were lucky enough to see the mother allow some freedom of movement by the cubs before corralling them back into her immediate vicinity every so often. Grizzly mothers have to be protective of their cubs from the biggest threat to their existence: a full grown male grizzly bear.

We managed to secure some great pictures in our two looks at this bear family and were unfortunately able to tell that one of the two cubs had a damaged or hurt left paw. He kept limping along after his sibling as the family moved through the grass. Mother bear seemed at times that she was aware of our presence on the bus but certainly seemed unaffected by our being there, which is awesome that these creatures can live in their natural environment like this.

One of the cubs on his back playing. Looks like he's got a stick or something in his mouth.
What you looking at, tourist?
It took us a while to get to Denali on our first full day on land in Alaska but it was totally worth it, even if we managed to miss the mountain entirely. Despite the lack of a clear look at the peak, we did manage to gate some awesome (if sporadic) looks at wildlife in the form of three bears; one moose; a dozen or fewer caribou;  plenty of Dall's sheep from afar; and smaller critters like the ptarmigan and hare and one solitary arctic ground squirrel. The only unfortunate part about the ride home (in this case to the Anchorage airport) is once you've driven a while to get to a place, you are going to have to backtrack for an equal amount of time to get back to where you started from.

We didn't see the massive mountain in the Park. It was just too cloudy on the two days we were up there. But after our hurried trip up to Denali, we were determined to stop at the Denali View South we had passed on the way back to Anchorage. It would be our last and best chance to see how high the mountain really is. Unfortunately, we didn't get a clear picture of the peak we drove seven hours to see but we did get our best look of the trip. Glad we stopped here; it was way better to see the base exposed with the top firmly in cloud cover that it was to settle for the fog view at Stoney Point Overlook. You can start to imagine how big this peak is and can I imagine how gorgeous it would be as a single mountain even though it's embedded in a range. I imagine it's pretty impressive with the clouds gone.

This is the best look at Denali we got. From the Denali View South at Denali State Park.

No comments:

Post a Comment