A Day In The Life

Up at 5:30am.  Full daylight.  Sun has been up for hours.  Never really got dark anyway.  On the bus to Wonder Lake at 6:45am.  Too early for the driver’s safety talk over the PA system.  Still, I’m excited, as I am every time I enter the park.  What will I see today?

Fifteen paved miles to Savage River.  I’ve done this dozens of times.  It’s still always amazing to me.  The views are spectacular.  Thick spruce trees, hiding wildlife. A moose could be 10 feet off the road and we might never see it.  Or a lynx.  Or a porcupine.

Porcupine on the side of the road.  Driver doesn’t stop.  Wish he would.  Other passengers wish he would.  To him it’s just another porcupine.  I think, “but it’s a porcupine!  And I have yet to get a good photo of a porcupine!”

Strange looking word, porcupine.  I should look it up someday.  I should look up the etymology right now, while I’m online.  I should do that.

The road quickly gains elevation.  We break out of thick spruce forest into open taiga.  Moose on the left.  We stop.  I don’t get excited – it’s 100 yards away.  Already this season I’ve seen many more, much closer.

Four caribou, about 50 yards away.  I shoot some photos but mostly just enjoy the scene and watch the tourists get their thrill. I see caribou weekly.  This day may be the only time they ever see one.  I have the luxury of not getting excited about caribou.

Our driver normally drives the “camper bus” not the shuttle bus.  He’s covering for a sick driver today, normally his day off.  A 30 year driver, he probably knows more about the park than most of the NPS rangers.  He chooses to live year-round just outside the park.  He tells us facts about the tundra and taiga, one of which was new to me.  Three days later I have already forgotten this fact.  I am disappointed in myself for that.

The couple across the aisle live in Los Angeles, but grew up in Ohio near me.  The couple behind me lives in Pennsylvania not far from my sister’s current town, but they are from East Lansing, Michigan, where my sister lived until last year.  Small world.

Savage River entrance station, mile 15.  The first-year seasonal park ranger’s welcome talk on the bus is uninspired with no passion.  Other rangers doing the same talk let their excitement for the park show through.  Perhaps she is like me, ambivalent about Alaska.

Dirt and gravel road now.  Climbing above and beyond Savage River.  On to Teklanika, our first rest stop.  Another moose.  A couple more caribou.  Close to Teklanika I wish I could make the driver stop.  There is a small kettle pond perfectly reflecting the Alaska range.

Ptarmigan on the road.  Funny bird.  We will see many ptarmigan today.

Teklanika.  The same river made famous in “Into The Wild.”  There, a scary river.  Here, a small braided glacial stream.  Four caribou on the riverbed.  Excited tourists.  I smile.

Igloo canyon.  About 34 miles in.  One of my favorite areas of the park.  Beautiful mountains rising straight out of the roadside.  Every time I drive through I promise myself to hike Cathedral Mountain someday. Someday.  Not today.

Dall sheep high up on the peaks.  “Dall specks” actually.  The couple behind me is disappointed.  Hoping to see sheep closer.  They are pleased when I tell them that Polychrome Pass is coming soon, and the sheep are often on the road there.  Another ptarmigan.

Polychrome pass.  Narrow gravel road with 700 foot cliffs to the south.  Two groups of dall sheep near the road.  Golden eagle on a hillside.  Close enough to see, far enough away to make a worthwhile picture impossible.  I am immensely pleased – it is the first golden eagle I have seen in Alaska.

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Dall sheep, Polychrome Pass

Dall sheep, Polychrome Pass

Grizzly bear on the hillside, about 1/2 mile away.  No, a sow with cub.  I can barely see them.  I am content.  My first bears of the season.

Toklat River.  Another braided stream.  I smile as I remember September 2011, when I saw the entire Grant Creek wolf pack slowly walk down the Toklat River and under the bridge our bus was parked on.  A good day.  I smile as I remember my beautiful hike up a peak here last July.

Grizzly bear to the left.  I have chosen my seat wisely.  So far nearly all the wildlife has been to the left.

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Pure tundra now.  No forest, very few trees.  The bushes were either bare or just beginning to bud one week ago.  Now, acid green leaves brighten the landscape.

Grizzly bear to the left.  I have still chosen my seat wisely.  This bear is about 30 feet off the road, and seemingly can’t decide whether to nap or look around.  Up.  Down.  Up.  Down. National Geographic moment.

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Click on the photos to view them larger.

Stony Hill.  Mile 62.  If the clouds were to lift this would be a spectacular place to photograph Denali/Mt. McKinley.  It is the place to shoot the classic photo of the winding park road and the mountain.  But not today.

