Sunday, September 22, 2013

My Denali

Mt. Denali - Reflection Pond, Denali National Park, Alaska, #Denali, #MtDenali, #MtMckinley, #ReflectionPond
Mt. Denali - Reflection Pond
It's September 22nd and, as I wrote in yesterday's post, Wiggling My Toes, I've been home recuperating from surgery on my arthritic left toe since last Friday.  The whole experience has given me new respect for the "bionic" women and men in my life.  No, not Lee Majors (showing my age here) but rather my mother, with her two hip replacements, one knee replacement, and a hip repair.  My brother-in-law with his knee replacement and my friend Linda with her double knee replacement.  These surgeries are not fun.

Fireweed, Denali National Park, Alaska, #Fireweed, #Denali #Alaska
Today started off well.  I finally figured out how to wrap my foot so I could take a real shower (as opposed to my previous foray).  I am more clean and my bathroom is less wet.  And, I got dressed!  More progress.

But I am digressing here in this post that is about the vast wilderness that is Denali National Park.  First, a shout out to my wonderful travel agent, Michelle Glass of Entree Alaska, who put together a fabulous trip for my niece Kristen (#thetravelingkristen) and me.  Not only does Michelle know her stuff, she is very fun to work with when planning a trip like this.  For the Denali leg of our trip, she had us staying in the North Face Lodge which I've reviewed in Deep in Denali on Trip Advisor.   Despite my critique, I'd definitely go back to North Face.  I'd just be hoping that they had listened and we'd get out into the park a bit earlier in the morning.

I am not a backpacker or camper so staying at North Face or one of the other lodges at the end of 92 mile road is pretty much the option for someone like me if you want to get away from the hordes that grace the entrance of the park.  I should say that "hordes" is a relative term as we spent a morning poking around that entrance on our way out of the park and it did not seem all that crowded.  Some 400,000 people visit the park during the summer season (late May to early December).  My guess is that you would be hard-pressed to find a spot to be alone in the vast wilderness but it's not like Times Square on a summer Saturday.

92-Mile Road, Denali National Park, Alaska, #Denali #Alaska #92MileRoad
92-Mile Road
Driving 92-mile road in a converted school bus is definitely an adventure.  The North Face guides all go through a rigorous training before they can take the buses -- and us -- out for a spin.  It's pretty amazing that they can drive, spot animals, and talk about the park -- multi-tasking at its best.  Be forewarned, it can be a little vertigo inducing if you happen to be on the side of the bus that overlooks a cliff -- particularly when two buses are passing each other on this very narrow road.  Private vehicles are only allowed on the park road through Mile 15.  After that, you can use the park bus system (also converted school buses) to get where you want to go in Denali.   If you're a professional photographer (of which I am not one), the Professional Photography Program offers permits that will allow you to access the park for up to 12 days in your own vehicle.   Qualifying for one of these is strict and there is a lottery for "peak" days -- I am pretty sure there is no permit in my future.

Moose Mama, Denali National Park, Alaska, #Denali, #MooseandCalf, #Alaska
Moose Mama

Denali is six million acres big with one road.  That's big.  It's home to all sorts of wild life.  Our closest spotting was actually just outside the train station as we were about to board our buses.  A mother and her calf were grazing just across the road -- giving us quite the show as they wandered off together down the road after posing for a photo shoot for the North Face Lodge guests.  I had hoped that this would be a harbinger of things to come but, alas, that was not to be.  The thing about vast wilderness is that it leaves a lot of room for grizzlies, moose, caribou, and other assorted beasts to roam.  Unlike Africa, there is no off-road driving in search of wildlife here in Denali.  There is the road and then there is the wilderness.  On our ride in from the park entrance, we spotted a grizzly bear off in the distance, lots of caribou, and some Dall Sheep.  We even saw a moose silhouetted against the sky towards the end of the road.  Over the course of the next two days, we saw lots of birds, a hare, a Moose butt (but not the moose), more caribou, and either a couple of voles or a couple of shrews.  We also saw lots of baby birds -- including several sightings of Alaska's state bird -- the Willow Ptarmigan -- with chicks!
Willow Ptarmagin, Denali National Park, Alaska, #willowptarmagin #ptarmagin #denali #alaska
Willow Ptarmagin

Because the season was a bit late, we saw a goodly number of wildflowers dotting the Arctic tundra as we tromped around.  The most beautiful (and prolific) was fireweed.  This beautiful pink flower blooms from the bottom up and the last flower blooming signifies the end of the short summer for Alaskans.  Aside from the fireweed, most of the tundra flowers were quite small -- requiring some close up inspection (demonstrated by my niece Kristen below) to get the "money" shot.  By the by, somewhere on her memory card is a nice shot of my butt as I was lying down on my tummy when i captured this shot of her.  Let's hope that does not see the light of day!

