We set off from Talkeetna, up, up and away, through the clouds and towards Mount McKinley - or so we hoped! At the last minute yesterday we'd changed flight plans because K2 didn't have enough for the summit flight.Luckily a quick bit of research gave us another opportunity and we were booked in for an 11am flight - with the only company that does uses instruments to fly. Dave the pilot was a cheery chap and gave us instructions on safety, flights plans and use of oxygen which we would need above 14,000ft. It was odd flying out of Talkeetna into the clouds and for some time, during which Dave spoke to air traffic control, we could see nothing. We broke through the clouds and suddenly after about 20 minutes the summit of Mt McKinley was before us - still about 20 miles away though.We circled the mountain and had fantastic views of the peaks, faces, icefalls, glaciers, and of the summit camp where climbers often have to wait - as they did that day - for a summit attempt. We even had views into the National park and Wonder Lake - where we would be tomorrow. It was truly stunning and much better than we had expected and even hoped given the overcast weather that morning.
Before leaving Talkeetna we must report at having the most gorgeous red salmon sandwich in a wee cafe - it was fantastic.However, our northbound journey was not nearly as exciting and in fact it was a little dreich. After about 150 miles we pulled into the Denali National Park Centre to check into our campsite and sort out the rest of our visit. Savage River Campground where we were staying was about 13 miles into the Park.So it is miles away from anywhere and set in the midst of a forest of black spruce trees. We found a lovely open spot where we have a view of the hills and mountains towards Mt McKinley (or Denali (Athabaskan for 'The High One') as it is known in Alaska).
Shortly after opening a beer we had a visit from the Park Ranger who was doing a talk at the Campground's open amphitheatre about the Raven.We headed round for a pleasant hour - in the chilly evening - hearing native Alaskan stories about the highly regarded Raven.E even managed to get himself a slot reading a verse of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven'.
We'd had difficulty in understanding exactly how the transport in and access around the park works, but we'd booked ourselves on the 7.15 am shuttle bus to Wonder Lake, which is located 85 miles into the park - a round trip of about 10 hours. After the overcast and wet day yesterday we were pleased to wake up to a bright sunny morning. We were up at the crack of dawn (well not exactly because dawn is at about 3.30am - and sundown is only at about 12.30am!) to have some breakfast and make a piece for our lunch before making our way up to the bus stop.We weren't sure quite what to expect but all soon became clear as our driver, Cissie, explained that there would be specific rest stops along the way, that she would also stop the bus if we spotted any wildlife, and that we could hop off at any time if we wanted to do a hike and then pick up another bus back.
As we drove further into the park, and the road wound its way higher and higher, the scenery changed dramatically and became more and more wild and beautiful. Polychrome Pass in particular was just a splendour of fantastic and beautiful colours - totally breathtaking. With such clear skies we were able to enjoy almost constant, uninterrupted views of Mt McKinley towering majestically above everything else around.We are so lucky to be one of the 15% of visitors who actually get to see the mountain as it is usually hidden by cloud. Our first wildlife sighting was of eight Dall sheep that were hovering by the side of the road obviously wanting to cross.They were very skittish and nervous and only after checking the area out for predators did they eventually cross and head up the opposite mountainside. Later, we spotted a herd of caribou high on the hillside. Then, as we were admiring the famous view of Mt McKinley from high up on Stony Hill, we noticed another bus way down in the valley below which had stopped - obviously something had been spotted.Through the bino's M saw that they were watching two grizzly bears.So we all quickly jumped back on board and headed downhill.The grizzlies (probably a mother and her 'teenage' cub) were foraging and feeding about 150 yards from the road and we spent a good few minutes watching them until they meandered further away. It is interesting to note that the brown (or grizzly) bears in the Denali National Park are a particular subspecies called Toklat and are paler and more blond looking than other grizzlies - they are really very handsome indeed.Anyway, we were really pleased to get a bear sighting but more was to come.A little further on, we saw another one lying sunbathing only about 20 yards from the roadside and spent a good few minutes enjoying his company.At our rest stop at the gorgeous Eielson area (by now we were really well into the park and in really isolated terrain) we had yet another sighting of a grizzly, but at a bit more distance - we felt so lucky to have seen so much.
