Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Alaska: Day 2 (Denali)

We were up bright and early at 5am on our first day at Denali National Park. After getting dressed and eating a quick breakfast, we drove to the Wilderness Access Center to catch our 6:30am shuttle. We got there pretty early (around 6am) and spent some time chatting with the other passengers. Many of them had very impressive camera equipment. I saw several 300mm lenses and at least one 400mm. By comparison our lenses seemed puny.

Two of our cameras, not including mine:

There was one couple waiting at the shuttle stop that seemed to be an expert on the bus system. They actually decided to take the 7:00am bus rather than the 6:30am bus because they preferred the driver "Wendy" (or Windy?) to our driver Jeremy. They also told us that Wendy's husband Tim was also very good at spotting wildlife.

Nevertheless, we went with Jeremy, who was not super friendly but did give us paper towels to wipe the insides of the windows, and provided a squeegee for us to wash the outsides. This turned out to be super helpful after we got to the dirt road part, since the windows quickly got covered in mud splatter, which made it difficult to see anything.

Soon after leaving the WAC, before even reaching Savage River at Mile 15, we saw two moose! They were close to begin with but ended up actually walking across the road.

Here's one of many many photos that I took:

It was probably three or four hours (with three rest stops) from there to the Eielson Visitor Center, but we didn't have any other great sightings. We did see a faraway grizzly bear and the first of many tiny Dall sheep:

On the return trip, we asked Jeremy to let us off at Mile 47.5, around Polychrome. We'd researched the hikes in Ike Waits' Denali Guidebook and decided to attempt the "Polychrome Bluffs" hike.

We'd only been walking about five or ten minutes when all of a sudden someone gasped "moose! moose!" and we whirled around to see this guy about 15 feet away:

We (probably stupidly) stood around snapping photos of it until it started to snort and make funny noises, at which point we decided it was probably a good idea to back away slowly. (Later on, when we got back on the bus, the driver told us more people had been hurt by moose then by bears in Denali over the years, since moose are more plentiful and people are less afraid of them. Oops.)

We were still marvelling over the encounter half an hour later when we spotted a wolf, casually trotting along the creek bed in the opposite direction:

We were pretty stoked by the exciting wildlife sightings, but were still wary of bears, so we spent the first part of the hike sticking pretty close to the creek. After awhile this was no longer an option, so we scrambled up onto the bluffs, where it was much slower going. Not only were there bushes and shrubs to wade through, the tundra itself was kind of spongy, which was fun and probably nicely low-impact, but required some focus.

We saw a few smaller animals along the way. This one is a ground squirrel:

These are ptarmigan, starting to turn white for the winter:

Eventually we wound up back in the creek bed again, and decided to try jumping some of the smaller streams. (We'd brought water shoes but were too lazy to change into them.) Most of our attempts were successful but we ended up with a few wet socks and had one incident resulting in a lost lens cap.

Several hours into the hike, we came across a particularly wide and deep stream which had flat ground on the right and a rocky hill on the left. We were on the left, so in order to get to the easy terrain we'd have to cross:

Unfortunately, it appeared that we'd have to cross back later in order to get back to the road. At this point we made the brilliant decision to scale the hill instead.

The first bit was not bad; it was rocky (we learned later the terrain was called "scree") but not that steep. There was a middle section that was a bit steeper, which meant the rocks were more prone to movement, but it was still manageable. It was in this area that we spotted a wild hare among the few shrubs that were able to grow amid the rocks. The last fifteen or twenty feet were quite difficult. I was pretty sure that if I started to fall that bad things would happen, so I did not stop moving. When I got to the top, I whipped out my camera and tried to get one of my friends to pose for a photo, but she (quite reasonably) refused to stop as well.

The view from the top:

Back on the bus, we learned that the hill that we climbed was known as "poisonous curve", but only because the road was treacherous for cars, and not so much because people were in the habit of climbing it. The rest of the ride back was pretty uneventful; we saw a few caribou, bears, and some birds, but nothing up close.

We were pretty tired from our hike so we decided to just grab dinner at the Creekside Cafe. The food was fine but not especially noteworthy, except for some really salty and nasty broccoli. However, our server was really nice about it when we complained, and brought out a freshly cooked (much larger) serving which was yummy. Interestingly, when we asked for a to-go box for some pasta that we'd been unable to finish, she said that they were out of to-go boxes "for the year". Apparently many businesses in Alaska shut down after the season. The Creekside Cabins were scheduled to close in two weeks, so they hadn't bothered to replenish their paper goods supply.

Also, the server herself was Japanese and was only living in Alaska for the summer. Later while chatting with staff from other hotels and tour companies, we discovered they hailed from Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Arizona, Canada, and various other places, but hardly any were from Alaska. I guess it's similar to how Whistler seems to be staffed entirely by Australians.

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