Great Alaskan Adventure: Part Three

19 07 2011

Day Eight of our Great Alaskan Adventure found us on a shuttle tour through Denali National Park.  Compared to other national parks, Denali does an admirable job of making this particular slice of wilderness accessible, while at the same time restricting access so that the sights that draw the masses will not be destroyed by those same masses.  Exhibits at the Visitor’s Center gave the history and highlights of the park as well as warn of the inherent dangers of those who venture off on their own.  Did you know, for example, that each year more people are killed by moose than by bears?  Organized activities allow visitors to customize their experience of the Park and its wonders: talks, guided and unguided hikes, sled dog demonstrations, bus tours, or shuttles.  In each activity, it seemed, there were warnings of what to do if confronted with a black bear, a grizzly, or a moose.  For one encounter, you should play dead, for another you should wave your arms and shout, and in the case of the moose, you run.  Survival 101. I think I failed.  I still can’t remember which activity is appropriate for which bear.  And I’m sure if confronted with any of these dangers I would turn into a useless mass of quivering jello.

Our day-long shuttle to Eielson Visitor’s Center took us on a winding road (the only paved road through the park), stopping to see wildlife along the way.  And wildlife there was:  we saw grizzly bears (even watched a mother bear wait patiently while Cub #2 tried to dig out a ground squirrel).  Bears: the first of the Big Five that our driver said were Must Sees.

This cub tried valiantly to dig out a ground squirrel while his sibling and mother waited patiently.

Then came caribou herds, moose sightings, and herds of Dall sheep dotting the steep mountain meadows.  Four of the Big Five, not bad!

These sheep were perched comfortably on a steep, pointy peak, safe from any predators.

The next morning on a bus ride to the Savage River Trail, we saw Number Five: a wolf!  We added a few more animals to our own list: a hoary marmot (Yes, Virginia, there is such a beast), and a lynx who was brave, or confused, enough to streak through the grounds of the Visitor Center.

This hoary marmot provided us with lots of entertainment with its name alone!

We spent the last part of our second full day at Denali experiencing another first for us: a raft ride through the rapids of the nearby Nenana River.  Class 2 to Class 4 rapids took our adventure to another level.  Dry suits provided a degree of comfort as we were repeated splashed by the icy water that two days earlier had been part of a glacier.  I am not a fan of roller coasters.  I avoid them just as some shun snakes.  Yet after the first or second series of giant waves that had our raft bucking, twisting, and turning as if we were on a roller coaster, I found myself grinning and hooting with total abandon.  For years, I have watched rafts shoot the rapids and been scared just watching.  No more.  I may even get on a roller coaster.  However, no roller coast could match the beauty of the waves, rocks, steep cliffs, and natural scenery that was ours for two short hours.  Lesson learned:  Just do it!

Although the scenic beauty and excitement was memorable in and of itself, the participants of the ride are also worth mentioning.  Our guide, Jen, was in her upper 20s, living the life of adventure for quite some time.  A white-water guide in the summer, she was a ski instructor in the winter.  A new job each season, she enjoyed physical challenges and an unsettled lifestyle.  Her dream was to move to New York and become a literary agent.  Go figure.  Interestingly, three other young women in our raft led similar lives.  Wilderness guides, seasonal park rangers, sea kayak guides…the raft was filled with the talk of past white water adventures, ski trips around the world, and near catastrophes.  I was quiet, until the only other middle-aged woman in the raft mentioned that her job seemed dull in comparison.  That’s when I spoke up: “Well, my job’s even more exciting…I TEACH FIFTH GRADE!”  The boat filled with appreciative ewws and ahhhs, until the other woman one-upped me.  She taught middle school special ed.

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