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A.D. in Alaska

Discussion in 'United States' started by Arizona Docent, 2 Oct 2016.

  1. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    Introduction

    Since I started traveling and getting into zoos in my mid twenties, I have seen over 90 zoological institutions both big and small. My travels have taken me to many U.S. states and a handful of European nations. One state I have not seen yet is America's biggest and wildest: ALASKA. To be honest, I have never had a desire to visit. Yet in September 2016 visit I did.

    My cousin JH is the chief instigator. He is like me in many ways. We are less than a year apart in age, both single, both photographers, both like zoos and wildlife, and in fact we look somewhat alike – tall and slender. One way we differ is that over the last decade he has developed a fascination with Alaska travel while I have developed a fascination with European travel. This year he talked my older brother CH and I into joining him in applying for the Denali Road Lottery. My brother is a travel addict and has been to most U.S. states and dozens of countries on every continent (yes even Antarctica – twice if I am not mistaken). It takes very little convincing to get him signed up for any adventure travel. Our decision to go ahead with a September trip hinges on winning a place in the Denali Road Lottery. Since many readers will be unfamiliar with this, here we go to the next topic...
     
  2. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    Occasion

    Denali National Park and Preserve, at six million acres (not a typo), is one of the nation's biggest national parks. Surprisingly, there is only one main road in the park: a 92.5 mile dead end gravel road. Even more surprisingly, the only way to access the road is on a park service bus. Private vehicles are prohibited for most of the length. The first fifteen miles are paved and cars can freely use this section. Beyond that, however, you are crammed into a school bus which you can imagine is a terrible way to experience nature, let alone photograph it. Visitors are free to get off at designated stops, but this still limits your mobility and freedom.

    There is one time, however, when the Chosen Few have the freedom to explore on their own. The park closes for winter in late September. For four days before closing, the park service sells a limited number of car passes via a lottery. Thousands of people enter for a chance at one of the four hundred passes per day. My cousin – the Alaskophile – wants it and wants it bad. Online research shows the best way to get a pass is to submit multiple entries. Since there is one entry per email (and a matching ten dollar entry fee), you get your friends and family to give you their email and agree to sign the ticket over to you if their name wins. JH (cousin), CH (brother), AD (me – I will use my ZooChat initials to avoid confusion) each enter along with JH's sisters (my other cousins) and his mother (my aunt), as well as CH's spouse I think. Among all our entries we get one magic pass (via my Aunt's email) for the final day – a Tuesday.

    So we book our flights, plan the rest of our trip, and we are in. Denali will be the culmination of a week plus of adventure. The park's key feature is North America's largest mountain, the twenty thousand foot behemoth which was known as Mt McKinley but is now known as Denali: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denali–Mount_McKinley_naming_dispute .
     
    Last edited: 2 Oct 2016
  3. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 13, 2016

    JH flies from Los Angeles to Seattle while AD flies from Tucson to Seattle. We then fly together to Anchorage. CH (my brother) has work obligations and will meet us in three days. So we need to stay in the general Anchorage area for the first three nights. Even budget hotels like Days Inn or Ramada Inn are pricey in Anchorage in late summer. On Expedia I find a great three night special for a four star resort in the scenic area of Girdwood (a few dozen miles south of Anchorage). The nightly fee is actually cheaper than a modest hotel in the city proper. So JH and I are living the high life. Alyeska Hotel is a ski resort, complete with a massive gondola and a chair lift right oustide the main building. September, of course, is before ski season (but after summer season), which is why it is so cheap.

    Upon landing in Anchorage I learn one thing immediately: taxidermy (and hunting) is big business. The airport has glass cases with a variety of stuffed waterfowl, the main gate area has a stufffed moose, the ticket counters have a stuffed polar bear, the escalators have a musk ox on either end with a black bear in the middle, and the baggage claim has a wolf, brown bear, Dall's sheep, and either an albino or a very, very faded beaver.

