Archive for the ‘ Alaska ’ Category

From Anchorage to Denali


From Anchorage to Denali

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



Abstract: Alaska does not sit still. That epigram, more apt for Alaska than many other places, justifies this snapshot as a method of reporting my impressions from a few days spent in July of 2015. It covers a tour of Anchorage to Denali. This is a most important part of the state. Anchorage is the “Center” of Alaska as much as, say, Paris is to France: it is by far the most populous city and the cultural, economic and political center of Alaska. Denali is the National Park that is a most attractive magnet for visitors; bigger than New Hampshire, it presents Mount McKinley and much more in the way of  natural wonder. The “railbelt” between Anchorage and Denali is a significant slice of the state, representing its small towns and rural communities. The changes which all these three places have undergone in their short lives are symptomatic of much more which can be expected to come. One can only hope for an accurate recording of their passing present.



We came to Anchorage by bus from Whittier, a deep water port some two hours away which could accommodate our ocean liner cruise ship. Anchorage is surrounded by water as a peninsula in the Cook Inlet which is too shallow for large vessels. Our bus driver who doubled as a tour guide pointed out a building half buried in the ground on the other side of the road: “That is the only structure left from a little town here after the earthquake of 1964.” The Great Alaskan, or the Good Friday (March 27, 1964) Earthquake, which at a magnitude of 9.2 was the world’s second-largest ever, destroyed practically all Anchorage as well. What exists in Anchorage today is from the rebuilding since.

Not that the previous Anchorage was that old. We stepped down from the bus into the cavernous William A. Egan Civic & Convention Center. The swanky modern structure was one of the three facilities in downtown, large enough to hold major events for thousands. The other two, within our walking distance, were the   Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. For our first stop we chose to go to the Kimball Building, the oldest building we could find. Dating from 1915, it still had “antique” fixtures and flooring.  It houses a gift and tea shop with eclectic items, producing a “quaint-meets-cool” air. Called Kobuk, the shop offers Victorian teapots, English and Russian china, lace, linens and teas and candies, as well as Alaskan-made soaps, lotions and bath salts.
The cheerful woman who ran the store told us that it is a continuation of a dry goods and sewing shop, in business since 1967.  She said the name Kobuk came from a trading post in northern Alaska, where the map shows there is a Kobuk valley. She was proud of the tea the shop still served in samovar, a reminder of the past Russian history of Alaska. The original owner, however, imported gourmet coffees before it was fashionable and the locals now reward Kobuk as the place to go for “real” coffee. We followed their example. Walking to the back of the store, we entered a cozy little room which used to be the proprietor’s kitchen and living room. We got our coffee and fresh-baked pastries at the counter and sat on the wooden chairs at the wooden tables and chatted with the young women who served, as well as a fellow customer, about the history of Anchorage. There were a few Dena’ina (original Native Alaskan) settlements in this area before the first white men, Bud Whitney and Jack Brown, came to live here in the 1910s.

Anchorage’s location was fundamental in its growth. The number of settlers grew substantially when this site was chosen in 1914 as a railroad construction port. The city’s economy was centered on the Alaska Railroad which was completed in 1923. It enjoyed massive expansion from the 1930s to the 1950s as a major hub for the increasingly significant air transportation and military sectors in the U.S. economy.  Even today Anchorage’s International Airport is the world’s third busiest airport for cargo traffic, linked to Anchorage’s location along “great circle” routes between Asia and the lower 48 States.  The Port of Anchorage receives 95 percent of all goods destined for Alaska. The Anchorage Air Force base was important during the Cold war because of its proximity to the Soviet Union. The JBER military base today still employs so many that with their families they comprise about ten percent of Anchorage’s population. Anchorage grew to become the largest city in Alaska. There are almost twice as many Alaska state employees in Anchorage as in the Capital, Juneau. When oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Anchorage became the natural center of its corporate management. Some of Anchorage’s few high-rise buildings today bear the names of oil companies, including BP and ConocoPhillips.

