After unofficially celebrating International Beer Day on Aug 5 with an Alaskan Summer Ale, we prepared for our adventure into Denali. We were scheduled to leave the McKinley Chalet resort at 7:10 for a seven hour bus ride into the majestic park. I was really looking forward to this since I was hoping to see a lot of wildlife. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed.
The day started out a little cloudy but all three of us were filled with excitement and energy to start the day. We lined up in front of the resort to get on the bus and shortly it arrived. We all piled on and took our seats. This was a full bus with only one seat available, one that the three of us could bounce around to. Our bus driver/naturalist was very personable and knowledgeable about the park and its inhabitants. We started through the taiga, the forested area, of the park. This is the area that is below the tree line and is home to moose and the merlin, a small bird of prey. The taiga is a heavily forested area of the world that is continuous across the northern continents. Trees located in Denali are related to those taiga forest trees in Russia, Sweden and Canada. The first animal that we saw , the willow ptarmigan, was in the taiga. The willow ptarmigan lives in Denali year round and its feathers change to match the seasons, brownish in spring, summer and fall, white in winter. Not only does its plumage help to disguise it, but feathers around its feet help to act as show shoes during winter. As we approached the first rest stop, someone noticed something moving on the river bed below. It was quickly identified as a porcupine. This guy looked pretty big from the distance we were at but he was moving with some speed. As we were looking around, I noticed another form in the distance and my sister confirmed what I was seeing, a grizzly. The bus driver moved ahead into the rest stop so we could all pile out and take a look at the bear on the river flats below. Luckily, this rest stop has the only man-made deck in the park. We were lucky to not only see the bear, most likely a solitary male, from the rest stop deck but also as we drove away on the bus. As we were leaving the taiga portion of the park we met the cute Arctic ground squirrel. This little guy was as hyper as you’d expect, and he had his cheeks full with forage that he was storing for winter.
Once out of the trees, we are now in tundra. This area is treeless and is home to many of the larger animals of Denali – grizzly bears, caribou and dall sheep. The tundra contains small bushes, many of them berry bushes, and grasses. These give sustenance to the animals that dwell there. It was here in the tundra that we saw most of the wildlife that we would see during the day. The first animal that we saw on the tundra was a caribou on the hills above. This sighting was followed by a flock of dall sheep high up on the slopes. The bus driver had to use maximum magnification on her video camera in order for us to see these sheep, otherwise they were just white dots on the green mountainside. Shortly after the dall sheep spotting, we saw a sow grizzly with two larger cubs. These bears were foraging for berries that were now in season. The grizzlies in Denali are more vegetarian than their Alaskan coastal cousins, who have access to salmon. This does not mean that Denali grizzlies won’t attack or eat meat, but it’s more likely that their diet will consist of mainly grasses and berries. After spending some time watching the bear family, we continued on to witness nature in action. Someone spotted a caribou on the river flats below us. As we watched this caribou it took off in a short sprint; it looked spooked. One of the eagle eyed riders we had on the bus noticed something else that moved, a wolf. As the driver used her video camera, we saw that there were multiple wolves and that they were stalking the caribou. We watched this fascinating display for a while until the caribou moved off and the wolves gave up the pursuit. As we moved on, we also saw a pair of merlin flying around close to the road. This small bird of prey hunts in the tundra and must have caught a meal close by since they didn’t want to leave the area as the bus rolled through.
Soon, after some tight turns and narrow passages, we came to the spot where the bus was going to turn around and head back to the entrance of the park. The road we traveled on is 92 miles long but we only traveled about 60 of those miles. We turned around at the Toklat River, a glacially formed river that is known as a braided river. Since this was the mid-way point of our excursion, we also got out and had the ability to hit the restrooms, stretch our legs and see the sights. During this time, each of us noticed that it was getting hazier in the park – smoke from forest fires to the west and north of the park were filtering in. The three of us went down to the river and looked at it and the surroundings; we even dipped our hands into the slitly water. We visited the small visitor’s center that is there and then we boarded the bus to head back. By now, the three of us were excited by what we had seen so far – but we hoped to see more. Other riders took the opportunity to doze off – I guess they thought we wouldn’t see anything new. Well, were they wrong. We stopped at a small overlook that had a few trails that allowed everyone to admire the view and to take pictures. This overlook showcased two glacial valleys merging together. After re-boarding the bus, we looked out for a red fox that someone had spotted, and instead of finding it below the road bed, it was above us on the slope. We watched this fox dig, burrow and then climb on the rocks. This fox was much bigger than any of the foxes I’ve seen in the Midwest. As we drove on, we came across the sow grizzly and her cubs again. This sighting was interesting because a caribou suddenly darted across the road and into the hills on the other side of the road. One of the cubs playfully chased after it. We watched this bear family for a while since most people had hoped to see bears in the park. We were lucky so far with three separate bear sightings. The grizzlies were much lower than before, allowing us to get some good pictures of the mother and the cubs. We were all fascinated not only to see the bears as close as they were but to also see the interaction between them, with one cub staying close to the mother, the other cub being more adventurous. After visiting this bear family for a while, we continued on, taking in the scenery and looking for more wildlife.
As we moved on, we noticed a caribou on the slope above us, facing away from us. It was dead still but then moved. Our driver noted that at this time of year, caribou are perplexed by flies that swarm and bite them. She said that sometimes caribou can be found on the road since it is cooler and the flies don’t travel there as much. Sure enough, the caribou made a dash away from us and onto the road. It ran away and then back at us on the road. We could hear the clatter of its splayed hooves on the road surface. This guy actually made a circle around the bus, giving everyone a great view. We all felt bad that he was being annoyed by the insects but we were grateful for the up-close experience. After making sure the caribou was safely out of the way, the bus continued on. We saw more ptarmigan and caribou but nothing spectacular like the grizzlies or the caribou. As we came back down into the taiga again, our bus driver noticed a form in a dry river bed. Thinking it was a moose, she slowly backed up so we could all have a look. Instead of a moose, it was a large dark grizzly. This was our fourth bear sighting! That pretty much concluded our day as far as wildlife viewing went.
The park itself is beautiful and wild. This protected environment showcases everything that the wild should be, life uninterrupted and untouched by the hand of man. Although my experience in the park was great, the true splendor of the surroundings wasn’t evident due to the amount of smoky haze in the air. My trip might have been a once in a lifetime excursion; it might not have been. If it was, I will remember it for the rest of my life. This trip isn’t for everyone, but for the people who want to do it, it’s an adventure that you will never regret.