Wildlife Viewing in Denali
~Saturday, August 20, 2022~
Day 61 of Alaska Trip
Not ideal for the neighbors to be running a generator at 8:00 a.m. But I needed to power my good ol’ laptop so we could continue to keep you guys in the loop. Generator hours here are 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and then again from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Gosh, I hope I didn’t disrupt anyone’s sleep or nice quiet breakfast. At least there is a good amount of space between campsites.
After a delicious breakfast of berries and oatmeal, and kissing our pup goodbye, we took the 10-minute walk along the Spruce Forest Connector Trail to the Denali Bus Depot to catch our 10:30 a.m. bus. There are 2 types of bus schedules to get you further inside the park…..by tour bus or transit. Another option is to drive your own personal vehicle, but limits you to travel only to Mile Marker 15. We had heard if you get an awesome bus driver who loves to narrate along the way, the transit bus is the way to go. The route is exactly the same, but without the stops. And we all end up at the same place….Mile Marker 43. Price difference…..$30 vs. $130. In the end, we’re so glad we chose the East Fork Transit, with our awesome driver, Linda, who made our experience unforgettable.
Within the first hour we saw more wildlife than we ever expected. One was a relaxing grizzly bear sunning himself on a rock about 50 yards from our bus.
Apparently, bears love to nap. In fact, one has even napped on the Denali Park Road in years past, blocking traffic. In those instances, it’s a waiting game. The longest wait for it to wake from its slumber…..4 hours. While trying to get a better view of this bear, Jeff and I were seated near the rear of the bus with a tree blocking our view much of the time until Linda moved forward. It’s not the best footage,
but you can make out that it’s a grizzly bear. We learned that the color of their coat is dependent on their diet. Some grizzlies are more blonde which means they eat more vegetation. The darker the coat indicates a diet of meat and fish. She also mentioned that it isn’t the grizzlies you should fear so much as the black bears in Alaska. Evidently, they’re more aggressive, but rarely seen. I would still fear both. In the park’s 105-year history, there has been only 1 fatality involving a human, which was entirely the human’s fault. In 2012, a photographer was in the backcountry, alone, photographing a bear in a gravel bar area on a very foggy day. This hiker was only 50 yards from the bear (the recommended distance is 300 yards). Anyway, in the 12 minutes of filming this bear, he became more agitated and thus more predatory. Based on the photographs retrieved, it appeared the bear didn’t notice him until later, so maybe he surprised the bear (which you never want to do), or the bear had had enough. Sadly, the man met his demise. Later that afternoon, several hikers spotted bloodied clothing and a backpack, so alerted park officials about the incident. Once officials knew this was the bear that attacked and killed this individual, they had to kill it. I guess once a bear considers humans a food source, they have to be destroyed. The sad part of this whole story is this person should never have been there. This was the bear’s home, not his. And now because of human error, both are no longer here. Park staff routinely keep an eye on trails and backcountry areas to keep both animals and humans safe. In fact, several trails are now closed due to dangerous bear activity (either because of sows and their cubs or bears protecting a “kill”). In any case, you don’t want to be around.
With the passengers being scouts, we all worked together to spot more wildlife. We saw caribou feeding on branches or grasses. They are just about to enter their rutting season, competing for a mate. From a distance we also spotted herds of Dall Sheep either grazing in the tundra or on the tops of ridges as they thrive where few mammals can….above the tree line on windy peaks. While predators like wolves and bears do threaten, few enemies can pursue these nimble creatures up the steepest of cliffs. On the road, we saw a marmot or 2.
The scenery was spectacular and though it was somewhat cloudy, it did make for more dramatic photographs. Before hitting the dirt portion of the Denali Park Road, we crossed the Savage River with its narrow braidededness which changes routes during the day depending on the flow of the glaciers from above. There are a wide variety of trees that create so much depth in the landscape from evergreen to deciduous; 2 evergreen trees in particular are the black and white spruce. To tell the difference, the black spruce branches hug themselves meaning the branches droop more against the tree itself, while the white spruce are more open.