    After picking up our rental SUV crossover, JH wants to take a short drive behind the airport. Under a full moon we pass the neighboring postal service sorting facility, turn the corner, and there in front of the service yard trucks are three bull moose! We drive the neighboring parkland, with which JH is very familiar, before heading to a late dinner at Denny's. The young waitress has an unusual accent which JH prods her to reveal is Serbian. She says six thousand college age Serbs come to Alaska in summer on a work program. After dinner we drive south along the coast on the Seward Highway and check into our posh room. The lobby, of course, has the requisite taxidermy in the form of a polar bear on a vaulted ledge with twinkling stars (LED lights) above it.
     

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  4. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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  5. Pleistohorse

    Pleistohorse Well-Known Member

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    One of the great joys of living in Alaska is seeing it through the eyes and experiences of a visitor. Can't wait to read more.
     
  6. savethelephant

    savethelephant Well-Known Member

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    This being one of my favorite states in the US and near the top of my bucket list, I'm very excited to continue reading this thread!
     
  7. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 14, 2016

    After an overpriced breakfast buffet at our posh resort, JH and I are off on a side street of Girdwood. It dead ends at the trailhead for Virgin Creek Trail. Our destination is only five minutes up the slippery trail: the small but scenic Virgin Creek Falls. Surrounded by lush vegetation and softened by stormy skies, the scene is idyllic. I use both my standard camera and an infrared camera and produce what will become my favorite photos of the trip. JH borrows my tripod for a few shots.

    Now it is a short drive south on the scenic Seward Highway to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This large wildlife park has a unique setup in that you can either drive or walk any or all sections. The park has exclusively Alaskan animals, mostly hoofstock in large paddocks. This includes elk (wapiti), moose (which Europeans call elk), musk ox, Sitka black tailed deer, caribou, and wood bison. (And yes that is a comma before “and” and yes I am an unashamed user of the Oxford comma, as is my brother CH who is an acclaimed college English professor).

    Wood bison are a keystone species. A large breeding herd was built from stock acquired from Canadian facilities, making this the only USA captive facility to house the subspecies. All other USA zoos house the more common and more southerly plains bison. A huge group from AWCC was reintroduced to the wild last year, restoring wood bison to Alaska.

    The keystone exhibit, however, is for bears: black and brown. A long and aesthetically pleasing cement boardwalk undulates between the two massive exhibits (several acres each). A fence runs directly underneath the boardwalk separating the two species. A variety of terrain makes this perhaps the best bear exhibit in the world. It is certainly the best I have seen. At one end of the boardwalk a new small building is just finishing that will house a bear eduction center.

    Another large general education center is nearing completion behind the gift shop. The gift shop has a snack stand but sadly there is no real cafe, one visitor amenity that is desperately needed, since there are no restaurants nearby. Another visitor amenity that is desperately needed is restrooms, which will be a feature of the new education center. In the meantime, guests use portable chemical toilets like the type found at a construction site.

    After lunch at Subway (Girdwood) and a rest at the hotel room, we drive north on Seward Highway in a failed search for Dall's sheep and beluga whales. We end up at Potter's Marsh, with a nice boardwalk where we watch a pair of distant bald eagles. Driving back to the hotel we come across two bull moose sparring in a meadow. JH seems obsessed with moose, so this is a fitting end for him (and fine with me too, though lynx would be better).
     

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  8. Maguari

    Maguari Never could get the hang of Thursdays. Premium Member

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    Always a pleasure to find another Oxford comma fan!

    (I'll sidestep the moose/elk situation or I'll have gentle lemur after me again, except to note that I would love to see a wild moose. Congratulations!)
     
  9. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 15, 2016

    Today is a free day, with no specific plans. JH and I drive north towards Anchorage on the Seward Highway in another failed attempt at Dall's sheep and beluga whales. Continuing north through town we take a road into the mountains for a while and turn around when it yields no promising signs of wildlife or photo opportunities. We decide to pay a visit to Eagle Creek Nature Center, which JH has seen on a previous trip.

