Friday August 25: Denali Park
Alpine Trail and TWT
We got up on time (7:00), I took a shower, and we had our separate breakfasts at 7:30. Amy stayed in the cabin and ate a yogurt from the cooler. I went up to the main lodge with Sam. He got a table for one in the main dining room for the $30 breakfast buffet. I stayed out in the main lobby area and got a breakfast sandwich (egg and sausage on English muffin) and a coffee for $15. After I finished the sandwich, I went in and joined Sam (without eating anything there), which prompted the waitress to say to Sam, “oh...it looks like you found a friend...” Sam was almost finished, I paid Sam’s bill, and we returned to the cabin.
As we walked back, we could see increasing amounts of blue sky in front of us.
For our morning activity, we planned to do part or all of the Savage Alpine Trail. This went from the Savage River parking area (where we had parked and hiked the previous day), steeply up, traversed across the Alpine region, and then descended more gradually to the Savage River campground.
Fortunately, the parking area was full, so we drove back to the campground and parked there. That meant that we were starting on the more gradual end. At this point, the sky was fairly clear and mostly sunny. I think that this was because we were in the rain shadow of the big mountain range. Denali was mostly covered in clouds, and the valley where our lodging was was overcast and drizzly.
The original plan was to go up as far as we wanted, and then to retrace our steps. However, after we had gone a short while, Sam and I were getting rather frustrated with Amy’s pace, particular with her frequent stops to take pictures. We made a different plan. The new one was that Amy would do the up-and-back, while Sam and I would go ahead and do the whole length. Amy would return to the car, drive to the other end, and pick us up. That meant that the two of us could go at a more comfortable pace, and was coincidentally sort of what the previous day’s plans had been.
The two of us made better time, and at one point we saw Amy far below. Once we got above the tree line, the wind picked up noticeably. As expected, the views across the valley were awesome. I definitely prefer hiking up above the tree line to hiking among the trees.
The total elevation gain was either 1200 or 1500 feet. It ended up being a lot more than I expected.
Near the top, I took a slight detour to a rocky outcrop, while Sam rested near a pile of rocks. When I rejoined Sam, he said that he was busy photographing an Alpine ground squirrel, who was somewhere in the rocks. I went to the trail just below the rocks to take a panorama. Just as I was about to take it, the squirrel scurried just past me, and I had to hurry to reset my phone camera so that I could take some normal pictures of it.
At one point, I took off my fleece jacket and just had on my fleece shirt. When the strong winds hit, I was too cold. I figured that my fleece jacket would be too warm, so I put on my raincoat as a windbreaker. Trying to put my rain jacket on in a very strong wind was a bit of an adventure. I felt almost like a human kite. I was thinking that if I slipped and dropped the rain jacket, it would go sailing away at high speed, and I would never see it again.
As we continued along the slowly descending traverse, I could see the trail ahead of us. It went down a narrow ridge to a rocky outcrop, and then dropped over the edge. I didn’t like the looks of it.
At this point, we were sort of committed to continuing to the end. It was both shorter and easier than turning back, and if we turned back, we were likely to find that Amy and the car were gone, waiting for us at the other end.
When we got to the ridge, I found it as unpleasant as I had guessed. There weren’t sheer cliffs next to the trail, but it dropped off steeply enough, and it was narrow enough that I was getting stressed out, particularly with a strong gusty wind trying to blow us off of the ridge. It gave me a small appreciation for what Everest climbers would experience with the strong winds there.
This rocky outcrop was not the one we saw from the parking lot. The trail started descending in steep switch-backs with lots of stone steps. It went down to another rocky outcrop, which was the one we had seen the previous day. About this time, we were more than happy to be done with the hike any time soon.
Part of my stress was that we were rapidly running out of time. We had a firm deadline for the second major activity—a wildlife tour of the park. That was scheduled to leave at 3:05, and we were told to be ready at the village by 2:45. It was going to be about 2:00 when we got down, and then we still needed to get back to the village and also find something to eat. It was going to be close. I kept thinking, “I really hope that when we get down, we find Amy in the parking lot.”
We got down at 1:50, and I did a quick tour of the small parking lot. No Amy. At this point, I was thinking “oh crap, we’re in trouble”. I tried calling her, but of course, I had no reception. The worst part was having no idea of Amy’s status. She could be driving toward us at this very moment, or she might be still high up on the trail because she lost track of the time.
It looked like they were letting people park across the river. I couldn’t imagine that Amy would park over there and not come over to this side to wait for us, but just to be certain, I left Sam there to wait for Amy, and I hiked over to check out the other cars. No Amy. I was most of the way back when I saw Amy drive up and pick up Sam. She waited a moment while I hurried (as much as I could which wasn’t much) to the car, got in, and then we started to zoom back.
Apparently Amy made it as high as she was able, but this took rather some time. She hurried down the trail and almost ran the more level stretches, being as nervous about the time as we were. It was interesting that she apparently got down only a few minutes after we did.
Our new plan was to grab some burgers at the grill at the visitor’s center, and eat them on the run. Sam decided that he really didn’t want to go on the tour, so he was just going to stay in his cabin. I dashed in to get the food and sort of lucked out. We wanted two burgers and a hotdog. It turns out that there were two burgers essentially done and keeping warm on the grill, so we could get them immediately. Otherwise, it probably would have taken 5 minutes or more to grill new ones.
