The Wilderness Tour Companion booklet that guides hand out calls Denali National Park and Preserve “A Living Tapestry.” The majesty and color of this richly-woven fabric, with its alpine tundra, wild moose and grizzly bears, more than made up for the clouds obscuring our view of the High One.
In September, I had the pleasure of visiting Denali on a National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) pre-conference tour hosted by Alaska Professional Communicators. About 50 NFPW members and their companions watched through the bus windows as bears foraged for soapberries and the ungainly-looking caribou nibbled exposed lichens.
Originally dubbed Mt. McKinley National Park when established by Congress in 1917, It was renamed in 1908 and expanded more than three-fold. At six million acres, it is now larger than the state of New Hampshire. The tour bus system limits the amount of traffic in the park, which helps preserve its delicate ecosystem.
The vast taiga, or northern boreal forest, cloaks the lower elevations, including the first dozen or so miles through which the 91-mile park road meanders. Its acidic soil allows only a few plant species to grow. White spruce reach a timid 50 feet tall, about 150 feet shy of their Alaskan coastal brothers. Pockets of aspen, paper birch and balsam poplar grow alongside these modest evergreens.
Where the ground is soggy, black spruce dominate the taiga. Many are stunted, no taller than six or seven feet. Some “drunken” trees lean at crazy angles, struggling against the wind and cold to attain their modest heights.
By contrast, in the tundra small plants and lichens hug the ground. During the 100-day growing season, pink fireweed, purple lupine and yellow cinquefoil color the landscape like a Monet painting. Alpines grow at some higher tundra elevations.
Wildlife in the park includes many species of animals, such bear, caribou, moose, Dall sheep and wolves. We saw the first two roaming the taiga, and spotted several clusters of Dall sheep on wind-blown ridges. Some of them mooned us, as if to say, “Take a picture of THIS, you camera-laden intruders.” A wolf sighting, we were told, is quite rare, but the rarest sighting of all is the wolverine. Some folks at the front of the bus did see a lynx at the side of the road, though.
Sounds are important in the park, especially to predators listening for their prey. So we strained our ears, but never heard a wolf howl or the purring sound baby bears sometimes make while suckling their mothers.
Visitors who plan to hike through the park or to camp there are given an orientation that includes what to do if they encounter a bear. The first rule of thumb is to stay several hundred feet away from them. But if the encounter gets too close for comfort, you’re supposed to make a lot of noise. A bear standing up doesn’t mean it’s about to attack, either. She’s probably sniffing the air to determine whether you smell familiar. Your scent and your verbal qualities tell her you aren’t something she ordinarily eats. It was comforting to know that the park has had but one human fatality involving a bear.
As I mentioned, we didn’t get to see The High One, as the Athabascan Indians call Denali, due to a cloud cover. But the rock-studded, snow-streaked mountains we saw reminded me of rocky-road fudge drizzled in marshmallow cream. I must have been hungry that day.
Our guide pointed out two types of valleys among the hills, the V-shaped that were formed by shifting mountains, and the glacier-carved U-shaped valleys. For the life of me, I couldn’t differentiate between the two, but it didn’t matter. Both types made even National Geographic pictures pale in comparison.
My tundra experience was somewhat surreal. It was as if I were in a foreign country. But Denali, like Alaska, belongs to the USA, and I wish everyone here could fly up for a visit.