The building that attracted my attention was the shiny Anchorage Museum. Its façade is unique. It is sheathed in some 6,000 square meters of custom insulated fritted glass, as explained to us, with glazing type and patterns never used before .  The docent who led our group for a tour of the museum’s Alaska gallery was a retired lawyer. She said the museum was a main cultural center of the Anchorage community, but is also consistently ranked among the state’s top ten visitor attractions. Accordingly, it received some 180,000 visitors annually who come from all around the world. A man with a T-shirt that read “Urologists are the Plumbers of Humans, “pushed his way through our large crowd to get close to her. So close that she had to tell him “Please back off a bit.” He explained to me that he was not wearing his hearing aid, as he smiled, adding that he was from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho: “It is beautiful; after Alaska you should come there!”  Perhaps being a tourist justified uncommon behavior. We were in Alaska, however, and our docent with her no-nonsense demeanor wanted us to pay attention to her summary of the state’s history.

Using the miniature and full-scale dioramas in the gallery as substitute for power point, our docent shared her insights into the lifestyle of Alaska’s Native peoples. There were several of them but she referred to all as Eskimos in general. “Despite what you might have heard that is not a pejorative term; and the Eskimos themselves use it,” she said.  She believed in the “still dominant explanation” that those original natives of the land came through the Bering Sea. She briefly covered the exploration and settlement by the Russians, the gold rush era, the impact of the Second World War and statehood in 1959. Then she discussed the oil industry and the special yearly payment by it to every resident. This is the dividend from the Permanent Fund created by law, she explained, so that at least 25% of the state’s oil money would be put into a dedicated fund for future generations, who would no longer have oil as a resource. She said the payment is made in October, “just in time for many to take a vacation outside of Alaska before the onslaught of winter.”

Our docent then told us about the settlement of the Native people’s right to the land over which the oil pipeline from the north to the port of Valdez was built. By a Federal law in 1971, the Native claims were “abrogated” in return for land and money given to some 12 major Native regional corporations and over 200 smaller local village corporations.  She said this was an innovative approach to Native settlements which engaged the tribes in corporate capitalism. The benefits accrued only to those with at least one-fourth Native ancestry. It was hoped that this would help preserve the Native culture as well.  If the corporations were managed well and made profit, they would enable the members to stay instead of leaving Native villages to find better work.

The docent told us that there are “no reservations” for the Native people in Alaska, “you will find them mixed with others in Anchorage.” We did not find anyone on the streets of Anchorage who would stand out as a Native people. According to the 2010 census, American Indian and Alaska Natives constituted 7.9%  of Anchorage’s population of 291,826; breaking down to 1.4% Inupiat, 1.1% Yup’ik, and 0.8% Aleutian. We did run into several of the “Blacks or African Americans” who constitute 5.6% of Anchorage’s population. We also saw a few of the 8.1% who are Asians, and the 7.6% who are “Hispanic or Latino.” The sight that startled us was a woman with a Muslim headscarf driving a Taxicab in downtown Anchorage. Anchorage boasts the most ethnically diverse schools in the United States; even the least diverse schools in Anchorage rank in the top 1% nationally in that regard. By the time of the 2012 census, the proportion of “Non-Hispanic Whites” had declined to 66% in the census from 83.6% in 1980. Yet they were the people we commonly found in places we went in order to meet the “local” inhabitants.

The information desk at the Museum sent us to Club Paris, a dark busy luncheon favorite which was “voted as having the best steak in town for 16 years.” Glacier Brewhouse which advertised itself as “Where Alaskans meet Alaskans,” had a waitlist of more than an hour when we went there for dinner. It was at the Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, however, that we saw a crowd of about 200 guests being fed. The Pizzeria was called Anchorage’s “No. 1 family restaurant,” but it also claimed to be where “yuppies and hippies” met. A man who said he came here regularly explained its popularity to us: it is both a brewery and a pizza place. On the night we were there it was celebrating  its recent designation by CNN as the No. 3 for having the best pizza in the whole country! At Sullivan’s downtown we saw a different type of clientele: two chic young women were having lunch while their teenage daughters who had just come in with full shopping bags sat at the next table, all four intermittently discussing the sale at Nordstrom in the new mall right in the center of town. This could have been the scene at any affluent suburban town of the lower 48. Anchorage also had its own Costco, Wal-Mart and Starbucks, but they were far from downtown.