I had never seen rivers like those that wind their way through Denali. They are braided -- many small streams that add up to one big river.  Crossing one can add miles to a hike as they vary in depth and strength of current -- particularly in the summer when they are fed by melting glaciers.   The braiding does not make for a classically pretty river (you know the kind with water lapping up against banks covered with flowers and grasses).  Rather, they have their own haunting beauty as they carve their way through their river beds and meander through the mountains.

Braided River Bed, Denali National Park, Alaska, #braidedriver #denali #alaska
Braided River - Denali
Braided River Bed, Denali National Park, Alaska, #braidedriver #denali #alaska
Braided River Bed - Denali

The Photographer at Work, Denali National Park, #Denali, #Alaska
The Photographer at Work
A vast wilderness is made up of many small things and this is no less true of a place like Denali.  That said, there is one rather large mountain -- McKinley (the tallest in North America) -- that dominates the landscape.  This is true whether it is shrouded in clouds (as is most often the case) or shimmering in the distance under the seemingly endless sunlight that marks Alaskan summers.  A bit of lore -- Alaskans have changed McKinley's name to Denali but a lone Senator from Ohio has blocked a change at the national level.  You see, President McKinley hailed from Ohio.  As Shakespeare once said, what's in a name?  On this, our first trip to Denali, Kristen and I were lucky that the mountain was out in all of its glory -- with wondrous reflections in Reflection Pond and Wonder Lake (the bookend photos for this post).  Heavenly.

There were other glorious views of the mountains ringing the tundra with perhaps my favorite being the many varied colors that came into play as we wound our way around the curves and switch backs that mark the drive into Denali with "Alaskan Colors" off to our left.  I also loved the ways the clouds would roll around the mountain tops as in "And the Clouds Came Rolling In".  It was endlessly changing scenery that I could have watched forever.

Alaskan Colors, Mountain Range in Denali National Park, Alaska, #Denali #Alaska
Alaskan Colors
And the Clouds Came Rolling In, Mountains in Denali National Park, Alaska, #Denali #Mountains #clouds #Alaska
And the Clouds Came Rolling In
No trip to Denali, at least in my niece Kristen's view, would be complete without a glimpse of the Into the Wild bus where Chris McCandless' body was found.  The bus is something of an attraction these days -- following the release of the movie version of the Krakauer book that chronicled McCandless' adventures.  There had already been two rescues of wayward hikers by the time we hit Denali in early July.  Seeing the bus was our consolation prize for the mountain being socked in by clouds on the morning of our departure.  I have to agree with Kristen that it was a pretty good consolation prize.  Seeing Denali from the air was even cooler.  Being up in the sky in a small plane gives you a perspective on the landscape that just punctuates how big of a wilderness Alaska is.  Almost too big for the mind to take in.

Into the Wild Bus - Denali National Park
Birds Eye View, Denali National Park from a Plane, Alaska, #Denali #Alaska
Birds Eye View - Denali National Park
In My Patagonia, I blogged about twirling alone in the wilderness that is Patagonia.  We were never really alone on the arctic tundra yet I had that same feeling in Denali.  It is a special place -- one that we should cherish for it represents the us of old.  The adventurers and explorers that set out on expeditions of discovery and found a vast open space teeming with life and scenery so beautiful it captivates you in a way that nothing else can.   For me, places like Denali and Patagonia are like drinking from a magical well -- they remind me of how small I am and how big the world really is.  They make me giddy.  They make me want to twirl.

Mt. Denali - Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska, #MtDenali, #MtMcKinley, #Denali, #Alaska, #WonderLake
Mt. Denali - Wonder Lake


  1. Nancy, you take amazing pictures, and tell a great story!

  2. Nancy, your words, descriptions and photos made me feel like I was there with you! Thanks for sharing them with the world! ~ Jackie