We set of from Fairbanks yesterday in pouring rain and low cloud. In fact some of the sections of the highway at higher elevations were shrouded in fog where the visibility was only a few hundred metres. Any idea of superb photography during the day was quickly forgotten. Our whole day was spent in intermittent rain and drizzle. The drive to Denali was mostly through quite flat wilderness although we did come across two small towns.
The first, Nenana, seems to be a centre of local government with quite a modern courthouse. In contrast it has a very old historic railway station that has lots of character. It is also the town on the Nenana River in which the local community sets up a tripod on the icy river. This has a bell which is linked to a clock. It tips over and shows the exact time when the ice melts in the river in spring. People from all over, place bets on when the bell will ring and the winner collects the jackpot.
The second, Healy, is the centre of coal mining in Alaska. It is strung out along the highway and was quite a dismal place, especially on a wet day. We found Rose’s Cafe where we stopped for lunch. We had a good cheap meal in this place which seats about thirty people and is painted with a bright yellow interior. After eating, we again braved the rain and continued on to Denali.
The village of Denali is purely a tourist town. It offers a wide range of adventures such as white water rafting with the rafts being launched down the steep riverbank (maybe 20 metres high) on improvised slides made of wood, plastic piping and any other suitable slippery material. We headed in to the National Park HQ to suss out where our bus trip into the park would start on the next day. We collected our tickets and drove 15 miles up to the furthest point in the park at Savage River where private vehicles can go. It was still raining, with a temperature of about 6C, and the mountains were heavily clouded over.
We could hear it raining heavily overnight and this morning we headed back to the park in similar weather as the day before. Fortunately it cleared during the day with the mountains becoming more visible and even small patches blue appearing in the sky by late afternoon.
Denali Park is the third largest National Park in Alaska – about 2,400 square kilometres (or about 1/5 the size of Tasmania). At first, I would have preferred to have been able to drive our own car into the park, but after only a few kilometres it was obvious that it was a far better option to use one of the park shuttles. The drivers of these school type buses have an incredible knowledge of the environment and drive much more safely on the narrow dirt road within the park. We had a booking on the 8 am bus to the Eileison Visitor Centre, 66 miles into the park.
Throughout the drive, we were lucky enough see all four of the large mammal species that can be found in the park – Moose, Caribou, Dall Sheep and Grizz;ly Bear. We only saw a bear from a long way away but we were excited see one as there are only a little over 300 of them in the entire park – that means one bear for ever 8 square kilometres. Hikers are told to carry bear spray and to wear little bells to avoid surprising bears. I understand that the way to tell the type of a bear is by looking at its poo. Black and brown bears leave round and globular deposits while Grizzly Bears leave small, globular deposits containing bear bells!
The Denali Road travels a long way into the park but our trip finished at the visitors centre at the 66 mile post. Its a very modern structure, built into the hill with good display of information about the park and its wildlife. We found a table in the eating area at which we ate our picnic lunch and then headed outside to take some photos. The weather was clearing and the vistas were not nearly as good as a bright sunny day,but felt fortunate the we could see them at all.
We travelled the 66 miles back to the Park HQ looking out for more wildlife and arrived back around the scheduled time of 4 pm. The irony of the whole day was that whilst we had spent 8 hours in the wilderness looking for moose, two of them walked down the main street of town as I was refuelling our car at the gas station!