Great Alaska Adventure
A short ride from the Nord Haven Hotel in Healy this morning took us to Denali National Park and Preserve where we spent 11 hours riding a shuttle bus in one of the last true wilderness areas in North America. Denali was first created as a National Park in 1917 and was substantially enlarged in 1980 with the addition of several wilderness areas that have severe restrictions on human activities, including taking private vehicles into the park. It’s the third largest park in America and contains the tallest mountain in North America: Denali to Alaskans and Mt. McKinley to the rest of the world.
We learned today that a concerted effort is underway to officially change the name of the mountain to Denali since President William McKinley had nothing to do with Denali or Alaska. Denali means “high one” to native people in Alaska. It should, since its peak is more than 20,000 feet above sea level. The 100th anniversary of the first ascent was June 7 and a group of climbers, including relatives of the first men to reach the peak, are currently retracing the original route.
Unfortunately for us, clouds enshrouded Denali, as they apparently do to about 90% of the people who visit the national park. The mountain, it seems, has its own weather system and it’s often very windy and cloud covered, which makes the 1,200 or so ascent efforts each year difficult. Only 50% of those who try make it to the top.
We were fortunate today to have a very knowledgable driver who also served as a tour guide. I doubt that most shuttle bus drivers are as well versed or passionate about the park as John Miller, and his constant stream of information and stories and his willingness and ability to answer questions made the trip a truly great experience. John believes in the effort to keep Denali National Park (DNP) as wild as possible and frequently reminded us to make very small footprints while we were visiting this unique national treasure. He works for the Anchorage school system as a safety officer during the year, but his knowledge of the flora and fauna of DNP and of the the history of the park should earn him a spot as a DNP employee. He was that good.
The goal of all bus trips through the park is to see as many animal inhabitants as you can spot, to take in the incredibly beautiful mountains of the Alaska Range (including Denali) and to gain an appreciation for the importance of DNP as a refuge for humans as well as animals. We did all three.
The constantly changing but constantly wild landscape provided a panorama of distant mountains miles away and the smallest wildflowers that had to be greeted on their own micro level. Glacier-carved valleys provided an ever present reminder of the power of nature and the age of the earth. These valleys often stretched for miles across gravel beds lined with rapidly moving rivers.
Animals? Oh, just three or four moose, a sow grizzly bear and her two new cubs (referred to as “springers” since they were just born this spring), another huge grizzly, several caribou, Dall Sheep, various birds and waterfowl. John Miller said it was a good day for this time of year, especially the opportunity to spot the sow and cubs, his first such sighting this year. I wish I had a better camera with a longer lens because some of the sightings were several hundred yards away and my cheap camera doesn’t do justice to what we saw. But it will have to do. (The advantage to my camera is that if I drop it while shooting pictures from the bike and it gets smashed by a passing 18-wheeler, it’s not a big loss.)
The shuttle trip we took traveled about 85 miles into the park, 15 miles of which were on asphalt and the remainder on gravel roads carved into the sides of tundra-covered hills and mountains. I would not have wanted to take the bikes down that road, and Marilyn probably would not have gone on the bike, so it was nice to be able to let someone else do the driving (and the talking). It was a round-trip tour, and since we looked out one side of the bus going and the other side coming back, it was like a 170 mile trip. It took 11 hours with about an hour and a half of non-driving time to stop and walk around.
The weather turned out much better than I expected, since I had expected rain. We had partly cloudy skies for the first part of the trip and complete cloud cover with occasional drizzle for the rest of it. But there was also some smoke in the air from forest fires and by the time we returned to our starting point at 8:15 p.m. the smoke was pretty heavy.
I’m glad I’m planning a return trip (or two) to Alaska. DNP is one of the places I’d like to be able to spend three or four days instead of just one. I’ve hiked and camped in mountains in Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado, Wyoming, California and Oregon. But I believe DNP is unique, in part of because of the dedication to keeping it as wild as possible yet still allow humans to touch its humbling presence. I’d like to see Denali (Mt. McKinley) on a clear day and would love to explore some of the (disappearing) glaciers in the park. I’d love to climb/hike some of the smaller mountains. And I’d love to walk through its forests and feel at peace. I’ve said this before on this blog but I’ll say it again: I’ll be back.
Tomorrow, on to Anchorage.
“I can’t wait to get on the road again.”