July 12, 2015

Denali Preview

By: Rob Lowe

Featured Picture

We are enclosing a Preview of Denali National Park since a preview is all that it is. Even being here you have the sense that there is far more than can be seen in a lifetime. As has been demonstrated throughout this trip, God’s creation is stunning in its breadth, depth, colour and symbiosis.

We start with a morning picture from our "campsite” with the sun shining on the clouds and mountains above us. We embarked on an 8 hour bus tour of this park at 7:30 today. Denali is the native name given to the highest mountain in North America, often known as Mount McKinley which is 20,306 feet tall. The mountain is surrounded by a vast wilderness that is maintained by the US National Park Service which restricts access to keep it in its natural state. The park basically is closed from September to April. Mountain climbers have access during the summer to the top, flying onto glaciers and over a period of many weeks climb to the top. About 5% who begin actually reach the summit, some die, many turn back and many suffer from mountain illnesses caused by the height and strains on the body. This mountain creates its own weather and during July the peak will be visible on 2-3 days usually for only part of the day. Even at this time of year, the snow is deep, the weather full blown winter and temperatures can be -40F!! Thankfully we did not experience this, although the temperature was in the 10-15C (low 50’s to 60F).

The second and third pictures show a glacial stream which strikes you because unlike streams elsewhere, the water never stretches bank to bank, it flows more or less depending upon the melt waters of the glaciers. We usually see snow melt creating streams, not here.     

The fourth photo shows two types of spruce trees that grow on the tundra, the traditional looking white spruce and the bottle brush looking black spruce. Since they grow on the tundra there is permafrost under their shallow roots and the trees never grow very tall. It is not unusual to see them leaning, yet still green, often dead. They can stay like that for over 50 years, not rotting like they would in the south. As you go up the mountain the height shrinks and vegetation becomes increasingly sparse.

Our first animal sightings were caribou however the grizzly bears (distinguished by their humped backs) really caught our attention. The bus stops, we are commanded to be very quiet, talking only in whispers and to open windows quietly before we actually get stopped. All must remain inside the bus, which makes window real estate very valuable! The light coloured grizzlies are less common and their dark legs distinguish them. These were a long way from the bus but with good telephoto lenses, they seem near.

The black and white bird was a contrast to the vegetation and it stayed still even with the commotion of people nearby.

Picture 11 shows the contrast in colour that in the right lighting really is beautiful, more will come later.

You don’t get the sense of how narrow the roads are, however the next picture shows the road curling around a mountain. It is not unusual to see another bus or two above you on the mountain or down in the valley well below our bus. The trip was 62 miles (100 km) and while there were breaks, driving was slow on the narrow gravel road. Meeting other buses always caused speed to drop to a crawl as one took the lead to pass. Speaking of breaks, here is Jane on her way to take a picture along with 40 others. It was amazing to see the various pieces of equipment tourists brought to take photos. We were told to keep all Go-Pros, selfie sticks and so on inside the bus, however at the rest areas anything goes (and did).

Picture 14 shows the mountain top glaciers, the upper barren rock, the colourful gravel frequently contrasting with the green vegetation, and the textures of the vegetation. What was not in this photo was the beautiful landscape of colour that the mountain flowers make. One we especially enjoyed seeing was called "fireweed” which has pink/purple flowers up a long stem, so that as the ones on the top flower and wilt, the ones on the bottom open and flower. When the flowers finally finish it is said that winter is 6 weeks away (October). This flower is found all along the roads and frequently it is the first flower to bloom after a wild fire. Most of the wildfires are started by lightning and scientists initially tried to fight them as they do in the south. Scientists discovered that some trees only reproduce after a wild fire prompted them while others need the fire to produce seeds. Now, these fires are only fought when they threaten housing or buildings, hence the smoke that can hang in the air as it did this past week. We still smell smoke at times, depending upon the wind direction. As the next picture shows we really were here!        

More colourful mountain scenes follow.

The caribou in this next picture sports a collar that allows tracking and as you can see she is still shedding her winter coat. That fur has hollow hair to hold air (and heat). Their hooves are hollow to allow walking in the snow without getting cold feet and they have a special tendon that holds the hoof halves together and when they walk this tendon causes their hooves to "click” a very distinctive sound. We learned at the Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks that this little tendon saves them a one calorie with each step preserving their energy and allowing them to range far and wide in the winter.

The male caribou in the next picture was far up on a mountain ridge likely in a wind current which allows him to be free of the various insects that torment the caribou during the summer months. We’re going to a presentation tomorrow to learn more.

Another picture of the mountain colour on Polychrome Mountain and then a male caribou which strolled behind a mountain rock outcropping on command (he knew we were trying to take his picture). No matter how the bus driver oriented the bus, he was always behind the rocks.

More grizzlies (6 today) grazing on a mountain side give you a sense for the size of these animals. They look so docile yet they can kill you in seconds. We finish with a Ptarmigan and her chicks. She had six although I only captured four in the photo. Notice she has three claws and lots of feathers right to her claw tips to retain her body heat.

We also saw some artic ground squirrels which are small (1/2 the size of ours at home). We did not see black bears, supposedly because the winter was less intense and they did not need to come to the road to find vegetation to feed on. Wolves were also absent today although we did see a pair of golden eagles soaring overhead. Unfortunately a camera can only capture a sliver of the beauty of this wilderness park.

Tomorrow we’ll tour the dog kennels where there are some newborn husky puppies and their parents. They use dogs and sleds to tour the park in the winter just as they did almost 100 years ago when the park was founded. We’ll also take in some new hotels and shops that are located in spectacular locations on the mountain outcroppings and it is straight down from these buildings. It is noteworthy that Princess Cruise lines recently built the very large Denali Princess hotel complex here. They bus people in from Anchorage to spend a few nights here as part of their cruise package. In addition there is a train that travels up to the park just as it did in the early 1900’s. All that has changed is that people move by bus rather than stagecoach now.

We’ll enjoy another great sleep in our RV relishing all that we saw today and reflecting back on our trip up to this point. Who knows I may even take a small plane flight around Denali later this week. Jane will stay with her feet firmly planted on the ground, anxious to see my pictures.

We’ll see!



Thanks for your comment.It will be published after reviewing it.