We stopped for about 20 minutes at Wonder Lake (fine views of the mountains and a couple of loons, with their whooping call, on the lake) before heading back eastwards.On the return journey when most people get a little drowsy and eyelids become heavy, M was still vigilant and shouted 'Stop' when she spotted a large bull moose with a magnificent set of antlers a short distance off the road. Unfortunately Cissie (the bus driver) wasn't equal to the task and by the time she'd slowed down and pulled over the moose was vanishing into thick scrub.Although we had a fleeting sighting we were disappointed that we were denied a chance to watch a 'real' moose in the wild.We decided to hop off the bus at Eielson so that we could climb the Alpine Trail, which is a 2 mile and 1,000 foot steep constant climb to the top of Mt Eielson.This was so exhilarating and exactly what was needed after several hours in the bus. One of the smaller wild animals in the Park is the squirrel (Jim & Pam take note!) - the red squirrel that lives in the forested areas and the arctic ground squirrel (with a much smaller and redundant tail) that lives in the more open areas such as Eielson.They are really cute (see Denali photo album) and not at all intimidated by humans. As we climbed, stopping regularly to catch our breath, we were able to take in the wide variety and range of alpine flora (luckily there was no 'large fauna' around - we kept talking loudly as we climbed) and marvelled at the magnificent scenery.It was a great climb and well worth the effort. Back down we managed to get on a bus and on the way back had another fleeting bear sighting (again the driver took much too long to slow down and stop).As we crept along the precipitous Polychrome Pass we were surprised when a huge golden eagle soared suddenly upwards only yards from the bus.Thank goodness the driver was more alert at this sighting. Further on, we again spotted the same flock of Dall sheep and were a little bit concerned when we could spot only seven of them - had one been taken by a wolf? However as we scanned the mountainside number eight hove into view - phew!
We got back to camp thoroughly exhilarated. What a glorious day - Alaska just gets better and better!
The next day was a relaxed affair - deliberately - as we have had 17 days of day after day of constant activity. We woke late and had a leisurely and full breakfast then proceeded to do some 'necessities'.This meant driving again this time down to the Mercantile Store to the dump station, to fill up with fresh water, then off to the gas (petrol) station to fill up so we could run the generator whilst on site here and later again at Byers Lake at the Denali State Park where we would be in a few days time. We then came back to our lovely site for a relaxing couple of hours before exploring the local Savage River area.We've left the River Trail until the next day so headed off to what was a new and yet finished Mountain Vista Trailhead then to the Interpretive Trail which is an easy walk around an area used many years ago, and still to this day during winter months, with an old log cabin and husky kennels. Whilst out, we followed the Rangers' advice and talked loudly - mind you feeling a wee bit foolish - so that wild animals would be aware of our presence. As we neared camp, we spoke about all the advice about bears and moose encounters probably being exaggerated and the chance of an encounter being pretty slim. We'd just got back to camp and M was looking out the rear window spying on neighbours when she saw the woman moving quickly.At that same moment, E shouted Doobs! Doobs (for those of you who don't know this is our mutual pet name). Bloody hell, a great big brown grizzly bear had appeared right beside the van.It had come out of the bush at the other side of the track and started snuffling around our pitch. Grabbing the first camera to hand, E caught some of the bear on film (see Denali photo album) and when he headed outside got a short video as the bear sniffed trees and made its way through the undergrowth.Could we really sit outside again in this country?? What an adrenalin rush and what a fantastic way to experience this country. It made the evening campfire and outdoor experience considerably more exciting. Eyes are now much more focused on the surroundings.
Now even much more vigilant, we set off to the nearby Savage River to walk the river trail.Not expecting too much we immediately were inundated with sightings of some of Alaska's smaller and less dangerous creatures: the elusive snowshoe hare, Arctic ground squirrels, hoary marmots, (Mr & Mrs) Willow Ptarmigan with their chicks on their nest, mew gulls, gray jays, chickadees, spruce grouse, ruffed grouse, northern harrier, Dall sheep, to name but a few. It was a gorgeous and very interesting 2.5 hour walk along one side of the Savage River with a little detour up the gorge where a wooden bridge crossed the River and a return along the opposite riverbank. Thoroughly satisfied, we returned to camp where we lit another fire and enjoyed a lovely sunny evening. Sadly this would be out our last evening in Denali National Park.
But before we left the next day we had a look around the excellent Visitors Centre which we found to be extremely busy after our few days in relative isolation. We then followed some of the nearby trails before heading south to spend the night at Byers Lake in Denali State Park. The scenery on the journey down was spectacular especially because it had been very closed in when we'd travelled north. However, weather became a little more overcast and we set up camp in a light drizzle.
E & M xx