If you want to see life in Wilderness then America’s most celebrated – Denali National Park and Preserve is a perfect Visual.
It is sharp 6 in the Morning and David Cohen is there with his Bus at the Hotel’s porch to take you on an eight hour tour right into this fabulous Park. This Bus, evocative of a School Bus, with ‘Tundra Wilderness Tour’ mentioned on its front takes you, along with 37 others on the most anticipated journey, into the fabled wilderness.
This 6 million acres of rugged and relatively pristine landscape has magnificent wildlife and is famously known as the Denali National Park and Preserve (‘Denali’ is the name given by the aboriginals of this place – ‘Arhabascans’. Denali in their dialect means ‘The Tall One’ or ‘The High One’).
Also known as Mount McKinley Park, this park, established in the year 1917 has an intact ecosystem where its air, water, rocks, plants and animals interact with each other naturally, creating a diverse, complex and spectacular landscape. Nearly Six Lakh intrepid travelers journey this exciting tundra Park each year. As per statistics, at least 30% of those who visit Alaska make it a point to come to Denali.
The park’s 92 miles long ‘only’ road passing through boreal forest and arctic tundra ends at ‘Kantishna’. Only the first 15 miles is open to all visitors till where one can take their private vehicle, but for those who wish to travel further deep can hop into any of the licensed bus having permission to travel within.
David Cohen’s Bus has all the valid permits to wander inside. After a short halt at the Denali Visitor Center, crossing ‘Savage River’ filled with deposition of millions of colorful small and big rocks, David carefully drives over the gravel road into the park. Your mobile now gets out of range. All the 37 passengers now unfailingly get glued to their windows looking out for the legendary inhabitants including Grizzly Bear, Arctic Ground Squirrel, Grey Wolf, Moose, Caribou, Golden Eagle and Dall Sheep. To hit the proverbial “Denali Grand Slam” or to make your trip successful, you need to spot at least five of these fascinating species.
As you move, the first to notice was a cute little brown Arctic Ground Squirrel who suddenly popped up from close to the road. Balancing himself intermittently on its hind legs he stares at the Bus without sign of wariness or inhibition. The Bus stops. Amused, you look at this amazing animal standing right below your window turning his neck every second. With enthusiasm, you take his as many pictures as you possibly can.
After some fascinating moments he decides to come down on his four legs, crosses the road from behind the bus and moves on the other side to get obscure behind the bushes. Moments later as the bus moves ahead, you see a large Golden Eagle flying from over your Bus and towards the imposing Mountains at a distance. Happy ?? Yes of Course. (Two out of Five down).
It was now over 90 minutes of drive and the weather is unsurprisingly chilly. On the eastern side of Taklanika River that emanates from Cantwell Glaciers in the Alaskan Range is the Park’s campground where tour buses halt for a brief while to facilitate passengers relieve themselves. As you alight, you see about a dozen toilets lined up as each one finds his/her one. David allows 20 minutes before you are supposed to return back to your respective seat.
The fascinating journey now resumes still deeper into the woods. A few minutes later a co-passenger shouts “Stop-Stop”. David obediently applies brakes. On the right side, in a relative open area you see a ‘Caribou’ meandering hoping to scout food to feed its perennially hungry belly. There’s another one too. Both, unmindful of your presence, graze with amazing focus on the terrestrial vegetation forbs (flowering plants) and shoots from the trees. (It is believed that a fully grown caribou or moose needs nearly 9800 kilo-calories/32 Kgs. of intake each day and can eat up to 18 hours continuously without getting tired.)
A few Miles on, you see a ‘Male Moose/Bull Moose’ supported with large antlers swaggering on the road just ahead of the Bus. David once again puts his foot on the break. A delightful sight indeed as each one in the bus, even those with mobile cameras enthusiastically captured pictures of this amazing mammal. (That makes four out of five)
It was time now for yet another short halt. Passing from near Polychrome Mountain, at a distance you notice two tiny white dots moving up towards its peak. Through Binoculars you see couple of snow white color animals; either Dall Sheep or Mountain Goats (they both being amazingly similar) climbing up the rocky terrain. (So now it’s five out of five – Denali Grand Slam achieved.)
