Thursday, July 22, 2010

Denali National Park

Yesterday morning was cloudy, cold and wet. We could not even see the mountain ranges surrounding our home. And yet, for some strange reason, we did head out for the park. The weather forecast looked the same for the rest of the week; clouds and showers every day. We also figured that rain doesn't influence the activities of the wildlife. It did turn out to be an awesome day for wildlife viewing. In fact, according to our bus driver Jim, it was a phenomenal day and one of the best days for him in the 30 some years he has been driving in the park. Many national parks have interesting wildlife, but the Denali wildlife community is unique in that it has remained intact over the years. All of the plant and animal species are present, and no species have had to be reintroduced. We took the tour which would end at Eielson Visitor Center, a road trip of 66 miles into the interior. It was a slow eight hour journey over a gravel one-lane road. In some areas the bus climbed up steep narrow mountain passes where occasionally it was necessary for our bus to move to the edge of the road to let another bus pass. Those were the times when I just needed to close my eyes and not look out!
Shortly after we had started out someone spotted a bull moose out in the woods. Our driver stopped, peered out with his binoculars and commented that it was a 5 or 6 six year-old bull moose enjoying a meal of willow leaves.Fortunately the moose stopped grazing for a few minutes to pose for us.

The scenery of  the park is beautiful. We traveled through lowland taiga forest as well as  barren tundra meadows. The 650-mile-long mountain chain, known as the Alaska Range, passes through the park. Glaciers on those mountains have have carved out beautiful valleys in the park as well as bringing about some awesome rock formations. Many other geologic events also account for the spectacular beauty of the park. Below is a picture I took at the Polychrome Rest Area, given that name because of the varied colors of the rock layers in the hills. I was totally mesmerized by all that beauty!
A very familiar bird of this region is the willow ptarmigan. It is Alaska's state bird. We had a couple sightings of him, as well as a harrier hawk. We saw Dall sheep high up on a rocky hillside, and a wolf with its three young kits crossed the road in front of us. Even more exciting was seeing grizzly bears at three different times on our journey. It was always a mama bear with her cubs. I was able to get a fairly good picture of one family because they started heading toward the bus. Mama bear did not like the hiker standing outside our bus, maybe that is why she headed our way. Once the hiker stepped into our bus for a few minutes, she headed back to the meadow from where she had come from.
We also saw a herd of around 40 caribou grazing on a treeless ridge of a hillside. Their silhouettes stood out starkly against what was then a blue sky. Our driver Jim said he rarely sees such a large number in one place. At Eielson Visitor's Center, as I was heading back toward the bus, I happened to glance over the hillside and saw a red fox scurrying down toward the river.  During the day many ground squirrels were seen along the road.. In fact, enough of them to keep all the bears, wolves and foxes well fed!  The showers came and went all day, which made it necessary to clean our windows at every rest stop. We had dark cloudy skies as well as a few bursts of sunshine. No remote chance of seeing Mount Mckinley.  Despite the weather we still had a fantastic trip into the Denali Park.

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