Alaska: Denali Wilderness Tour

Scene from bus in Denali National Park

Sat. Sept 1st:  Up by 5 am. We grabbed a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich at the Starbucks counter in the lobby and picked up our boxed lunches. At 6 am we were all herded onto a converted school bus for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. If it is possible, the bus seats are even smaller than the plane’s. Felt like we were trying to fit into seats for kindergarteners. With our shoulders and legs touching, box lunches in our laps and backpacks at our feet the prospect of 8 hours in this situation seemed unbearable. But it didn’t take long to know we were truly in the wilderness and we soon adjusted to our living conditions. The bus started heading south on Parks Highway AK-3 following the Nenana River then turned right, heading west on Park Road into Denali National Park.  The road goes for 90 miles into the National Park and Wildlife Preserve then ends. Our bus driver/ tour guide was very good at sharing the details of our route as we progressed through the park. I don’t remember his name, but he was very knowledgeable about the park. He said he had hiked and camped out many times in the wild. He reminded us of Bear Grylls, star of Man vs. Wild TV show, so I’ll refer to him as Grylls from here on.

Grylls told us that no private vehicles were allowed on the road in the park once we crossed the Savage River, only the tour busses, park vehicles and a few individuals who owned private property at the end of the road in a place called Kantishna, just 25 miles from Mount Denali. Kantishna started out as a gold mining town in 1905. Now there is a lodge there that offers Alaskan adventures to tourists. We ventured 63 of those miles into the park, then turned around and retraced our route back. The total tour was almost 8 hours. The scenery was amazing. I cannot say anything that could express the awe we all felt at each turn of the road as we came upon yet another spectacular view of the Alaskan wilderness. The terrain started out rolling hills and mountains in the distance. We passed miles of streams coursing their way through the muddy river beds and more braided rivers of glacier milk. As we moved inland, and the elevation increased the landscape changed. The distant mountains came closer as we passed through miles of boreal forests,  which is a more austere ecosystem than a temperate forest, and complete opposite of a tropical forest. There were lots of spruce trees interspersed with aspen, dwarf willows and birches. Grylss explained that the trees would continue to get smaller as we climbed in elevation, approaching the alpine tundra line. The presence of permafrost just below the topsoil prevents the trees’ roots from going deep and the short growing season keeps them from getting very big. And, he added, the trees we were looking at, most no taller than 20 feet, were a lot older than we might think.

As we got deeper in the Alaska Range following the McKinley River the water was clearer, fed by recent snow melt.  By the time our trek ended at Stoney Hill Overlook, there were no trees at all, only sparse ground cover of low shrubs.  We could see Mount McKinley, which is now called Mount Denali [the name given by the Koyukon People, which means the High One] some 35 miles in the distance.  Denali, which is 20,600, feet the highest peak in North America, was completely snow covered and stood above the range of lesser mountains. The summit rose above a wisp of clouds that blurred the sharp lines and angles of the mountain. The way the light reflected off the snow, caused the High One to glow with an otherworldly light; magnificent to behold. Grylls told us that the park road ended just past Wonder Lake, which we did not see.  This beautiful pristine mountain lake is considered the crown jewel of Denali. And only those with special permits are allowed to go further on to the base of Denali.

View of Mount Denali from Wonder Lake. photo from /denali -national-park/what-made-wonder-lake/

Our guide was very good at spotting wildlife and when he did he stopped the bus for us all to see, using directions like “Moose at 11 o’clock.” He explained earlier that the center of the bus was the center of the clock, all sightings would thus be oriented on the clock face and we were to shout, “STOP! Moose at 6 o’clock, or “Bear at 2 o’clock,” anytime we spotted wildlife. But, he warned, we only had three strikes collectively, that was for all of us on the bus. So we better be sure of what we are seeing before we yelled STOP! After the third rock that was not a bear or shrub that was not a moose, he would ignore us. To add to our experience there were strategically located video screens every 4 rows or so, where we could see a live feed from our tour guide’s hand-held camera that he zoomed in so we could really see the action.

Wildlife spotted on Denali Wilderness Tour, [top, r-l] Bull Moose, Grizzly,
Willow Ptarmigan Alaska state bird, young Gray Wolf
Here’s my account of the wildlife we saw or thought we saw or were told that we were seeing. The first animal was spotted before we even crossed the Savage River into the protected area of Denali Park, where only approved motor vehicles are allowed to enter. It was a big moose with impressive head gear. Grylls explained how moose antlers are covered in velvet and are shed every year.  Further on we saw a light brown Grizzly looping across a field of red and green grass. He stopped to join another bear eating blueberries. Soon we saw a third bear romping after the others. Grylls  said we were looking at a mama and her cubs, possibly two year olds, since they were good sized. According to our previous bus driver/tour guide, from our train ride the day before, Brown bears and Grizzlies are the same species, but Brown bears tend to be larger because they feed mostly on salmon and Grizzlies, whose habitat is in higher elevations, not near the rivers where the salmon run, eat more berries and roots. This last part about the Grizzly’s diet seems like an alternative fact to me. Grizzlies are huge and they have massive paws with claws like Wolverine of X-men fame, which according to Jackie, “are not just for digging up roots”.