However the main attraction of this place is the Grizzly Bear or the Brown Bear. David announces that it is not always that these charming brown fur creatures are sighted. You have to be lucky to find them. Keep your fingers crossed and don’t let your hopes fizzle out he advises.
Then crossing Toklat River and going by Stony Hill, 66 miles into this park you reach Eielson Visitor’s center. A place from where you could see the legendary, awe inspiring and incredibly mesmerizing highest Mountain Peak of North America, the captivating – Mt. Denali.
Incidentally Mt. Denali is taller than India’s Mt. Everest considering its vertical rise from base to summit. (Whereas Mt. Everest has 5,200 meters vertical rise, Mt. Denali is 5,500 meters. Mt. Everest nevertheless remains the highest mountain on this planet when calculating its height from sea level). Around 1200 climbers endeavor to climb Mt. Denali each year but only half of them succeed. (Nearly 100 adventurists have lost their lives attempting to climb this peak till date.)
With great enchantment you capture the images of this charming Mountain with your Camera. It’s time now to return. Driving back David ensures to keep you occupied with some interesting historical anecdotes of this place. But surely, like mine, behind each one’s mind was the dying desire to spot the elusive Grizzly Bear. As time passed, your hopes begin to recede.
Just as you have nearly given up, David stops. You look out of your window and delightfully see; not one but two Brown Grizzly Bears, a mother and her calf busy grazing on grass and berries nonchalantly only a few meters away.
Your camera focuses on them almost instantly with multiple clicks following. Everyone in the bus use whatever devises they have to capture these priceless pictures. The sounds of clicks are now omnipresent. Both, mother and the cub continued to glutton on their choicest food as they walk further and further away from the Bus until they finally get indistinct behind the Bushes.
Smiles on the faces of all in the bus are unmistakable. You realize you were lucky to be here at the right moment. You have now HIT one more than the desired DENALI GRAND SLAM. (Five + One out of Five). Happy ?? Indeed So !!
Even before your elation has subsided, you see another Grizzly Bear, this one seemingly young walking across the tundra ridge to your right. Your 200-500mm zoom lens fitted on Nikon D850 now comes truly handy. You immediately zoom-in to take pictures of this bear in motion to make your repertoire look increasingly appealing.
Once out of the Park, David drops you back to your Hotel. Its 5 pm. The day looks still bright. You would not like to waste time idling in the Hotel room; so you take the free shuttle bus to Downtown Denali and wander a bit to see things there.
Downtown Denali is very small. It’s around 100 meters long lined with shops displaying souvenirs with few eating joints in-between. After some purchases and some snacks, you take the shuttle back to the hotel. Wine and Dine and go to bed to leave for another fascinating Alaskan City – Talkeetna, the next Morning, by Road.
Talkeetna is a small town with close to 100 permanent residents staying here. It however has a Rangers Station from where hikers arriving from all over the world assemble prior to commencing their climb to their aspired mountain, including Mt. Denali.
After a night halt at the striking Talkeetna’s Lodge and wandering through its downtown replete with classy restaurants, savoring exclusive beer from visitor’s favorite ‘Denali Brew Pub’, you visit the local museum before proceeding back to Anchorage to be in time to board your return flight to Vancouver (Canada).
Thus marking the culminating one of the most memorable journey to the most sought after places on this planet – Alaska.
For more interesting travel blogs on cruise to Alaska Part-1, Part-2 & Part-3, Anchorage to Denali, New Zealand’s Waitomo Caves, Rotorua, Mount Cook, Milford Sound, Wellington and Christ Church as well as Srinagar, Pahalgham, Sonmarg, Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake in India and many more, visit htpp://www.bhupendergupta.com