When we asked our taxi driver for sights to see in the center of town, he just mentioned a couple of museums in addition to the one we had seen. On our own, we walked a few block to the western end of downtown and discovered Elderberry Park with its playground for children which overlooked the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet. We started from the trail head that connected to the coastal trail along the Knik Arm. We were warned that this coast consisted of mostly treacherous mudflats with glacier silt, under the seemingly solid face, which is revealed when the notoriously high tide is out. Unwary victims have gotten stuck in that mud. We could see the silt The city’s other seacoast at the opposite Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet was the same. We were not able to find any marina-type activity near the water in Anchorage. Around Lake Hood, close to the International Airport, we saw the “world’s busiest floatplane base.”  Seaplanes were anchored in the water next to little cabins. Flight tours from here were advertised. Anchorage, we were told, is a major cross-country skiing city with some 105 miles groomed trails within the urban core. As we drove on the highway along the edge of the huge JBER military base, we noticed trails with high poles for lighting over them. In this summer evening, joggers were using the trails.  The slopes of the Chugach Mountains were to the east.  A diverse wildlife population exists within urban Anchorage, we were told, and bears and moose are regularly sighted. We did not run into any during our stay.

Early in the morning, the streets of Anchorage were even emptier when I went to Sizzlin’ Café which promised local ingredients in its breakfast. I asked if they had oranges. The young waitress came out with an orange in one hand and three tangerines in her other hand. I chose the orange. No plate or knife was offered; when the bill came I was charged 4 dollars for that orange.  I asked for the special of the day and got a heap of oatmeal in a bowl with little paper containers of brown sugar, raisins and shaved almonds. I spread that day’s The Alaska Dispatch News before me. This daily Anchorage paper is by far the most widely read newspaper in the state. The front page on this day, July 30, 2015,   had articles of national importance. On the currently most talked about issues, its headline was that Alaska’s two U.S. Senators (both Republican) were asking for more details about the Nuclear Agreement with Iran. President Barack Obama’s announced visit to the city in August was the subject of another major article.  He was to give a major address on climate change to a conference of representatives from 20 counties forming the Arctic Council. The President was also expected to travel throughout the state and “engage directly with Alaskans.”  A columnist, in the inside pages of Dispatch News, wrote that Alaska politicians should be civil toward Obama.

Anchorage usually leans toward Republican candidates in state and presidential elections. Today’s paper re-printed an article from Washington Post on Sara Palin, the former governor who was the Republican Vice -Presidential nominee in 2008. The article was about an interview that a current Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump had just given to a radio station devoted exclusively to covering Palin called Mama Grizzly Radio. Trump said that he would love to give Palin, now a reality television star, a position in his administration if he won the Presidency, “Because she really is somebody that knows what’s happening, and …I think people know that.” The warm feeling was mutual. The week before, Palin praised Trump as “the candidate giving voice to untold millions of fed-up Americans witnessing a purposeful destruction of our economy and the equal opportunity for success that made America exceptional.”  She was quoted in the article as saying that, like her, when you go to New York you must see Trump, with whom she usually had a dinner of pizza!

There have been several attempts to replace Juneau as capital with Anchorage or a site closer to it, such as Palin’s own hometown of Wasilla. The reasoning is that the majority of the state’s population lives in the “railbelt” between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The latter, the second largest city, however, has joined much of rural Alaska to successfully oppose such a move as they feared concentration of even more power in Anchorage.  We now went to see those rural areas of the railbelt.

The term “railbelt region” is defined more in connection with the “electrical grid” served by Alaska’s six regulated public utilities. Its northern part, between Anchorage and Fairbanks, is also served by the Alaska Railroad. We took the Alaska highways which were parallel to the railroad, to go from Anchorage to Denali Park, some 237 miles away. The first part, Alaska Route 1 was also called the Glenn Highway. This was a rather flat road but we could see the Chugach Mountains looming to the east.   It passed through small town like Eagle River from which many commuted to Anchorage for work.  It took us to the agricultural town of Palmer some 42 miles away. Palmer was where in the Great Depression, 203 families were sent from the colder northern Midwest states to start a farming colony. They now grow peas, potatoes, carrots, rhubarb, lettuce and cabbage.

Glenn Highway connected to Route 3 in the eastern reaches of the town of Wasilla. From there Route 3, also known as the Parks Highway went straight to Denali. Named after George Parks, a former governor of the Territory of Alaska, this was a mostly two-lane, smooth road, with green forests and pink fireweed between us and the mountains to the east. Fluffy clouds filled parts of the sky. On dial 98.1, a commercial classical radio station from Anchorage played a piece by Hayden.


