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Alaska Cruise - Part 10
Denali National Park
by Tom Mugridge

Six million acres of wilderness. Other than a ribbon of a road and a little development in and near the park, Denali National Park is as pristine and unspoiled today as it has been for all time. Its vastness is humbling - the park is larger than the State of New Hampshire!

Morning found us experiencing the coolest temperatures thus far. It was in the 40's when we arose, and just about everyone standing around the shuttle stop had a steaming cup of coffee or tea (I think I smelled a couple hot chocolates, too).

It was going to be yet another sunny day, and a great day to go on a wildlife search. We were excited just with the prospect of seeing caribou (reindeer), moose, grizzlies, coyotes and. willow ptarmigans (the Alaska state bird, you know).

The ptarmigans are pretty easy to spot - with their white head and dark body, and the fact they seem to like perching on top of the short scrubby trees, they pretty much stand out. The other animals are a bit more difficult to spot.

Lightly-treed Flatlands

On the way into the park, our driver explained the rules. No leaving the bus without his leaving first and giving the all-clear, don't wander too far, stay in groups of at least 2, come back when called, no food outside the bus, and absolutely no feeding of any animals. All this was for our protection, and the animals.

He also warned us not to approach anything with blondish brown fur, long sharp teeth and big claws, especially if there were a couple smaller versions of the same thing nearby. This was the season that Momma Grizzly and her cubs would be out and about, and there was nothing as dangerous as Momma Bear if she thinks her Baby Bears are in jeopardy.

He also told us not to try to outrun a bear - you can't do it. He did comment, though, that all you need to be able to do is run faster than just one other person in the group! I made sure my shoes were tightly laced, just in case.

Much of the wildlife we saw was at a distance, too far for still photos to show anything, so I shot videotape set on higher magnification. The smaller animals that were close up were barely visible in the shrubbery, and would be impossible to pick out in a still shot.

We relied on each other to call out a sighting. Somehow, someone (who was instantly nicknamed Eagle-Eye) miraculously spotted reindeer antlers sticking up from the low-growing vegetation. The reindeer were reclining, their antlers looking like tree branches, and only when they moved their heads were we able to spot them.

While we watched the reindeer, a ground squirrel frittered about, picking his (or her) way through the willow bushes just outside the bus, obviously unafraid of us.

Mount McKinley

On the mountains in the distance were white spots -- Dall sheep, dozens of them. Against the darkness of the mountainside they looked like rocks from this far away. Again, only when they moved could you really notice them.

Ironically, it may have been the Dall sheep that led to the formation of the park. Charles Sheldon, a Yale-educated easterner, came to hunt the sheep in 1906. While his quarry eluded him, he scrambled throughout the park, all the while gaining a greater appreciation for its beauty.

As a result, Sheldon emerged with a greater love for the land and its potential use. Perhaps more importantly, he emerged with a change of heart.

He returned a year later to record field notes. He had become concerned with the number of sheep killed each year by commercial hunters, and imagined this to be a place where the wildlife and marvelous land should be preserved.

Sheldon fought to preserve the land, and in 1917 Congress passed a bill to establish Mount McKinley National Park. It was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980 to recognize the mountain's native roots.

Glacial Stream

The furthest point of our journey was at a Visitor's Center, accessible only via official park vehicles, and about 20 miles into the park. It was here that we got a look at a mother grizzly and her 2 cubs, across the river and just a bit downstream. Our driver set up a spotting scope, bringing Mama Bear and her youngsters into better view.

We reluctantly boarded the bus and retraced our path out of the park. Along the way we stopped to watch some Dall sheep that had worked their way a bit closer to the road, and for one last look at Mt. McKinley, hovering in the distance. About 80 miles distant, it was lightly cloaked with haze. Still, we could make it out, standing tall beyond the other mountains.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we got back to our lodgings and we only had a little time before the Cabin Nite Dinner Theater Show at 5:30, so we rushed to get ready. It was an all-you-can-eat affair served by costumed characters, accompanied by a 1915-era musical show about Alaska's gold mining history.

We were seated with 8 others at a large wooden table - 6 people from Australia, and a couple from South Carolina, Ellen and Larry, whom we keep in contact with. Your table seating is pre-assigned, which becomes an important factor later on.

Large quantities of food are brought "family-style." Dig in and pass it on! Salmon, ribs, corn, bread, salad, the works, topped off with freshly-baked pie. While you're enjoying dinner, actors are on stage performing.

Well, they're not just ON stage. They like some audience participation, and if you're lucky enough for one of the actors to visit your table, you just may become one of the characters in the show.

One of the gentlemen at our table (no, not me -- it was Larry) was picked to play Dangerous Dan McGrew, and he participated in a shoot-out (don't worry, no animals were hurt in the making of this production). He had been blessed earlier with a visit by one of the chorus girls, so his demise in the shoot-out was a fitting end, at least according to his wife!

Cabin Night Festivities

The festivities ended with an "all-sing" by the cast. Fully sated both with food and entertainment, we headed back to our lodge room. Tomorrow the Alaska Railroad would return us to Anchorage, where we would begin the final few days of our trip.




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Tom Mugridge

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