Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Visiting Denali--A 13-hour Bus Tour

The last time we went to Denali was 10 years ago when we visited Alaska. Since then we have been busy exploring the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage area and haven't gotten around to the 9 or so hour drive from Homer to Denali. Having company provided us with a good excuse to head up there.

We signed up for the 13-hour bus tour. What were we thinking? Thirteen hours in a schoolbus?? But it would take us all the way into Kantishna at the end of the road--all 92 miles. That seemed pretty cool and it was, though I was pretty fried by time I got off the bus at 8 p.m. that day.

Cars are not allowed into the Denali Park past the Savage Check Station at mile 14.7 (where the paving ends also), so going into the interior happens by bus. There are the tour buses (5, 6, 8 and 13 hour narrated tours) or shuttle buses. Shuttles take you to the point you want to go to (and you pay according to that furthest-out point) and they you catch any bus on the way back, any day if it has room.

Part of our Kantishna Experience tour was lunch at the Kantishna Roadhouse as well as either gold panning or a sled dog demonstration at the Roadhouse. Snacks and water were provided on the bus. It was supposed to be fully narrated but the speaker in the bus we were on wasn't working so we only heard snippets of what the driver was saying all day.

We started off seeing a moose in the brush by the road. Then we stopped and all of a sudden a wolf popped out of the grass 30 feet from the bus, then just as quickly disappeared. I hadn't realized how special that was until I read that wolf sightings are becoming rare, with only 4% of the bus trips in 2013 seeing them (compared to 12%, 21% and 44% the previous 3 years). Next a caribou was standing on the road placidly eating. Something startled them and suddenly a couple more caribou in the brush right by the road that we hadn't even seen stood up. Soon they all trotted off. Off in the distant hillsides we saw Dall sheep, little white specks.

We were ripping right along when I spotted a grizzly bear with two cubs maybe 30 yards from the road. I yelled at the driver to stop, then quieted right down to the complete silence that the bus tour guides demand to avoid spooking the animals. We watched the sow and cubs digging around for food for 5 or 10 minutes, then we moved on to make room for other buses to view them. Soon after we were cruising on a narrow road high above a rocky riverbed when I saw something running across the wash. I yelled at the bus driver, "Something just ran across the river down there." She stopped and I got my binoculars trained on it. The animal was running all out away from us across the wash, towards the brush. Someone asked what it was. I said doubtfully, "A bear?" because it didn't run quite like a bear and its fur was multicolored like a bad hair job. Then the word came: it was a wolverine, the first seen in Denali in eight years. That was pretty exciting, and the bus driver was stopping every bus coming in the other direction to tell them the news. She hadn't seen one in 19 years. My brother-in-law put on his telephoto and took a shot and was the only one in the bus to get a picture. Folks were passing his camera around to look at it (enlarged, of course).

We passed more flocks of caribou and a golden eagle perched on the mountainside not far from the road, but not much more than that till a mile or so from Kantishna where we saw 2 bull moose with huge racks munching along a stream below us.

Doug and Phil opted to pay extra for the plane ride out of Kantishna back to the Denali Park entrance to save themselves riding in the bus another 5 hours on the way back. I will write about our Kantishna experience in another blog post.

On the way back, we got a view of the side of Denali, rising high above the snow-covered mountains that we thought were big mountains. Denali puts the other mountains to shame. Wow. We didn't see the peak, but we still saw more of it than most people who travel to Denali see. And it is a lot more impressive seeing it from 27 miles away on the park road than hundreds of miles away in Anchorage or the Kenai Peninsula (though that is impressive knowing that you can see it from that far away!).

Bathroom breaks were spaced about every 1 1/2 hours where the buses lined up and folks stretched, snapped pictures and relieved themselves. The Eielson Visitors Center at mile 65.9 was interesting. If it hadn't been cloudy the view of Denali would have been amazing. There was an interesting and informative presentation there about climbing Denali, how many folks were up on the mountain that day (just over 400), temperatures up there (-40 or something crazy like that) and visibility (zilch). There has already been one death on the mountain so far this year, right at the beginning of the season. It generally takes about a month to climb the mountain.

So it was a good day of wildlife viewing. We got to see the "big 5" animals. While we didn't see a lot of animals, we saw a few of each so that is satisfying. Next time I go to Denali I will probably bring my bike and bike the park road. That would be fun!

Grand vistas and mountain views abounded in Denali

Huge glacial washes were common. I tried to imagine the size of the glacier to create an outwash plain this large. Wow.

Apparently only 30% of folks who visit Denali actually see the mountain. We were treated with a partial view, which was still amazing.

We would look forward to the relief of bathroom stops, when hordes of us tourists would flock off and line up

Buses, buses and more buses!

Our experienced bus driver from New Guinea (or thereabouts) with the delightful British accent
The photos below were taken by my brother-in-law, Phillip Waclawski.

A caribou posed for us alongside the road, when two more popped out of the brush

I spotted this mama bear. Two cubs are wandering about nearby.

I also spotted the first wolverine seen in Denali in 8 years. It is very small but if you enlarge the photo you can see it in the middle of the photo at the edge of the wash (directly above the clumps of brush in the wash)

Bathroom break, buses lined up and a gift shop at Toklat River stop

Two moose with huge racks, just before reaching Kantishna. On the way out, there were three moose with racks by the stream

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