Shuttle bus in fog
The buses in Denali leave every hour on the hour and Richard had bought us tickets for the 9 a.m. departure. If you haven't had the opportunity to visit Denali National Park, you might be wondering why you need to take a bus ride through the park. Wouldn't it be simpler just to drive your own car through the park? These tour buses are the only way to travel through the park after Mile 15 unless you want to walk or ride a bicycle. Before the completion of the George Parks Highway in 1972, visitation to Denali was fairly low. Park officials felt the opening of this direct route would bring tremendous increase of traffic in the park. In order to protect the wildlife and the park from the pollution associated with traffic congestion, a mass transit system was implemented beyond Mile 15 on the Denali Park Road, the only road in the park.
Majestic bull caribou
We waited patiently for our bus. There were tourists from every corner of the world, turning the waiting room into a melting pot of foreign language. Headlights coming towards us, shining through the pea-soup fog, meant that it was our turn to board. The three of us and fifty Japanese. The bus driver is not a tour guide; his job is to simply provide safety information and help tourist spot wildlife along the road. He kept stressing "quiet" and "no loud noises" as we rode down the gravel road in the green bus. The wildlife in the park is truly wild and can be easily spooked by loud voices and sudden noises.
The fog was still hanging low, providing good cover for wildlife. Caribou were feeding in the open fields between the stands of spruce and fir trees.
Looking for love
Our driver stopped the bus to allow for pictures. Everyone rushed to one side of the bus, leaning forward for their best shot through the now-open windows. Our driver had to again warn us to, "Please be quiet!" He didn't speak Japanese, sooo .......... Again and again he had to issue his stern warning and after some time, threw up his hands in disgust.
Riding on the shuttle bus offers flexibility, allowing anyone to get off at any time for a hike or a walk along the road. The further into the park we rode, the more wildlife we observed. Visibility had improved when the fog finally lifted. Moose were in rut and seeking a mate. A large bull moose was ambling across the tundra with no regard to anything around him, intent on his hunt for love.
Willow Grouse beginning to show winter coloring on feet, legs, and lower body.
Grizzly bear could be seen, too, usually alone and traveling far from the road at a safe distance from all tourists. A family of willow ptarmigan (grouse) were pecking around beside the gravel road, busily going about their search for seeds and insects. Our driver spotted them and stopped long enough for everyone to get a good look and take a picture. These little gamebirds are the official State Bird of Alaska and they seemed to be more interested in us than we were in them, posing for the camera with an inquisitive expression. We could see the pure white winter feathers on their lower body and legs. Before the first heavy snow of winter, every brown feather on their little bodies will turn white, providing perfect camouflage and protection from predators.
River valley and autumn colors mixed with evergreens
Nature's way is wonderful, isn't it?
Our green bus continued down the gravel road, making frequent stops for wildlife viewing and bathroom breaks. It was nice and we never felt rushed. If the bus pulled off without us ~ no worry. Green buses were constantly coming and going and the drivers were happy to stop to pick up walkers. One of our stops provided excellent views across a glacier river valley. The golden colors of autumn were issuing in shorter days and colder temperatures. Within a few short weeks or sooner, this valley would be covered in the white powder of winter.
Upon arriving at the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile Marker 66, we decided to take a break from the bus and stretch our legs.
Plump and juicy berries
The Park Ranger was offering a narrated hike onto the tundra to identify some of the different flowering plants, mosses and lichens that have adapted to the long, bitterly cold winters and short growing seasons. The low-growing blueberry bushes were loaded down with their sweet fruit. We were able to pick and eat the purple berries, which grow large in the long hours of summer sunshine. Once back inside the visitor center, we surveyed the excellent selection of books, maps, postcards, and other souvenirs. One complete wall was solid glass and would have offered an up-close and personal look at Mount McKinley if the weather had cooperated. It was a tough pill to swallow ~ not seeing the mountain.
Mr. Grizzly in the blueberry patch
But on the flip side, the low clouds and fog provided perfect conditions for viewing Denali's wildlife.
The bus ride back to the park entrance was filled with sightings of moose and grizzly. These two very different animals were intent on two very different missions. The moose were pairing up for mating season and the grizzlies were eating in preparation for their long winter's sleep. Folks on our bus were getting on and off at various points along the road, choosing to hike rather than ride. A group of hikers were left in our dust as we rounded a bend in the road. They weren't aware of Mr. Grizzly, who was slowing making his way down the road towards them. Our driver stopped and let us watch him for five minutes or so as he ate blueberries and rolled in the grass.
See ya later ....
Our big green bus with open windows and clicking shutters was completely ignored. The last I saw of that bear was his backside as he disappeared around the bend. I've often wondered how the walkers reacted upon seeing this big guy on their road. Maybe hysteria?