My alarm went off at 5:20am. I reflexively hit the snooze and rolled over to go back to sleep. But my eyes immediately shot opened at the thought of what I had planned for the day. “I’m going on a tour of Denali National Park today!”
My bag was packed with two cameras, my binoculars and a jacket. I was set for the 13 hour bus ride into the park and back. It was my day off work and I needed to see what the actual inside of the park looked like. Driving a shuttle on the outskirts of Denali for three weeks, never getting to see the six million acre park that lay just beyond has been maddening.
As I boarded the bus filled with tourists, I took a second to appreciate the sun just beginning to creep over the Taiga forest, filling the day with the promise of blue skies ahead. Today would be a good day.
The road into Denali is a 92 mile winding stretch of gravel that passes through an array of different landscapes and vistas. As we began our tour, we started to gradually gain elevation and watched as the thick forest gave way to alpine tundra filled with sparsely scattered willow trees, fireweed, horsetails, and various shrubs and grasses. All of which were preceding to the growing mountains ahead of us, the Alaskan Range and Mt. McKinley.
The real motivation to get out of bed this morning was to see the wildlife. There are animals in this park that I have waited my whole life to see, and I was literally on the edge of my seat with excitement! The first animals we encountered were the caribou. A small group and at a distance from the road, they were hard to see but luckily I had my binoculars. (This reminded me of being on safari in Africa. God how I’m excited now.) We took pictures, and the tour rolled on.
Before I could process having seen wild caribou for the first time, the one thing I have been waiting to see the most, bounced into view on the left hand side. A grizzly bear.
“A BEAR! A BEAR! STOP THE BUS!!” Everyone shouted for the driver to stop for the mother bear and her two cubs off in the tundra, grazing and enjoying the day. (I have dreamt my whole life of seeing a bear, and I finally saw one. Three actually!) Pictures were difficult because they were at a distance, but I was content to just watch them through my binoculars. It’s hard to put into words something you’ve thought about for years and finally get to see. Unbelievably cool.
So far we had completed about an hour of the all-day tour, so we pressed on. I spent my time gazing out of the window, a crook in my neck fast developing from looking left, but I didn’t care. The landscape here was breathtaking and unlike anything I’ve seen before. The mountains were about 7 miles away, but between us and them was this vast expanse of land that seemed to stretch on forever. Braided rivers crisscrossed the foreground in such a haphazard-like style, offering a very alien feel to the land. (Due to the nature of the park and its history of glaciation, the Toklat River doesn’t flow down one main stream, but in many small channels that shift and move around. From the vantage point of the road, we got a really good view.)
As the tour continued we stopped for more pictures of bears, caribou, dall sheep, and arctic ground squirrels. The wildlife viewing was amazing.
Soon it was time to stop at Eielson visitor center, 66 miles in, to get one of the famous views of Denali, Mt. McKinley. (The local and appropriate name for Mt. McKinley is, Mt. Denali. They’re the same thing.) The bus pulled over and we all shuffled out for photo ops. There is a statistic in the park that says only about 20% of visitors actually get a full view of the mountain. At 20,320ft above sea level, it creates its own weather system and is often covered in clouds. Looking up, the sky was jet blue. I let my eyes’ gaze fall toward the horizon, in the direction of Mt. Denali, blue skies all the way until the bottom quarter of the mountain appeared. And then… the ground. Huh?? I couldn’t explain it. The clear blue sky and the shroud of mist covering the mountain seemed to merge into a single, mysterious veil, blocking my view. (But I got that bottom part. You better believe!) Beautiful nonetheless.
30 miles or so later were arrived in Kantishna, the end of the road. Lunch was scheduled before activities so we ate quickly and headed out on foot. A few of us opted for the guided botany hike, a 45 minute instructional walk through the woods. (By now we had descended back to the tree line) Our guide cautioned us to use insect repellent. “No. I’m good.”
It quickly became apparent what a mistake that was. The mosquitos were insane!!!!!
Biting. Buzzing. Flurrying around our eyes, nose, ears and mouth. “Holy sh*t these things are no joke!” But our guide came to the rescue and pointed out a plant called Wormwood that is a natural mosquito repellent. Everyone took to grabbing the plant, crushing the leaves and rubbing it on our skin. To my surprise, it seemed to help quite a bit! Awesome.
Another plant she pointed out was called Labrador Tea that is said to help cure upset stomachs. I’ve had an upset stomach since yesterday so I was eager to hear more, and with the success of the Wormwood, I wanted to give it a try. So here is my funny story…
After the walk I gathered some Labrador Tea and a cup of hot water and sat down on the bus with everyone as we waited to get going. Somehow, my upset stomach and my experimental tea had become the center of attention on the bus. As I let the leaves steep in the water, it dawned on me that my friend had an outdoor wilderness book with her about medicinal plants. (Perfect! Before I drink this, I’ll just look up some more information about it. Out of curiosity.)
I took the book and flipped to the page on Labrador Tea, still in conversation with virtually everyone on the bus. At the bottom of the page, I read out loud “Caution. Labrador Tea may cause diarrhea, cramps and heart palpitations.” The whole bus burst into laughter.
I got comments like, “You’re not sitting next to me!” and, “What the hell kind of plant is that?!” Without a second thought, I dumped it out the window. You won’t catch me on a bus full of people with diarrhea and heart palpitations. No sir, not today! Especially before a 6 hour bus ride back the way we came. Smart move Aaron. Smart Move.
The ride back strolled along like clockwork. We stopped for moose, ptarmigan, golden eagles, and even another bear. This one down in a field, was massive and had such a light colored coat. Almost blonde. Beautiful creature.
Once back at our cabins, we talked about how amazing the day was. The weather was perfect. We saw so much wildlife, all of it for the first time. What an amazing day.
I only wish I could better describe the view of the park. But really it’s indescribable. No words could capture just how beautiful the landscape is In Denali. The few pictures I have barely help to illustrate the vibe of this place. I can’t wait to go back!
I saw a bear today!