Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Great One


Mt. McKinley, or Denali, or simply "The Great One" (translation of "Denali" in Koyukon Athabaskan) is the tallest mountain in North America. It is the prominent feature of Denali National Park which is where Karyn and I spent phase two of our recent Alaskan adventure.

We arrived in Fairbanks from Barrow with our luggage! We picked up a rental car and headed down the Parks Highway to Denali National Park. The roads were in better shape than I expected so we arrived earlier than planned. The Denali park allows private vehicle only for the first 15 miles into the park, otherwise park buses must be used to travel further. Since we had not yet made reservations, we took the drive into the first portion of the park. The high Sitka Spruce and Willow plains were beautiful, just starting to change from green to red. We spotted our first Moose in the distance. At the Savage River it was time to stretch our legs so we headed off on the two mile Savage River Hike. Whoa! Caribou!

Caribou, Savage River, Denali National Park

This guy was a bit closer than I expected. They say to stay at least 25m away, but what if they come closer? Walk, Run, Stay still?

Caribou, Savage River, Denali National Park
Caribou, Savage River, Denali National Park.

The hike was beautiful and just what we needed to get us in the Denali mood. We returned to the visitor center. The Denali visitor center has to be one of the best visitor centers we have been to. A great exhibit about the geology and ecology of the park. Each species in the exhibit is represented by its role in the broader ecosystem, even the mosquito! It is very well done.

For accommodations we were staying at the Creekside Inn. Great accommodations and a great restaurant. We were fat and happy!

On day two we reserved a seat on the bus for the long ride into the park. The bus system is designed to decrease disturbance in the park by decreasing traffic. Since the park road is gravel, the buses used are school buses. 45 miles on a school bus on gravel, made us happy we didn't sign up to go to the road's end (an 8-9 hour round trip!). We settled for Polychrome Pass. One advantage of the bus system is that you can get on or off anywhere you like, as long as there is room on the bus. The down side is that school buses aren't conducive to taking photographs.

On the bus we would see Caribou, Dall Sheep, and a few Grizzly Bears. The most dramatic was watching a Grizzly chase a Caribou. It didn't look like the Caribou was ever in real danger, but it was fun to watch.

Grizzly chasing Caribou!

Next stop was Polychrome pass. The bus was taking a 10 minute rest stop, but we told the driver to go on without us. We ate lunch and headed up onto a ridgeline to get a spectacular view. We were very successful!

360 degree view from ridge above polychrome pass (click to enlarge).
View from above Polychrome Pass.
Grizzly Bear.
Northern Harrier.

After our hike we returned to the road to catch a bus back. Instead of standing still, we started hiking down the road. While passing a scree field near the road, we heard a sound. It wasn't one that we recognized, but it was close enough. It had to be a Pika, but not an American Pika. There in the rocks were two Collared Pikas, the local relative to the American Pika.

Collared Pika!

The ground squirrels are even different up there. The Arctic Ground Squirrel appears to be a close relative to Idaho's Columbian Ground Squirrel as they look very similar. Most people might overlook the ground squirrels, but my study of goshawks and their primary prey, ground squirrels, has piqued my interest so I had to take photos. The squirrel community is an important chain in the tree of life. You cannot respect and appreciate the predator without respecting and appreciating the prey.

Arctic Ground Squirrel.

The first bus came by, but we weren't ready to leave so we kept on walking the road. The next bus was full as was the bus after that. We arrived at the bridge and decided to stay there and just enjoy the view. The next bus had two seats available and we were headed back.

Braided River.

The next day we chose to not take the bus. While the inner park was beautiful, we weren't ready for another six hours on the rough road in the confining bus. As Karyn pointed out, in Denali the animals are free and the humans are caged in the bus. We headed back to Savage River for some exploration. We hiked to the ridge above the river and just kept heading up. Up and up we went 2000 feet to the nearest peak and excellent view of Denali. We even found more Pika!

View from Healy Peak.
Collared Pika.

Other than some short birding hikes, this concluded our activities in Denali. Unfortunately, it was time to move on. Next stop - Seward Alaska.

Denali in the distance.

1 comment:

April said...

Fantastic post!! So very cool to see a whole different ecosystem. Very much enjoyed your photos especially of the caribou and the panorama - that was exceptional. What a cool trip.