From the Parks Highway we could see the historic Wasilla Railroad Depot which was now the city’s Chamber of Commerce. It was around the corner from the Mayor’s office. At the intersection of Main Street and the Highway was a big poster on the wall. It said “Want Cash? Give us” above the picture of a wedding ring and, then, a telephone number  . The ring had double meaning as that wall was one side of a store calling itself “Pawn and Bargain Center,” with another sign below it which read “Gun, Loans” with a drawing of handgun . I walked into the Chamber’s office behind this store to ask for a map of Wasilla and some information. The young man across the counter gave us a map with an x marked on it. He was prepared for tourists who usually just wanted to know where the former Mayor, Sara Palin lived.  The mark showed where her house was. “But it is in a gated area across the lake and you only can see it from the other bank of the lake,” the man said, “look for a Best Western and her house is to its left.”  He said the gates were put up in the last few years. I took a short path at the end of the “Lake Lucille Camper Park” to reach a deck facing the Best Western. The lake was pretty but big.  There was a couple on the deck and a woman lying at its end smoking, with her daughter running next to her . The man did not know about the Palin house. He said he was from North Carolina and on vacation to celebrate his 30th anniversary. His wife smiled sweetly as he continued. “I was stationed at the air force base in Anchorage then for five years.” He said he had seen more of Alaska in one day of this vacation “than in all of those five years.” The smoking woman nodded toward the other bank of the lake, indicating that was where Palin’s house was located. I squinted and could only see the white paint of some structures in the trees.  Later that day the menu in a pub some 60 miles north of here reminded me of Palin’s famous saying: a hamburger was named “I can see Russia” .

The Iditarod Trail Headquarters was on the street we took to go to Lucille Lake. The Iditarod Sled Dog Museum is two miles down on Knik road, which was the original wagon road from Knik south of here. Wasilla has an Iditarod Elementary School and an Iditapark & Wonderland Park. In the local brochures we read that the Iditarod race was begun by a group of Wasilla area people worried that the art of dog mushing would be lost because dogs were being replaced by “snowmachines;” they hoped thus to revive interest in sled dogs. The race is on the Iditarod Trail used by the miners from Knik to Nome which followed the original Native Athabascans’ trails.  It now begins every March in Anchorage and heads north to Nome.

The legend and lore of the Great Race attract national attention. The race is based  on a 1925 humanitarian diphtheria epidemic serum run to Nome, over the old Iditarod mail trial. This began in Nenana, 50 miles south of Fairbanks: On Jan 27, it was too cold for the planes to fly, so a relay team of 20 mushers, using over a 100 dogs, passed the serum package from village to village along the trail to Nome, arriving on February 2.

In Wasilla, on the way back from the Lake to the Parks Highway we spotted a store with this sign: “OMG: Cheep Smoke;” and there was another: Drive through Dogwash.”  Driving north in Wasilla, on the side of the Highway we noticed a sign for a towing company, calling itself: “Happy Hooker.” There were several strip malls here. When we drove in the direction of downtown Wasilla, we went through many blocks of houses with large lots, resembling prosperous suburbs of the U.S. At a major intersection in this residential area there were three evangelical churches, one of them called King of Kings.

When we asked about Wasilla from the concierge in our hotel in Anchorage, she referred to it dismissively as just a “highway town.”  Wasilla grew with the new wealth created by the construction of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. We saw other highway towns which have not been that lucky, a series of communities that grew up around lodges every 10 miles or so at creek crossings and lakes, about the same distance apart that an 1898 Gold Rush miner could travel by foot or horse in a day. After Wasilla at Mile 42 of the Parks Highway, there were Big Lake at Mile 52, and others, all the way to Montana Creek at Mile 97.


Talkeetna was different, we were told, and we went to see it. It is more than 14 miles off the Parks Highway, on a “Spur Road,” which branches eastward from the Highway at Mile 99.  Talkeetna is “historic” by Alaska standards: it will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. It was built by miners, prospectors, adventurers and the railroad. Turn of the 20th century buildings line the one-block Main Street. Many are full of stores and shops catering to tourists But Talkeetna is also an artist community with a funky style.  Ice cream is still made in an antique machine On a side street there was an outdoors art show, where we also saw posters announcing a number of upcoming events.  The residents boasted that the only parking meter in town is, in fact, broken, but they also said that they volunteered in the library and the town’s radio station. The last “whistle stop” train in the U.S. runs through town; the locals “flag” the train to stop for them.

