Denali National Park and Preserve Bus Tour

My son and his girlfriend are in Fairbanks, Alaska, for the next few years for graduate school. We went up to visit them earlier this month.

Fairbanks is only two and a half hours away from Denali National Park. So we all piled in the car and went!

There is only one road in Denali, and you can only drive your car a short distance on it into the Park. After that, you take one of two kinds of bus: a free shuttle bus that will drop you off for a hike, or a tour bus with a driver-guide who will help you spot wildlife. This being our first time in Denali, we chose the wildlife tour bus.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Many, if not most, National Parks in the lower 48 have gone to this system because of the tremendous overcrowding that is set to destroy the very things we love most about the Parks — silence, wilderness, the sense of being alone.

But the whole thing had a very managed feel to it, something of the Disneyland experience. And that was a problem for me. I wanted to discover Denali, or any National Park, on my own.

One of the most common animals in Denali are moose. They thrive on the willow thickets that line the rivers. There are a lot of willow thickets.

Moose are possibly the most dangerous animals in Denali NPP. Bears, either black or grizzly/brown, will generally stay out of your way, as long as you don’t get between them and their cubs. Moose will stomp you to death just because they are feeling grumpy.

A little further on, we saw these Arctic fox kits, playing outside their den. It won’t be long before they join their parents for hunting outings.

Then we saw one of the parent foxes hunting something on the road in front of us. This is one of the advantages of not allowing private cars on the road — fewer chances of hitting animals. The animals aren’t as wary of the road and come closer.

Glacial rivers are often “braided”, meaning that they don’t have a main channel except when they are running high. This is because they suddenly go from steep slopes to fairly flat valleys. They don’t have enough energy on the flats to carry the sediments, so the sands, silts and clays build up as the river constantly looks for the easiest way down.

Here, you can see how muddy the river is below the glacier.

While stopped, I took the opportunity to get some close-ups of Arctic tundra plants…

This is Arctic sandwort, in the carnation family. Carnations are surprising well represented in tundra plants. Although it is just a few inches tall, it stands higher than most tundra plants in the Colorado Rockies. This was true of the tundra plants in general. The reason is that there is much less wind in the lower elevations of Denali, at least. That really surprised me.

A little further on, we saw a sow grizzly and her yearling cub. This was when I was glad we had taken the tour — I don’t think I would have seen the grizzlies without the driver pointing them out. But once I knew to look for blond, almost white, dots on the slopes, I saw them easily.

This was our best view of Denali. Most of the time, the Big Mountain is socked in with a weather system it creates all on it’s own. You can see what I mean by looking at the mountains in the foreground — each one has a puffy cloud above it, created by the humid air having to rise to get around the mountain. As the air rises and cools, clouds form. As high and isloated as it is, the moisture-laden air almost always get caught at Denali.

Our closest view, while not as clear as just a few minutes before, is still better than most folks get. Denali is the bit of blinding white under the red arrow. But it gives you an idea of just how much higher Denali is (20,310 ft, or 6190 m) than anything else around. It dwarfs the next highest mountain, Mt. Foraker (17,400 ft or 5304 m) in the Park, and pretty much anything else in North America including #2 in elevation, Mt. St. Elias (18,008 ft or 5,489 m) in Southeast Alaska.

From this overlook, we turned around.

A caribou, browsing on a willow thicket along the side of the road. Caribou are the wild North American version of reindeer. They are such unusual animals that I could easily do an entire blog on them. Among many other characteristics, they are unique among deer in that both males and females have antlers.

Caribou on the tundra with the Alaska Range behind them. This photo calls to my northern European Neolithic genes.

And just a few miles on, we spotted a grizzly taking a nap among blue chiming bells, literally just off the road. You can see how light their fur is.

Back at the Visitor’s Center I took more pictures of flowers. I’m not sure how I like this business of other people having cameras…

But I got a great photo of chiming bells, in the heather family. This charming plant was all over the lower part of the Park.

Final conclusions: Animals were closer to the road — in some cases on the road — than they would have been with people zipping up and down it. The driver-guide was able to spot wildlife we didn’t know how to see yet, and she answered questions about what we were seeing. The tour still had a slightly industrial feel to it, but it was a reasonable compromise to having hordes of tourists tromp across the tundra without being aware of it’s fragility, or it’s dangers.

Alaska Sea Kayak Whale Watching

My husband and I had always wanted to go whale watching by kayak. But something always got in the way — kids, work, other catastrophes.

This year, though, we were able to make it happen.

