Monday, August 19, 2013

Day 8, Denali National Park & Preserve

Denali weather:  High 65, Low 47, overcast in morning (again) but then clearing on and off all day
Steps walked:  Shaun - 16,350 steps, 44 floors climbed; Shannon - 15,396 steps, 34 floors climbed
Critter count: You're not getting it that easily today, boys and girls...

Wow. Today was spectacular!!! Well, not the waking up at 4:30am part. But it was all worth it in the end because we saw a crap-ton of animals today. We went on the Kantishna Experience bus tour, which is a 12.5-hour, 92.5-mile guided trip down the main road in Denali National Park and Preserve. In the park, only tour buses, shuttle buses, RVs going to the campground (just once to enter and exit), and authorized vehicles can travel on the road after mile post 15. They do this to reduce the impact of people on the park and make sure the animals don't become too familiar with humans, which could lead to more animal/human encounters. 

Though they had shorter options, we decided to take the longest tour through the park at Carl and Debbie's recommendation, and boy, were we glad we did!  We started seeing animals even before we got to the Wilderness Access Center to catch the Experience bus....Shannon actually saw 2 moose cows from the shuttle bus at 5:45 a.m.!  How insane is that?

There were only 20 people on the bus, so it worked out well because we could sit one person to a seat.  Shannon and I saw across from each other so that we had access to both sides of the bus at once, which was good since they were coming at us from all sides.  Almost as soon as we got into Denali proper, we saw a moose cow and calf on one side of the road and a big bull moose on the other side.  After just another couple of miles, we saw a mother grizzly bear (they call them brown bears here) and her 2 cubs.  They were super light in color which was surprising to us, and they were eating the different types of berries that are all over the place right now.

Next up were 3 Dall sheep, one male and 2 females.  Dall sheep are the reason that Denali Park (formerly called Mount McKinley National Park) was created in 1917 because they were being hunted so much.  The park was originally 2 million acres, and then in 1980 President Carter signed a bill that increased the park's size to its present 6.2 million acres.  It is absolutely insane how big this place is.  Depending on who you talk to, it's the size of Massachusetts, Vermont, or New Hampshire. In other words, pretty damn big. You lose sight of the enormity of it while you're driving through it until the tour guide tells you that the mountain you're looking at is actually 30 miles away!

After the sheep, we saw a porcupine right on the road and then several (8 or so), ptarmigans which are Alaska's state bird.  These animals go from brown speckled to pure white in the winter which is very fitting for this environment.  They flitted along the side of the road too, and we saw a bunch of them a couple of times.  They reminded me of quail, but they're a little bigger.  At some point in there, we also saw a Merlin, a type of falcon, and 2 northern harriers, or marsh hawks.  The falcon was really little, which surprised me, but he was cool looking.

Our next encounter was with 2 sets of with only 2 animals and then we saw 6 of them up on a ridge.  We ended up seeing 18 caribou in all, 2 of them with really big racks (antlers! Get your minds out of the gutter!)  One of the caribou will come up later in my story, so hold that thought.

We had several more bear encounters as well.  All totaled, we saw 9 brown bears; 4 males (2 of which we saw twice), 2 sows, and 3 cubs.  One sow and cub were way up on a patch of rock that the driver saw and said that he'd never seen rocks that color in the park before, and sure enough, when we looked, they weren't rocks at all but 2 really dark bears in a very weird place.  We had a personal relationship with one of the bears who got REALLY close to us.  He was just stripping berries off the bushes and could have cared less about us being within 100 yards of him.  It was crazy but so cool I can't even begin to tell you.

To close out our list of critters seen today, we also saw 3 magpies and an arctic ground squirrel.  None of these were particularly exciting, but the ground squirrel is really important in Alaska because the dog sledders feed them to their dogs on the way up the mountain to increase their protein content.

