June 8: Our next step in Denali – the limit. We moved Ferd into the Teklanika Campground at Mile 29 and left the Jeep at the designated parking area. There’s no private driving on the Park Road to that distance except into the campground and out, once only for each camping trip. We wanted to get the feel of the interior of the park by actually making our home there for four days. To complete the package we scheduled a bus trip to the end of the road, Mile 93, the town of Kantishna.
It was fun to drive the motorhome up the Park Road watching for wildlife and nature on our own. We counted eight snowshoe hare that crossed our path on the way. We learned earlier that the snowshoe hare population is at its ten-year explosion and is eating all the willow in the park. Also exploding are the lynx, the predators of the hares. Soon the hares will decline as they eat all of the willow food supply. The lynx will decline as there are less hares for food, allowing the willow to replenish. Studies how this happens about every ten years. It’s another interesting natural cycle. Anyway, counting the numerous hares as we went, we reached our spot in Tek campground, a peaceful place surrounded by mountains and bordered by the river. We were ready for the next phase of our Denali experience.
What could add to our maiden trip in the park when we saw the majestic Mt. McKinley? This time we would begin from Teklanika Campground, nine hours round trip. The end of the road is Kantishna, a former gold mining town where a couple of folks hit pay dirt. Most of those who made the difficult move in the early 1900s did not find their fortune. Today there are a few remote luxury lodges reachable by bus or air only.
We weren’t sure how the day would go when it rained all night. A nine-hour bus trip could be a bit much on a dreary day, right?! But we were ready at our 8:55 a.m. boarding time, with our rain gear and our lunch and our binoculars and our camera and our high hopes. Other friendly campers were boarding with us from Dallas and Las Vegas, all of us hoping to see wildlife and soak up more nature. The result? By the end of the day, we decided that this second bus trip could be appropriately dubbed “a double whammy!”
Getting started, we wound through the portion of the road we’d viewed two days earlier in sunshine. Right away we noticed how different things appeared. The colors seemed deeper in some cases. Sometimes, with the low-hanging clouds cutting off the tops, we could see more of the weeping creases in the mountains formed by the glaciers. The rivers were so much more pronounced from the rainfall, making wider cuts as they braided in and out through the valleys. It didn’t take long to decide that we made the right choice. We were happy to have the contrasting perspectives of the weather in the park. We had another great driver, another view of the terrain, another kind of information provided. For instance: Did you know that a porcupine can kill large spruce trees in the forest? Yes, there is a section of Denali where there are dead spruce from the 1920s. The porcupines climb into the trees, eat all the bark and kill the trees.
As we moved into new territory at higher elevations, we were at eye level with the lower levels of the tundra, the shorter vegetation covering the wavy hills and valleys. We’re all enthralled with the terrain when suddenly a passenger yelled “stop.” That’s how it happens. Anybody who thinks they see wildlife calls out to the driver so that he can stop for everyone to get a look. This was a super spotting! There in our view was a mama grizzly and her cub. We watched them foraging for roots. Then the cub would run and play and mama would stand up on her hind legs to locate the cub, and go bounding after her. They actually worked their way over toward us and crossed the road in front of the bus. What a spectacular sight!
There were interesting bits of wilderness and wildlife happenings scattered throughout the trip. Caribou were spotted at two or three points, munching away at the grasses along the hillsides. We had a rare viewing of the Gyr Falcon, the largest in the world. Jeremy, our driver, who turned out to be a learned bird-watcher, told us that not many people get to see this particular bird. Our group had a good look. The bird perched on the top of a rock outcropping for all to see, although be it by binoculars. Then we came to the glacier. But, wait a minute…. it was green and brown and hilly. Yes, Jeremy explained that this actually is the Muldour Glacier. You see the ends, or terminus, of any glacier has about two feet of dirt on top where plants grow. That was news. Not what we think of as anything to do with a glacier. We’ve had distant views of glaciers on the mountains throughout our trip. But today we learned about the end of the glacier. It all counts.
But one more event completed our Denali journey. The day’s nine-hour trip was winding down and all passengers were quietly watching the stupendous views. Then…..just a few miles from our campground, we saw another bus stopped along the road. What was that on the edge of the road? Wow!!! Right in front of us-- Mama grizzly and her two cubs were casually sitting there. The next fifteen or twenty minutes were outstanding! 32 of us quietly watched the wildest of animals as they calmly took their time doing whatever they do. Everyone kept limbs inside the windows. Everyone was silent. The bears wandered around, next to and crossed in front of our bus. One cub came over next to our window to take a look at us. As if he was saying, “What are you and why are you holding that machine?” All three stayed close by without seeming to be concerned about we humans. There was only the sound of shutters on cameras as we each tried to get the best shots. Then we would just stop the cameras and watch the family of three go about their business. It was quite an experience being with these wild animals in their own habitat. The mama bear didn’t seem worried about the cubs’ activity. We humans were as unthreatening as possible. They slowly walked down the road and we slowly moved along our own way.
This was our double-whammy day in Denali. The scenery was a new kind of breath-taking. In addition, we had a wildlife extravaganza. We turned another page in our Alaska Adventure. The camera doesn’t capture the immensity and awesomeness. All I can say is, if you have the opportunity to explore this wilderness, take it. See you down the road.