Sunday, September 6, 2015

Our First Denali Experience

Up to this point we have only seen Mount Denali from a distance and have not gotten into Denali National Park itself.   Today is the day!   With great anticipation we made our way through road construction (remember, there are only two seasons and we were there for the road construction season) to the park entrance.   We have about 6 hours until our flight into the interior of the park.

Beginning of Fall
The park is huge - 6,075,106 acres.  For comparison, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is only 522,427 acres.  As big as it is, there is only one road in the park.  The park road stretches 92.5 miles from the entrance to the old mining community of Kantishna.  Cars are only allowed on the first 15 miles of the park road.  After that the road turns to a narrow gravel road and only park buses are allowed past mile 15.   We had some time and decided to drive the park road and see what we could see.

It was August 23, and fall had already come to Denali.   Most of the fall color was in the ground cover, bushes and the red and purple Fire Weed which grows prolifically.  There are few large trees  in the park because the thick moss acts as an insulating blanket keeping the ground permanently frozen below the first few inches.

Frozen Tundra
Moose Jam
Not many miles into the park we ran into a familiar scene.  Anyone who has tried to drive around Cades Cove in the Smokies knows what a Bear Jam is.   Someone  spots a bear, stops their car, often in the middle of the road, and all the other cars jam up behind.   We had found a Moose Jam!   If someone on a park bus spots wildlife the driver stops so everyone can get pictures.   Still being in the first 15 miles we joined one bus and the other 20 or so cars to check out the moose.

Our first experience in Denali was spectacular.  There were several cows and a couple bulls not far from the road.   One of the bulls still had velvet on his antlers and other other had lost most of his, with some shreds still hanging on.  They didn't seem to mind all the cars and people, but instead munched away on the brush.   It was not raining at this point and I was able to get some nice clear shots.

A Big Guy
All at once we heard a small dog barking.  It was probably inside someone's car with the windows rolled down.  When the moose heard this little yapper they took off.   Keep in mind a bull Moose can weigh as much as 1,100 pounds or 500 kg.  These large beasts were scared off by something that weighed a couple pounds.

Running Away
What a great start to our Denali Experience.  

Aspens damaged by Porcupines.
We wanted to take in  a Ranger led hike through the woods to the Sled Dog Kennel so we headed back to the visitor center.   These ranger led activities are always informative.  Among other things we learned that Porcupines love to eat the bark of Aspen and Cottenwood trees.

We also learned that the Red Squirrels love mushrooms and will preserve them by putting them in trees to dry.  They will then store them to be eaten later in the winter when most of the food is covered by several feet of snow.

Mushroom In A Tree

As I said earlier, there were mushrooms everywhere.   Here are a few we saw on our hike.
A Strange One

Colorful Groundcover

We thought the hike time was round trip but learned that it was one way!   We had just enough time to say hi to the park sled dogs.   These are working dogs.  The Park Service uses dog sleds to get into the interior of the park during winter.  No motorized snow mobiles here.   A few days later we came back for a sled dog demonstration.

Snoopy was on to something

A beautiful dog

Willow Ptarmigan
We had to really move quickly to get back to the Visitor Center and catch our plane to Kantishna at 4:30.   Part way down we came up on a flock (?) of Willow Ptarmigan, which is the Alaska State Bird.  These chicken like birds are mottled in the summer to blend in with their surroundings, like this hiking trail.  In the winter they turn solid white.  

One Alaska town was to be named after this plentiful bird. The town was settled by gold miners in the late 1800s and in 1902 the local post office was established requiring a community name. Due to the prevalence of Ptarmigan in the area that name was suggested as the official name for the new community. However, the spelling could not be agreed on and Chicken was used to avoid embarrassment.  The town of Chicken is still there with a population of 7.  Really.  I couldn't make this stuff up.

The adventure was about to get more exciting.   Come back tomorrow for tales of our fist bush plane flight by the mountains, valleys and glaciers of Denali National Park!

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