THE DENALI GRAND SLAM!
|Denali starts to disappear as the day wanes.|
|Denali up close.|
|Denali is disappearing.|
It was a "dark and stormy" day upon our arrival at a campground outside of the national park and all the views of the mountain on the drive were nonexistent. The park had already been experiencing rain for the last 4 weeks and the forecast for the next 2 weeks sucked. I was depressed. So off we went to the "49th State Brewery" to chase our blues away.
The next day we arose to more drizzle, clouds, and no chance to see the mountain. I decided to take a hike to the national park sled dog kennels. I arrived in time to watch the demonstration. The national park uses "freight" dogs as opposed to "racing" dogs. Since all roads in the national park are closed during the winter, except for 3 miles, and snowmobiles are prohibited, sled dogs are the only way to patrol the park. Just like the "racing" dogs these dogs can't wait to get in their harnesses and pull.
We arose the following day to more clouds, a mud hole for a campground, and this was our day to move to Teklanika Campground in the national park. There is is only one road which penetrates into the heart of Denali National Park. The road is 92.5 miles long and private vehicles are not allowed past mile 14. Our campground was at mile 29 so we were provided a special permit to drive our motorhome, but not our car, to Teklanika. Since we use our car for storage, it was a little weird abandoning it at the park's visitor center. We did manage to jam our bikes into the rig as biking on the road was allowed.
Teklanika Campground sits directly on the Teklanika River, a glacial river. (A glacial river runs pure and clean until late spring when the glacial melt starts and the river turns gray with glacial silt.) It was the Teklanika River in Healy, AK (just north of the park) which was the river that idiot from "Into The Wild" had to cross to get to the bus. A replica of the bus is now a tourist attraction at the "49th State Brewery." However, tourists are lead to believe that this replica is the actual bus as idiot tourists continue to seek out the original and invariably need to be rescued.
After arrival at the campground and looking at the clouds, I decided to make the best of it so I took a long walk along the river and into the woods. As usual I got myself lost and wandered around for a while before I stumbled upon the river again. (Getting lost here is serious business. When we arrived at Teklanika there was a search and rescue operation in the same area for a lost hiker. 3 days later they found the hiker safe; but scared out of his wits.) As I emerged from the forest, there staring at me, from only 50' away, was a female caribou. Not wanting to re-enter the forest, I decided to walk back to the campground hugging the edge of the forest. The caribou decided to keep its distance but liked my pace so it walked in the same direction but hugged the edge of the river. This got weird. When I stopped, it stopped...when I picked up the pace, so did the caribou. Finally, I got back to the entrance trail to the campground. Knowing that Nancy would love to share this experience, I asked the caribou to wait while I ran back to fetch Nancy. 10 minutes later Nancy and I reappeared and, lo and behold, there was the caribou waiting for us. Nancy and I then continued walking along the forest edge to the other end of the campground and the caribou followed along. At this point another couple approached us and the caribou stopped, looked at the 4 of us, and pinned its ears back; so we all backed off. Once the couple moved off, Nancy and I were able to move back to our original position about 100' away. At that point I decided to sit down, so the caribou sat down. Nancy then decided to leave so I walked her back. When I returned the caribou was standing and looking at me. So I sat down and the darned thing sat down, I then closed my eyes for a nap and it too went to sleep. After 2 hours, numerous photos and discussions with the caribou, I finally left. What a surreal experience.
The next day was our day to travel the mile 92.5 road on a park bus and...what was this...the sun???!!! Yes!!! It was on the drive that, according to the bus driver that we hit "THE DENALI GRAND SLAM!" Over most of the next 10+ hours of our ride, the mountain stood out in all its glory! Yay!!! Not only that, but we saw several grizzly bears, including a mother with 2 playful cubs; we saw several caribou; we saw moose, including a mother with its baby; we saw golden eagles; we saw tons of ptarmigan; we saw herds of Dall Sheep; and we saw a WOLF!!! Since 2009 Alaska stopped protecting wolves which wandered across park boundaries, so the park went from a very healthy wolf population to today's population of only 48. Therefore, sighting a wolf in this 6+ million acre park is a rare and cherished event. We first spotted our wolf leaping into a flock of ptarmigan and coming up empty. Over the next 20-30 minutes we watched our wolf stalking through the willow bushes hunting for birds before it wandered off with no success. This day ranks up there as one of my most awesome nature experiences.
On the tour bus bus I even got to tell my joke--Why can't you hear a ptarmigan go to the bathroom?....Because its "p" is silent. I received a rousing round of boos. Even the bus driver offered to throw me off the bus.
For the next 3 days while we were in Teklanika, the rain held off so Denali just continued to entertain. First, I biked the park road through a restricted grizzly habitat. Then I signed up for a "Disco" adventure so I showed up wearing a leisure suit and repeatedly pointing at the sky. It turned out to be a ranger "discovery" hike so it was a good thing I wore my hiking boots. The hike turned out to be easy but 3 20-something guys decided to go off on their own and got stuck on a steep incline. They panicked and had to be rescued by some of the Rangers on the hike. While we watched the rescue we had to keep dodging the rocks cascading down the steep scree slope as the wayward group kept knocking rocks down the slope.
After my "Disco" hike, I decided to grill chicken and steaks for dinner. As I was watching the food cook, I heard a disturbance and looked up. There was a huge grizzly bear 100' away staring at me. Fortunately, a bunch a other campers also saw the bear and everybody started yelling at it. After a few interesting moments, the bear turned and walked off. WHEW!
On our last day in the park's interior I went on a hike and it started to pour rain. I was drenched but made it to the Eielson Visitor Center for a late lunch. There I sat next to 2 soaked backpackers, Dan & Heather, who had been out for a week. They looked bedraggled and hungry. When I offered them my fresh cherries they almost chewed off my hand accepting my offering of "trail magic." Dan and Heather are emergency room doctors who just finished their residency and graduation from the UCONN Medical Center and are now on their way to work in Hawaii. The next night Nancy and I were out of the park hanging around in a muddy campground when who should I spot but Dan and Heather. We joined them at the 49th State Brewery for a Denali farewell party.
We left Denali in the rain but I can't help being elated as we had accomplished one of my lifelong dreams! Believe it or not this experience was so strong with me that its reminiscence brings a tear to my eye!
|49th State Brewery|
|Denali National Park Sled Dog Kennels|
|It took 6 hours in a bus to reach the end of the line.|
|"Into the Wild" bus.|
|Denali National Park|
|Denali National Park|
|Grizzly bears romping through the park.|
|The moose with her antlers.|
|Now there's a horny caribou.|