We eagerly anticipated the shuttle trip through Denali National Park, and Tuesday was our day. We had purchased breakfast and lunch food at a Fred Meyers in Anchorage, and we had our first breakfast of muffins. The muffins became a joke with us as they were huge and laced with sugar and fat. Jane and I both felt like we gained four pounds after our daily diet of muffins.
We needed to be at the Wilderness Access Center before 8AM to catch our reserved bus and we were there early. There were several types of buses running within the park. We reserved a green bus which meant we could get off whenever we wanted and catch a ride on another green bus that came along. The weather was overcast and cloudy but not raining as we set out in the morning. I returned to the car to get something, and somehow forgot to bring along the new binoculars that we purchased in Anchorage for this event.
Our bus driver/tour guide’s name was JB, and he did a nice job of driving, explaining the park, answering questions and pointing out wildlife. We learned that the big five of wildlife were dall sheep, caribou, bears, wolves, and moose. A slam meant seeing all five. JD was also careful to outline the bathroom stops and the distance in between. The first 12 miles covered the same road that Jane and I drove on Monday after we arrived.
Surrounding us in the bus were quite a few personalities. Beth was a cute intern recently graduated from Clemson majoring in soils, and her job was to ride the bus and record information about the quality of the driver, the customer experience, and the location of wildlife sightings. It was nice to have her in front of us as she answered quite a few questions and shared her binoculars. A bit behind us were two gentlemen from Slovakia. I eventually discovered that the taller of the two was a professional hockey player in Europe. Two men and a woman got on at Teklanika River Campground with their bicycles. They were from Port Jervis, NY and had driven across country and up the Alaska Highway.
Not too far beyond the Savage River crossing the driver was pointing out some distant Dall sheep, and as everyone strained to see the small white dots, he announced that a grizzly bear was ambling down the road. Sure enough the bear passed right by the bus on the shoulder and then meandered up the hillside. I got a pretty nice photo, and we checked off one of the big five. Bears typically are one of the more difficult sightings.
We continued on and Jane and I got out at Polychrome Overlook and the Slovakian’s took our photo. Close to this area the bus stopped as two Dall sheep were perched on the edge of a rocky pedestal. Two of the big five were now seen. A bit further along the road, and we spotted our first moose browsing on some shrubs in a small ravine. I snapped some photos but I could have used more zoom. It’s amazing that these animals can hold up those awkward looking antlers.
Shortly after watching the moose and not too far from our turnaround destination of Eielson Visitor Center, we spotted more bears. A mother bear and her two cubs were moving through the tundra. One cub had light fur similar to the mother and the other one had darker coloration. The darker of the two cubs decided to dig up a hole on the side of a small hill. We watched in amusement as it dug deeper and deeper to the point where he or she could fit half its body into the hole. There was much speculation about the motives of the bear, but we’ll never know what its intentions were.
We got off at the visitor center, but the sky had clouded up quite a bit and it began to rain lightly. Jane and I had packed lunches, so we found a table inside and enjoyed our sandwiches and snacks. While seated in the dining area guess who we saw? Remember Bob and Judy from Southern California? Here they were again, and they managed to get on our bus for the return trip.
After looking at Amy and Dan’s slides from their backpacking trip, Jane and I decided we wanted to get off the bus and do a one hour or so hike away from the road. On the western ride we had selected an area that Beth referred to as the Stony area so we grabbed the attention of JD, and he dropped us off by the side of the road. It was a strange feeling as we watched the bus driver disappear and we embarked on a hike with no trail knowing that we’d seen four bears in this wild country. By now it was raining steadily and we both had raincoats and Jane had rain pants but I was wearing only jeans.
We decided to hike south in a small valley and then up over a saddle, down the other side and back on a dry river bed to the road. We anticipated this would be a one hour hike. It pretty much worked out that way. My pants got wet from my ankles to just below my knees from hitting the vegetation and we sang and did the Tulo chant to announce our presence to the bears. We eventually returned to the road and waited 10 minutes or so until a green bus came along and picked us up. We liked the crowd and driver on the first bus better than the second.
We spotted some more Dall sheep and another moose on the return trip, and we’d also seen some caribou from a distance so we sighted four of the big five. We skipped the visitor center and the sled dog demo when we returned to our car as we had booked lodging in Wasilla for Tuesday night and that was three hours away. As we drove south on the Park Highway we stopped at a viewing point where a sign pointed out Mt. McKinley and Mt. Hunter, but the entire top of the mountains were obscured by clouds.
Wasilla was a small town and we passed through to the southern end and then turned left to find the Agate Inn. The owners left an envelope on the door and we punched in a code and then picked up our room key. This was probably our nicest lodging on the entire trip. By this time is was around 9PM so we hustled back out to Wasilla and found a Mexican restaurant for dinner.