(Gorgeous quilt on the wall at Eiellson)

The tour continued through the park through Wonder Lake and to the award winning and LEED-certified Eiellson Visitor Center until we got almost to the end where we picked up Ranger Andy, who stayed with us for about 2 hours.  He talked about the history of the park and the people who came to homestead the land and what their life must have been like back in the day.  It was very interesting, and Andy had us picking berries and eating them along the way which was cool since we had no idea what was edible and what wasn't.  We ate blueberries, cranberries, bunch berries, and crow berries.  The blueberries were much smaller than we're used to but are really sweet, whereas the cranberries are sour as all get out.  It was interesting, but at this point we had been on the bus for 8 hours and were ready to go.

On the way back out of the park, we didn't expect to see much of anything, but we did see a bunch more moose (8 in all...2 bulls, 2 cows, and 4 calves), caribou, and bears.  One incident bears describing....hahahaha....get it...BEARS describing and I'm talking about bears....I crack myself up!  Anyway, we spotted this bear pretty close to the bus...close enough to hear us yell out that there was a bear and then stare at us because we had disturbed his dinner.  After a minute or so, though, he started to ignore us.  We hung out with him awhile and then moved on only to see a big honkin' caribou around the next bend.  We spent some time with the caribou but then along came the bear.  We actually got to watch them walking towards each other being completely oblivious to the other until they were about 30 feet from each other.  It was like Wild Animal Kingdom for crying out loud...the caribou knew something was around but couldn't see the bear, and the bear wasn't paying any attention to anything except filling his belly with berries.  By the time they did figure it out, the bear charged the caribou, but he really didn't have a chance since the caribou is so fast.  It was so cool though!  Shannon got a video of the encounter, but it doesn't do it justice at all.

(Moose scat)

After we were done with all of our encounters and left the park, we went back to our hotel room, ate a scrumptious dinner and then went on a 2-mile hike recommended to us by our waiter.  It was through some really little, rooty trails, and we sang a whole bunch of songs (pitifully I might add) to let the bears know we were in the woods.  We saw moose scat too, but we didn't try to make any jewelry out of it (we saw moose dropping jewelry in Talkeetna, and my friend Claudia says that they have sporting events where moose droppings figure prominently in them....only in Alaska!).  As you can see from our step count, we did a good job on our hike.  Our tour guide had recommended we do this to work the toxins out of our body that occurred from being cooped up in a bus all day.  He said it was the surefire way to prevent being sore the next day.  We'll let you know if it worked!

We made it an early night and prepped for tomorrow's further adventures in Denali.  We will start the day out riding ATV's on the Denali Highway, which is part of the preserve part of the park and allows motorized vehicles.  After that, we plan to see all the visitor's stuff, so wish us luck!  Enjoy our pics!

It does bear mentioning that we were able to see more of The Mountain today...not the whole thing but the very top that is seldom seen, so we have been doubly blessed in this department....and we'll take it! We had very weird weather started out really overcast, but then it cleared up a lot and then it got cloudy again.  The temps were very cold in the morning, but then it warmed up to t-shirt weather in the middle of the day and then dropped down again once we had returned to the front of the park.  It just goes to show how much the weather in this part of the world changes on a dime so you've got to be prepared for just about anything....and we are!


  1. Did you have lunch at the end of the Kantishna roadhouse? Did you pan for gold there? or watch the dog sled demonstration? Boy, polychrome pass looks way different than when we were there. We had lots and lots of color, wish we had the sun though. Love the video's, especially of the bear/caribou encounter :) Keep it coming ladies!!

    1. No, we ate a bag lunch and pretty much stayed on the bus the whole time. We didn't get an opportunity to go to the roadhouse or pan for gold. That would've been cool though! We're planning on doing the dog sled demo today.

      The pictures and video from Polychrome Overlook are deceptive because the sun was out going in but not when we came out, so we got a bit of everything. There are also two forest fires burning right now, so there was quite a lot of smoke creating a haze.

      Glad you like the videos. It's fun experimenting in the different scenarios. I just did my first one today, so be prepared to laugh at that tomorrow.

    2. I know pictures don't do justice of the beauty of this area. I am referring to the difference in "weather" we had from your weather. We were there when fall was starting, actually I think it peaked while we were there, we were amazed at the color changes in the 3 days we were there, it snowed while we were there also.