Shuttle Bus to Toklat

Can you spot the bear? This was through a hand held zoom from the bus – he was quite a long way away! Today was my first trip into the park beyond the checkpoint and is probably quite typical of a day for most visitors who use the buses. My shuttle bus was due to leave the visitors center at 7.00AM and pick me up at Savage River campground around 7.30AM. I rose about 6.30AM to snow so after a quick breakfast made my way to the bus stop. The bus arrived on time and once aboard we made our way slowly west towards Toklat which is as far as it goes at this time of year. Toklat is about a 6-7 hour round trip if you don’t get off to hike and service to Kantishna which will open for the season in a couple of weeks is a 13 hour round trip. Due to the snow conditions we didn’t see a whole lot for more than half way to Toklat but conditions thereafter began to improve. The bus must navigate a number of passes along the way and in many places there is barely room for buses to pass each other with sheer drop-offs on one side to be avoided! The bus was full and although it stopped for any signs of wildlife, to really experience the park you need to get off and go ‘walk about’. Shuttle buses will pick you up on the way back anywhere along the road. There are virtually no defined trails in Denali – the rangers ask you to make your own way to minimize the signs of human traffic. Interestingly, although the drivers of the shuttle buses are not obligated to talk or provide information about the park (unlike the tour bus guides), they clearly enjoy sharing their experiences and are on constant look out for wildlife. As a result, although you are only buying a shuttle ticket many people use the shuttles as an informal alternative to a tour.

As we approached Toklat, we heard what everyone had been waiting for the whole way as the driver called out “Grizzly at 11 O’Clock!”. Sure enough, there he was, my first grizzly bear sighting, ambling along the river to the south of the bridge at Toklat! After stopping for a few minutes to watch we proceeded to the parking lot at Toklat where there is a small ranger station. From here, I decided to hike north along the Toklat river (opposite direction to the bear!) for a while and catch a later bus. A few other people also left the bus here but most didn’t seem intent on walking far from the parking lot though I did see one group, under the watchful eye of a park ranger, making their way towards the bridge where we had viewed the bear . The rule is that it is acceptable to be close to a bear if it is not intentional or it approaches you but you must not intentionally approach a bear within a quarter of a mile. Walking toward the bridge would be close to violating this rule hence the ranger’s interest.

The weather was much clearer now but still not wonderful. As the road disappeared from view behind me it was a strange feeling to be somewhere where there is no trail. OK, I was following a river, I had a compass, GPS navigator, map etc… but almost anywhere else in the back country in the US you are invariably on a trail of some kind and are expected to stay on it. Denali is one of the few places that gives you a real sense of freedom in this respect. I saw plenty of bear prints along the river in the sand, perhaps from the bear we had seen earlier, I don’t know. The fact that there were none in the snow suggests the owner of the prints had not been there since yesterday before the snow started. The river flowed in an open landscape amidst glacial debris and the scenery didn’t change much as I walked. Imagine a long pebbly beach with a river, rock pools, bluffs either side, mountains in the distance and you have the picture. After a couple of hours hiking I returned to catch a shuttle back to camp.