With the Talkeetna Mountains to the east and the Alaska Range to the west, Denali lays claim to the most magnificent scenery in Alaska.
The most we would ever see of the 20,310 foot peak today was of only her base. Denali, meaning “the High One” to Athabascan Indians north of the Alaska Range, is the highest peak in North America. The next closest in altitude is the North Peak at 19,470. Both dwarf the other 17 or so mountains that surround it…….the next sizable mountain elevation is 17,000 all the way down to 7,850. But not all want to see Denali only from afar. The climbing season has a very short window….from April to June. The reason July and August are not an option is because of the softening of glaciers. The planes simply cannot land on that surface safely. And did you know that the weather on Denali is some of the harshest on the planet? Due to its proximity so far north the temperatures can get anywhere from 10 degrees fahrenheit to -40 below 0. Because of its extreme weather, many climbers use it in preparation for Mount Everest at 29,032 feet.
Along the way, our driver pointed out a series of cabins spread out about every 15 miles or so. These cabins are occupied during the harsh winters as rest stops for the park staff and their sled dog teams. We’ve learned since being here that Denali continues their park maintenance, even during the winter months, using their team of sled dogs to haul equipment and food to specific locations. During the summer months, they have kennel demonstrations 3 times per day so you can see the dogs up close and personal. We definitely plan on doing this while we’re here.
When we got off the bus at mile 43 along with all the other buses, there was an option to get off and explore, or stay on the bus to return to the park entrance. What do you think we did? Ah, you guessed it…….we got off! Once dropped off, we decided to hike another 2-½ miles to the slide (a gradual uphill). It was comforting (not) seeing the many bear signs before embarking on this little journey….“expect to see bears in this area”. Thankfully, we never did. The Denali Park Road used to take tourists 92 miles into the park which has now been cut in half at Mile Marker 45.4 due to the
Pretty Rocks Landslide which occurred last year. It displaced 90 meters of the full width of the Denali Park Road and has no hope of being reconnected until 2025 at the earliest. The area has been active since the 1960’s but by 2014, park officials noticed a substantial speedup of movement from inches a year to inches per hour until it gave way. The cause of the slide was due to the permafrost melting and destabilizing the slope from underneath the road. For years, they were able to manage the road with patchwork until it gave way. And yes, all of this is happening because of global warming. If you’re interested in a time-lapse video of the slide, you can check it out at https://time.com/6094213/denali-climate-change-landslide/. It was quite something to see. It seemed as good a time as any to have our lunch at this spot with the spectacular views. We also enjoyed a nice conversation with a guy from Fairbanks (an avid photographer-Jeff was envious about his camera). It was interesting hearing his stories about his many visits to this area and the amount of change he’s seen. He was also intrigued about our journey, hoping to do the same after his wife’s retirement next year (he, a formal school principal and she, a teacher). We also got on the subject of the Aurora Borealis, where he told us to keep an eye out for this phenomenon from now on, moving forward. It’s already made its appearance in Anchorage. I guess it will depend on that moon cycle and our cloud cover. Now I have something else to keep an eye out for during my late nights. We also met a family touring Alaska who overheard my conversation about not being able to see Denali. She couldn’t wait to show the photos her husband got on his plane tour the day before. He was one of the few that got to witness Denali in its entirety. Lucky guy!
The bus ride back took about 90 minutes as opposed to our 2 to get there. Our driver for the return ride back didn’t stop once and only stuck to his job of driving, not narrating. So I guess we were lucky to have had such an awesome guide earlier in the day.
As expected, our pup was excited to see us and couldn’t wait for her own exploration. So we went around all 3 campground loops to take in all the sights and sounds of the forest. Now having seen all 3 loops in great detail, it’s become apparent we are in the best loop for sure!