    A nice little visitor center offers souvenirs and artifacts as well as maps of the trails. One trail below the river is closed due to recent brown bear sightings (though we would love to see a brown bear). Just up the main trail is a short boardwalk overlooking a pond. The trees in the surrounding mountains are brilliant yellow in their autumn foliage. With low hanging clouds on the higher peaks, it is a truly beautiful scene. We spy two or three salmon (species unkown to me) in the clear water. After a short hike further up the trail, we turn back to the visitor center. I inquire if there are any nice cafe's on the drive down the hill and they point us to Jeeter's, a local coffee house. It is a fun, artsy kind of place somewhat reminiscent of the hangout on the t.v. show Friends (only bigger). We each enjoy a chicken salad sandwich while admiring the art – Alaska images from a local photographer.

    After lunch JH wants to try Kincaid Park in Anchorage to look for moose (as I mentioned, he is obsessed). We park and ask a couple locals returning to the parking lot if they saw any, but they say not today (they have in previous days). We walk down a trail that turns into the heavily wooded disc golf course and voila' – one big, honkin' bull moose. He seems a bit restless, thrashing the bushes with his antlers, and soon we discover why – a cow moose nearby. We photograph both for quite a while until the bull sits down and starts to doze off. We return to the hotel (vainly looking for Dall's sheep on the drive back) and enjoy a pricey dinner at our four star resort.
     

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  10. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 16, 2016

    Time to meet another ZooChat member. Our contributor from Alaska is Pleistohorse. JH and I arrive at Alaska Zoo (in Anchorage) at 9:05am, shortly after the 9am opening upon which we have agreed to meet. Pleistohorse is already inside the gate and comes out to greet us, handing us each a map and saying our admission fee has been taken care of. Really a nice gesture, as we had been lamenting in the car that the zoo does not participate in the reciprocal discount program. He shows us through the zoo and he and JH (the Alaskophile) immediately hit it off. He will be a resource for JH's return trips (while I will almost certainly never return). It was a pleasure for me as well to meet a fellow forum member and to be shown around by a zoo regular.

    The zoo contains almost exclusively native Alaskan animals. I say almost because there are two big ticket draws that are not native to North America but are native to northern climates: Siberian tiger and snow leopard. As I am a cat fanatic I have no complaints about their inclusion. (It would be even better if they threw in a Pallas cat or Amur leopard cat). The zoo has mostly simple exhibits, but they are more than adequate. Most are done by just fencing in the existing natural terrain – a cost effective way to create natural habitats. There are a handful of raptors (which I did not record) but the bulk of the collection is mammals. Besides the aforementioned cats, other highlights include wolverine, Canada lynx, gray wolf, musk ox (in a bland paddock), black and brown and polar bear, harbor seal, domestic yak (in a bland paddock), red fox, etc.

    After lunch off site (the zoo has no cafe'), it is time to pick up my brother CH at the airport. We take a scenic drive down the Seward Highway (again no Dall's sheep) and take a brief detour to Portage Glacier. CH was there in the 1980's and notes that back then “it looked like Antarctica” but now the surrounding hills and lake have no ice, just a remnant of the retreating glacier. Global warming is a real thing. We drive on through a long stretch of brilliant yellow autumn trees, stopping a couple times for photos. Our final destination is the highway's namesake town: Seward. We check into our hotel for the next two nights, which is on the south end of town next to the beach and the Alaska Sealife Center (review to come on September 18 post). After dinner I photograph the nearby beach (and Sealife building) at twilight. A fishing boat with lights on in the dim blue presents a photo opportunity and becomes a surprise favorite shot of the trip.
     

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  11. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    This has become a wonderful thread and I just spent a long time reading all of it. Today I received a package of zoo maps in the mail from "Arizona Docent" and I am filled with gratitude and it also allows me to research the sites that he visited on his travels. Keep up the great work!
     
