My wife described the view from our plane as “vast and desolate.” A strange combination of adjectives. Rather like saying “he was an exceptional criminal.” In reality, it is a fitting description in that Alaska is vast and yet as you look out over the landscape from the air it appears empty of human inhabitants. That changes as you land and though sparsely populated, is full of extremely friendly people, both indigenous as well as those who have come here to make Alaska their home.
We are guests of Princess Cruise Lines and our accommodations on land are expansive lodges bordered by rivers and mountain backdrops. First stop was the city of Fairbanks where we took a river cruise and got an introduction to Alaskan culture. The most striking impact this far north, is the midnight sun. You can read about it or hear it described, but these descriptions cannot come close to the reality of its effect. I am a person who suffers from FOMO, the fear of missing out. After being up for 20 hours, including a three hour time shift, I still could not go to bed. It was 10:00 pm but the sun was still at the equivalent of 6:00 pm and the lodge was a buzz with activity. The sun finally set around 12:30 am and was back up at 3:15 am. I can testify to that because I witnessed both events.
The end of day two found us in Denali, the village, not the mountain. After a dinner revue, we were headed for bed knowing we were facing a 6:00 am start time for our Denali bus adventure. The trip into our hopeful viewing point of the great mountain covered sixty miles of mostly gravel road winding its way through the Denali National Park Preserve and at times, precariously hanging on the edge of mountains over seven hundred feet above the valley floor. After riding for nearly three hours, we reached the end of the road roughly thirty-five miles from the base of the mountain. The indigenous people called it Denali, meaning “the high one.” On a clear day, the view is spectacular, as the snow capped mountain literally rises up to completely fill the horizon and live up to its majestic name. On a clear day, it does just that. But not today, not for us. None the less, the Alaskan Range and the surrounding scenery does not disappoint. With a little imagination and enough visual cues from what we can see, the mind does the rest.
When visiting Denali, the quest is to sight the Big Five. That is the five biggest animals of the park; the wolf, moose, grizzly bear, dall sheep and the caribou. We were no more than a mile in, when the bus in unison yelled out moose. There on the side of the road was a moose cow and her calf. Another mile down the road and we spied a second moose. One down four to go and sixty miles to find them in. Our final tally turned out to be around twenty caribou in several herds, an equivalent number of dall sheep also in several flocks, four grizzly bears but unfortunately, no wolf. The grizzly bears were the most spectacular. With roughly three hundred grizzlies spread out through six million acres, seeing one is considered lucky. Sighting four, well you can do the math. Our first was spied up in a high meadow just barely within our ability to see it. We saw another, much closer this time, walking along the gravel bed of one of the many glacial rivers we passed. The last two were the winners. We spied the first high up on a ridge above tree line and were wondering what it was doing up there and why it was still climbing higher. That is when we spied the other bear climbing up some three hundred feet below. The only explanation was that the lower bear was driving the other bear off. It may have been a female grizzly protecting its cubs or possible a female grizzly driving off its own too fully grown cub so that she might mate again. The guide let it up to us to speculate.
Though not sighting a wolf was a disappointment, they are very rare. We did, however, replace the wolf with many other sightings; snow hares, ground squirrels and even a golden eagle. All this while seeing the changing eco-spheres of taiga forest, tundra, glacial kettles and rivers and of course the majestic peaks towering above tree line with some heading toward 17,000 feet and higher.
Tomorrow we head down range, crossing over to the eastern side where if we are lucky, we get one more chance to see Denali. It is possible that we will avoid two overcast days in a row and get an unobstructed view of the giant. The question is, do we feel lucky?