We ate them in the car. When we got to the village (2:35?), I dashed back to our cabin and changed my boots for sneakers. I put the big lens on my camera and left my normal lens behind. I brought my tripod, but that ended up being useless, as all of the photos were taken from inside the bus, so there was no opportunity for the tripod.
We got to the main area where we were to await the bus around 2:50, so we actually had a few minutes to spare.
Our tour was TWT-22. I thought of this as “Twit Twenty Two”, although it really stood for “Tundra Wildlife Tour”. Apparently “tundra” just refers to a treeless area.
When we boarded the bus, we took seats on the passenger/right side of the bus, which ended up being a mistake because most of the sightings ended up being on the left side. From the outside, the busses sort of looked like school busses, but the insides (e.g. the seats) were nicer. It also had a shelf overhead, which was useful to put things like our backpacks, and eventually my unused tripod.
On each seat, they had a snack box, and on the shelf they had a case of cans of water. It was odd having the water in a resealable can, but it was much more recyclable than plastic bottles.
The driver said that he had to keep his eyes on the road, so that we should be keeping our eyes peeled for animals. If we saw something, we should yell “stop”. If we just yelled, “bear!” or “moose!” he would assume we were just talking about it and not stop.
We weren’t expecting to see much until we got past Savage River, but halfway along the public road, we heard a chorus of “Stop! Stop!”. There was a caribou close to the left side of the bus. I got some pictures. It then walked through a culvert under the road and came out on our side of the bus, but the rear end is not the best angle.
One neat thing was that the driver had a pretty good video camera, which he had connected to a series of video displays. His camera had a mongo zoom on it, which was better than my 500mm lens. Particularly for people without binoculars or big lenses, they could get a “close-up” view of distant animals.
The bus proceeded past Savage River and eventually to the end where the road was gone. At one point, in a bit of a canyon, there were two bears up on the left side. Then there was another bear on the right side. As we were exiting the canyon, he pulled up to a bus coming back, and he told the driver of that bus that this was “bear canyon”. He was told that up ahead there was a wolf near the road. It was very rare to see wolves.
We continued a short while, stopped and found the wolf (of course, on the left side of the bus). Even stranger, it was hanging out near the road for an extended length of time. It appeared to be eating a squirrel, although a bit later, it seemed to be burying it for later.
We saw Dall sheep, but they were the proverbial “white dots” on the distant hill-sides. With my big lens, I could make out that they were sheep, but they were still slightly bigger dots in my images. Amy saw a golden eagle, but there was not even a chance of a photo.
Just beyond where we turned around, the road ended. It turns out that it was built on permafrost, but the permafrost was melting. When this became too bad, the road essentially collapsed. It seems that they are building a bridge over that section of the park, so that the pilings can reach through the permafrost to solid material. This won’t be ready for several more years.
As we were heading back, we were sort of toured out, hungry, and just wanted to be back at the village. However, halfway back down the public part of the road, we came across a “bison jam” (a bunch of stopped vehicles). This was a moose (or maybe two of them) off to the side. A bit later, we came across a moose standing in the middle of the road, but unless you were in the first or second seats, you couldn’t get a shot.
We apparently got more animal sightings than usual. The wolf, particular, was a very rare sight. Later on, we overhead another woman saying that when she went, they saw almost nothing. I have to wonder whether we were just particularly lucky, or whether the people on our bus (particularly on the left side) were just particularly good at spotting the wildlife.
The theme for the day seemed to be “time crunch”. We had been planning to get burgers at the Snack Shack, but it closed at 9:30. Unfortunately, we got there just at 9:30. We might have been able to run over there and grab a burger before they closed, but it would be iffy, and we were getting tired of burgers. The driver/guide said that the main dining room closed at 10, so we figured we had a little time. We went back to the cabin and looked through the village “newspaper/magazine” at the food section, and found that there was a pizza place nearby that was open until 11. That seemed to us a better deal.
For context, the Denali Park Village was the biggest thing we had seen for the previous 100 miles or so. Other than that, there were occasional small places like where we had lunch, and cabins for rent, but nothing major.
The pizza place gave its mile marker (a common thing around there), which seemed to be about a mile or two on the other side of the park entrance. We drove there, and when we passed the entrance, turned the corner, and drove a short distance, our jaws nearly dropped. There seemed to be a reasonable small town there. There was a gas station, a fair number of hotels, a lot of restaurants, and other tourist-themed places (e.g. ATV rentals).
We found the pizza place and got dinner. Another theme for the trip seems to have been late dinners.
We finished dinner at 11. We planned to fill the gas tank while we were there, but apparently the gas station closed at 11. In hind sight, we should have gassed up before dinner.
We then returned to our cabins. We got there around 11:20 (our latest day yet). I went on a quest to get more ice for the cooler. The “working” ice machine behind the dinner-theater still seemed to be “empty”, so I had to wander around in the dark and find the other machine. I didn’t have time to write up the day’s event, so I took a few quick notes and hit the sack.
I had been expecting to be eaten alive by mosquitoes—the Alaskan state bird. We brought lots of bug stuff, including geeky looking netting. We ended up using none of it. I don’t know if it was the time of year, the location, or because it was rather windy, but when we did our hikes, we were not bothered by mosquitoes or other insect pests (except for Sam getting harpooned) at all.