Next Grylls pointed out a bird sitting on a ridge at 3 o’clock. He said it was a grouse, whose official name is the Willow Ptarmigan,  the state bird of Alaska. The bird had light brown wings and head with a white breast but in the winter he will be snow white. As we continued to climb in elevation, the land outside the bus became more wild and remote. There were no trees or large bushes on the sides of the mountains above the tundra line. We took photos of the mountains jutting into the sky on all side of us. When Grylls told us that the rash of white dots way off in the distance, up on the side of the mountain were Dall sheep, we believed him. Even with his zoom lens, the sheep were indistinguishable from the white rocks that surrounded them. Dall sheep have long looping horns, like the bighorn sheep of the Rocky Mountains, but their fur tends to be much lighter. And somewhere along the road we stopped to watch what looked like a coyote sitting a few hundred feet away on a ridge, but our guide, corrected our mistake, telling us that we were looking at a young gray wolf. He wasn’t moving, so we did.

We saw a pair of swans, an osprey, a golden eagle soaring far off to our right, and a few arctic ground squirrels, but we did not see any caribou, also called reindeer, which was unusual since there are an estimated 700,000 caribou spread among 32 herds in the park, compared to only 350 Grizzlies, according to Grylls and the National Park Service, which we seemed to have a lock on. We saw a total of eight Grizzlies, maybe nine, depending on who was doing the counting. The guy in front of us calculated the odds of us seeing even one Grizzly based the numbers in an area of over 9,000 square miles, the size of the preserve, but I can’t recall his prediction. His conclusion was that we way exceeded the odds. Good payout if you were a gambling man.

Female Grizzly with one of her cubs

Grizzly number four was a loner,  slowly moving toward us along the right side of the road, stopping to dig for roots in the soft soil at 5 o’clock. As our bus came to a halt, we all whispered and jockeyed for window position to snap photos of this brave member of the ursus family. Our next bear sighting, was a mama and her two cubs which we spotted not too far from our turnaround point. They were foraging along a ridge, the babies tumbling and romping like puppies. Grylls noted they were much smaller than the previous cubs we saw, referring to them as “springers” meaning they were born in spring not winter, making them more vulnerable outside the den. When we finally got underway, someone shouted, “Another bear!” and so our bus halted again and we all watched this much larger male Grizzly rambling along.

“It’s not good that this male is so close to that female and her cubs,” Grylls informed us. He explained a male could be very aggressive toward cubs.

So by the time we got to Stony Hill Overlook we had seen a total of eight bears. Those of us sitting on the right side of the bus (me and Joe and Gloria) had the best access to most of the wildlife sightings, since all eight bears, the moose, wolf and Dall sheep were all on the our side. Several passengers on the left had started a running joke that they had been booked on steerage and that the “right siders” had paid someone off. One guy, sitting with his wife directly across from Gloria, who was behind me and Joe, said someone had been paid to release the animals on the right side of the road just before our bus rounded a bend, setting us up for the best views. He also made it his personal responsibility to close Gloria’s window after each sighting. It seems the best way to get good photos was to hang out of the open bus window or at least hold your camera/cell phone outside. And so after each sighting, and the flurry of passengers opening windows and clicking photos, when the bus began to move again many passengers on the right side had to stand and fight to get their stubborn windows to latch  and stay closed.  The man in front of us had more trouble than most and finally gave up. Each time he thought his window had clicked shut, it would slide open again with the first bump in the road. So we had a steady stream of cold air blowing on our faces for the whole trip. But Gloria’s aisle mate, made a big production of moving into the empty seat beside her and leaning his body all in her space, grunting as he forced her window shut after each wildlife photo-shoot.

But the wildlife show we got on our return trip exceeded all the previous sightings. As we neared the spot where our last bear sighting was, the driver slowed down and told us that the bears we saw earlier were probably still hanging around. And he was right. What we witnessed next was reminiscent of the “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” As we watched the real life drama play out on the video screens before us. (The live action was too far away to really see what was going on.) I half expected to hear Marlin Perkins voice-over explaining what was happening as the lone male Grizzly spied the female and her two romping cubs.

“Now who could that be?  Is that my ex with my boys?” giving voice to the approaching Grizzly. “Oh, she’s going to pay dearly for this.”

We didn’t get Marlin Perkins voice-over or even the Disney version of a bear battle, but what we did get was Grylls’ breathless whisper.

“This is not good. That male is very dangerous………….” His whisper raised a few octaves as the male began running toward the other bears, “Oh no, he’s going after them.” The mama charged several times, trying to get between her cubs and the oncoming male, but she was much smaller and no match for the charging monster.  We all watched the screen in horror, unable to stop the drama unfolding as the male chased the female away and caught up to one of the cubs, whom he immediately swatted with a big paw. We all gasped in shock, several of us yelling “OH NOOOOO!” as the powerful Grizzly seemed to be tearing at the cub under him.  Our cameraman then zoomed in on the mama running up the hill behind the other cub. “She’s doing the only thing she can,” he commented. “Keeping her surviving cub safe.”  And he went on to explain how a male grizzly will kill cubs, if he can get past the sow, who can be indomitable when it comes to protecting her offspring, not for food, but to ensure his genes are passed on since after her cubs are gone the sow will come into heat.

“But I don’t think that is what was going on here. It is way past mating season,” he said. “I think he killed that cub to eat it.”

As we left the scene we all felt stunned and horrified. I felt like I had just  witnessed a murder. It seems that many on the bus felt the same, but some of the men tried to act macho. “That’s the wild,” Mr. Window-closer-across-the-aisle said, then he proceeded to do a mansplain for us female ninnies, telling us in his most authoritative voice, “That’s how it is in the wild. It’s just how it works.” He could not help himself as he felt it was his duty to tell us emotional women what we did not understand, adding one last stupid cliché, “Out here, the strong survive.”

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