Friday morning we headed into Denali Park. The road is 92 miles long, but it is currently only open to mile 30. As of May 15 you can’t even drive the road in your personal vehicle and have to take the park bus, so even though it was not open all the way it is a fun time to visit. Unfortunately, the weather did not really cooperate and we could never see Denali itself from the park road. Of course, the views are still amazing and there was almost no one else out there.
We stopped first to visit the Denali sled dogs. Prior to WWII sled dog were the primary means of patrolling the park. After WWII the park started relying more on snow machines and snow cats, but over the years those proved challenging as they were more prone to breaking down in the extreme cold or getting stuck. In the 1970’s the park again started using sled dogs and the dogs have been used ever since. In the summer they do some training and they get lots of walks, but they are primarily used for education and outreach. In the shoulder season now they are still doing some training pulling sleds on the road, but we didn’t get to see it.
We took our time on the drive in, but we didn’t see much other than the wilderness.
We could see Dall sheep on the rocks a little ways down Savage River, but we didn’t get out to hike. It’s easy to see why the road takes a long time to clear because in places there are huge drifts and with the light snow and wind while we were driving it was evident new drifts continue to form. When we got to the end of the road at mile 30 we planned to walk farther down the road with the dogs. The road is actually mostly clear all the way to mile 56 and if you have bikes you can ride all the way down. As we were about to head out, a couple came back down the road and told us there was a grizzly reported to be just down the road about a mile and asked if we could all walk together. We put the dogs back in the car and I grabbed my better camera and we started down the road.
A mile down the road it crosses the river and we started looking for bear tracks. They were actually pretty easy to find and they were huge! Across the river, the forest gets denser on both sides of the road so we tried to just stay close together and walk slowly. This tactic, of course, is the difficult choice between whether you want to alert a bear to your presence so it moves away or whether you want to stalk a bear so that you can get a good view. We figured that with all four of us staying together we had a good chance of appearing sufficiently dangerous if we did surprise the bear that he would run away instead of attack us. Naturally I have no idea if that calculation was reasonable, but let’s face it, the vast majority of bear encounters do not result in an attack so I think the odds were with us. We also each had a can of bear spray so in the worst case scenario, Sara and I could just spray the other couple and run away while the bear munched on them. (As I write this, Sara tells me they had bigger cans of bear spray so it also might have gone the other way.)
The tracks went along the edge of the road and it was apparent the bear was digging into the small bank for roots/bugs/animals along the side of the road.
The wind was blowing strong in our face and it was snowing moderately so our approach was pretty quiet. As we started around the first corner, Sara decided to go to the other side of the road for a slightly better view around the bend. She quickly motioned to us the bear was right there so we regrouped on that side of the road to watch. He was just slowly walking away from us digging in the bank. He never once looked in our direction or made any indication that he knew we were there. To our untrained eye he seemed massive, easily as big as the ~850 lb. bear we saw at the wildlife center. The only downside to where we caught up with him was that he was standing right by the road sign so every one of my pictures has the sign in it. We were only about 50 yards away and there was no way we were going any closer to get a different angle. We watched him for about 15 minutes before he went just a little too far around the bend for us to see. Being the adventurous type we all are, we slowly moved forward around the corner until … he was gone.
I remain convinced he didn’t not see us, but the wind started swirling a bit so he could have scented us. Now it was a bit eerie because this huge bear was somewhere just off the road in the woods. Did he just lie down next to the road up ahead? Did he walk away? Did he circle around to get down wind of us and he was now stalking us? We stayed together keeping an eye ahead and behind, but there was no sign of him. We certainly didn’t hear him go crashing through the woods away from us. We kept slowly moving forward until we could see his tracks into the woods, but we couldn’t see where he had gone and we weren’t about to follow him any further. I had already composed a number of headlines about our demise but I wasn’t really looking to make them come true.
We all headed back to the cars, now making plenty of noise and enjoying the thrill of having just seen a huge grizzly bear up close. After we were back in the parking lot another work vehicle came back down the road through the gate and told us there was “biiiiig bear” back down the road, so apparently he came back out of the woods after we left, or perhaps he had wandered further down the road through the trees. The woman said a number of times how big he was so our impressions of his immensity were confirmed.
