Thursday, December 15, 2016


What is the first color that pops into your head when you see the word "Alaska"? Be honest now.

It's "white," isn't it? Yeah, me too.
We did see plenty of white, but even the white was a more colorful white---but more on that in another post. I think what really surprised me the most about Alaska was the crazy, brilliant, ostentatious COLOR. This was especially true in Denali National Park.

But first, some background information. The entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve lies about 265 miles north of Anchorage, or a 4-5 hour drive. From Talkeetna, where we had spent the day ziplining, it is only 60 miles. It is a HUMONGOUS park--more than six million acres. There is only one road that is available to tourists, and in most cases that road is accessible only by park bus, but it does go to the heart of the park.

We spent the night in one of the Denali Backcountry Cabins, which were quaint and wonderfully located, but not luxury accommodations, which I wouldn't have guessed based on the price. I suppose when there is little competition, you can charge what you want.

Important facts about Alaska:

President Obama officially changed the name of North America's tallest mountain from Mt. McKinley to Mt. Denali ("Denali" means "the high one" in the native Athabaskan language) in August 2015, a long-overdue action, if you ask me.

We paid for two seats on a bus run by Denali Backcountry Adventure, the only tour company that takes visitors to the end of the 92-mile restricted access park road. They have school bus-type buses (not super comfortable) driven by experienced guides who know where to look for bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and more.

Although we got picked up at our cabin at 6:00 AM, we weren't the first bus to enter the park:

Our guide started by telling us some interesting facts about Denali:
* Its latitude is 63 degrees north, and Mt. Everest's latitude is the same as Disney World in Florida, which is 28 degrees north.
* Denali is lifting up about 1" every 25 years.
* It was first summitted in 1913. Only 52% of those who attempt to summit make it. (I have a cousin who summitted when he was in his fifties. I'm incredibly impressed now that I've seen it.)
* There have been 123 deaths on the mountain since 1932.
* Temperatures of -93 degrees F have been recorded here, as well as winds of over 150 mph.
* There are 600+ earthquakes within park boundaries per year. (Luckily, we didn't experience any, at least not any that we could feel.)
* In total height above sea level, Everest is almost 9,000 feet taller than Denali.  But if the two mountains are both measured from their foundation plateaus, Everest is only 1,000 feet taller than Denali.

Alaska is the largest state in the Union. In fact, it's larger than the next three states COMBINED (Texas, California, and Montana). Alaska also has the third longest river in the US (behind the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers): the Yukon.

Bob and I grabbed some seats in the front of the bus, which was almost full:
 Given the look of the narrow roads, I was grateful we weren't driving our own vehicle.

Our first stop was Polychrome Pass.  

From the view area, we had spectacular views of the glacial plain:

Even on a gloomy, cloudy day, brilliant color pushed through the fog:

In this rich and seemingly peaceful emerald valley, there is a subtle nervousness, a sense of imminent power that is hinted at by the flattened valley and spidery network of glacial run off.  The forces that shaped this broad plain ringed by chromatic slopes seem to be barely restrained.

Lush vegetation in several shades of green, unyielding grey stone, silty brown water, rust hillsides laced with streaks of gold, scarlet, and lapis, and a hint of azure pushing its way through leaden skies presented an assault on our senses. It was a cacophony of color. My photos don't really do it justice.

It was a photographer's dream landscape:

Not to be outdone by the Big Picture scenery, the fuschia-hued fireweed was everywhere, exploding like rockets from a green launching pad:
Late July must be the peak of the wildflower season in the park. Every time we got off the bus I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her drab house into the technicolor world:

Our next stop was at the Toklat River Rest Stop at mile 53. It has bathrooms:

. . . and an interpretive center/ gift shop (I can't remember why the flag was at half staff):
. . . and stunning scenery:

I could have almost believed I was on the Emerald Isle of Ireland:

. . . or maybe transported to Scotland's Brigadoon:

Hey! Whats on that bench?

Man, those antlers are HEAVY AND AWKWARD! I can't imagine walking around all day with them on my head! (Bob makes a good reindeer, don't you think?)

Plaques erected by The Boone and Crockett Club and the Pioneers of Alaska commemorate two important explorers:

The Toklat River, for which this stop is named, is an 85-mile-long tributary of the Kantishna River, which is a 108-mile-long tributary of the Tanana River, which is a 584-mile-long tributary of the Yukon River, which is 1980 miles long and empties into the Bering Sea. 

I love taking pictures of my favorite photographer in action. His purple jacket makes him hard to miss:

There is a lot to see at this stop, and a lot of buses only go this far.  But not ours. We'd paid the premium to go to The End of the Road, so onward we pressed.

Our next stop was the Eielson Visitor's Center, from which on sunny days there is a spectacular view of Mt. Denali.

Unfortunately, we were there on a very cloudy day, and this was the best view we got:

The Eielson Center has an artist-in-residence program "dedicated to exploring new ways for visitors to experience Denali." Each year, hundreds apply to spend ten days in Denali at their own expense. About six spots are awarded each year to artists, writers, and composers. Participants are given limited access to park roads and time alone at a ranger patrol cabin.  In return, each artist is supposed to lead a public outreach activity with visitors and donate a finished work that "conveys a fresh and innovative perspective of Denali" to the program collection. See this site for more information.

