Friday, September 27, 2013

Impressions of Denali

Hear the name Denali, and two objects are likely to come to mind, a mountain called Denali in the local Athabaskan dialect. That means "the great one", and it is certainly appropriate at 20,332 feet.  Secondly, one can think of the large national park that encompassed the mountain plus an amazing array of natural wonders. At six million acres, it could also be called a great one, too.  Strangely, the official US name for the mountain is still Mount McKinley, because members of the Ohio congressional delegation block any attempt to return the original name to the mountain.  They are protecting the name of their native son over the wishes of the Alaskan's who insist on Denali. So, it seems we've taken both their mountain and its name.  But in Alaska, I heard no one call it McKinley.

The first really good view of the park is a few miles in on the only road towards the park's interior.  In September, the tundra is rich with color.

  I was on a photo safari that went deep into the park to stay at the Camp Denali. On my first visit there, we saw the park riding in uncomfortable school buses over the sometimes harsh gravel
highway. This time we had a very comfortable bus driven by a highly qualified naturalist from Camp Denali. We could photograph from the bus, and also get out when the subject called for that.
When you visit Denali, you expect to see animals, both large and small.  Along the first ten or so miles, it is good moose habitat, and early September is the breeding season for them. So there were some excellent opportunities.  He's not a particularly large bull, but he had a cow nearby.  So, he was putting on a display for her.

The display consists of attacking defenseless trees to polish his rack and impress the cow.

A more intimidating display was hyperventilating, and then blowing out a cloud of steam.

When he curled up his lips, the threat was enough to be sure that you had a vehicle to slip behind.

At fifteen miles, one comes to the Savage River gate, and no private vehicles are allowed past that point.  The road becomes gravel, and includes some narrow mountainside sections that require careful driving.  As the road gains elevation on the mountainside,  there are expansive views where the distances are hard to gauge.

That is fresh snow on the mountain peaks.  Denali itself was  hidden in clouds well above the cloud level for most of our time in the park. "Did you get to see the mountain?" is a common theme in discussing any visit to the park.

As the road penetrates the park interior, it gains elevation and the colors become more striking. This color comes from a number of low plants that are also critical to another large mammal in the park, the bear.  At this time of the year, winter is rapidly approaching and they are in a race to build up fat for the long hibernation. We spent one morning exploring the tundra to see the where this color comes from.

 There are blueberries in great abundance. They contribute the rich reds and oranges in the tundra.  They were pretty tasty, especially if breakfast had been at 6:00 am while on a bus heading out for the beautiful early morning light.  (Lest you think this was a sacrifice, Camp Denali food was terrific.  It's all scratch cooking by three professional chefs. They made me  milk-free granola bars!)

Looking closely at the tundra there are also other rich red leaves --bearberry?-- and wild cranberry, and white lichens.  It is a mosaic of form and color. My background in eastern North America flora left me unqualified to identify, but eager to explore.

I did learn to spot the wild cranberry, and they are, to my palate, tasty too. Here is a close look at the wild cranberry.

So, now that you know what the berries are like, let's look at the number one fan of wild berries, the grizzly bear.  You can spot them from a pretty long distance, which is good since there are some pretty distant views available.

They walk with a bit of a swagger.

This is a good time to explain where the name comes from.  Grizzly is a form of grizzled, meaning streaked. Note the light tones streaked down the back against darker brown.

All of the dark reddish color seen above in the tundra are likely blueberries. The bear is going to need a lot of them, and it is not going to pick out the individual berries like we humans do. It's going to take it all in - leaves, stalks and berries all together.  It gets it roughage for sure.

There are also other sources of food including tubers in the ground.  The bear doesn't dig for them; it's more like excavating.  With two powerful paws, it uproots large clumps to sort through for the roots.  There is little that is delicate about their foraging.

There are also other interesting animals to find.  I had never seen willow ptarmigan before our bus came upon scores of them along the road on a rainy morning.  (Nearly all mornings were rainy.) Appropriately, they were in the low lying dwarf willow and birch, picking seeds. The birds were in the transition from their all brown summer plumage to their winter "whites".  I could hear them calling within the flock, just as I have heard bobwhite quail.

On several occasions, we heard cranes flying high overhead on their trek south for the winter.  It is reportedly unusual that they would land in Denali, so there were no photographic opportunities for them.  However, coming around a bend on the bus, we looked in a kettle pond to find another majestic transient bird, tundra swans.

I'd mentioned that seeing Denali is a hallmark of any visit there, and so far it had remained in the clouds.  On the final evening, as we gathered in the dining hall, the view out the windows toward Denali seems to be improving. As dessert was being delivered to the tables, the mountain began to open and many desserts were abandoned to go outside with a camera. It teased us but was still holding some clouds at the peak.

The next morning was an early start for the five hour bus ride out to the entrance, but at 5:00 am, there were people out looking towards the mountain in the early "civil light" that precedes sunrise.  It looked possible that the mountain was unveiling itself.  This is what was possible to see.

The lights from the dining hall illuminate the foreground, and to right of center in the far distance, the big mountain is holding onto a few thin clouds.   After a quick breakfast, the photographers hurried to their bus to get a head start on the other camp guests.  We went to Wonder Lake with the hope to see Denali revealed plus reflected in the calm lake. Seemed a chancy situation. Arriving, we quickly hurried to an edge of the lake and set up for the view.  Did we luck out?

I'd say we were 98% successful.  As the sun rose to light up the face of the mountain, the very tip of the peak gathered some wisps of moisture.  Still, it was overwhelmingly beautiful in all of its size from thirty miles distant!  That provides some strength for the next 34 hours of travel to get home.

I'd love to return to Camp Denali again.  The staff is extremely accommodating and knowledgeable. Their daily outings are designed for all levels of physical ability. The food and housing are unusual in such a remote location.  Most visitors to Denali only see a small part of the park near the entrance and miss the full glory of Denali. Three days at Camp Denali soar over any other visit there.

Paul Schmitt

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