We chose Spirit Walker Expeditions out of Gustavus, Alaska, near Juneau, for our big adventure. We arrived in Gustavus on Saturday. Sunday evening we had an hour long

meeting with our Spirit Walker our guides, Karen and Jessie, and met our eight fellow adventurers, to learn the basics of what we were doing. We had been told that Southeast Alaska was variations on wet, so we weren’t too surprised when the guides handed out rain suites and muck boots. Then they warned us that they were anticipating 40 mph winds that would produce horizontal rain. The adventure begins…
I knew we were in for a good trip when there were bald eagles perched on the pier as we loaded our gear onto the sea taxi. We crossed Icy Straight to a spot near Mud Bay on Chichigof Island in a fog, enhancing the transition to another world. The sea taxi ran right up onto the beach and lowered a ladder so that we could unload. Instead of sand, the beach was made up of fist-size cobbles, which meant that technically, it was a “shingle” beach.
Shingle beaches are relatively rare, according to Wikipedia. Omaha beach had shingle, which added to the Allies problems when they landed at D-Day. I can understand why.

Shingle beach at Mud Bay

Shingle beach at Mud Bay

Walking over smooth round rocks slick with sea weed while carrying equipment was a challenge – it would be very easy to slip and break a leg. For us, doing it with visibility reduced to less than a hundred feet by dense fog made the entire experience surreal.

Karen and Jessie helped us set up tents on soft sand and moss. Karen had us make everything very tight in anticipation of the incoming storm.
In the afternoon, the sky cleared enough that we could go for a shake-down cruise in our kayaks. All ten of us paddled around our

Camp site at mud bay

Camp site at mud bay

little cove and got used to the gear.
After dinner, we lit a fire on the beach. My husband and I were worn out and went to our beds around 10:00 pm. The wind and rain came in, beating on the tent, about midnight.
When we got up Tuesday morning, we discovered that the storm had been surprisingly mild. It was still raining lightly and there were larger waves in Icy Straight, but there was nothing blown away, nothing soaked and needing to be drained. The storm hadn’t been any where near as bad as it could have been.
It was foggy out as we ate breakfast, but we could see far enough into the bay to watch a pod of orcas and a humpback cruise by. Much better than reading the morning newspaper.
Karen had us gear up for a paddle to Mud Bay to see salmon and therefore bears and bald eagles. Karen and Jessie helped my husband and I get in the water first, to see how rough it was. We were both in and fastening our spray skirts to our cockpits when I felt the stern of the kayak rise up. I reflexively looked up at the folks still on the shingle. Their eyes were as big as saucers. Then the big wave slapped me in the back. Doug had gotten drenched. With the sea still rough, Karen scrubbed the mission and hauled us back in.
Instead of going to Mud Bay, we hung out on the beach. Nobody seemed to mind.
In the afternoon, most of us hiked down the beach to a stream where we hoped to find clear water (the creek we were camped by was full of sediment washed in by the rain.).

Juvenile bald eagle.

Juvenile bald eagle.

As we walked down the beach we heard ravens making their “TONG!” alarm call. Looking around for what was upsetting the ravens, we saw a juvenile bald eagle perched up in the trees.
Further down the beach, we saw very fresh (since the rain stopped) grizzley bear tracks on a sandy portion of the beach and bear scat. Nearby was the flattened grass of a bear bed.
When we told people at home about this, they were stunned that we were in an area where the bears got so close. But I never felt threatened or in danger from the bears. We kept a very clean camp – all of our food was in caches high in a tree, all toiletries like toothpaste or chapstick were in bear-proof canisters. All cooking was done below the high tide mark, so any scraps were washed out to sea every twelve hours. The bears had more salmon than they could eat just over the hill. Why would they bother us?

My size 7 woman's boot next to a grizzley bear footprint.

My size 7 woman’s boot next to a grizzley bear footprint.

Dinner was lovely, and the other kayakers delightful as we sat and talked. Doug and went to our tent about 9:00, but the others sat up, and, as the night sky cleared, they saw the Aurora Borealis.
We packed up camp and moved from near Mud Bay to Point Adolphus, a distance of eight miles. All our tents, sleeping bags and pads, personal gear, water jugs, and food we packed into the kayaks, scraping our knuckles and using a few choice words in the process.
Once packed, and riding low in the water, we set off. Without our paddle to Mud Bay on Monday, this was our first serious attempt at going any distance. As an ocean novice, I hadn’t really grasped how important tides and currents were. For a significant portion of the paddle we were going against the current; if felt as if we were going up a hill. Jessie saw me struggling, and gave me the tip that I shouldn’t paddle with my arms, but with my core muscles. This meant twisting my upper body and keeping my arms straight through most of the stroke. I’m not sure that my technique was correct even then, because I still had to focus on every movement.
This meant that when we on the water I had to focus on paddling, not sight-seeing. The required concentration turned out to be one of my biggest regrets of the entire trip. But it was a cost of getting closer to the animals.
It was, however, impossible not to notice the sea lions that swam along with us, poking

Seal lions watching our progress.