Talkeetna is now less a supply station for miners and trappers than it once was, but it is the staging area for climbing as it is the closest town to Denali. That is the name in the local Athabascan language for the mountain which is also called Mt. McKinley. At 20,320 feet, its southern peak is the highest in North America -some 700 feet taller than the second highest, Mount Logan in Canada. According to a ranger stationed in Talkeetna, every year roughly 1200 folks com  here from all over the world to “jump off” for the Denali Base Camp. In Athabascan, Talkeetna means “where the rivers join.”  There are three of them: Chulitna River, Susitna River and Talkeetna River. We walked to the end of the Main Street to the bank of a very wide river created by the confluence of the Talkeetna and Susitna. We brushed aside vendors selling “Mexican souvenirs,” and saw signs protesting the proposed dam on the Sustina River. We did not see Denali as we had hoped; it was behind clouds in the distance.

Toward Denali

Back on Parks Highway, we paralleled the Susitna River’s currents north for a while. With the green of the trees and the white of the mountains snow, the river made a beautiful dramatic scene against the gloriously blue sky . We now had our first view of the Alaska Range which is in an arc east-west on the southern edge of Denali Park.  We were enticed by signs to stop and look for the Denali (McKinley) peak in the Range . The sign at the lookout warned us that “The peaks of the Alaska Range are so high they create their own severe, unpredictable weather, which often hides the scenery.”  It asked: “Is Denali out today?” It was not.

From another sign we learned that the suffix “tna,” as at the end of Susitna, meant river in the Tanaina language . We also learned that people who live along the rivers and coastline of northern Alaska are predominantly Native American –Yup’ik, Inupiat and Athabascan. There were three Athabascan cultures in the territories: the Tanaina (or Dena’ina) country hugs the ocean, including what is now Anchorage. They are unique as the only Athabascans who had direct access to the sea. The rest are landlocked and river-dependent. To the north of the Dena’ina is the land of the Ahtna Athabascans, mostly extending east across the Denali Highway which was some 100 miles from we stood, at the town of Cantwell. North of the Athna -along the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, near and north of Fairbanks, another 150 miles away- was the third group, the Tanana Indians who always used those giant rivers as roads across their territory. The animals, foliage and place we saw on our journey all still hold special use and meaning for these three groups, whose own roots go back in Alaska thousands of years.

There were two lookouts on the Parks Highway for viewing the Denali peaks. They had overnight parking for campers. The camping tourists helped day visitors like us look for Denali. The interpretive signs projected heights and positions of the mountains in the Alaska Range facing us. But the angle and shape of numerous mountains depicted changed as you moved your position. It was not uncommon to mistake another mountain, or even a glacier, for the snow-clad Denali peak. A friendly camper pointed out my mistake but could not point out Denali as it was “hidden behind the clouds.” She told me that in the early morning she stood looking for Denali “a good two hours” before the clouds moved enough to reveal “the high one,” which is Denali in the Athabascan language. We were reduced to quip that it was not really all that hard to find Denali:  just look for the biggest concentration of the clouds in that direction, Denali is right behind it.

Camper cars and RVs constituted much of the traffic on the Parks Highway which offers much not just to vacationers but also more serious students of nature. As we drove, we were fascinated by the diverse environments the Highway traverses. The Susitna River Valley is full of thick forests and birch trees.  North of it, in the wide open Broad Pass, there was mix of small spruce and low shrubs called “taiga.” We learned that there are more taiga forests in the world than any other terrain: they cover 30% of the earth, stretching across Alaska, Canada and Russia. The Broad Pass which is a low gap across the Alaska Range is also a dividing line where rivers to the south drain into Cook Inlet and those to the north flow to the Yukon River. Further along on the Parks Highway, 210 miles from Anchorage, we were in high tundra.  This was followed by Nenana River which starts from the Nenana Glacier to the southeast, crossing the Parks Highway and paralleling it closely for some 30 miles. Then it carves its way through the Alaska Range and forms the Nenana Canyon.

Old time Alaskan residents have an appropriate term for traveling in such wondrous land: “bearfooting.” It is verb that means losing yourself in the moment when you find yourself looking at a phenomenon of nature and cannot remember what day of the week it is, and you don’t care. It was that experience which such a resident mentioned when I asked her what she liked the best about Alaska. She was a construction worker on the Parks Highway who flagged the cars to stop as this segment of it was reduced to one lane due to the road work. We were at the top of the line and I noticed the sticker on her helmet which said “Alaska Girls.” She explained that this was because all the construction workers today were women, , except the ones who were striping the road.  “We call them strippers,” she said, laughing.  She was a mother of three grown kids. Her house was about 70 miles away but she stayed near the construction site in a trailer while working. Construction work paid well.  She worked in bars during the winter when “there are tons of tourists – the Parks Highway is plowed- many come to snow-machine but also to hunt.” She said she hunted too. She liked “everything” about Alaska. “We have everything here, water, fish, scenery,” she punctuated. Her recommendation for us was: “Go to Trapper Creek south of here and take the Petersville Road which is not paved after the first few miles. That is the shortest route to experiencing some of the wild which is real Alaska.”

