Mark Thornton and Traily McTrailerface come to the end of an epic Alaskan adventure.
We awoke early and secured Traily and our camp before driving 20km to Savage River Trailhead. We left the cars there and, clutching packed lunches, water and extra warm clothing, boarded our pre-booked shuttle bus for an eight hour 210km round trip into the heart of Denali National Park. It was cold and windy but we were thankful no rain was forecast for we hoped to take many photographs.
The buses look like the yellow US school buses we see in American films, only the park ones are painted dull green to blend into the environment. They are battered with use and seem timeless—like the landscape. Beyond the Savage River Trailhead only shuttle or tour buses may go; all other private traffic cannot. Tour buses are those from hotels and package companies; tickets cost $100. The park’s own shuttle buses, while fairly Spartan, are only $39 per person. We queued up at our allotted bus and were greeted by a tall bearded man who bellowed: “Good morning, my name is Bear”. We exchanged glances. Just what we needed for an all day tour, a loud, former Marine drill sergeant.
We found seats and listened while Bear briefed us on bus rules and etiquette. Most important was his plea for anyone seeing an animal, he called them critters, to shout out what it was and where, using the clock reference system such as “Moose, three o’clock, 200 yards”—they still use Imperial measurements in the US. No matter. We rattled off along the dirt road while I fitted a 400mm lens to my camera, expecting to be surrounded any minute by numerous wild beasts, um, critters.
This happened sooner than expected. We only travelled about 5km before he shouted “Dall sheep, two o’clock, 500 yards—green slope of that mountain”. And there they were. He stopped while all the passengers rushed to the right side of the bus, slid down the windows and, while babbling joyfully at this discovery, fired off a series of frames at the sheep, actually tiny dots of white too far away even for my big lens. Bear meanwhile chattered on and despite our earlier misgivings he turned out to be what other US tourists on the bus called a “regular guy after all”. His voice was raised so that everyone on board could hear the information he imparted, such as there are places in Alaska where food is so abundant grizzly bears number one per square kilometre. These are along temperate southern coastlines where salmon and berries are plentiful. In Denali the paucity of food reduces densities to one bear per 100 square kms.
Wolves, which generally travel in packs, need a range of 900 square kms in fruitful terrain but in desolate, treeless Denali prey is harder to find and they need a range of 1600 square kms. “Wolves cover greater distances than any other terrestrial animal in Alaska except caribou,” Bear said. Moments later we saw our first caribou, a small mixed herd grazing on what looked like yellowing dwarf willow and birch and, just ten minutes after that, our first brown bear.
Bear bellowed: “Grizzly, two o’clock, 250 metres on the ridge.” And there it was, snuffling around in the low scrub looking for berries, roots and leaves. It was a large male but was not the slow, lumbering beast you sometimes see in wildlife documentaries. It moved more like a dog, snuffling quickly through the low scrub and grass, swiping through bushes with its huge paws in its search of food. Then, quite suddenly, it pitched forward onto its chest, head turned to one side. A gasp escaped the throats of 20 tourists. “It’s okay, he’s just gone to sleep,” said Bear. “They do that, the grass is soft and as good a place as any.”
As the day progressed we developed a fondness and respect for Bear. His passion for the park and its animals was evident. Once he stopped and patiently waited for a family of 11 ptarmigan to cross the road, counting them for us in the back who couldn’t see and not edging the bus forward to hurry them on. He also rejoiced at the sighting of every ground squirrel, though there were many.
Behind us another bus pulled up to see the ptarmigan and a few kilometres further ahead was yet another, also stopped to observe some animals. It seems the animals rarely see people on the Park Road, only buses that they have learned are not dangerous so ignore them. The number of buses, sometimes there were three in a row looking at a particular view or animal, didn’t detract from our experience either. The reality is half a million tourists want to do just what we were doing — park rangers refer to the peak tourist period as the “100 days of chaos”. In the circumstances the Park Service handles the throng brilliantly. Of all the animals we saw that day—including several more brown bears, moose, ground squirrels, the ptarmigan family and a male Caribou only 40m away with the biggest rack of antlers I’ve ever seen— none paid us any attention.
On first planning our Denali trip I’d thought a few day hikes into the wilderness would be the best way to see it and its animals and that taking a bus with a crowd of holidaymakers would be boring. How wrong could I be? Apart from the joy of sharing with my family, it appeared the best way to see the place and get close to the animals.
All around meanwhile was the vast, open wilderness. While Mt Denali itself remained shrouded, the cloud had lifted somewhat and shafts of sun pierced through to glorify smaller peaks and large areas of scrub, which burst into colour at its touch. Cue John Muir: “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
Half way along the road was a viewing point for Polychrome Mountain, so named because its flanks are splashed with pink, brown, grey and yellow streaks of volcanic rock exposed by millennia of glaciation. The dirt road narrows and snakes a line along the steep eastern flank of the mountain and for several kilometres there’s a very steep drop off hundreds of metres to the Toklat River on the valley floor with no guard rail, just a crumbling dirt edge. Bear announced joyfully that if we met another bus one of us would have to reverse, something I could not countenance.
We reached the furthest point in our trip, the Eielson Visitor Centre about midday. The centre is well designed not only to blend in with the surroundings but to handle any weather. It has displays providing information about the natural history of the area. Like all the information centres we saw in Alaska, it was outstanding in the quality of the displays, including artworks by Denali artists in residence, information and helpful, professional staff.
The 6190m summit of Denali, which means the “High One” in the native Athasbascan language, was apparently 50kms away to the south west but the cloud layer was down to 2500m. Still, we could sense its bulk from the patterns of the clouds and shafts of sunlight. Tourists from many countries stood staring across the vast valley and snapping photographs, their faces animated, yet peaceful at the same time. John Muir: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” It’s also accessible to anyone hopping on a Denali bus. And they return home refreshed and wanting to protect the wild.
Suffice to say we returned safely to Traily and, with our minds filled with the kaleidoscope of images over the previous month, slept in paradise. We still had 1100kms of pretty much continuous driving Via Fairbanks to return to Whitehorse where the journey began, but we had reached the heights of wonder. To paraphrase Muir one last time, we had walked with Nature, found the heart of the world, and received far more than we sought. Our bodies and souls had learnt that “every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”