Eielson visitor center.  Mile 66.  Thirty minute break.  I run into several young employees who excitedly tell me about how they are about to go on their first backpacking trip in the park.  Jealousy.  I should go.  I have yet to backpack in the park.  My backpack is lonely.

The view from the visitor center is stunning.  Rain or shine, it is always stunning.  I visually retrace the route of a hike I did before.  Was it 2011 or 2012?  I have forgotten already.  I am getting old.  The years blur together.

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11:40am.  Back on the bus.  To the fabled Wonder Lake!  This is only my second time past Eielson Visitor Center.  Wonder Lake is a long drive in.  Twenty-five miles more.  The scenery changes.  Mountains and hills change to relatively flat tundra.  It looks remarkably like my beloved Denali Highway.  “The Mountain” decides to partially peek out from behind the clouds.  The tourists are very excited for even a glimpse.  They too can now say they are part of the 30% club.

Wonder Lake.  A disappointment.  The bus does not drop you at or near the famous photogenic spots with Denali in the background.  The stop is at a small corner of the lake, with Denali behind you as you look at the lake.   Too many people.  I feel more crowded at the lake edge than I did on the bus.

Back on the bus.  Many of us are nodding off.  A long day on the bus.  I want the bus to stop – another beautiful pond reflecting mountains.  No stop.

At Eielson visitor center.  I say goodbye to my new friends and leave the bus.  I hike up the Alpine Trail.  1,000ft of elevation gain in 1 mile.  I make two new friends from Australia and hike with them.  They are very friendly.  I don’t know if I have met an Australian who isn’t.

At the top, they go left, I go right.  Up, down, up down.  At the top of one peak a marmot ponders my intrusion into his world.

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The views from the ridgeline across the valley to the Alaska range are stunning.  Endless tundra.  Glaciers.  Mountains.  Perfect sky.

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Click on the panorama to view larger

Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.  I hike about 3 miles.  Then I scree ski about 800 vertical feet to the bottom.  A short walk to the road.  A tour bus picks me up. This is very unusual – tour buses are not supposed to pick up hikers.  “There is a bear on the road not far ahead.”  Ah, yes.  Now I understand.

The tourists have had a lot of fun with their driver.  I am pleased to see the driver make such a great impression on her guests.  Did my guest service training at orientation have any impact?  I like to think so.

Bear on the left.  Not on the road but nice to see.

One mile more.  Bear on the road. It walks around a bus from one of the Kantishna lodges.  The guests could high-five the bear if both parties chose to.  Classic Denali moment.

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Toklat River.  The driver lets me off here to wait for a shuttle bus.  A seasonal ranger leaves the tent to talk with me.  She is from Seattle; this is her first season in Denali.  I tell her how much I love Seattle.  She worked in Yellowstone the same year I did.  Small world.  We talk about animals, Fairbanks, and Yellowstone for 30 minutes until more tour buses arrive and she must work.

Shuttle bus arrives, very behind schedule.  5:45pm.

I take the open seat next to a young lady.  She is about to start her residency program in Tacoma, WA.  She lived in Cleveland for a few years.  Small world.  She just arrived from Japan on a military flight.  Her flight was diverted to Anchorage for a few days; she decided to visit Denali.

Bear to the left.  Far enough away to not take pictures.

Moose to the right.

Seatmate’s husband is in the army, in Afghanistan.  A linguist, but he does not speak Pashtun.  I ask what his job is then.  “To not get killed.”  She just got married in January 2011. She got married as I got divorced.

Driver spots a lynx.  A flash.  Nothing more.  That is usually how it is with lynx.

Seatmate and I talk non-stop.  Books.  Movies.  Married life.  Single life.  Alaska.  Seattle.  Travel.  Japan.  She grew up in Japan though she is a white girl from middle America.

Fox on the road.  Fox throws up his latest meal, then begins to eat it again.  Fox shits on the road, 5 feet from the bus.  No shame.

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Seatmate and I talk.  And talk.  And talk.  In different circumstances I could have asked her out.  Probably she would have said yes.

Seatmate is reading a book about Denali.  A memoir by a former seasonal employee who worked for the same company I do.  Small world.

Moose.  It’s nice to live somewhere that moose are so common it’s no big deal.  Even the tourists are not dazzled by a moose at this point.

8:45pm.  Back at the Wilderness Access Center.  I say goodbye to seatmate.  Three hours of constant conversation but I don’t know her name.

Dinner of thai drunken noodles from the Thai food truck.

Small world.  Today I love Alaska.

(this is not a portrait of my daily life in Alaska, but it is an accurate portrayal of a typical day off work.  As friends remind me when I complain about living here – it can be a very cool life)