Today, we all woke up at 5:30 a.m. to go on a bus ride through Denali National Park. It was a trip I’ve been looking forward to ever since I found out we were going on it, and it surely didn’t disappoint!
My van was scheduled for the 7:00 a.m. shuttle, but we arrived just after six. Because I had almost an hour to spare, I bought a caramel macchiato to wake myself up; and up I was, within minutes of downing the coffee. After, I glanced through the gift shop, knocking things over left and right with my backpack. Next, I sat with the other members of our group and ate my breakfast while waiting for the bus to arrive.
After a half hour or so, the shuttle we were waiting for was ready to be boarded. Our group and a few other people got on the bus to Eielson, a large, green shuttle. I gave Natalie the window seat and took the inner one after shoving our bags onto the ledge above us, save for our cameras. Soon after, our driver introduced himself: Craig, certified in CPR, and our bus driver for the next eight hours.
Early in the trip, he made it clear that if we ‘want a tour, pay for a tour bus’. Craig said that he was simply a person who enjoys being out in nature and sharing information about Alaska and the park’s wildlife. Also, while he pointed out that he wouldn’t narrate the trip, Craig did an amazing job at describing the animals, plants, and land formations we passed and encountered. He even told us a bunch about his own experiences in Denali.
The first animal (or, suspected animal) we saw was a moose. She was first spotted by Courtney; however, Craig didn’t see her at the time so he quickly dismissed the claim. About a quarter mile up the road and a few turns later, a mother moose and her calf were seen fleeing down the road ahead of us. Though I didn’t see them for long, I did manage to get a quick video of them running away.
Shortly after, we spotted our first herd of Dall sheep; they were perched on a rocky, sparse mountainside. Though they were just blurry, white specks on the rocks, it was still pretty amazing to see them. Later on, we saw three or four more sheep above us, much closer than the ones before.
Around this time, several caribou appeared to our left, far below us and the rode. Later on, a few hours after, we saw a larger group. The first group was small, made up of four males; they were tan, speckled with white and black, with huge antlers. The second group had nearly 100 caribou, and a mix of male and female adults, and calves. Those were mostly tan and they blended in well with the grass. These caribou stuck close together, while the males from earlier kept themselves spread out.
Along the way, we also spotted a fox, a Merlin (a type of falcon), a mother bear and her two cubs, a lone Grizzly bear, and a Golden Eagle. While he drove, Craig informed us of the animal, its place on the food chain, its scientific name, and statistics regarding the animal’s place in Denali, such as its population. Personally, I found it amazing that he could remember so much about so many animals (not to mention the park itself!) off the top of his head on such short notice. Throughout the ride, Craig didn’t only explain the animals and the current park, but he also talked about the park’s history, goals, and his own experiences.
One of Craig’s stories that stood out the most to me was his firsthand encounter with the park’s former alpha female of a wolf pack. He told us of how he was hiking through the park (looking for those very wolves!) when he realized that he had been surrounded by the predators. In front of him stood the alpha female, which he recognized from countless pictures and the subordinates’ behavior towards her. Craig said he caught her eyes for two, three, maybe even ten minutes before she glanced away, seemed to shrug, and left, not even seven yards from him. The other wolves followed behind her and left Craig unharmed. “I miss that,” he told us today, “that intimacy. And with the low numbers of wolves in this park today, I doubt I will ever experience that again.” Unfortunately, we were told that the alpha female was killed in a trap sometime later, and the pack disbanded with her death.
Over all, my experience in Denali National Park was amazing. I learned so much about the park’s wildlife, and I was able to experience it firsthand. Not to mention, I had a great time with my friends when we were let off the bus and onto the trails. Honestly, I’m disappointed I couldn’t have stayed in that beautiful park any longer.