Friday, July 14
Somebody had a birthday today -- it was celebrated last night with a steak dinner and a bottle of Oliver Bubblecraft. The big commemoration event today was the bus trip into Denali – all the way until the road ended. Ella says it was about the best 12-hour, all-day, birthday celebration -- EVER -- in the past 65 years!
The Denali Park Road twists, winds, climbs, and descends for 92 miles from the Denali Visitor Center to Kantishna. We are camped at Teklanika River (mile 29) and at that point could only move forward (into the park) by bus. Following a pancake breakfast, we got on the bus at 9:00 with two backpacks jam-packed with everything we thought we might need. There are bathroom stops along the way, and one location to refill water bottles – but no food service or concessions
Our driver was named Tim; he has been driving this route for over 20 years and had a full conversation style story-line that lasted for 10 hours! The deal was: we had a ticket/pass that allowed us to board his bus and ride it from Teklanika to Kantishna and back to Teklanika again. Once we left his bus at any of the drop-off spots, we would be left with our pass that would allow us on another bus only if there was room. It worked well for us to stay on Tim’s bus as he stopped at every point for a generous amount of time. He also stopped to pick up “hitchhikers” along the road if he had room – and he stopped every time someone yelled out STOP – for wildlife observations and photo opportunities.
It was not raining today, and there were minimal clouds, but -- darn it -- the visibility of Denali was not good due to wildfires to the north. There was a fine haze over everything, although we could not smell the smoke.
The caribou do not form the large migration herds until later in the fall, and most sightings are of lone individuals. They appear scruffy as they have not fully shed last year's winter coat.
At mile 66 we stopped for 30 minutes at Eleson Visitor Center -- beautiful lookouts . . . and flush toilets!
A viewing window inside Eleson had the outline of foreground mountains on the left that you could line up to help you locate Denali on the right. Sadly, Denali is rarely visible, so the outlines just show you where it is hiding.
Here are just two small views of a beautiful quilt/wall hanging (in 5 large sections) that was crafted by a local artist: The Seasons of Denali. All fabrics started out as plain/white and she dyed and painted the materials herself!
Land-owners that lost their land during the expansion of the National Park were issued permits for subsistence hunting -- only what they would use and consume for their own personal needs.
The last stop, Kantishna, is interesting in that there are several privately-owned, money-making establishments. In the 1980’s when the park boundaries were expanded, people owning land were allowed to continue as private land-holders. Some established these out-back camping stops and some sold their land to entrepreneurs that developed overnight establishments. Today you are either driven in by the enterprise’s private bus or flown in by their private plane and put up in a cabin/lodge environment for 2-3 days. We couldn't stop for pictures but I got one of the sign through the bus window and borrowed one from the internet.
And that was . . . the end of the road. Driver Tim parked by the sign and obligingly took pictures of all that wanted to commemorate the occasion. Tom took pictures of Tim with his wife -- who was another tour bus driver that happened to be at Kantishna right then!
The trip had taken five hours, and Tim was aiming to duplicate that on the return trip with all his required stops at drop-off/pick-up spots, and his accommodating stops for wildlife pictures.
On the way back we stopped at Wonder Lake --My favorite stop where I so vividly remember camping with my family when I was 11 years old (1963). Back then, private vehicles were allowed to drive the whole distance into the park. I have to say that Wonder Lake was just as I remembered it, tall spruce trees and lush meadows leading down to the lake -- but with a lot less mosquitoes. I have memories of us kids being chased by blue/grey birds that dive-bombed us fearlessly if we approached their nests. I learned that those pesky and aggressive birds are called “Gray-jays,” and they are still out in force! My other memory is the onslaught of large and lumbering mosquitoes, and forever-more my definition of mosquito has been WONDER LAKE! What a way to remember this experience 55 years later – and on my birthday, no less.
Have I mentioned that Tom has a water sample collection -- from all over the United States? It has been greatly augmented with water samples from Alaska! Here he is getting a sample from Wonder Lake -- I tried to catch a live misquote to put in the sample . . . .
The trip in and out gathered plenty of wildlife pictures – 11 grizzly bear, lots of Dahl Mountain Sheep, caribou, and various birds. We did not see any wolves or moose, which are also frequently seen on the drive. Most of the wildlife was seen in the distance, but one grizzly mom was adventuring with her cubs across our road, and two sheep were heading full-tilt down the mountainside to the stream when they saw us and spooked back up!
We pulled back into our campground bus stop at 7:00 – for a total of 10 hours on the bus. I can’t say it enough – it was just the very best birthday!
We don’t go camping any more . . . we go ‘streamin’ ! The “SIlvermine and His” is our 2016 23' Airstream, and ‘streamin’ is the name we use to describe our adventures. Stream along as we document everything from weekend trips to longer summer excursions and full-blown vacations. You know what they say: if you’re not in an Airstream – you’re just camping!
Tom & Ella Brown