Well, Marijuana is legal in Alaska. Do you think that individual atoms are really small galaxies? Why am I always so hungry here in Alaska? Need a brownie?
No, no, no. Not that high. . . the other kind. Denali, “The High One” is the name the mountain was called by the Athabascan people who lived here long before the Russian fur trappers arrived. Denali is the highest peak in North America coming in at 20,310 feet. Its 18,000 ft rise above its base in the lowlands of Wonder Lake is higher than Everest. It was initially called Mount McKinley when the Park was established in 1917. A local prospector was impressed with a Republican presidential candidate from Ohio. Apparently, the name was not that popular in Alaska, so the name was changed to Denali.
You can thank the Dall Sheep for the Park. Charles Sheldon was an early conservationist and hunter (Apparently you can be both? Who knew)? After witnessing whole scale “market hunting,” he lobbied Congress to preserve the area. In 1980, Mount McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. Today six million acres are protected under the watchful eye of the National Park Service and a few grizzly bears.
There is a single road going 92 miles into the Park. Passenger cars are forbidden and everyone rides buses. The round trip from the visitors’ center at the park entrance takes twelve hours. There is no food or water, so everyone must bring their own. There are no bathroom facilities. Passengers are encouraged to go before they leave.
Because the bus ride was long, Lillian and I rode separate buses. Being the braver soul and having a stronger bladder, she left early for a ten-hour tour. I opted for the four-hour executive summary. The organization of the buses is a study in best practices with thousands of riders shuttled each day. Unless you have a telephoto lens, the pictures are more to document what you saw verses “make space on your wall.” About 30% of visitors to Denali actually see the mountain. Denali is so tall and massive it makes its own weather. During our visit, clouds completely covered the range. On my ride, I got to see several caribou, six grizzlies, two golden Eagles and two hawks. Sorry, no call Sheep
We stayed at a small campground twenty-nine miles into the park. The restrictions were that we could only drive in, park and after our stay, drive out. We also bought a bus ticket to take us the remaining miles. If we rode the bus back to the visitors center, we’d have to buy another $50 ticket. The campground is on the banks of the Teklanika River, has no electricity, water or sewer. Our four-night stay cost $50 (or $7,942 Canadian).
So, if I had a nickel for every time they canceled a Ranger talk because a grizzly bear wanted to learn too? Tonight’s lecture was supposed to be on the Northern Lights. Who cares about the Northern lights anyway, we’d have to stay awake until October to see them. Midnight sun, remember. Just as the talk began, a grizzly and her two cubs wandered into the amphitheater (actually, they came really, really close). Ok, that was unique even for us after attending numerous Ranger talks during all our visits to the National Parks. After all, Denali is our 50thNational Park!
At the Eielson visitor center, mile 66 into the Park, most visitors have lunch, take a picture of Denali (or clouds hiding Denali) and head back out toward the park entrance. For those who venture on toward Kantishna at mile 92 the tundra and ribbon creeks give way to tallish pines, birch, and cottonwoods lining the road. Around every turn, there is an alpine lake. The road narrows and gets rougher. Those venturing this far are mostly hardy folks here to tent camp, hike and bike. There are also log cabins and lodges and even an airfield! After this harrowing expedition, there is a reward — a photo opportunity proving that you made it.
And then it happened! Every day during our stay it rained. Even when the weather would clear, the far mountain range was completely cloud covered. As we drove the twenty-nine miles back out of the park, Lillian just happened to look back. The north and taller south peaks were clear and stood tall and proud. So, now Lillian and I are part of the 30% club. Sometimes you just get lucky.
So here are some bear safety tips right out of the mouth of the National Park Service.
FYI: Our daughter and grandsons are flying up to Anchorage so the next journal might be delayed.