During our visit, the Eielson Center had a display of "fiber art" from various years of the Artist-in-Residence program. The pieces were spectacular, some of the most intricate and beautiful quilts I have seen. Maybe I felt that way because I was seeing them in the context of the park itself, with its spectacular colors, lights and shadows, undulating  ground, and sharp mountain peaks.
Threading through the Gravel Bars, East Fork of the Toklat River by Linda Beach, 2005

Quiet Magic: East Fork by Charlotte Bird, 2014 

Glacial Run-Off by Ree Nancarrow, 2006

This panoramic view of Mt. Denali, both because of the scene it depicted . . .
Seasons of Denali by Ree Nancarrow

. . . and because of the incredible detail. It was like one of those paintings that has hidden images discernible only upon close study:

The quilting lines were also a significant part of the artistry:

Outside the front door is this set of moose antlers. In 2003, two bull moose had a mating war, and at some point in the fight, the fingers of their antlers locked and would not come apart. In addition, a point on the antler of one moose pierced the eye socket of his opponent. Unable to separate, the moose eventually died:

It was time to move on.

I loved all the run-off streams and waterfalls we saw. It reminded me of the fjords of Norway. If this were a watercolor painting, I'd be tempted to buy it:

The last leg of the journey included fording this stream in our big, clumsy bus:

Our final stop was for lunch and other activities at Kantishna Roadhouse, which marks the official end of the 93-mile-long road into the park.

Wonder Lake and Moose River are nearby:

We enjoyed the cairns along the riverbanks, someone's bid to commune with the river, or perhaps to establish that humans were competing for dominance. (Who are we kidding?)

This one looks like an attempt at representational art--a bird? 

We crossed the swift water on this swaying bridge, not a place I'd want to be in a storm:

On the far side of the river a labyrinth lies hidden in the trees:

We joined a group going on a botany walk with a ranger:

As we tramped through the woods, we snatched handfuls of richly colored wild berries:

I was blown away by the number and variety of mushrooms. Here are eight different types each a slightly different hue of golden brown:

The daylight was waning, and it was time to get back on the road:

The one remaining aspect of the park I haven't covered is the animals, the most important thing in the park for my husband. We had expected to have the kind of experience we used to have in Yellowstone when we were kids--bears everywhere, deer and moose in the road, etc. It wasn't like that. While we did see some animals, almost all were far from the road, and it took eagle eyes to spot them. 

The first animal we saw was a female moose:

After that, I can't remember where or when we saw the rest of these, so I'm just going to lump my pictures together according to type of animal.

Here is a bull moose:

A mama grizzly bear with one cub:

Oh wait! There are two cubs! (Or maybe this was a different bear.) Although we were far away, it was still a rush to see this trio in the wild:

Another grizzly bear:

And look, there's another grizzly!

A mama caribou with her baby:

A magnificent male caribou carrying around a huge coat rack on his head:

Um, sir . . . you can try to hide, but it doesn't really work as well as you think it does:

Here he is again:

Now if you would just spin around in place so that I can see you from all sides . . .

That's it! Perfect!

This is a different caribou. Compare the fingers on the antlers:

How would you like to be haunted by your own appendages? Those antlers look posed to grab the caribou's body:

There were more animals--mountain goats that were tiny white dots on the mountainside, more bears, birds, rodents--but these are my best photos. Be grateful you don't have to look at them all.

We left the park, returned to our car, and made our way back to Talkeetna. At a pull out alongside the highway, we found a diagram that helped us identify the location of Denali in the mountain range in front of us:

We caught a fleeting glimpse of the body of Grandfather Denali:

However, it's too bad that he still had his white head in the clouds:

In 1996 Jon Krakauer published Into the Wild, the story of a young drifter named  Christopher McCandless who made his way all over North America in the early 1990s in search of some sort of spiritual enlightenment. In the summer of 1992, he ended up in an abandoned bus at the edge of Denali National Park. Poorly equipped and--in my mind--completely irrational about how he would sustain his life in the unforgiving climate of the Alaskan wilderness, he survived for just over sixteen weeks before dieing in early September. Krakauer hypothesizes that McCandless confused poisonous plants with edible ones. He had run out of food and was eating the local flora. Even with better supplies, however, I can't imagine that McCandless could have made it through the winter. 
This was the perfect book to read in the Denali National Park area and was a good reminder of the awesome and awful power of nature.


  1. Denali is massive and you really have to dig to see it. Even the most largest mountain in North America is only seen by a small fraction of people who go there. You have to earn your views of moose, bear, dall sheep, caribou, etc. I think that might be the remote spot on earth we will ever visit.

  2. I love the various wildlife and flora and fauna. As you say, there's a thrill seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. They quilts were amazing, and the locked and deadly moose antlers a good reminder to never fight over girls.