It was late as we drove back to the park campground and we saw at least seven moose on the way back.
Two moose were standing next to the road as we came along at one point and as we drove slowly forward expecting them to run off to the side they started running down the road. We drove slowly behind them, the other couple next to us filming the scene as well, and they absolutely refused to turn. I am sure the park rangers would be upset at us for harassing wildlife, but no matter what we did they just kept running ahead of us down the road. Finally there was a car coming the other direction so they were trapped. We waited about another 10 minutes for them to move off the road but they still refused. I finally started edging forward in the other lane and they eventually went into the snow. As they started off it was readily apparent why they didn’t want to leave the plowed road because they were often breaking through the crust into snow up to their chest.
We spent Friday night in the campground with the other couple. Joseph was English but lives in France and Caroline was French but hasn’t lived there much. They have been working in Vancouver, BC and when they save enough money they go on a trip. Their last trip was across Russia, Siberia, and China by train. We pulled a picnic table up next to the van and cooked outside using the induction stove and an extension cord, but the snow higher in the park was rain in the campground so we didn’t want to set outside to eat. The four of us and the two dogs piled into the van for our first van dinner party. We put the dogs up on our bed, Joseph and Caroline sat on the swiveled seats, I sat on the electrical cabinet, and Sara sat on a cushion (aka the dog beds) in the aisle. It actually worked quite well and we had a nice time getting to know them.
Saturday morning was much sunnier so we went back into the park to see if Denali wanted to make an appearance, but it was still covered in clouds.
We decided to drive back toward Anchorage just a bit and drive out the Denali Highway, which is not to be confused with the Denali Park Road, which is not to be confused with the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Denali Highway is a 135 mile gravel road from Cantwell to Paxson. It traverses just south of the Alaska Range and is reported to be one of the most beautiful road in Alaska. The DOT web site hinted that the road was not fully open, but it did not say it was closed and the sign at the entrance to the road just said it was not maintained until May 15 and travel was not advised. As we learned, on April 15 Cantwell starts clearing its side of the road and Paxson starts clearing its side. They try to have the road open by May 15. As of May 5 this year, Cantwell has made it 73 miles and Paxson has made it 60 miles. 73 + 60 = 133, which means there are only two miles not plowed in the middle. Oh well, it was well worth the drive.
This end of the Alaska Range has peaks up to 13,000 feet, but those were also lost in the clouds on our drive even though our trip was mostly in sunshine. The terrain is amazing and the road lives up to its billing as one of the most beautiful roads in Alaska. As there are so few roads really driving out into the wilderness here, this road is a great opportunity to see some exceptionally remote and difficult terrain. We still have not seen any wildlife more interesting than moose and ptarmigan, but there are also caribou, wolverines, wolves, bears, otters, and other weasels out here.
Willow Ptarmigan obviously eat pussy willows.
It is amazing that even as light as they are, the ptarmigan still fall through the crust sometimes.
As we approached the end of the road we found the Alpine Creek Lodge, open year-round. During the winter they are open to snowmobilers, trappers, dog sledders, and other hearty souls; in the summer spring/summer/fall they are open to tourists, hunters, fishermen, and anyone else who manages to get off the beaten path in Alaska. The lodge looked remarkably comfortable so we had a drink and chocolate chip muffin (no pie available today) before starting our drive back toward Cantwell. While we were there a rented SUV arrived. The man explained the elderly women with him thought the lodge was only 10 miles off the road and they seemed rather distraught to have driven nearly four hours on a rough dirt road with no cell service to get to the lodge. I wonder how often that happens!
The light was beautiful as we started back about 8:30 p.m. and the mountains, trees, and rivers were gorgeous. There were a lot of moose along the road, but still no wolverines or bears (some bear hunters at the lodge said a wolverine ran down the road in front of them that day).
Sara decided she needed some exercise so at 9:30 p.m. in the late evening light she took Kenai, with his loud bear bell, out for their own Denali Highway 5K. The bells must have worked because she didn’t see the two moose on the road I saw as I drove ahead of her.
As we have no immediate destination we decided to spend the night along the road hoping it might be clearer in the morning, but that hasn’t happened. I have been trying to type this blog on my lap as Sara drives the bouncy road back to Cantwell where we will figure out where to go next!