Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Denali - YES! (Mt. McKinley, not so much)

We departed from the McKinley Princess lodge on Monday morning to make the roughly hundred-mile drive to Denali National Park. we expected this to take about an hour and a half to two hours, knowing we would need to stop to get gas, because we only has about a quarter-tank in the electric-blue rental car. (BTW, we have learned that this a very popular make, model, and color of rental car in Alaska, because we have passed many on the road and twice tried to get into the wrong car in parking lots at popular tourist destinations.)

Little did we know that 1) it would take a lot longer than that to make the drive, because they are doing construction on the winding, one-lane-in-each-direction road through the mountains (this road, like pretty much everything else in interior Alaska, is built on permafrost (ground that is permanently frozen a few feet below the surface). Apparently permafrost does do some melting, and then shifts, which means frequent re-grading and repair of the roads AND 2) there is NOTHING, absolutely NOTHING, for many, many, many miles along the George Parks Highway from Talkeetna to Denali National Park. The low-fuel light turned on and Joy and I began to get a bit nervous, then a lot nervous, as we wondered how far towards "E" we could push our little car and formulate a plan for what we would do if it conked out on us. Luckily, just as it started to rain and our situation looked very grim, as if from nowhere, Cantwell, Alaska (pop 147, but with two gas stations) emerged from the mist. Paul credited the four-leaf clover he found in Talkeetna, while Joy felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We poked around the very nice Visitor center, hit the gift shop, and waited in a VERY long line for a diet coke and turkey sandwich (note to Doyon/Aramark Services -- when you operate the only food service concession in a large national park, it's probably wise to have more than one cashier working the lunch rush during the busy season. Just a thought.). Then we headed off to catch the bus for our Tundra Wilderness Tour. Visiting Denali is quite different from visiting many of the national parks in the lower 48, like Yellowstone/Grand Teton or Great Smokey Mountains. The park/national preserve is enormous -- 6 million acres -- and has only one road, which runs 90 miles west from the visitor center and stops. Private cars are allowed only on the first 15 miles; if you want to go further in, whether to hike or camp or just look around, you have to take the bus. There are two sets of buses -- shuttles that run from the visitor center to the end of the road and back, which you can get on and off at designated points -- and tour buses, which provide interpretation and snacks, but don't stop (other than for the occasional bathroom break). Because we were traveling in unfamiliar territory and with a ten-year-old, we decided on the narrated, climate-controlled tour.

The tour we chose goes out to Mile 62 on the road, and takes about 8 hours. A guide described the natural, geological, and zoological features of the park while we and our 40-odd travel companions (every seat was full, mostly with people on a packaged cruise-tour) kept our eyes peeled to the windows, looking for animals in the distance. Like the whale-watching trip in Seward, the scenery was at least as interesting and exciting as the animals. (Mountains, deep valleys, "braided-channel" glacial rivers, etc.). Also like Seward, you'll have to take my word for what we saw, because my wildlife photos from the bus are even worse than the ones from the boat. We did pretty well in the wildlife department, spotting:

  • Ptarmigan (the "p" is silent -- the state bird of Alaska)

  • Snowshoe hare (look like the bunnies at home, except with really big feet and no cottontails)

  • Ground squirrels (smaller version of what we have at home)

  • A Golden Eagle who swooped and swirled right outside our windows

  • Several Grizzly Bears, ncludng a mama and cub walking right by the side of the road

  • Dall Sheep (the white cliff-dwelling wild sheep who inspired the creation of the park)

We stopped in an area where wolf had been reported and several people on the bus claimed to see them walking through the brush, but I never saw anything myself. We didn't spot any moose, but we have seen several wandering my the roadside, so we weren't too upset about that.

The other thing we didn't see, to our disappointment, was Denali (aka and officially Mt. McKinley) itself. It was just too cloudy. Ah, well -- that's what postcards are for, right?

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