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Published: July 28th 2017
Geo: 63.8583, -148.967
Up very early, we were transferred to the Wilderness Activity Centre, where tours into the park depart from. Here, we boarded our green ex-school bus that was to be our shuttle for the day. In the park, you can choose from two types of sightseeing. One is a tourist bus (old school bus painted cream) which is narrated by a park ranger for the whole trip and makes stops for wildlife etc. This costs $200 per person. Or, you can do the shuttle service costing $50 per person. This also stops for wildlife etc, and you can hope on or hop off wherever you want, and then pick up the next bus when you are done hiking or wandering or sitting down and chilling. If you're lucky, you get a driver who likes to narrate, but this is not mandatory and some do not.
To say we got lucky is an understatement. Our driver was Tim, and we learned EVERYTHING that it is possible to know about Denali National park from this chatty man. He didn't stop talking for the entire outward leg. We learned about the flora, the fauna, the geology, the history, the weather, the geography, patterns, bear poo, you name it, we learned about it. We had a good feeling about the wildlife we were going to see on this trip and surely we would break our jinx?
The first animals we saw were moose - two of them, but so far away that we couldn't see them clearly. With binoculars, we could make out their enormous horns jutting over the low bushes they were grazing on. However, we were only around forty minutes into our tour and thus, optimistic, we carried on searching for the Alaskan big five: Wolves, bears, caribou, moose and Dall sheep. Soon, we saw tiny white dots on the mountainside high above us. These, we were informed, were Dall sheep - the only wild sheep in North America and with incredibly impressive horns. However, they were also incredibly distant and thus we continued on.
Then movement on the mountainside caught our eye and, on looking through binoculars, we saw that it was a mother black bear with her three cubs. She was so pale that she was almost as white as a polar bear, despite being a black bear. Her three cubs, however, were jet black and stood out starkly against the white rocks of the mountains. Having been spoiled by the proximity to the bears we saw in Banff, we were a little disappointed, but we have never seen a bear with cubs, so it was still a fairly thrilling encounter. We then saw another bear, very soon after the first one, this time it was a solitary brown bear, but he was also searching the rock faces high above us. With three of the big five down in the first two hours, we were ready to see some up close!
As we continued on the bus journey, the scenery became ever more dramatic. We had reached Denali just jn time to witness the changing colours of autumn - a two week window in total before everything becomes brown and the snows arrive. All of the plains which stretched out for miles to every side of us were covered in low-lying deciduous bushes and shrubs. Each one had begun to turn from green into every autumnal shade in the spectrum. Reds, yellows, Browns and oranges all mingled together to create a vivid patchwork pattern against the dark sky and the mountains behind. We were fortunate enough to grab glimpses of Mt. Denali for a second day, the peak drifting in and out of clouds, so tall it creates its own weather patterns meaning it is only seen one out of three days in a year.
After the road began to climb to higher elevations, we were truly in mountain territory. The mountains were incredible. The huge amount of minerals, coupled with volcanic activity and the park's location on a fault line mean that the geology of the park is wildly different from one mountain to another and the range of colours within them was dazzling. We saw layered rocks of every hue, mountains with bright red tinges, greys, whites, browns, blacks and greens all adding to the stunning backdrop of the park. Soon we arrived at Polychrome Pass, where, as the name suggests, the rocks were packed with hundreds of stripes and swirls of different shades and colours.
A comfort break at the Tolklat River Contact station gave us the opportunity to pick up moose and caribou horns and feel their weight - trying to pick up both moose horns at the same time was impossible and you can only imagine the strength it must take for these huge animals to battle and the power and force that must go into the annual ruts. We later took a short break at the Eielson Vistor centre to admire the views of the plains backed by mountains. The building is built directly into the sloping rock face and we were able to enjoy a film about climbing Mt. Denali and the challenges the climbers face.
Suitably deterred from ever attempting it, we continued on our journey. The bus stopped for another wildlife viewing opportunity, this time a hen willow ptarmigan. I'd wanted to see one of these, Alaska's state bird, and so was pleased we stopped for such a small creature. We also saw ground squirrels stretched up on their hind legs at the side of the road, looking for all the world like they were giving us a wave as we passed.
After around five hours on the bus, we arrived at Wonder Lake, the furthest into the park that we would travel. Here, sadly, the clouds meant that the reflection of Mt Denali on the water wasn't visible, but we were able to pick the wild blueberries that grow around the edge of the lake. Trecking through the brambles and being accosted by mosquitos the size of birds, we persevered and soon had a bag full to enjoy on the journey back. Unfortunately, at this point, Stacey and I got separated. She headed up to the bus pick up point, and a miscommunication meant I stayed down at the lake. I raced after the bus after I saw it drive away, but it had gone by the time I reached the pickup point. Fortunately, Stacey had got off, and fortunately it was a shuttle so we were able to join the next one, but our driver was silent and it was a long way back to the park entrance without commentary.
She did stop for a couple of wildlife encounters, however, and we were thrilled to see caribou - or wild reindeer - right next to the bus. One ran in front of us and stayed on the road for around five minutes, meaning we got an incredible view of its rear end! Feeling like Santa, we followed it until it hopped off the road beside us, stayed for long enough for us to get some photos of and then sprang off into the undergrowth. We saw two more caribou before the sun began to go down and then we had two more encounters that were thrilling. A huge bull moose was grazing on the side of the road, his antlers towering over him. We watched him for a while and then further down the road, we stopped for more caribou. This time, it was a small female and a large male. His antlers were bright red, a result of him scraping the skin that flows around the outside of the antlers and allows them to grow. This leaves the antlers a stunning red colour which only lasts for a day and means that they are able to naturally fall off over the following few weeks. To see the red antlers of a caribou is pretty rare and so we were pleased to see one so close to the bus.
So, twelve hours after we started, we had seen no wolves, but four out of the big five isn't bad going. Did we wish we had seen more? Always! But had it been a great day seeing the real Alaska and the amazing landscape? Absolutely.
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