Sunday, August 14, 2011, Day 75: Last night we pulled into Denali National Park and had an excellent night’s rest at Riley Creek Campground (site #112). The campground was quiet and not as crowded as we had expected –probably due to the rainy weather. The initial plan was to “cruise through” on our way to the Kenai, but we decided to keep an open mind, and explore the layout today before making a final decision. First the Visitors’ Center – that’s where all the people were – mainly because of the rain, and forecasted to be with us for several days. There is a lot to see in there and it took us a good hour, but then we decided to drive up the park road as far as we could, which is only 15 miles, to Savage Creek.
The clouds were low but the scenery was still spectacular and we opted to buy a shuttle bus ticket for the following day; that would take us as far as Toklat – a 6 hour round trip. We decided on the noon shuttle bus because it was less expensive, but more importantly, because you can get off any time and just go hiking, then flag down a bus (assuming you can find your way back to the road!) to get a ride back down to the transportation center. We chose a later departure time, feeling it would be less crowded than the 9:00 AM first trip.
Monday, August 15, 2011, Day 76. We really lucked out – our bus driver’s name was Wayne Iverson. He stated at the outset that the shuttle bus driver’s were not required to talk about the park over the PA system, that was reserved for the high priced “tours”, but he liked the park and he liked to talk and he’d keep us informed until the driving got tricky a couple of hours out. He gave the most excellent commentary and was a fountain of information about the history, geology and animals of the park. At every break stop – there were 3, he’d take the time to squeegee all the windows as they became mud spattered quite quickly.
On the way to Toklat, we saw one Grizzly, but our position in the bus didn’t really allow us to photograph it. We had decided to ride all the way to Toklat and identify potential hiking spots on the way. We selected an area just a couple of miles below Toklat, where a Lynx had been spotted, near a small creek that flowed into a larger braided tributary that joined the Nenana River several miles below.
The rain had let up to a strong mist and we were enjoying being in the middle of nowhere and marveling at the unusual vegetation and terrific variety of rocks we were encountering.
We had decided to walk for a couple of hours, and if the highway was not in sight, head back the way we had come to pick up a bus. The first wild beasts we encountered were a small family of Ptarmigan.
After about an hour or so we came upon a Mother Grizzly and her 2 “springers”. The park had recommended no closer than 300 yards, and we were only about a 100 yards when we new they were there. She hadn’t acknowledged us, so, very quietly, with Linda holding the bear spray, Ric took a couple of pictures and we beat a dignified retreat, retracing our foot steps much sooner than we had planned. Our first real life, face to face, no fences or vehicle protection, encounter with a Grizzly bear!
We saw fresh Grizzly scat not more than 400 yards from where she and the cubs were busy eating.
On our way back to the road we encountered a collared wolf after noticing a couple of buses stopped on the highway, half a mile away or so, then seeing a flock of Ptarmigan take flight. After our earlier encounter, we knew the birds had to feel really threatened to fly so were on the lookout – hoping to see the Lynx, which due to the drop in rabbit population, a normal cyclical occurrence, were stalking Ptarmigan and out more often in the middle of the day. This guy was what we believed was going on – we saw his fresh scat a short time later.
We walked a mile or so along the road, encountering a broken down bus – she had help on the way – and a couple of buses going the other way – both of which stopped to tell us that they could see a Mom Grizzly and her cubs way down in the valley – the very family we had “bumped” into! When our bus came it was pretty crowded and we weren’t able to sit together – our driver, Dale Ebbon, was not as loquacious as Wayne had been, but still had a great comment now and then. The road was narrow, rough, wet, and slippery with a precipice of several hundred feet along it’s edge. Only one bus could stop at a time and they had a fairly involved set of rules about who would yield to whom. At one point as we were approaching some parked construction equipment, Dale slammed on the brakes (thankfully seat belts are provided and required!) and yelled “WOLF”. All the windows on the bus went down and we all enjoyed the sight of this young fellow as he nonchalantly sauntered by.
Denali herself remained invisible to us today, but she can be seen from a long way – and there’s always tomorrow!
Despite the large numbers of people and the relatively high expense, the Park folks have the right idea, as our first driver Wayne put it, “Put the people in cages and take them to the animals rather than the other way around”. This also limits the traffic and impact to one small ribbon of this massive tract enabling the rest to remain pristine wilderness and the critters, who have never been hunted or harassed, to have the natural indifference to us displayed by the young wolf in the road.
What a day!