TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Off the Bus and Into the Food Chain
Denali National Park & Preserve, AK 09/11-12/06 (Day 139-140)
Off the Bus and Into the Food Chain
There’s only one way out of Camp Denali & North Face Lodge and that’s back on the bus for the five hour drive out the same way we came in. We depart at 7 am and reap the benefits of our early start almost immediately as we pull the bus over near where a few other vehicles have stopped and, after a few minutes, we are all treated to the awesome sight of a flock of sand hill cranes ascending into the morning light with Mt. McKinley as their backdrop.
Further down the road a pack of wolves is also greeting the day as they emerge from their dens and run around sniffing each other before they head off to find breakfast.
We aren’t ready to leave the park for good yet, so when we arrive back at the park entrance on the east side we settle into the Savage River Campground where the volunteer caretaker tells us a lynx and it’s baby wandered right into the outdoor amphitheater a few nights before just as the evening ranger talk was about to begin. It’s hard to say who was more surprised.
We see plenty of lynx food in camp in the form of snowshoe hares. We even get our hands on a snowshoe hare foot which is an amazing feet, um, feat of engineering with what feels like a million tiny articulated bones and a similar number of ways in which it can move.
“Off the Bus and Into the Food Chain” is the actual title of an actual ranger talk given in Alaska's Denali National Park & Preserve. It makes us chuckle in a kind of nervous way because, after so many days in this unique park, the sentiment strikes us as more harsh reality than humor.
Unlike so many parks that have been paved and accessed and built up to accommodate humans in a way that keeps us off the menu, Denali feels wild. No trails, vast tracks literally inaccessible to humans, limits on the number of visitors and where they can go and a strictly enforced food policy (bear boxes and bear-proof garbage cans) that means that the grizzlies don’t yet see humans as walking Snickers bars.
On the other hand, bears in Denali don’t fear us or see us as a threat since they haven’t developed the scavenging behavior that so often results in scary aversion therapy (fire crackers, dogs, relocation) on the part of humans. So we are still potentially what’s for dinner. Luckily, any self-respecting grizzly’s first dining choice is blueberries and there are still a few of those around even this late in the season, as we see first hand during a hiking excursion deeper into the park.
You aren’t allowed to drive your own vehicle beyond mile 15 on the road through the park, but there are regularly scheduled buses that service specific these restricted areas. We hop on one of them and get off at Tattler Creek with the intention of hiking to the top of a nearby peak.
There are no trails in Denali National Park & Preserve which feels both really liberating and really wrong, accustomed as we are to “staying on the trail” when we are in a park. This lack of trails also means that it’s tricky for the casual visitor to know if they’re on the right track or not if you don’t have a detailed map—which we don’t.
Turns out, we’re not headed to the peak we had in mind, but our scramble up a steep hillside that turns out to be the wrong mountain does pay off in terms of plenty of comfy, springy tundra, sunshine and views to enjoy as we eat our lunch before heading back out to the road the way we came in. We wouldn’t say we were lost, exactly. After all, if there are no trails can you, technically speaking, really ever be lost? Just a question.
Anyway, there’s so little traffic on the road through the park that it doubles as a perfectly fine trail in and of itself, so we simply start walking along the edge of the dirt road. We make it about a quarter of a mile when an oncoming bus pulls over and the driver warns us that there are two bears practically on the road around the next bend and suggests, strongly, that it might be a good idea to stop walking.
We flag the next bus going our way and ask for a lift past the bears and the driver obliges, letting us hop off less than half a mile beyond where we see the two bears feeding on a hillside just off the road—then we sneak back for a closer look.
Two folks with the same idea are Scott and Anna, who are in Alaska shooting footage for a National Geographic special about parks. They’ve got a filmmaker permit to travel in their own van and we all figure we can leap into it for cover should the bears decide they’ve had enough of us. But for more than an hour the four of us stand between 75 and 200 feet away from the feeding mother and last year’s cub, which is so roly-poly that it literally jiggles when it walks and struggles to move up the hill. Sometimes it simply collapses on the tundra and has a little rest.Naps aside, both bears are focused on hoovering the last of the season’s blueberries off the hillside. They’ll eat so many blueberries that their scat turns dark blue. It is exhilarating to be so close to them, but a bit unnerving when they begin to wander closer and closer as they graze and more than once we all look at each other as if to say “time to get in the van?” In the end, the bears truly don’t seem aware of us but we can assure you that no berry escapes their pre-hibernation attention.