Friday, August 19, 2016
When Denali National Park and Preserve was established in 1917, it comprised about 2 million acres at that time. More area was added in 1980, including some wildlife preserves, bringing the total park to over 6 million acres.
The original park area, Denali Wilderness, is a protected area where no hiking or camping is allowed. There is no interference with nature. Fires are allowed to run their course, low animal populations are not supplemented, injured animals are not rescued. Tourists can go in only by bus and they can only get out at the rest stops along the road. This is to protect the environment for the animals that live or travel through here. The animals do not associate humans with food, and they do not see humans leaving vehicles or walking in their areas so the buses can stop by the road and the animals will barely take notice.
The park operates several tours including the one that we took this afternoon, the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which went 60 miles into the park. The drivers, who also narrate the tour, are trained naturalists. Our driver, River, provided history of the area and the animals of Denali. He was good at sighting animals and quick to respond when a passenger saw one, pulling over to allow photos. He has been doing this for about 3o years.
When we do stop we are cautioned to keep our bodies and cameras inside the bus (although we can open the windows.) We are also asked to keep our voices low so that we don’t startle the animals.
We were on the lookout for bears, moose, wolves, wolverines, the willow ptarmigan (Alaskan state bird,) Dall sheep, eagles, and much, more. Our first sighting was of several caribou, with some of them losing the velvet from their antlers before winter. The racks that still have the velvet are a soft brown color, and those that are losing the velvet will look pink because they bleed when the velvet peels off.
Are Reindeer and Caribou the same thing? For years it was thought that they were one and the same but more recent studies show that, although closely related, they have diverged somewhat after being separated geographically during the last ice age. Reindeer meat shows up on many menus – reindeer burgers, sausage, chili, etc. Don’t worry, it’s not Rudolph, just caribou.
Soon after, we saw a female bear and her two cubs, eating berries and shrubs close to the road. We watched them for several minutes as they were not afraid of the bus, and walked around and along side of us, providing great photo ops for all.
The scenery here is beautiful as well. The park contains mountains and rivers, and is surrounded by mountains as well. One area is called Polychrome Canyon because of the colorful hills there. If you look closely, you can see Dall sheep on the hillsides. Autumn is arriving already here in Denali, it seems almost overnight.
Several rivers run through the park. The river beds look very wide, which I thought must be from flooding, but River (our guide) explained that these rivers don’t flood. When the river freezes during the winter, it creates ice dams, so the flowing water needs to find another way to flow, increasing the width but not the depth of the river bed.
After we left the protected part of the park, River asked if anyone wanted to get off the bus and walk on the tundra for about 20 minutes. He was going a little further into the park to do a turn around, and would pick us up later. Naturally, we jumped at the chance. River warned us to be respectful of the environment and to walk separately so that we didn’t walk in each other’s steps and do more damage to the ground.
I was surprised to see how spongy the ground was. We were walking on layers of moss and lichen, and could sink in a couple of inches. The foliage is very compact. Blueberry bushes grow very close to the ground, not more than a couple of inches tall. There were ferns that were only about one inch tall, almost impossible to see.
We feel very privileged to have had this experience. River said he rarely offers this opportunity, but we were the last bus of the day so he wasn’t concerned about crowding or delays. Lucky us!
The group was feeling a bit discouraged because we hadn’t seen moose. River said to have patience, that they often don’t show up until later in the day, and closer to the park entrance. He was correct. We were rewarded with several views beginning around 8:30 pm, of both cows and bulls. These animals are enormous!
This was a very long and rewarding day. We fell into bed after returning to our hotel around 9:30 pm. It will be hard to leave.