Denali

I woke a few minutes before 6:00. Majella was up soon after when the alarm went and discovered that a text message sent at 4:30 am to say the northern lights were visible had been blocked by her ‘do not disturb setting’. She rushed to the window to find that it was still dark outside and did manage to catch a few glimpses of the aurora before it faded as the sun came up.

We ate our simple breakfast in our room and were out soon after 7:00 am to walk up to the main building where our interpretive hike was to depart. I had thought to check the weather over breakfast and found the temperature was -3ºC. We were rugged up with beanies, jackets and gloves but still felt the cold as we walked up the hill. The sky was clear so we expected once the sun was properly up we would be warm enough.

Just before 7:30 our guide, Josh, appeared through the door. There were just us and another couple booked this morning so we were soon outside in a small van and headed down the highway to the trailhead. Josh came from Georgia where he studied biology and has been working for a tour company in Denali all summer, doing the hike we were taking and other activities including rafting.

Josh parked the van a few km down the road and we were soon walking into the countryside, up a moderately steep hill beside the Nenana River. He led us at a very comfortable pace, stopping frequently to point out features of the vegetation and signs of animals. We saw traces of red squirrels where they had buried food below spruce trees in which they were nesting, and mushrooms they had left to dry on branches. We did not see any larger animals but he did show us winter moose droppings which are mostly sawdust from bark the moose eat when there are no leaves. The local forest has 12 kinds of edible berries which are eaten by bears and other animals. We tasted several different varieties and found some more palatable than others.

Our walk took us as far as the first of 3 lakes on the trail and we rested there a while before heading back. We probably walked no more than 5 km or so in the 3 hours we were on the trail but that was enough to give us a sense of what was there to see. Although we had expected to warm up as we walked we found that once we went over and round the first hillside that faced east we were in a shaded valley where the air stayed cold. There was frost on many of the leaves we saw and some of the berries we tried were frozen. Even with a warm jacket, beanie and gloves, I found my toes and fingers beginning to tingle with cold. 

Josh dropped us back at the resort and we went for coffee at Karstens Pub where we ate last night. Sitting in a warm space with hot drinks thawed us out. After coffee Majella relaxed while I walked up the hill to the village to pick up simple supplies for tomorrow’s breakfast and a Subway sandwich for a meal during our afternoon adventure. 

Lunch was also at Karstens. I had tomato soup and a beer. Majella thought she would try the chicken that Judy ate last night to see if it might be better today but then opted for a dish of fried chicken with a waffle, maple syrup, and honey butter – only in America! The chicken was considerably drier than Majella would have preferred though the larger pieces fared better than the small ones. She pronounced the waffle good and I can confirm that because I tried a little. I was disappointed that Majella treated the meal as main plus dessert rather than a combination to be eaten together.

We had time for another short rest before walking back up the hill to join our tour of the tundra wilderness. There were several buses in the area outside the hotel lobby and crowds of people milling around looking for the bus to take them on an excursion or onward journey. Our bus arrived on schedule but it took time for the list of passengers to be checked and 50 or so of us, some with restricted mobility, to board. Once we were on board our driver/guide, Joe, gave the safety instructions including the requirement to wear seatbelts in the park. That’s the first time we have seen belts in a US bus but they were a necessary safety measure in the depths of the park where the buses often stop suddenly on the narrow, winding, gravel road to look at animals. There were packs of snacks provided on our seats and water in recyclable aluminium bottles for those who needed it. We had our own. As is usual in parks with bears all food was to be consumed in the bus. There is no good reason to encourage bears to see buses or humans as food sources.

The road into Denali national park runs mostly westward, with some southerly sections toward the Alaska range, for about 65 miles (105 km). There are some sections of private property at the far end but mostly the road serves the needs of park visitors and management. Our tour did not go to the end of the road but it went about two-thirds of the way. The first section of road to Savage River is sealed with two full lanes. Permits are needed for vehicles to travel further and most visitors are in buses, either tours as we were or the shuttle buses that run to a schedule. Beyond that point the road is gravel since it is mostly over permafrost which presents problems with maintaining a stable road surface so that sealed roads would deteriorate rapidly. For some distance it is two lanes wide but then it narrows so that there is just room for vehicles to pass provided one stops to let the other go by. There are sections that wind along steep slopes where the road has been blasted out of the rock face and there is a sheer drop on the outside. At least one section is over a large rockslide which is watched closely because it is moving a little day by day.

Our tour departed about 2:30 pm and returned a little before 10:pm. There were comfort stops every 90 minutes or so at areas equipped with restrooms and, in one case, a gift shop. Along the way we had other stops when the driver or a passenger spotted an animal either side of the road or for particularly spectacular views. We saw a female moose, several caribou, brown bears, and wolf cubs reasonably close. There were also Dall sheep that appeared as specks on a distant mountainside, a golden eagle, and other birds. 

The bus was equipped with drop down video screens linked to a video camera operated by the driver. That allowed him to show where an animal was and, because the video camera had a strong zoom, the viewing was mostly better on the screen than direct, though the windows did open to allow cameras to capture images without intervening dusty glass.

The turnaround point for our tour was on a hill top with a spectacular view to Denali. We were fortunate that the sky remained mostly clear throughout the day and we had a clear view of the mountain at several points including on the way back as it turned pink in the setting sun.

We were about to go to bed when the room phone rang with a message that Majella had requested about the northern lights. We pulled on warm clothing and went outside to join a gathering crowd gazing at the lights in the sky. There were bands of light and some occasional movement. It was cold out so we soon went back to our room where Majella watched out the window for a while longer.

It was a long and spectacular day. From sub-zero morning walk in the forest, to animal and mountain spotting on the tundra, to northern lights, everything seemed to go our way.