Seal lions watching our progress.

their heads up to watch us as we paddled along. We also saw several bald eagles and Sitka deer. The deer were so tame that we were able to drift in  very close to them, much closer than we would have been able to approach if we had been

As we worked our way up the coast, the kelp became much thicker. Kelp floats on the surface of the water. Some of it is fairly hard, and all of it tangles in your paddles and rudder. But there were thousands of little fish and jellies living among the stalks. Very fun to watch.
On the approach to Point Adolphus, we began to see whale spouts. Usually, we’d hear them first – whooosh!  – then see the mist from their blow. If we continued to watch, they’d often surface nearby. They were probably feeding near the surface. When we saw the tail fins go up, they were gone on a deeper dive.
Two thirds of the way there, we came up on a day boat watching a huge humpback whale. You are supposed to leave 100 yards between you and the marine wildlife, but if you drift closer, or they approach you, that’s okay. This boat had drifted quite close to the humpback, and the whale was very active. First, it did head lunges – lifting its head out of the water and letting it crash down with a big boom. After the head lunges, it waved first

Humpback whale raises it's head out of the water.

Humpback whale raises it’s head out of the water.

one pectoral flipper, then other, bringing six feet of flipper down with slaps that sounded like rifle shots. It rolled on its back and waved both flippers in the air. Then the whale took off, blowing and diving, to all appearances upset with the boat for drifting so close.
When we finally pulled onto the beach at Point Adolphus, Karen told us that this was the premier point for viewing whales in this region of Southeast Alaska. I believe it. It was a humpback highway.
Our fourth day out we were woken by the whooosh of a humpback cruising in front of the camp. They came in much closer to shore early in the morning.
The excursion for the day was to paddle down the coast to a muskeg, or peat bog. Another long pull – six miles – but with the chance to see wildlife and wild flowers.
When we got there, we found an old growth forest with murre sea bird nests in the tops of theCarnivorous sundew traps insects on it's sticky leaves. It is growing in a bed of sphagnum moss.

Carnivorous sundew traps insects on it’s sticky leaves. It is growing in a bed of sphagnum moss.

trees, old man’s beard in the branches and fungus on old stumps. On the muskeg itself, it was like walking on a sponge. The muskeg was full of sphagnum moss, skunk cabbage, and carnivorous sticky sundews, which were very cool.
The clouds burned off on the paddle back, and we saw whales spouting with a backdrop of the Fairweather Mountain range, visible only on a clear day. Post-card beautiful.
As we paddled back, I realized something else, too. I wasn’t having to fully concentrate on every stroke that I took. It wasn’t easy yet, but I wasn’t completely absorbed in just pulling the boat forward, either.
That evening, the skies stayed clear as every one relaxed by the fire after dinner. As the sun

Kayaks in Icy Straight.

Kayaks in Icy Straight.

set, we could see across Icy Straight to the lights of Gustavus. And then we realized…there was too much glow for it to be simply tiny Gustavus. The Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – were once again glowing across the northern sky.
We were awakened on our last morning out by the sound of passing boats sounding their fog horns and passing whales blowing. Guess which one got us out of bed?
The whales were again cruising close to the beach, huge and silent except for their spouts,

This time a whale is slapping it's tail flukes.

This time a whale is slapping it’s tail flukes.

closer than yesterday. They were just beyond the kelp beds where we had been kayaking. I hadn’t realized that the water there was deep enough for a whale to swim, let alone dive. And yet they were.
We took another quick trip to a muskeg. It was again very wet beneath its top layer of sphagnum moss. On this trip, we saw a very stunted “coastal” pine, which is a short-needled sea-shore version of a lodgepole pine. It wasn’t doing very well in the wet, acidic soils of the muskeg. Karen said that many people consider the muskeg the climax community for old Alaskan forests. That means that if left alone, the forest will eventually become muskegs. This is an interesting idea, because I would have thought that eventually the bog would build up enough moss to dry out on the top and allow other plants in. I’ll have to do some more research on the topic…
After lunch, we loaded all our gear back on the sea taxi and headed back to the known, this time without fog to enhance the transition.