Alaska: Denali National Park and Preserve – Part I: July 2017

After quite a few other adventures we are back in Alaska! Enjoy Denali National Park and Preserve.

The morning came way too early. Not that we hadn’t been getting up early the rest of the trip but our tour of Denali met at 6:30 in the morning. I’m not a morning person. Something that I didn’t mention last post was that the day we arrived at the Denali Princess Lodge it had been sweatshirt weather. So for our early morning wildlife tour of Denali Brooke dressed in three-quarter length yoga pants. Our tour bus is essentially a school bus painted olive green instead of yellow. School bus means no heater and it was cold this morning even with hot coffee to warm us up.

As we started out through the park we were all half asleep. Most of the family stayed that way. We didn’t see much wildlife on our drive through the park except for a moose cow and calf at the start. They weren’t far from the road and the cow was watching us but didn’t act overly concerned. From there we travel farther along the one road that runs through Denali National Park and it is 92 miles long. Most of the park you can only reach on foot and there is a lot of park if you choose to hike. Park and preserve together are just over six million acres. Because of the inaccessibility of much of the park in the winter this is the only national park that still uses sled dogs. More on the dogs later.

As we drove up above tree line our guide informed us of the effects of climate change on the permafrost of the tundra. It is not good but I’m not going to get into all that here except to say that our actions create results that affect the entire world, even the parts of it that we have never seen. The first stop on our Denali adventure was to an old cook cabin that had been built and used while the road was under construction. These cabins were built every ten miles and there are nine of them in total. Once a new cabin had been built and the road crews had moved on to the next ten mile stretch then the last cabin was turned over to the park service. The cabin had giant nails sticking out a few inches all around the edges windows. These nails were meant to deter curious bears.

On the walk to the cabin our guide informed us that some bears had been seen in the area. Unfortunately, we did not see them. On the way back to the busses our guide told up about all the different flora that we saw along the sides of the path. This is where I learned that wolf’s bane (also known as aconite, monkshood – yes, I’m letting my Harry Potter inner nerd loose) is a real plant and it is dangerous. If ingested in a large enough quantity, the pretty purple plant can kill you instantly. In small doses you might last an hour or six before succumbing to the poison.  I would suggest not touching the plant.

Our guide told us a story about a tour he was giving and he saw a woman stay behind after telling everyone about the wolf’s bane and the dangers of it. After the rest of the group went on, he went back in time to see her put some of the plant into the box with her cigarettes. When he asked her what she was doing, she said she wanted to show the plant to her husband. Needless to say the guide made her leave the pieces of the plant behind.

After viewing the cabin and local flora we headed deeper into the park. We were fortunate enough to see Denali’s peak. Mt. Mckinley was renamed Denali in 2015. Denali is the name it was given Alaskan Natives. My understand is that only 25-33% of the visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve get to see the mountain’s lofty peak. Much of the time it is hidden by clouds. Not long after seeing the peak and stopping to take a ton of pictures we turned around and began to head back down towards the edge of the park. We stopped at an overlook near tree line. There we got to hear a young Alaskan Native woman speak. For the purpose of this show and tell of sorts she wore the traditional dress of the native tribe that had once called the area home. There are five regions of Alaska that each had their own native people. I’m not going to try and tell you their history because it is not my story to tell and there is way too much information for my little blog. What I do remember though is that they don’t like the term “eskimo.” It is a derogatory term meaning something akin to “raw meat eaters” to the natives.

After the brief history, which was extremely interesting, we took a ton of pictures. Remember, how I told you Brooke was only wearing three quarter length yoga pants? Well she was freezing up at tree line. She found this spot between two short trees at one point and told me that she wasn’t moving because this one spot was where the wind couldn’t reach her. The trees acted as wind breaks. Back on the bus we were all so sleepy and cold but I managed not to succumb to the call of sleep. As you enter and leave Denali there is a ranger station and gate at the end of a bridge that crosses a river of snow melt.

At the ford, our guide told us, one year they had witnessed a bear chase a moose cow and calf. The bear successfully killed the calf. This park is not like Yellowstone where they feed the wildlife. Those people witnessed nature in one of her more brutal but necessary forms. Survival. Predator-prey relationships. The guide said that after the incident a woman called into the park and asked the rangers why they would let something like that happen. After this story our guide told us that if we wanted to we would probably make it in time to see the eleven am sled dog demonstration later that morning. Enough of the people on the bus wanted to so we headed that way.

More on the sled dog demonstration next post and my hiking adventure after said demonstration. If you have any questions please feel free to comment or there are links above that can offer more information.

**All images by Laci McGee

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