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Alaska (Post #I): Bears, reindeer, and the ever elusive moose at Denali

For this year’s annual trip with my regular travel buddies, we decided to go to Alaska to see moose! Among other things, but mainly for moose. It’s been a week since we returned from the 10-day trip, and I am still missing the big skies, the miles of rolling mountains, the animals, the true wilderness, and the glaciers…oh, the glaciers.

We started our trip in Anchorage to get settled in, stock up on supplies for camping and the road trip (gotta have those duo-flavored cheez-its for the road), and explore the city, the largest in Alaska by a long shot, but still only half the population of DC. With our one full day there, we biked the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which runs along the Cook Inlet (one of the most scenic bike routes I’ve biked), hiked the short but not-easy trail to the top of Flattop Mountain to get a good panoramic view of the city, grabbed fun-flavored lattes and hung out at Side Street Espresso, and of course, ate some really good salmon, good even for non-salmon-lovers like myself. I can get used to having extended daylight from 5:30am to 10pm. We ended the day with delicious pizza from Mooth’s Tooth and a movie, the Lego Movie. Anyone who’s seen the movie would remember the super-catchy awesome song, “Everything is Awesome!”. It easily became the theme song of the trip, because everything there was, indeed, awesome!

For the next two days, we explored Denali National Park, the home of North America’s tallest mountain, Mt. McKinley, or what the locals called, ‘the Mountain’. The park is minimally set up for human intrusion. There is only one road through the park, a 12-hour ride on the park shuttle from the entrance to the end (Kantishna at Mile 92) and back. Aside from a few trails around the first 15 miles into the park and a couple at Eielson Center (Mile 66), the park is mostly total wilderness. We were told many times that “we can do whatever we want”. At first, it was a bit bewildering to not have any marked guidance on where to go and where it’s safe to tread and how long it’ll take to get from point A to point B. Then it sunk in and became exciting that this is a totally different experience to be able to ask the bus driver to stop literally anywhere and let us off and we could start hiking wherever there’s a way forward. 

Naturally, our time at Denali was quite spontaneous. On the first day, we hopped on the shuttle bus from our campsite, Teklanika (Mile 29), and planned on riding as far as Eielson and getting off and exploring that area. Those plans changed over the course of the day as we realized how incredibly awesome our bus driver, Wendy, was. She was no ordinary bus driver; no, she was the best, true multi-tasker I’ve ever met. She gave us fun facts and anecdotes from her 10 or so years at Denali while spotting wildlife at a very impressive distance AND driving the shuttle on a winding dirt road that’s uncomfortably narrow for two-way travel. She made our time on the bus fly by and so enjoyable that eventually, we made the very smart decision to stay on the bus and ride all the way to the end and back with her.

Within the first hour on the bus, we saw our first bear! It was foraging for berries down below the road, walked up and over the road in front of the bus, and continued up the mountain. It was amazing; we couldn’t have asked for a better sighting. Wendy also pointed out little white specks on a distant mountain and informed us that they were Bighorn sheep, the conservation of which was the original motivation for establishing Denali. We also saw groups of beautiful caribou (aka reindeer) a number of times. No moose though, but we didn’t lose hope yet.

The main attraction at Denali, though, was of course ‘the Mountain’. From doing research before the trip, I didn’t develop high hopes for seeing it, so to prevent disappointment. For the first half of the day, it was covered in clouds, as it is the majority of the time and as expected. But as the day went on, the clouds started to clear little by little, and by the time we reached the end and turned around, the sun came out and we were able to see the Mountain in all its glory. And boy, was it glorious. Wendy told us it was maybe the 10th day in the entire summer that she’s seen that kind of weather. We were inducted into the “30% club”; only 30% of visitors to Denali are able to see Mt. McKinley.