  12. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    Then and Now

    At left is my brother's slide of Portage from 1980's (posted with his permission) and at right is my photo from this 2016 trip.
     

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  13. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 17, 2016

    Dawn in Seward, yet another overcast, misty day. It has been this way all trip which is ideal for photography – nice clouds, nice soft light, and no hard rain, just the occasional light drizzle. I run down by myself to the adjacent beach and see a bald eagle on the shoreline. Next I see four otters bobbing in the water. I follow them as they swim along and get a couple photos. Since they are in the sea (Resurrection Bay), I assume they are sea otters. Later I reflect on their appearance and demeanor and realize they are river otters. I will see a sea otter just up the bay this afternoon, which brings up an interesting question. How many other places on earth are there where you can see two distinct species of otter in the same body of water?

    After breakfast the three of us are off to catch our six hour boat cruise among the islands of Kenai Fjords National Park. We spend time near a bald eagle at the start, then wind our way among various mist covered cliffs. Cormorants are in an ocean cave which our able captain maneuvers remarkably close to. A large glacier is a highlight of the trip, one of the few area glaciers that still goes into the sea and is actively calving. Ice flows at the bottom are home to harbor seals and even a couple sea otters, plus various gulls. I have not seen a real glacier before and the unusual blue color is mesmerizing.

    The trip is long and as we cross open sea I doze off. When I awake, my brother and cousin are not in the seats next to me so I look around to see if they are photographing anything of interest. The clouds are parted and brilliant sun shines down on huge rocks covered with dozens of Steller sea lions. Why didn't they wake me up? Thankfully I get up in time to shoot the scene before we pull away and back into the clouds in Resurrection Bay.

    Back at the harbor, a sea otter and harbor seal are right among the boats, offering nice closeups. After a brief rest at the hotel we return to the small boat harbor for a seafood dinner overlooking the harbor. CH and JH drive back to the hotel while I stay to shoot the harbor at twilight and then walk back to the hotel.
     

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  14. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    in much of southeast and southern Asia two species, Small-clawed Otters and Smooth-coated Otters, live side by side; additionally (especially formerly, given that they are now endangered with a very fragmented range) Hairy-nosed Otters live in the same habitats as one or both of these. Common Otters occur throughout much of the same range but seem to usually occupy different habitats.

    African Clawless Otters and Spot-necked Otters live side by side throughout Africa.

    There are several otter species in South America and some of them live sympatrically (e.g. Giant Otter and Neotropical River Otter).

    So really it's pretty common.
     
  15. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    In case anyone is interested...in the February 2016 issue of National Geographic there is a 30-page article on Denali National Park, with the usual mixture of informative reporting and stunning photos that accompany all of that magazine's editions.
     
  16. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 18, 2016

    Still in Seward, for the first time this trip we awake to clear skies. Since I live in the Arizona desert, I am well acquainted with what the sun looks like. But I was starting to forget, so I walked out and took a photo to remind me. I do not own a cell phone (never have), so I use the hotel room's conventional phone to call CH's room next door and arrange our meet time. Two minutes later, CH uses his cell phone to call JH (who is sharing my room) on his cell phone. I wonder why he doesn't just call back on the room phone? The reason is he is no longer in his room but is standing on the sidewalk out front and is reporting there are mountain goats on the mountain across from us. We run out and see tiny specks on a distant ridge that could be mountain goats or white rocks or just about anything. A look through CH's binoculars prove he is correct. I run to my room to grab my 400mm telephoto zoom and 1.4x extender (total 560mm), but even then the goats are too small to make anything more than a record shot.

    Next we are off to Alaska Sealife Center, which as I mentioned earlier is across the street from our hotel. This is a really nice facility. It is sort of an aquarium, though not in the traditional sense as there are only a few “aquariums” with fish in the building. The key exhibit is a nice walk-in seabird area, with a large pool and natural looking cliffs. A mesh net opens to the outside, allowing fresh air and sunlight but preventing unwanted entry or exit. This is on the second level of the building, but the water tank extends to the first floor and when we get down there we can see the fish that inhabit it as well as diving seabirds. Steller sea lions occupy a similar setup (viewing above water on second level and underwater on first level). At the time of our visit a mother and pup are on display. Harbor seals have the same setup as well. Huge glass windows on the second floor offer a view of rehab and holding tanks below and the mountains across the way.

