I am very excited to announce – today, we actually took the day off. Yes, that's one day off in one month. No measurements, no lab, no computers, no driving. A real day off.
A day off, of course, doesn't mean getting any sleep. Christina and I woke up around 5:40am to drive into Denali National Park. Denali is not accessible by car – you can only enter the park by foot or bus – and given the size of the park (larger than the state of New Hampshire), bus seemed a better option for covering a lot of ground in one day. Because our schedule was so unpredictable, we hadn't been able to buy bus tickets in advance and thought showing up early was our best bet. Getting into the ticket office around 6:05am, we found out it didn't open until 7am, making the 6:45am bus impossible. We were 3rd in line to get tickets, but the only bus available was a 9:45am to Wonder Lake. I asked about standby – and we got first on the list. No luck for the 7:15am bus. The 8:30am looked promising, but a big group showed up just as we were about to get their seats. So our tickets for 9:45am was our only option. This was a bummer since that meant we would be limited in the amount of hiking we could do and that we were unlikely to see many animals (word on the street was there were a high number of bear sightings the day before).
We banked on the fact that so far in our journey, everything had happened for a reason, and something better was around the corner. We got the best seats on the 9:45am bus and headed into the park. It was slow moving. The park was busy since the day was beautiful, but there weren't enough buses since it was nearing the end of the season (only two days left). We had to stop every couple minutes to load/off load campers and hikers. Views of Denali were okay – better than what most people see, but given how clear is was yesterday, a little disappointing. As we got further into the park things were quieter, but not many animals. A few doll sheep from far away.
The mountain kept getting clearer as the hours ticked away. We crossed our fingers.
We stopped at Eielson Visitor Center for a picnic lunch and some hiking. The mountain continued to clear up.
Seven hours later, we reached our turn around point, Wonder Lake, about 85 miles into the park. Christina and I took in the breathtaking view – Denali had finally cleared up completely.
At this point, I was antsy to spend more time outside. The view from the bus window just wasn't doing it for me.
I spoke to the bus driver about taking a later bus back (given how late we entered the park there was actually just one more bus after ours that would return to the park entrance) and he was not encouraging. Christina was hesitant to go against the bus driver's advice, but I knew this was probably the only time I'd be in the park with such great weather (Christina will be back many more times). So we split up the food and I took the GPSA Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system used to track the location or position of objects on the Earth’s surface. and bear spray and headed out into the tundra. A cool, but more challenging part of Denali is that you can go almost anywhere – but that means there aren't trails to guide your path. I used the GPSA Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system used to track the location or position of objects on the Earth’s surface. and my newfound knowledge of tundra vegetation (I could use the vegetation to get an idea of the safest path in terms of water and unexpected bears) to forge my path. I wanted to find Reflection Pond and found it about 45 minutes later. It was not a very tough hike uphill from Wonder Lake, but I had to do it pretty quickly to catch the final bus. I had 20 minutes to take my photos and then waited for the final bus along the park road.
I caught the bus and entered surprised to see I was the only one on it. I figured we would pick up some more people later on. But sure enough, it was just me and the bus driver Paul for the next six hours as we rode back to the park entrance. We got to know each other well. :) Paul has been driving for over 27 years so I also got to hear a lot of interesting Denali Park history. Back at Eielson Visitor Center Paul had to stop for his one hour break. He recommended I use the time to walk ahead along the park road and he would pick me up at whatever point I got to. This was AMAZING advice. The park road was quiet, the sun was starting to set, and the views were indescribable. I was busy scanning the fields for moose or caribou – but suddenly saw something moving off to my left – a momma grizzly and a cub coming down the hill! I had had plenty of bear safety training so I knew what to do if they approached me – but they just continued on without as much of a glance in my direction.
As the sun fully set, Paul and I did have one more exciting sighting – a lynx. I met Christina back in the parking lot to swap stories – she had gotten to see the bear as well. Back to work tomorrow!