Because I had seen plenty of black and brown bears already, when the subject of visiting Denali National Park arose, I was uncommitted about going. Jim, as well as other people I had met in Alaska, encouraged the trip. Jim has fond memories of Denali based on a visit during his teenage years. He remembers standing on a viewing platform at what is now the Eielson Visitors Center and viewing the entire mountain from base to peak, a rare occurrence I am told due to clouds frequently obscuring the peak. (Frequent clouds in Alaska?) Jim also remembers the 66 mile drive into the park in his parent’s vehicle and seeing a variety of animals in abundance.
Time stands still for no one and this adage definitely applies for Denali National Park. Currently, private vehicles are not allowed past mile marker 15 or beyond your campground. The wilderness area of the park begins well beyond mile 15. Of course we could have hung around until September and applied for the lottery, as the lucky winners of the lottery are allowed to drive private vehicles through out the park. But since we didn’t plan to be in Alaska in September (I can’t even imagine what fall would be like here) or were willing to put much faith in winning the lottery, we were left with three options: hiking, biking or paying for a tour on the park bus system.
We opted for the minimum length tour bus ride of 6 hours (maximum tour is 12 hours) because neither one of us wanted to spend more time on the bus than required and got off the bus at its turn around point and hiked quite a distance deeper into the park, fording river tributaries and enjoying the majestic views.
We knew that we could catch any outbound bus back to the park’s entrance. Prior to getting off the bus, the bus driver reviewed the rules of engagement while on foot in the park. Of course the main concern in this part of the country is bear encounters.
Rule number 1: never approach a bear. “what sane person would?”
Rule number 2: if a bear is accidentally encountered, back away slowly but don’t run. Â “accidentally? what other way would an encounter occur?”
Rule number 3: if the bear charges you, stand still. It is likely bluffing and may veer off at the last minute.Â â€œhonestly, who could overcome the instinct to run in this situation?”
Rule number 4: if you are attacked by a black bear, fight back. If you are attacked by a grizzly bear, play dead for several minutes because the bear will hang around to ensure you are indeed dead. If after several minutes of playing dead the bear does not retreat, then fight back! â€œ IÂ would like to meet the person who has successfully survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead or fighting back. If attacked by a grizzly, if you aren’t armed with a gun or bear spray, say your prayers because your life will likely end! I am sure people who have successfully survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead were indeed praying.”
According to our guide, there have been no recent bear attacks in the park. In fact, deaths in the park occur each year from attempts to climb North America’s highest peak, the Denali Mountain, as opposed to animal attacks. Nevertheless, we carried our bulky container of bear spray because we didn’t want to be the ones to change those statistics.
We saw grizzly bears while on the bus and not while hiking, thank God. One of the park’s patrons encountered a grizzly bear while he was hiking but spotted him in time to back away. He wisely retreated a quarter of a mile or so and caught the bus that we happened to be on. As the bus progressed down the road, the bus was stopped when we arrived at the bear’s location for photos.
In addition, we saw caribou while hiking; arctic ground squirrel and moose while on the bus. Unfortunately we did not see other animals that inhabit the grounds of the park including dall sheep, wolves, coyotes, foxes, pika and snowshoe hare.
I don’t regret my decision to visit the park. Although the animal sightings weren’t as Jim remembered and we were relegated to a tour bus, I enjoyed being in the open wilderness and was grateful that the sun was shining with clear skies. In Alaska, I have quickly learned to appreciate a clear, cloudless day because they are so few and far between. Yet I know that the frequent precipitation contributes to the beauty of this great state!