We reluctantly decided to part with Wendy on the way back at Eielson to get a hike in. Before going off on our own, she pulled us aside and gave us each a postcard and a new quarter featuring Denali. She said she always likes to give “the kids” these little gifts (I wonder how old she thought we were). We concluded that we love Wendy and she is awesome. Later on, we learned that the following day was Wendy’s last day and she was retiring. They were able to see wolves, an increasingly rare occasion in Denali. To think about it now, only maybe 5% of the visitors of Denali get to ride with Wendy, so we were really lucky in more than one way that day.

When we got back to our campsite after the awesome but somehow tiring day despite sitting on the bus most of the day (I attribute it to the cold), we found that a group of five older Asian men with an RV has rolled into the campsite next to ours. Thuy, overhearing them speak Vietnamese, approached them to say hi and they reciprocated with triple the friendliness. They quickly started to try to give us food, possibly out of pity (though I thought our food was perfectly delicious) but probably mostly out of intrigue and amusement seeing five young Asian girls out camping. It was understandable actually, since I actively searched for another all-female group during our trip and couldn’t find one. To them, it looked like we were “roughing it”. They kept asking questions like, “so you guys are tent camping?”, “why did you rent such a small car?”, “Is this disgusting-looking oatmeal all you’re having for breakfast?” (or something similar but with more polite words). At first, their friendliness was a bit overbearing, but we eventually warmed up to them, joined them for after-dinner tea the next night, and learned more about them (they were from Texas and California, a couple of them were retired, and this is their first trip together as a group). In fact, we were fortunate to have made friends with them, because when we started the car to leave the next day, our battery died and they helped us jump-start the car. Another lucky moment for us at Denali!

On our second day in Denali, we were determined to do some real hiking! We decided we wanted to explore the Polychrome Pass area after seeing all of the park from the bus the day before. We rode the bus again and got off on the side of the road and started walking up the mountain. It felt quite adventurous to hike in true wilderness without a beaten path in front of us to follow. But at the same time, we knew how dangerous it could be to stray off without proper equipment preparation.The landscape of Denali makes it hard to lose sight of the Park Road unless you intentionally stroll miles away from it. So it was not hard to keep the road at least partially in sight always.

On this hike, we whipped out and made good use of our topographic map and a compass. It was probably a really short hike, maybe 3 miles, but we spent a good chunk of time figuring out which way to go. Everything looked so close but as we kept hiking, we encountered a steep decline one after another that was unsafe to descend. We eventually figured out that we had to go further up before we can find a gradual enough slope to get back down, but we didn’t go high and far enough and ended up going down a side of the mountain that was quite steep. The road always looked like it was “right there” but as we got closer, the slope got steeper. We also kept closer together as we walked deeper into bushes with berries, prime area for foraging bears. At one point, we were stuck in tall bushes off the side of a rock that dropped 10 feet below with no clear way forward and it started to drizzle a little. Rock and rain is bad news. That’s when I really started to freak out in my head a little, though I didn’t want to show it too much. Luckily, the drizzle was just for a second and we were able to circumvent the steep drop and continue downwards. When we finally hit solid and level ground, we trotted the rest of the way towards the road singing “Living on a Prayer” loudly, partly in high spirits and partly to continue avoiding bears. As as we stepped onto the road and waited for the bus, it started to rain. Yet another moment of good fortune.

 So you may be wondering, did we see a moose in Denali? Well, yes we did, but not so gratifyingly that we can say, “yes! we saw a moose!”. As we were driving towards the entrance of the park, we slowly passed a stopped bus and the driver put his thumb to his temple with his palm open, signaling a moose. We instantly pulled aside, scrambled for our cameras, looked towards the direction everyone else was looking towards, and saw the moose for a quick second before it disappeared behind a hill. After half a minute, the bus left, but we were so determined to get a better view of the moose that we sat there to wait for the moose to emerge. After 10 minutes, we decided to give up and began to drive away when we spotted the moose again for a minute, but at such a distance that we couldn’t even see the antlers very clearly. It was not very satisfying at all. So in conclusion, yes, we saw a moose, but, we’re still waiting to really see a moose.

(First post of two on Alaska; next one coming soon!)

Photo credit: Luisa Tsang

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