We woke up at 4:30 for breakfast and a very early departure for our trip through Denali. Denali National Park consists of six million acres, about the size of all the national parks in the contiguous U.S. combined. Because of the high latitude, the region receives little direct sunlight and cannot support as much vegetation as can areas closer to the equator. Therefore all the animals, including the larger mammals, have to be much more widely spread. Despite the enormous size of the park, it houses only a few thousand bears and a few hundred wolves.
Denali first became a magnet for tourism in the 1970's, when a road was built through the park. Now the park receives around 500,000 visitors per year. In order to keep the park as unaltered as possible, only a single unpaved, one-lane road was built. With few exceptions, the only vehicles allowed on the road are the park buses. Once we started riding, we noticed several advantages to having only buses. First of all, whenever two vehicles crossed each other's paths, one had to pull over and stop. Second, the roads were twisty and often ran along steep cliffs, so it was comforting to have a professional driver behind the wheel. And finally, the drivers understood the terrain beneath the roads. When the road was constructed, it was simply cut out of the existing land with little concern for the stability of the soil beneath it. Some of it is supported by bedrock, but other parts are held up by much more delicate soils with a tendency to wear away. In fact, we did pass a disabled truck, tilted over where a piece of the road had broken away.
Our first impression of the park was the densely forested spruce trees found in the lower altitudes. Despite the huge number of trees, they were all miniature in scale. In fact, many of the larger ones were falling over from their own weight, unable to properly support themselves because their taproots could not penetrate down through the permafrost.
Once we got above the trees, we saw some beautiful mountains and valleys. The mountains all came in soft shades of red, brown, and green (from the grasses and shrubs). Although most were not particularly steep, they all seemed to tower above us. The mountains we saw were just the tiny foothills of Mount McKinley. Mount McKinley was obscured by clouds during our entire trip, but judging by the base, which we did get to glimpse at one point, it would have been an imposing sight. The valleys were just as interesting as the mountains. They were usually a few miles wide and consisted of brown silt from a tangle of riverbeds. The effects of glaciers were clearly visible in these areas. For example, we saw a five-story-tall rock in the middle of a riverbed, pulled there by a glacier long ago. Our tour guide pointed out a rift in the earth formed by a very recent earthquake.
Given the thin spread of animals in Denali Park, I was amazed by how much wildlife we saw. Because the park animals are protected from hunters, they are generally indifferent to humans and will go about their business even with a bus full of people nearby. Just as we entered the park gates, we spotted a tiny fox. (I suspect she was trained to sit by the entrance and greet visitors.) Shortly after that, a grizzly bear crossed in front of us and started grazing on the grass. A few times, he tried digging for ground squirrels, but I don't think he caught any. The grizzly bears in Denali usually have a golden color that is quite pretty. They tend to be smaller than grizzly bears in other parts of the U.S. because it is so much harder for them to find protein. There are no salmon in the streams, so their primary sources of protein are ground squirrels and the occasional caribou or moose calf. Later in the trip, we saw a mother grizzly grazing with her tiny brown cub.
We had good views of two groups of moose. The first group was a mother and two calves by a small pond. The mother was fishing for vegetation in the lake and often would fully submerge herself in her quest. Apparently it is most common for moose to bear twins. Only about twenty percent of the calves survive predation by bears and wolves, but enough live to adulthood that the species is in no danger. Later we saw a male and female moose grazing together in a pond.
We also saw a few caribou. The first was very far away but the most beautiful sight, a bull with a full set of antlers framed against the ice of a glacier. Later, we came very close to three caribou down in the riverbeds. They were not doing much of anything, and seemed very content just to stand there keeping away from flies. Towards the end of the trip we saw a caribou resting in a sand bed not too far from the mother grizzly and her cub. Fortunately she was pretty well camouflaged by the sand.
Our bus driver, Nick, had a lot of good stories to tell. He had moved to Alaska from Pennsylvania many years ago, and had a quality typical of many of the Alaska residents we had met - in love with the land and its animals, independent, and happy to put up with some inconveniences in order to live "on the edge." Nick was pretty insistent on getting us close-up views of the wildlife, but he couldn't stop his passengers from looking for animals way off in the distance. We got long-distance peeks at some grizzly bears, a herd of caribou, and a flock of Dall sheep up on the mountain cliffs. We also saw some smaller animals, including a marmot, numerous Arctic ground squirrels, a few ptarmigans, some snowshoe hares, and a number of beaver lodges and dams (but no beavers). At one rest stop we found a fearless ground squirrel eating a piece of candy, clearly disobeying a nearby sign that read, "Attention All Arctic Ground Squirrels: Warning! Refuse all handouts from humans. They mean well but their food will make you slow and fat... easy bear bait. Revert to natural foods for your own survival. Do not accept human handouts."
The bus took us about seventy miles into the park and dropped us off at the Kantishna Roadhouse for lunch. That was pretty much as far as we could have gone without walking or flying; two miles past Kantishna there are airplanes, but the road ends at that point. After lunch we went for a short nature walk and met many of the mosquitoes we had been warned about. Mosquitoes, the "state bird," are overly abundant in Alaska but play an important role in the ecosystem. They attract a wide variety of birds in the summertime and they are the primary pollinators of plants and flowers in the region. Fortunately our insect repellent (also called "bug dope" by Alaskans, according to JoAnn and Monte) seemed to ward off any serious bites. During our nature hike, we came across an experimental greenhouse. The vegetables and herbs growing inside seemed to be doing pretty well. There was also plenty of moisture trapped inside, and our glasses immediately fogged up when we stepped in.
At Kantishna, we attended a very interesting dog sled demonstration. The demonstrator was a woman who moved to Alaska from New York twenty-five years ago and has been driving dog teams for transportation ever since then. She showed us all of the clothing used to keep the dogs and humans warm. (In extremely cold conditions, the dogs wear mittens!) She also explained what she feeds the dogs and how she takes care of them and conditions them to run long distances. Finally she hooked three dogs up to a sled (on wheels) and went for a short ride around the driveway. It was really great to see how happy and eager the dogs were to go for a run. The woman demonstrating had to walk them on their hind legs from the doghouses to the sled. If she had let them walk on all fours, they would have just taken off running and dragged her behind them. Once the demonstration was done, we got to meet all of the dogs. Most of them seemed to like attention from people. However, they apparently don't make good house pets. A house is too warm for them, and they really prefer to stay outside.
We got back from the park at 8:30 in the evening. Our travel package included a "dinner theater" which we quickly decided was too cheesy for us. We skipped out on the dinner theater after fifteen minutes and went across the street for pizza instead. We then took a shuttle back to our hotel and konked out after a very long day.