Denali Park

From the deck of the Grande Denali Lodge which was perched high on the hill just outside the Denali Park we had a panoramic view of the Nenana River and Canyon. The strip of hotels, shops and restaurants by the Nenana Canyon which passes as the business district of the area, and was also called the Canyon by the locals, was also under our feet We could see the Denali Park and its entrance amidst the forest of spruce trees.  All of these were in a framework of mountains all  around us We sat down in the bar of the Lodge to read about the history of the Park. It was established as the Mount McKinley National Park by Congress in 1917, one year after the creation of the National Park Service. Credit is given to Charles Sheldon who, beginning in January of 1908, spent 10 months around Kantishna Hills, now “Mile 92” from the Park entrance on the road that has since been built in the Park. Sheldon devoted much effort to make this a preserved and protected national park.  What impressed him the most was the view he saw south from Kantishna of a 30-mile massif that plunges straight down to the tundra. That was the north peak of Mount McKinley.

The mountain was known since the English explorer George Vancouver first charted it in 1794. The first climber tried to reach its summit of Denali in 1903.  In 1896 it was named Mount McKinley by the American gold-seeker William Dickey. He wanted to honor presidential candidate William McKinley who had championed a gold-based currency. The local Koyukon Athabaskans, however, has long known it as Deenaanlee, meaning the “High One” . Sheldon followed them, but made the name simpler as Denali. That is the name used now by the Alaska Board of Geographic Names, although he U.S. Board of Geographic Name still calls it McKinley.

In 1917 Mount McKinley National Park also had another purpose which was the creation of a game sanctuary.  There were wild animals here, “the big five” being the grizzlies, caribou, wolves, moose, and dall sheep. Indeed, the efforts to stop the practice of harvesting wild sheep and caribou to feed the people had begun before and directly contributed to the establishment of the Park. President Jimmy Carter in 1980 signed into law legislation that enlarged the Park from two million acres to six million, with the official name Denali National Park and Preserve. Larger than the State of New Hampshire, the Park’s new boundaries encompass entire watersheds and the home ranges of wildlife populations.

There is only one road through the Park. Its first 15 miles is paved and you can drive it in your car. The rest is unpaved. The Park runs a bus service that goes for the rest of the 92 mile road. This is the key to conserving the park’s wilderness character, as the Park rangers reminded us Each bus takes the place of dozens of personal vehicles, saves on fuel and emissions, and allows you to watch and enjoy the scenery and wild animals. Nearly 100,000 visitors a year travel this way on the road, most in the summer –the Park road is closed in winter beyond Mile 3.4. We took the bus tour that most visitors take which went to Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66, and back. It took us roughly 4 hours each way with the stops.

The driver narrated. He said we should say stop to indicate when we spotted an animal and mention its location as the “hour” on the clock. The mountains we saw on the west were called Inner Range and the ones on the east were Outer Range. We made a couple of stops for restrooms at designated spots. We came out of the bus for viewing the Polychrome Overlook where there were mountain peak at 5790 feet and a glacier, both by that name, Polychrome. Further on we saw the Divide Mountain which divided the biggest river of the area, the Toklat.  At some of these stops we saw flower boxes with wildflowers: pink fireweed and blue monk’s hood . At Eielson Visitor Center, there was an apt quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Earth smiles in flowers” .” We were not allowed to get out of the bus otherwise. In fact, we could but only at our own risk and we were advised to observe the rules of precaution.  We saw a few people walking down on the trails on the side of the road.  They hopped on our bus which stopped for them. Some were staying in the campsites in the Park.  There are also ranger- led hikes in the Park.

We were told that for safety one should keep away from the bears at least 300 yards and 25 yards from other four wild big animals of the Park. “If a moose charges you,” our bus driver said, “run away, he can’t catch you. But don’t run away from a bear as he can run 30 miles per hour.” He also said “Never get between a sow and her cubs. In fact, if you see a bear do not go near it, say, to take a photo.” He had just finished saying this when we say two Japanese tourists doing exactly that on the side of the road. Our driver shouted at them not to get close:   “don’t run, slowly retreat.”

