Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Great One!

Greetings All,
It's not often that we return to the same place years later in fear that fond memories may be replaced by disappointment.  We decided to take a chance and return to Camp Denali in the heart of Alaska's Denali National Park after 27 years!  This time we were to rendezvous with VT friends Chuck and Judy on July 3 who had driven their Sprinter Van GAX all the way from VT.  We were relieved to see GAX parked at the Denali train station when we arrived.  After warm greetings with Chuck and Judy we headed off in search of the bus that would take us to Camp Denali nearly 90 miles inside the park.

Denali National Park Map
We found our Bluebird bus named Kingfisher and hauled our stuff over for the 7-hour drive to Camp Denali.
Meeting Chuck & Judy at the Denali Park Entrance

We loaded into the bus with about 20 other passengers and headed into the park around 1:00.  The first 15 miles of the Park Road is paved and private vehicles are allowed.  At Savage River, only park buses and private buses carrying guests staying in lodges at the end of the road are allowed to proceed.  The road turned to gravel and wound its way through boreal forest.  I spotted a lone male caribou about 300 yards from the road.

Lone Male Caribou

We continued anxious to see more wildlife.  We spotted another caribou in a river but noticed two buses parked further up the road.  "What are they looking at?  we wondered.  We left the poor caribou and as we approached the other buses we could see a Grizzly bear lying in the scrubs.  As we came closer a second Grizzly bear appeared from the willows and roused the first!

Grizzly Bear!

Simon, our driver who runs Camp Denali with his wife Jenna, tells two German cyclists nearby to get into the bus!  The sleeping Grizzly, the larger of the two, gave chase to the smaller.

The Chase is On!

We couldn't tell if it's a dominance battle between two males or a female chasing off a male.  They disappeared over a ridge and as we climbed over the top in the bus we saw the two bears again.  The smaller of the two panted as he approached our bus.  Did he want us to protect him?  The larger bear lost interest and ambled off.

Protect me, Please!
With the show over we proceeded to Camp Denali.  We saw a third Grizzly but he was distant.  However a nearby caribou did not see the Grizzly until it was within 200 feet and fled.

Griz, What Griz?

We arrived around 8:00 and saw that the camp had undergone some changes.  A larger dining room and kitchen had been built but the cabins were pretty much as we remembered.  We settled into our rustic but comfortable cabin named Stampede and joined Chuck and Judy at their cabin next door for a glass of wine.  The clouds parted and we were treated to spectacular views of Mt. Denali, the highest peak in North America!  Some things, the best things, don't change even after 27 years!

View of Denali from our Cabins
We were up early the following morning to ride mountain bikes to Wonder Lake with Chuck and Judy.  I spotted a big bull moose browsing in the forest about 100 feet from the road!

Mr. Moose

Chuck did not see him and rode on.  We took loads of photos of the moose and Chuck returned to see what was holding us up.  The moose ambled off and we continued to Wonder Lake.

So Long Mr. Moose

The lake was perfectly calm and the reflection of Denali was mirrored on the surface.  We drank in the scene in the cool morning solitude before the park buses began to arrive.  Ducks paddled along the shore mindful of our presence as they swam further away.

Denali Reflected in Wonder Lake
We returned to Camp Denali for breakfast and joined guide Annie after for a hike along the ridge above camp.  We climbed steeply through the boreal forest admiring the wildflowers along the way until we reached the ridge.

Climbing Through the Boreal Forest

The views of Denali and the Alaska Range across the valley about 30 miles away were somewhat subdued by smoke from nearby wildfires but stunning nonetheless.

View of Wonder Lake & Denali Beyond
We stopped for lunch and an opportunistic arctic ground squirrel approached us looking for a handout. "Sorry buddy, no food for you, you have to forage for yourself." we politely informed him.

Where's my Lunch?

We continued along the ridge startling a female Willow Ptarmigan and her chicks and gave them a wide berth as we continued on.

Willow Ptarmigan and Chicks
We returned to the Camp for a Fourth of July Celebration complete with a good old-fashioned barbecue. The next morning we headed out in one of the Camp Denali buses for the Eielson Visitor Center.  As we passed Wonder Lake Mr. Moose was feeding on the aquatic vegetation thrilling all that ventured this far into the park.

Mr. Moose
We were dropped off for today's hike near the Visitor's Center.  We were led by our guide Mark and joined by 6 others including Chuck and Judy.  We crossed the spongy tundra not sure if we should hop from tussock to tussock or push through the willows that grew in between.

Crossing the Tundra

We climbed steeply up a ridge where Chuck abruptly stopped.  A caribou calf was lying in a shallow depression.  "Where was Mom?" we wondered as the calf got up and loped up the ridge.

Caribou Calf
We continued climbing with stunning views of Denali and the Alaska Range to the south.  I had to keep on reminding myself that we were hiking with a view of the tallest mountain in North America, a peak that sometimes does not reveal itself for days.

Hiking up the Ridge with Denali in the Background
We broke for lunch before continuing up the ridge pausing at a snowfield.

Passing a Snowfield

Mark explained that caribou often use these snowfields in the summer to cool off and escape biting insects that torment them.  Artifacts from early caribou hunters were often found preserved in the ice.  Climate change is causing many of these snowfields to melt, exposing the artifacts to the elements and losing them for good.  As we approached a tiny pass, three caribou ran off but one remained on guard at the top.

King of the Pass 

I desperately wanted to climb to the summit but did not want to displace the caribou so I reluctantly followed the rest of the group down another ridge.

Heading Down

As I scanned some snowfields in a bowl, I spotted a herd of 32 caribou seeking refuge here just as Mark explained earlier.

Seeking Refuge
We continued down the ridge with Mark running ahead to find the best route.  We reached a creek flowing through a narrow canyon and followed it to the road where our bus was waiting to bring us back to Camp Denali.  We were treated to another delicious meal before retiring to our cabin.  It was tough falling asleep knowing that Denali was looming just outside our window.  Denali means "the Great One" in the Athabaskan language of the native people. I couldn't take it anymore and got up around midnight.  Denali was awash in pink alpenglow.  "Marc, you have to get up to see this!" I called in a hushed tone.

The Great One!
The next morning we had to leave early to get back to the park entrance for some to catch the train to Anchorage.  We saw a few more grizzlies, caribou, moose and the ever-present Arctic Ground Squirrels darting across the road on our return journey.  I was happy to find that Camp Denali was just as special today as it was 27 years ago and sharing it with good friends makes for new memories that will last a lifetime!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

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