    Today we drive back up Seward Highway to Anchorage and then onto Glenn Highway, stopping at a lodge near Matanuska Glacier. As we pass the cliffs between Girdwood and Anchorage, I finally spy the Dall's sheep that have eluded us so far. They are high up, but not as far away as this morning's mountain goats, so I can get a photo that is usable when cropped. A few hours later and we are just a few miles from our home for the night, Sheep Mountain Lodge. On the roadside cliff I see yet more Dall's sheep. They are also distant but also close enough for a cropped photo. Since our lodge's restaurant has already closed for the winter, we go back to a restaurant at another lodge that is stuffed with stuffed animals (pun intended). Every major Alaskan mammal is on display, from the big (musk ox, brown bear, etc) to the small (beaver, ermine, etc). The main attraction, however, is a window seat with a stunning view of Matanuska Glacier down below.
     

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  17. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 19, 2016 (part 1)

    We awake at Sheep Mountain Lodge on Glenn Highway (Hwy 1) and drive east about an hour to Glennallen, where we stop for breakfast at a local coffee shop (with a very sparse selection of taxidermy by Alaska standards). Here we turn north on Highway 4 en route to a westward journey on the Denali Highway (Hwy 8). If you look at a map, this is a long and indirect route to Denali National Park (from our previous base in Seward). The more direct route is to stay on Seward Highway north through Anchorage all the way to the park. Why such a roundabout route?

    CH is a world class birder and wildlife watcher. This is not brotherly exaggeration, he really is in the top tier worldwide. His USA bird count is over 700 and those in the know will understand you only get that high by chasing every stray whatever that gets blown into the fringes of U.S. territory by a storm or what have you. (He also has a world mammal count over 600). The one avian species that has eluded him is the northern hawk owl and the trees along Highway 4 are reportedly the best place to see one. JH and I indulge his route request, because why not go this way and because CH tells us we will likely see herds of caribou when we get to Highway 8 (which is a gravel road by the way). Sadly we see no hawk owls on Highway 4, just a sage grouse (or was it spruce grouse) on a trail at the one rest stop we pull over at.

    Now onto the Denali Highway, the long and winding road. We have passed the treeline and enter 135 miles of gravel and …well not much else. The rolling tundra is – to put it bluntly – monotonous and boring. CH had read an internet blog that was most definitely, unequivocally, wrong. It stated that hunting is prohibited on this road so that wildlife is viewable. In truth the only other people on the road are hunters towing ATV's with which they go off on side roads in search of the ungulates that have been driven off the main road. We are on the highway for hours and see not one single animal. I don't even remember seeing a bird.

    At this point I must regress and add an important fact I left off. On our third day, the day before we picked up CH, JH and I got a low tire pressure warning on the dash of our rental SUV crossover. We stopped at a gas station, bought a two dollar tire pressure gauge, and discovered the right rear was at 29psi while the other three were at a normal 36psi. We topped it off with air and hoped that was the end of it. In Anchorage with CH on route to Sheep Mountain Lodge, we checked it again and it is just a little low, not too bad, but we top it off. The gravel Denali Highway is miles of nothingness with maybe two or three small lodges along the entire route. About halfway in, the dash tire pressure warning reappears. JH wants to get out and check it, even though there is nothing we could do at this point in the road. Since our vehicle is a compact SUV, the spare tire is one of those mini tires only meant to get you to a service station. The thought of using that on this long gravel road is unappealing to say the least. The tire is now at an all time low of 20psi. In what is either a true miracle of God or the luckiest coincidence of our lives, within a mile we come upon one of the few lodges on the entire route. What is even more miraculous is that there is a sign pointing to it that says “tire repair.” After the long and monotonous drive, this stop is actually a welcome diversion (and a good chance to use the restroom). Initially JH (who got the rental) and CH think we can just use their air to top it off again. But when we pull up to the small, homemade shack that serves as a repair center, the tire is visibly low. A reading puts it at 10psi and within minutes it is completely flat. One of the staff members repairs it for a very reasonable fee (and does a good job as this is the end of our tire problems). When I ask JH if he wants a receipt to turn into the rental company, the repairman interjects that most rental companies prohibit driving their vehicles on this road. We decide silence at the car return is the best policy. We are off again...
     

