North to Alaska: Destination Denali – Part 7

Bob & Jill Haywards trip to Alaska 2011

A red fox trotted along the roadway in Denali National Park hunting for ptarmigan

A red fox trotted along the roadway in Denali National Park hunting for ptarmigan

Getting an early start, Bob and I dressed warmly, packed some water and snacks, added our camera bags, and headed out to wait for a tour bus to take us into the heart of Denali National Park, Alaska.  The tour bus program help’s to protect the park’s wilderness ecosystem and since 1972 has replaced private vehicle traffic along the 91 mile park road.  This is a very astute way of making the park more accessible to visitors without destroying it.  The park is also the only national park patrolled only by dog sled in the winter.

Denali became a park because of  hunter and conservationist Charles Sheldon,  who visited the park in 1906 to hunt Dall sheep.  Sheldon fell in love with the land and the wildlife, but became increasingly concerned about the number of sheep being slaughter by commercial hunters who sold the meat to an enlarging market.  Through his determined efforts Mt. McKinley National Park became a reality in 1917, and in 1980 the park was more than tripled in size and renamed Denali National Park.

The land is in the historic territory of the native Athabascans who have used the land for over 20,000 years.

Today the human footprint on the land remains tiny, even with the small amount of development that has taken place at the park entrance and campsites.  Denali’s six million acres is much the same as it was those many thousands of years ago; habitat is protected, no rivers have been polluted or diverted, and wolves and other predators continue to hunt – it is truly a wilderness.

Our tour bus arrived at the Park Headquarters right on time,  we found that it had already picked up almost a full contingent of tourists from the big hotels, and the only two seats left were right behind the driver.  At first I thought, “This will be good as we can see the road ahead as well as look out the left side window.”

However, we were soon to learn that these two seats had remained empty with good reason.  The park tour buses are not your fancy ‘ride in style’ vehicles.  In fact they are probably quite a few grades down from school buses of 20 years ago.  The seats are narrow, cramped, and rider pit stops must be put on hold until an infrequent rest stop appears on the roadway.

As we tried to take our seats it became very clear why they had remained empty.  I moved in to take the window seat (that’s always a wife’s prerogative if she has a camera in her hand and a determined look on her face) but I quickly discovered that my size 9 boots only fit in the tiny space available if I sat with my feet stuck out to the sides like Charlie Chaplin!  The heating fan box was directly under the driver’s seat and extended into our foot space by a good 10 inches.   I thought maybe if I rested my feet on the box it would be more comfortable, but that position jammed my knees into my chest and caused breathing to became a problem.  So, Charlie Chaplin it was!

After I finished grumbling and wriggling around, Bob took his seat next to me, or tried to.  It became evident almost immediately that the seat was made for kindergarten kids, or for folks who could have starred in Stephen King’s movie ‘Thinner’!  To help with the situation I extricated myself out and put my big warm coat in the carryall above us, as did Bob with his coat.  Now we were down by several inches in size, so back into ‘Charlie’s’ corner I went, and Bob moved in again.   At least Bob was able to avoid the offending metal box and keep his feet in the aisle, but he still found the size of the seat much less than accommodating.  However, your not a cowboy unless you have learned to ‘cowboy up’ and make the best of things, therefore Bob spent the bus tour on what he called ‘a one cheek seat’!

Our park driver, told us he had driven tour bus in Denali for 35 years and loved the park and his job.  Just how much he loved what he did was very evident over the next eight hours as he kept up a running commentary for all 40 passengers about the park, its ecosystem, the wildlife, the history, and his personal experiences.  We learned more in those eight hours than in all the reading, studying and researching we had been doing about our vacation destination over the previous six months!  Best of all though was the fact that the driver stopped the bus for every wildlife sighting and waited for everyone to get the photographs they desired before moving on to find us another photo opportunity.

As the bus pulled onto the road to adventure some of the clouds cleared and we enjoyed intermittent sunshine for the first half of the trip.   The road became a narrow gravel trail after the first 12 miles, and quickly moved up into the eco system known as taiga.  Here there were numerous patches of stunted willow bushes which are the main sustenance for moose; but apparently also a favourite meal for snowshoe hares, and this year the hare population was exploding.  Our driver said this happens about every 10 years, and as the hare population climbs they start to eat the willow as well, which in effect robs the moose of their main meal.  The hare devastation of the willows was very evident as we could see hundreds of the denuded bushes that had been stripped up as far as these giant rabbits could reach. Fortunately for the moose though our driver said the hare population would inevitably start to crash now, as it had consistently done so every 10 years in the past.

Further down the road we came across a mother willow ptarmigan who was hastily trying to herd her five half grown chicks away from the tour bus.   This appeared to be something like trying to herd cats though, as the chicks continuously skittered off in five different directions after yummy little bugs, tiny berries, or to chase a sunbeam, while their poor mom clucked away and darted back and forth.  The family were still wearing their summer feathers of brown, but over the next few months they would be making the change into white, even their feet and legs would be protected with thick white feathers, providing excellent warmth and camouflage on winter snows.  We learned the ptarmigan can keep its body temperature at 104 degrees Fahrenheit, even when the outer temperature drops to -30° F.

Just after driving away from the birds, around the next turn in the middle of the road came a red fox on a mission – looking for ptarmigan to fill her larder.  She was definitely absorbed with her hunt, and trotted on right past the stopped bus (while we all scrambled around taking photographs). For all the world she was so absorbed I could almost hear her saying, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!”

Further on we spotted the tracks of two wolves that followed along the side of the road for many miles;  it seems that in Denali the wildlife use the road whenever they feel like it as they know they have nothing to fear from humans in their domain.

We crossed the Savage River and stopped at the Park Warden’s checkpoint on the other side.  Everyone who moves on from this point must check in, and backpackers must register in and out.   Below us our driver pointed out a small log cabin in a willow grove beside the river, as he explained that it was there an extensive study on the relationship between the resident Denali wolf packs and sheep, caribou, moose, and other species took place from 1939 to 1941 by biologist Adolph Murphy.  Murphy documented that although the wolves were killing and eating sheep and other animals, they could not be considered detrimental to the park; rather they were beneficial and a very important element of the ecosystem.  His report, The Wolves of Mount McKinley has become a favourite of American wildlife writing.

Our driver explained that there are five wolf packs in Denali, and that the total number of wolves averages between 70 – 80, with approximately 21 wearing radio collars.  He noted that every now and then a wolf will travel outside the park boundaries, and that park staff is always saddened when they hear from a trapper who has found one of these individuals in his traps.

As the driver pointed out to us the den site of the Grant Creek wolf pack (just over 50 feet from the roadway), and this den had been used six out of the past eight years, with this particular pack now numbering 16 members.   He noted that a two year old female had now denned at another site and had four black pups, which could be the start of another pack.  Listening to our guide talk about the wolves you could tell he knew the history and status of each pack, where and how they hunted, who had pups, and much more.  But most importantly he told us how important the wolves were to the ecosystem, and how when the wolves had been eradicated from Yellowstone National Park there was such a change for the worse in the ecosystem that the Park reintroduced wolves to bring back the balance, which they did.

Everyone was hoping to see a wolf, perhaps on the roadway; but we were honoured instead to see a lone grey male wolf from the Grant Creek pack hunting in the valley bottom as he crossed small rivers and creeks on his way back to the den.

We felt like we’d been transported back in time thousands of years while we watched this lone hunter go about the business of survival in a harsh and unforgiving environment where only the strongest can survive.

Watch for the next instalment of North To Alaska: Destination Denali in the Oct. 10, 2011, issue of the Star/Journal.