Thursday, August 7, 2008

Denali Bus Tour

We woke up cozy and warm (recall we had electricity for the night). It
was still raining and grey outside. This time we had a new challenge.
Last night we took showers in the RV -- an experience that Roy called
"showering in the rain" -- and now the holding tank was full, in fact
almost too full. So first thing in the morning we went an discovered
how to empty the tanks. We managed to tackle the task surprisingly
well, and returned the RV to its spot for breakfast.

After breakfast we set out to Denali. On the way we stopped at a
grocery store to get some food. The selection out here is not great
and the prices are expensive, but we did reasonably well. We got into
the park and found a site for the RV in a nice wooded campground.

We geared up with all of the warm stuff we had, snacks and drinks and set
out to explore. We walked to the wilderness access center to ask about
hiking options for the next day. They have a strange policy here, all
the hikes within the park are not on trails. You are specifically
asked not to walk in a line so not to form a trail. Moreover, part of
the "feel" of the park is dealing with wilderness, so they don't give
you advice as to where to go. They simple told us, take the shuttle
and stop wherever you like and see where you want to go.... Anyhow,
this was a theoretical plan, as today we had a guided tour into the

We had few hours to spend, so we hiked on local trails between the
wilderness access center and the visitor center (in the entrance area
you are supposed to stay on trails).

Walk in the forest

Rainy day leafs

Many mushrooms abound

And also flowers

The visitor center was nice but nothing great (stuffed animals and
explanation on the different parts of the ecosystem).

Map of the area we flew over (visitor center)

From there we went down to the Wilderness Access Center to wait for
our tour. We had 45 minutes to wait, so we bought hot drinks and
cookies and waited. Every 15 minutes they called for the passengers of
another tour bus (they had both hours and tour number on the ticket)
just like a train station. At some point they called for our tour, and
so we went out to stand next to the appropriate sign. There was one
family in front of us in the line, and then an elderly couple who got
after us, and then a few more people, but it was clear that we were
less then a bus load. The debate whether the bus will be mostly empty
was resolved when it arrived 2/3 full. The driver picked up people
from various resorts outside the park before getting to pick us up. He
did however reserve the front seats on one side of the bus for us, and
so we sat after the first family in line.

The bus looked like an upgraded school bus, with funny windows you can slide the top portion of. The driver has a microphone and can talk to
us while driving. After explaining to us the safety procedure (just
like in an airplane, where are the emergency exits and the fire
extinguisher), we set out on the park road. The first part of it (15
miles) are open to public. The rest (up to mile 96 or so) is open only
for tour buses like ours and for shuttle buses that take campers and
hikers into and out of the park. As we went the driver explained to us
about the various climates and flora, and told us to search for
animals. We all opened our eyes and started looking. After few miles
the driver spotted a big male Moose in the high bushes to our side.


Now we discovered the miracles of the bus. The driver had a high zoom
video camera that was connected to TV screens that we could open above our heads, and he filmed the animals we saw. Initially that felt
stupid, because he was showing something we could see right in front
of us. Later on, however, he was able to show us what the animal that
looked like a dot on the opposite side of a valley looked like. He
also used this to help us locate the animals as he zoomed in and we
could follow where to look.

Example of zoom

After the moose we got to the 15 mile check point. It was raining and
the road turned from hard surface to packed dirt, which meant mud. Few minutes later the windows started to get dirty and hard to see
through. When the driver located a caribou few minutes later and we
could see it only after opening the windows....


The ride continued that way until we got to a rest stop. Everyone got
off and to the bathrooms, and the driver with few volunteers,
including Yael, cleaned all the windows. This helped for a while until
we got into a rainy section again, and the whole thing repeated.

Views at first stop

Cleaning the mud

After seeing another moose, we saw few other animals in the far
distance. The bus traveled areas of immense beauty ranging from open
river valleys to high passes below snowy peaks. The travel was tiring
as we kept looking for animals, and when one was spotted everyone
rushed over to that side of the bus crowding over people who could see
the animals. On the road there were other tour busses like ours as
well as shuttles. So whenever we would see a bus that has stopped we
would also stop and try to see what they are looking at. This way many
of the animals were found without really spotting them in the wild.

Most of the people from the resort were a big group of Indians (from
India that is). Some of them were elderly and were not that interested
in the tour (every time people got excited about an animal they woke
up...) Others were very into it, and one woman in particular had good
sight and recognized things really far away, like a bear moving in the
river bed several hundred meters below us (it looked like a small
dot). Every time she spotted something she would shout and was very
excited, and was disappointed that after few minutes the bus driver
said lets go on.

Where is the bear?

So what did we see. Moose, Caribou, Grizzly Bears, Snowshoe Hares,
Falcons, Wolf, Lynx, Dall Sheep (a kind of a mountain sheep that
looked like a small microscopic dot up on the mountain). There were
three memorable encounters.

Turn around point

At the first encounter, we just came out of the rest stop and came
across a pickup truck. It turns out that the truck belonged to
professional photographers who have a permit to travel the park. They
told the driver that they recently saw a bunch of wolf pups crossing
the road. As he was telling us this, several people (including me)
noticed two of the pups up on the hill above us.


They were playing like dog puppies and seemed quite cute. After
watching them for a while we went on. On the way back we looked for
the pups again, and indeed we found them. We also found another two or three just next to the road, but they quickly disappeared in to a bush.

Puppies again

A minute later we run into one adult wolf walking on the road. He was
aware that there was a bus following him, but ignored us. The funny
thing is that we had another tour bus after us, and he overtook us to
show the wolf to his passengers, and then we overtook him, so the two
bus drivers were playing against each other for being behind the wolf.
The wolf ignored most of this for several minutes and just walked down
the road....

Moma ֿwolf on the road

Another encounter also involved pups. At some point the Indian woman spotted a bear on the opposite side of the valley from where we were
(we were up on one slope, and the bear was fairly low on the other).
It looked like a dot to the naked eye. It turned out that there were
two bears, a mother and a cub. We watched them traverse the hillside
going very slowly in our direction. At some point the bus driver said,
ok, lets go on. On the way back, at some point, he said, this is the
area where the bear and cub where, lets keep an eye for them. We were
pretty high at this point and it started to rain and snow at the same
time. The driver went slowly and we all were looking down in the
valley for them. As we were about to give up, someone noticed them on
the slope just below us (something like 15 meters away). They were
eating berries while going up the slope on a small ravine.

Mother and child

We stayed where we were and looked at them. At some point the driver
started going back to get a better view point, and the bears started
running. Then they came on to the road and crossed it behind us
(between us and the second tour bus that later had the wolf incident).

Running cub

The last encounter was on the way back. Again, we came across the
truck of the photographers, and slowed down to see what they were
looking at. There was a big bear on the opposite slow of the creek
laying on his back. It wasn't clear if he was sleeping or not. Various
people claimed that there was a cub there. After few minutes the
driver said lets go on, but as he started to move the bear turned over
and sat. People cried out "stop" and we stopped and we saw that this
was one bear (a big one) without a cub. He stood on his four feet and
turned around a bit, and then started moving...

Loafing bear

The bus trip ended after 9pm. We got back to the Wilderness Access
Center and there was light rain. We were planning to walk to our
campsite, but got a ride on the shuttle that runs between the sites
and the different centers. We got back to the RV and started thinking
of dinner. It was getting dim outside and so we started a fire. We
made steak and Idaho potatoes in the fire. However, this required that
we cook everything in the pouring rain.... After cooking we collected
all our stuff and went inside, and the food was surprisingly good. We
went to sleep after 11pm very tired.

Wild flowers (Polychrome Pass)


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