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  18. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 19, 2016 (part 2)

    Many more miles and a couple hours of slow going on the gravel Denali Highway, though thankfully trees reappear near the end. Finally we hit pavement and are within a few miles of the Parks Highway (Hwy 3) and the small town of Cantwell. It is now around 4:30pm and we have not eaten since breakfast. I am tired and hungry and make what in my mind is the only logical suggestion: let's stop in Cantwell for a combined late lunch and early dinner. Oh no, JH insists we must go straight to the park to pick up our lottery pass for tomorrow. Even though the visitor center is open until 7pm and we are just a few miles out, he is insistent and CH goes along with him. So I am outvoted (even though I am driving) and stoicly hide my hunger pains. We get the magic pass, I take a few snapshots of the visitor center, and we are back at the car. Once again I interject the only voice of reason and suggest we go straight to the hotel and dinner. Oh no, JH says we are already here so let's go in “a little ways.” Though cars cannot go past the 15 mile mark (where the gravel starts) without a special pass, all vehicles are welcome on the first 15 miles (which are paved). I turn to CH to cast the tie breaking vote. Surely my own brother will side with me? As you may have guessed, we went in a little ways. Of course “a little ways” turned into the full fifteen miles, but the thought of another moose sighting is too much for JH to pass up. We in fact do see a moose in a gravel riverbed, but he is immobile and looking away so there are no satisfactory photo ops.

    We check into the very nice (and large) Denali Chalet Resort and then head across the street for gas, picnic lunch supplies, and the elusive dinner. Guess what? All of the restaurants have closed for the winter and are boarded up. We go into one of the two mini marts for our picnic supplies and find mostly empty shelves (they are closing within a week, so why restock?). We go back to the mini mart at the gas station to encounter a similar scarcity. We scrounge what we can. CH gets a loaf of bread and jar of honey to make sandwiches. I pick up some small (single serving) boxes of Rice Krispies and Chex, which I will eat straight out of the box. We all get energy bars. Thankfully I have an ace in the hole. I have an apple that I picked up at the very first breakfast buffet in Girdwood (JH had one too but has already eaten it). I will be eternally grateful to our waitress who suggested we take an apple for the road. There are two restaurants at our hotel and we opt for the more casual (but still not cheap) of the two. It is in a scenic little amphitheater of shops and fire pits below our hotel and their neighboring sister hotel. It is also packed with an hour wait time (and even CH and JH are not prepared to wait any longer for dinner). There are however outdoor seats around some mini fire circles with no wait. In spite of the cold, we take them and the fire (and our jackets) keep us warm. As I eat under twilight blue skies surrounded by tree covered mountains and a flickering fire, my senses and stomach are refreshed and I let the troubles of today slip away.
     

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  19. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    September 20, 2016

    We are out of our rooms in the pre-dawn darkness for our big day in the park. It is a short drive to the entrance of Denali National Park and Preserve and we are on the road as the sky turns from black to the deep blue of twilight. On the first fifteen paved miles we scan for signs of wildlife activity. Animals are more active at dawn (and dusk), right? Ummm, apparently not – we see nothing. At the fifteen mile mark a ranger checks our pass and goes over a list of rules. Now we are in the heart of the park, so the wildlife will be jumping out at us, right? Ummm, no – we drive many miles without seeing so much as a squirrel. We take a nature break at Toklat River rest area, which also has a small visitor center inside a heavy duty tent supported by metal A frames. It is bitterly cold and the howling wind makes the tent rattle. We ask if there are, like, any animals in the park and get the standard answer – it varies and it is hit or miss when and where you see them.

