Sunday, May 30, 2010

Alaska Holiday - Day 10, Denali

An early start saw us on the first shuttle bus into Denali National Park (, departing at 7am. Being at the very start of the season the bus was only going as far as the Tolkat river, a drive of three hours. We planned to get off the bus at various points and explore but as it turned out we stayed on the bus all the way to Tolkat.

The initial sightings were Willow Ptarmigan and a porcupine in a tree, then at milepost 9.5 we stopped to photograph Mount McKinley/Denali as it was visible for the first time from the road and indeed fully exposed, a rare phenomena outside of winter:

You can see from this shot just how big the landscape is. I think I heard them say six million acres...

Another view from further along the road:

The first big wildlife we encountered was a small group of Caribou:

Then overlooking the first river valley we'd intended to hike, a brown or grizzly bear:

Our bearanoia increased to around eight out of ten at this point, and prompted our first decision to 'stay on the bus'. Next-up was a toilet stop at 'Igloo' around ninety minutes into the trip. This is the view up river:

Further on we encountered Dall Sheep, this one was out in advance of a group, heading across the valley from one high hill to another:

She was understandably skittish and kept her distance. Further on still however this ram seemed oblivious of the bus and walked straight past us:

They have and observe strict rules for wildlife encounters in the park, seeking to keep the wildlife truly wild and not acclimatised to humans, which is very refreshing and actually made the experience more enjoyable too.

We stopped at Tolkat and decided to walk up the closed road to see what else we could see. Helen let me take a picture before we set out:

Sat on the bridge a ground squirrel in typical alert pose:

Foraging in the vegetation along the side of the road, first a White-crowned Sparrow:

Then a Willow Ptarmigan (considered the same species as the Red Grouse):

There were also lots and lots of Snowshoe Hares:

So many in fact that they were expecting a die-off as the Willow trees seek to poison them (this apparently follows a seven year cycle and Lynx numbers follow the same cycle as their primary food is the Hare).

A view from further along the road:

And another. Denali specifically and Alaska generally is one of those places where you quickly run out of superlatives. It is amazing to see and behold, it is breathtaking, magnificent, it does make you feel very small.

As we headed back to the Tolkat bus stop we noticed buses stopping just short of the bridge. That meant bear so we decided not to walk there but hopped back on the bus.

En route back we passed a mother bear (sow) and two cubs which must have been around a year old, judging by their size. We were discussing plans for the next day, specifically driving to Savage River and walking on to and up and along Primrose Ridge when the bus driver (new bus as they run on an out and back schedule and are hop-on hop-off) said 'and that's where we saw the grizzly this morning'. Bearanoia reaching a good nine out of ten now...

We got off at Sanctuary River for a walk along the river, however this wasn't really accessible so we walked through the campground and around the areas as best we could.

A common bird in the wooded parts of the park is the American Magpie:

We had seen and photographed a distant Gyrfalcon from the bus, however we also got a chance to get close sightings of another new species, the American Tree Sparrow:

From the campground we re-boarded the next bus, having set off walking down the road, and then headed back to our car and to the motel. Denali it seems has a philosophy that does it's job in getting people in and around the park but they really do want to keep it wild so them seem genuinely happy taking people back out of the park too!

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