On our bus, we followed the driver’s instructions and the trip became an experience. The bus went quiet, cameras softly clicking, when animals were spotted only 50 feet away. Later, everybody talked with new animation, recalling stories of their other encounters with wild animals.  We were told that there was a 25% chance of seeing Denali but 95% of spotting a grizzly bear in the Park.  Its large size and special ecosystem allow wildlife to wander, unafraid of humans: “There aren’t more animals here than elsewhere; just a combination of open country and the animals not being pursued.”  There are an estimated 2,500 moose in the Park’s taiga level spruce forest, 300 grizzly bears, 2,200 caribou and 50 wolves all [21] in the alpine tundra[22]; and 2,200 dall sheep in the rocky, steep cliffs of the Park [23]. The grizzly bears that could weigh as much as 6,000 pounds are the dominant predators in the Park. There are also some black bears here, but they are far less common.

The man sitting on my left spotted specs of white high on the mountain on his side which he said were dall sheep as he showed me the picture he took of them in his high-powered camera.  We saw our first caribous[24] in a group of three, in the bushes near the bus on our way into the park. We saw more on the way back. One caribou sauntered right in front of our bus[25] which stopped as the animal, ignoring us, decided to remain there for a while[26]. Not long afterward, we saw another caribou on the road with its back to us. Presently, he opened his hind legs and began peeing in front of us[27]. Soon we had seen so many caribous that we were not interested in them anymore: “Oh, it is just a caribou,” became the inside joke among us.

We saw our first bears on the way back, on both sides of the bus in the shrubberies. We saw bears three times. The most dramatic was when a blonde mother grizzly and her two cubs, one black and the other cinnamon color [28], were spotted just 40 feet away in the bushes to our left[29]. As our bus stopped, the bears slowly came to the road and crossed it  [30] to the bushes on the other side[31]. We stayed a bit longer taking pictures of them.  By now two other buses had joined us from the other side. The last bear we saw started moving toward the wide Teklanika River which we could see from the stop station we came to presently. He was walking on the gravel bar in the vast bed of the river [32]. We noted a few squirrels rushing across the road.  Some in our bus also said that they saw a bald eagle.

Our bus driver said that in the Denali National Preserve part of the Park hunting was allowed. The Park Road extended to Wonder Lake at Mile 85 and beyond to Kantishna at Mile 92. The map showed that there was an airstrip there. It also showed a campground in Wonder Lake and five more within the first 45 miles of the road.  Ansell Adam immortalized Wonder Lake which mirrors the McKinley peaks in reflection with his pictures, the best place to look for those peaks in the Denali Park.

In the Eielson Visitor Center, the window facing the McKinley and nearby mountains had etchings of them, along with markers on the floor for people of different heights. This was to create a focus to enable you to verify that you were indeed seeing the McKinley and not another mountain of the Alaska Range. With the help of the map [33] I could determine that the highest mountain I could see at the time was Mount Carpe at 12,550. This was because the sky was clear only up to 13,000 feet and covered by clouds above that. The map indicated that the two peaks of Mount McKinley were to my right, the North at 19, 470 feet, and left, the South at 20, 3201 feet. In between them was the Harper Glacier.  This system demonstrated that depending at what angle you stood you could mistake any of several other high mountains nearby for Mount McKinley, unless it was in the clear, out of the clouds, when either of the peaks would truly tower over the other mountains.

Denali Park has much more than the McKinley peaks to offer. The scenery was at times simply breathtaking. There were pristine verdant tundra [34], fast [35] and wide [36] rivers and colorfully painted mountains [37]. Far from obscuring this landscape, the clouds often added to its charm. Even when threatening they created drama [38].

Denali Park’s face is as alive as its nature is dynamic. The polychrome peaks were hardened lava from a period of mountain building millions of years ago, but this area experiences continued seismic activity. “Earthquake tremors are frequent,” we learned: “As the crustal plates along the Denali Fault keep grinding together, mountains of the Alaska Range may still be rising  [39].”  As we saw glaciers behind and between those peaks, we also noticed signs of massive glaciations in the valleys fronting the mountains. There were gouged-out ponds, stranded boulders and gravel outwash plains. Indeed, Denali’s wandering meltwater rivers, cloudy with glacial silt and rock fragments are evidence of still active, ongoing glaciation and mountain carving.