    Driving forward on the undulating gravel road we finally have a sighting! Two caribou are slowly walking along a ravine well below us. They are too far away for anything more than a record shot, but it is our first real wildlife sighting of the day and my first wild caribou ever. As the road climbs we enter into light patches of snow, which had reportedly fallen the day before. The terrain is rocky and barren with snow capped mountains rising into a thick bank of clouds. We could easily be in the foothills of the Himalayas or Andes. It is a stark land, beautiful and intimidating at the same time. As we join a handful of other cars at an overlook, we notice more cars stopped on the road down below. This likely indicates a wildlife sighting and sure enough JH says there is a bear (meaning brown – we see no wild blacks on this trip). We had seen one very distant brown bear a couple miles back but this one holds more promise so we drive down the hill. He is still a bit away, but I can at least get a shot. He then walks somewhat parallel to the road and we run along the road to keep up. Finally I decide (along with all the other visitors) to return to the car and drive forward to keep up. The other cars, there are maybe ten, all drive up to where the bear is currently and hop out. What a bunch of amateurs. Think about it. The bear is still moving, so they will have to jump in and repeat the process in a minute or two. I, on the other hand, have the sense to suggest we drive well ahead before stopping and my two companions have the sense to concur. Although the bear is walking roughly parallel to the road, he has a slight bent in the direction of the highway. We hop out a quarter mile ahead of everyone else and my plan works perfectly. We have a wild brown bear in a field of light snow walking straight into our cameras! We are all snapping away, me on my tripod with JH and CH moving freely about. I have no need to move because, this is so great I cannot believe it, the bear is still walking straight towards me! Adrenaline is pumping as I rapid fire and he keeps approaching. My eye never leaves the viewfinder and finally he is almost filling the frame. At this point I think, maybe I should move my eye from the camera and look at the scene to see how close he really is just so that, you know, I don't get mauled to death or something. The bear keeps approaching and I suggest we get in the car, which JH and CH grudgingly agree to. If I had not said anything, how close would they have let him get?

    A few miles on we stop at Eielson Visitor Center, which is the only full scale visitor center besides the one at the entrance. It is still bitterly cold and even windier than at Toklat. A board inside the visitor center says winds 30-40mph with gusts to 70mph! On a clear day this overlook offers a stunning view of the mountain, but on most days (today included) it is a view of the foothills with the Big One hidden in clouds. More miles with no wildlife and we stop at Wonder Lake campground for our picnic lunch. Being in a more protected lower elevation, the wind is surprisingly calm. We see a few songbirds around our picnic table and on leaving we see another grouse which JH and CH jump out for nice photos (but I miss, being behind the wheel). Several more miles and we hit the end of the road, which has a marker saying, well, End of the Road, as well as the mileage point: 92.5.

    On the long drive back we finally get a good moose sighting – he even walks right down to a pond in front of us for a nice reflection. Shortly afterward we get a good caribou sighting. He is alone (where are the herds), but with mountains rising behind. I go down the hill from the road to get a better angle. This is the iconic Alaska photo I had envisioned before the trip. Going back along the road not much more happened, though we did see an alpine ground squirrel and a couple Dall's sheep. I believe somewhere on the trip CH and JH had seen a merlin being tormented by a crow (or was it a raven). I remember the crow but missed the small raptor. Back at the hotel for dinner, capping off our last full day in the 49th state.
     

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  20. Pleistohorse

    Pleistohorse Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    30 Jan 2013
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    Location:
    Alaska
    Awesome! Beautiful Brown Bear photo!! I assure you...it was a Raven. No Crows north of about Girdwood.