For the petrol heads out there click here for pictures of what served as my home for much of the summer in Alaska & North West Canada and carried me approximately 16000 miles with a damage report that consisted of only two broken windshields, two broken antennas, a couple of snapped struts on the swing-out rear tire carrier and a few minor bumps underneath suffered in the “Maze” at Canyonlands, Utah. The vehicle is currently resting while being fitted with a new front bumper, winch, suspension mods, front and rear lockers and anything else that comes to mind before the next trip! Click Slee Offroad for more information on all the upgrades that have been made.
Although today was my last day in Denali National Park it also turned out to be the best. Awaking to cloudless skies it started out cold but warmed up quickly and Denali was clearly visible. After packing up my camp, I drove along the road to the ridge just before the checkpoint overlooking the area where I had seen the Grizzly sow and her two cubs two days ago. I chatted to a local worker, Foster, who had missed a bus out of the park and he commented that generally it was just a question of waiting and we would see the bears if they were still in the area. Sure enough within about 10 minutes someone who had pulled over further down came running up to us to say there were bears making their way along the river. Although they were still too far to capture a half way decent photograph (even with a long telephoto and a tripod) they were clear through my binoculars and I spent the next six hours watching them slowly make their way along the river digging up and chewing the roots that they eat at this time of the season. Times like this make you appreciate the value of patience. Over the course of the six hours the bears didn’t to do much more than dig and chew or lie down in the sun. Buses would come past, stop for a few minutes so passengers could watch and move on as would most other motorists, hikers and the like. What many missed I was able to see due to my fortuitous lack of schedule, brief moments of the two cubs standing and wrestling each other, rolling around, playing in a completely uninhibited manner and generally behaving as only you might otherwise see on a television documentary. You see this and you understand why some people watch animals for days at a time. For those lucky enough to view this spectacle from a bus, congratulations – I’ll take you with me to the casino – my guess is you can count that number as a fraction of those who visit the park. Denali is a great place to “check off” a bear sighting but if you have the time you have the chance to see so much more if you are patient. So, if you come here on the bus looking for wildlife and you spot bears its worth considering canceling the rest of your day, getting off the bus and just watching for as long as you can. Take advantage of the fact that the bus is a shuttle bus and you can get off and on as you please as long as there is a seat.
Today I hiked directly from the campground through brush toward the Savage River navigating my way across various natural drainage tributaries that I expect flow into the Savage, most of which were relatively dry. Within a short time of walking I saw caribou munching their way through the trees just to the south of me and as the landscape opened up a little more, the terrain began to drop off into the valley where, as expected, I found the Savage river. Once at the river I began following it north toward the checkpoint on the park road. As the road came into view on a ridge above me I noticed a bus and a few cars parked presumably watching something. Shortly thereafter, one of the people started waving at me and called out that there were bears ahead further along the river! I changed my course accordingly and ascended the slope toward the road to get a view of the area ahead. Sure enough, a mother and two cubs were foraging further down the river toward the bridge. After watching for a while I continued in a large arc around them and made my way across the bridge to the checkpoint where I chatted with the ranger there. I told him I had seen the bears so he could let other hikers walking along the river know if they passed. He thanked me and then relayed his own bear stories one of which included a direct encounter where a bear had approached some tourists in the parking lot. He told them to stand behind him so the bear charged him instead! After swatting it on the nose with whatever he had in his hand at the time and kicking gravel in its face, it retreated. We ended up talking for about an hour as he explained how he spent last winter/spring helping to build base camp for Denali climbers out on the glacier and how he had moved to Alaska from New Mexico. While talking to another ranger later at the back country access center who told me the ranger I had spoken with at the Savage checkpoint was her neighbor it became very clear that those who stay in Alaska during the winter form a close community. Some have alternate work during winter as the park requires very few employees outside of the summer season, some do voluntary work in the park if available and others just take the winters easy, if thats possible! This group is distinct from those who come to work in the area for the summer and return home afterwards whether it be to Anchorage, other parts of Alaska or the lower 48. Those who stay endure what to you and I would be tough living conditions, very little day light and extremely cold temperatures. Evidently last winter it reached as low as -60F. At times like this dog mushers are able to keep busy tending their dogs but many others simply “hang out” in their cabins, keep their log fires going, visit their friends when they can and otherwise spend a lot of time just ‘being’. For a situation that I and most other people probably wouldn’t contemplate it is also interesting to hear some of them tell me they enjoy the winters more than any other time of the year.