Denali National Park, Alaska

The Denali National Park & Preserve is one of the most visited parks in Alaska and is located in Interior Alaska near the small town of Healy. The wilderness spreads across 6 million acres of land. It is home to the tallest mountain, Mt. Denali, in North America at 20,310 feet. George Parks Highway connects the park with Anchorage and Fairbanks.

The various options to explore the park are backpacking for a few days after getting the required permit, hiking, touring by bus or flightseeing. We were short on time, yet wanted to get a good view of the wildlife and hopefully, Mt. Denali, previously known as Mt. McKinley. Bus is the quickest, easiest and safest way to view wildlife. In bus, one is at a higher vantage point to get a good view and so many eager eyes to spot a game. So, we decided to go by bus. We chose the Bus Kantishna Wilderness Trails Tour by Alaska Tour & Travel. This is a full day excursion on a fully-narrated bus through the park.

The park was ablaze with the autumn flame with wisps of snow here and there - the sign of approaching winter. It was the second week of September. Even though we had missed the best time for travel by a few weeks, nature's beauty seemed to be at its best.

The first spot was a moose grazing on the bushes - a calm looking moose (in the picture below), who got aggressive at the sight of another weaker moose approaching his territory! Some animals can get territorial to reduce the competition for food, moreover, it was the rut season! Whatever the reason, we got lucky to witness the moose in action. Later, we saw more moose. We had another stroke of luck when we found a brown bear (in the picture below) so close to our bus. We saw quite a few of them feeding on berries but in the distance. This time of the year, the bears feed mainly on berries as fish is sparse. We also spotted herds of dull sheep on the ice covered mountains. They were almost invisible unless one paid close attention. The other animals we spotted along the way were - snowshoe hare, red fox, bald eagle, snowy owl, and a few birds.

I was exhausted from my trip to Barrow the day before. There were talks about a polar bear roaming in the area the night before, which is uncommon. The whole day that I was in Barrow, I was very much hoping to catch a glimpse of the furry beast. Alas, it did not show up. Apparently, that did not shatter my hopes. While the narrator of the bus took a pause, I dozed off. I woke up, I reckon after a few minutes, startled by the sound of his resumed speech. I jumped excitedly from my seat, dropping my camera that I had been holding, on the floor of the bus. I hurriedly asked my husband, "where is the polar bear?! His reply crushed my hopes, finally - the park is not home to polar bears! My obsession with polar bears continued until a few weeks into the daily grind.

 

The 92-mile drive through the park is scenery-packed. We passed through the mountain ranges that were completely covered with ice and yet the park was still catching up with the onset of winter. And, we saw Mt. Denali from our moving bus! What a lucky day to have seen a lot of wildlife and Mt. Denali!

The last leg of the tour included gold panning or viewing dog sled in action and a chance to meet with the dog musher. We chose the later as this has been Alaska's long-standing tradition and obsession. Every March, Iditarod Sled Dog Race with the running of 1000 miles from Anchorage in south-central Alaska to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast is organized.

 

Emmitt Peters, the dog musher, is the son of Emmitt Peters, Sr., who is a dog sled racing champion and an Athabaskan American native who was born in the Alaska Interior. He had entered the Iditarod in 1975 and completed the race in 14+ days breaking the record of 20+ days.  He participated the Iditarod thirteen times and finished in the top 10, ten times.

Emmitt hooked the team of Alaskan Huskies to the wheeled cart and demonstrated dog sledding on the road. During winters, traditional dog sled is driven on the ice but, in the absence of ice, wheeled cart is used.

After the demonstration, I got a chance to meet with Emmitt. He is funny and engaging and says, he's been mushing as long as he can remember. And, this marked the end of the long yet exciting day. Now, it was time to return to our pickup spot and look forward to the next adventure!

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