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Published: October 30th 2019
Anchorage Alaska is less than a 4-hour flight from Seattle. You can also drive about 90 minutes north to Bellingham, WA, and take the ferry that runs along the Inside Passage, or take a cruise from Seattle. We lived in Seattle for about 20 years, but we never made it to Alaska on vacation. We joked that it was too close to Seattle; we usually went to Europe to visit his family, or to Asia, but never Alaska. I was determined to get to Alaska before we began our next chapter in life. We thought about driving up, but the car was having some issues, so we decided to fly (we’ll take the ferry up on another trip).
“Pure, raw, unforgiving and humongous in scale, Alaska is a place that arouses basic instincts and ignites what Jack London termed the ‘call of the wild.’ Yet, unlike London and his gutsy, gold-rush companions, visitors today will have a far easier time penetrating the regions’ vast feral wilderness. Indeed one of the beauties of the 49th state is its accessibility. Few other places in the US allow you to scale an unclimbed mountain, walk where - quite possibly - no human foot
has trodden before, or sally forth into a national park that gets fewer annual visitors than the international space station;” there are eight national parks in Alaska (all quotes are from Lonely Planet, Alaska, 2018; my book is in storage, and I can’t get the page numbers on the ebook version). We rented a car and drove around the state; our first stop was Denali National Park.
“The Athabascans christened the ‘Great One’ and few who have seen this 20,300 foot bulk of ice and granite would disagree. Viewed from the Park Road of its eponymous national park, Denali chews up the skyline, dominating an already stunning landscape of tundra fields and polychromatic ridgelines. The mountain inspires a take-no-prisoners kind of awe, and climbers know the feeling well. Denali attracts over a thousand Alpinists every summer. Far more popular is the surrounding national Park, a 6,000,000 acre wilderness replete with wildlife that’s easily accessible on a bus”
“What makes 20,300 foot Denali one of the world’s great scenic mountains is the sheer independent rise of its bulk. Denali begins at a base of just 2000 feet, which means that on a clear day you will be transfixed
by over 18,000 feet of ascending rock, ice and snow. By contrast, Mt Everest, no slouch itself when it comes to memorable vistas, only rises 12,000 feet from its base on the Tibetan Plateau.”
“Who needs zoos when you can get close-up views of brown bears snatching leaping salmon out of angry waterfalls or see curious moose posing majestically on National Park roadsides? Alaska is a land for wilderness purists who desire to observe big fauna in its natural habitat. This is no place for the timid. Hiking in unguarded backcountry might sometimes feel like being a guest in a very big food chain, but keep your wits about you and the musk oxen, gray wolves, bears, caribou and other creatures great and small quietly accept you into their domain.” Drivers on our buses gave us tips to protect ourselves from some of the animals; i.e., moose can’t change direction quickly, so if a moose is coming at you, run in a zig-zag pattern.
“You can peer at a grizzly bear, moose, caribou, or even wolves, all from the comfort of a bus.
On the other hand, if independent exploration is your thing, you can trek into 6,000,000 acres of tundra, boreal forest and ice-capped mountains - a space larger than Massachusetts.”
Visitors can only drive 15 miles into the park before they must turn around; on a clear day, you can see Denali at two points along that 15-mile drive. If you want to go further, you have to take a shuttle bus, and you can get on and off (mostly) wherever you want. Most people go to Eielson Visitors Center, about 66 miles into the park, before turning around, an 8-hour return journey. Or you can go to Wonder Lake, at around mile 92, an 11-hour return journey. You can also camp at Wonder Lake, if you’re one of the lucky few (28 campers, nightly) who can get reservations. Our bus picked up several people who had been out hiking, and some people got off the bus to hike. One anomaly about the bus - it’s usually frowned upon to eat or drink on buses. But on this bus, they strongly encouraged you to eat ON the bus rather than OFF the bus; any loose crumbs and scraps attract wildlife.
Several cafes in town pack lunches, since there is no food or drinks available once you leave the starting point (there are rest stops with facilities every 90 minutes or so, but no place to get any food).
We spent four full days around the park. On day 1, we got tickets to Eielson. It was mostly cloudy all the way there, but we saw plenty of animals on the side of the road or in the fields, and the drivers stopped to give us relatively ample time to take pictures. We could not get out of the bus, though. It was cloudy all morning, and pouring rain by the time we got to Eielson, so we got back on the bus to come back. About half-way back to the starting point, we had stopped to take some pictures of animals. If we looked past the animals, at the big picture, we could see a clearing, and in that clearing, was the Great One, in all its majesty. It was a beautiful sight. I read stories of so many people who come here to see the mountain, but it stayed covered by clouds. Seeing all the moose and bears
was cool, but my whole trip to Alaska was worth just those few minutes of seeing the mountain. We were part of the 30% club, those who had seen The Mountain. A few minutes later, it was covered in clouds.
Days 2 and 3 were spent in the rain, just hanging out. Day 4 had a better weather forecast, so we booked tickets all the way to Wonder Lake, for what should be an 11-hour return journey. About an hour into the ride, though, the driver announced that we could only go to about Mile 40 and would have to turn around at that rest area, because there were uncleared mudslides up ahead, from all the recent rains. About five minutes before we reached the end point, the driver slowed down - up ahead, where you could see the mountain on a clear day, it was clearing up. And there it was again, The Mountain, in all its glory. Beautiful! Again, about five minutes later, it was covered in clouds.
Denali has its own weather pattern. You know it’s there, but not always visible among all the cloud coverage. National Park Service rangers say that Denali is “hidden
two out of every three days; but ... it could be clear for a week and then hidden for the next month.” Or in our case, hidden for the whole day (about 15 hours of daylight in the summer), so it was hidden 14 hours and 55 minutes on two different days, but clear as a bell for five minutes, on two separate days.
“Because hunting has never been allowed in the park, professional photographers refer to animals and Denali as ‘approachable wildlife.’ That means bear, moose, Dall sheep and caribou aren’t as skittish here as in other regions of the state. For this reason, and because Park Road was built to maximize the chances of seeing wildlife by traversing high open ground, the park is an excellent place to view a variety of animals.”
There’s no guarantee that you’ll see any, but most park drivers say they spot five to eight bears per day; we saw quite a few grizzly bears. Throughout the park there are 300-350 grizzlies and 200 black bears. Bears around here rely on vegetation for 85% of their diet (salmon-eating bears are in other regions of the state). Male grizzlies here weigh 300-600
lbs, while salmon-eating bears can easily top 1000 lbs.
There are about 1800 moose in the park, and about 1760 caribou (reindeer). Male moose have shovel-shaped antlers, with pointed ends, which can weigh 30 kgs (66 lbs). The NPS has an antler at one of the rest areas, which you can pick up - extremely heavy! Female moose have a flap of skin under their chin. Caribou/reindeer have long, narrow antlers. Something to think about: male caribou/reindeer lose their antlers in mid-December, so Rudolph and the other seven reindeer were actually female.
There are about 50-70 wolves; we didn’t see any wolves, but we saw a fox and a ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird.
Word of advise: if you want to see Denali, allow at least a few days. Hopefully the weather will be clear so you can see the mountain.
On to Fairbanks ...
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