Denali, Alaska: June 20-28, 2009

After arriving in Anchorage on June 20, 2009, Sharon, Susan, and I first drove up to the Arctic Valley where a wedding was taking place. It was windy and cold but we trudged up a very steep trail to some rocky ledges where I was hoping to find a White-tailed Ptarmigan. There were no Ptarmigans at all just some Orange-crowned Warblers, Alder Flycatchers, Fox Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Wilson’s Warblers and lots and lots of wildflowers mostly Wild Geraniums.

It took a long time to carefully descend from the steep gravel hillside without tumbling all the way down on our backsides. Back at the base we found a picnic area across from the ski area. It was so windy we had to boil the water in the bathroom. We ate quickly to escape the awful wind and drove down the mountain to Potter Marsh. We looked in the marsh from some of the pullouts but only saw one Beaver and many Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls. Then we continued south on the Seward Highway past Cook Inlet and all the way around Turnagain Arm. We considered camping at Bird Campground in Chugach State Park but after parking at an open spot, getting out and hearing all the noise– live music, loud highway noises, and noisy campers– we decided to continue to our reserved spot in Chugach National Forest on the back side of Turnagain Arm on the Kenai Peninsula. On the way we pulled into the turn off for the Portage Glacier to see if any sites were open there but they were all full. I wanted to stop at Portage Glacier but it was nearly 11:00 PM and Susan said we should continue to Porcupine Campground where we had a reservation. It was the summer solstice and still very light out but Sharon and Susan were sleeping and too tired. It’s too bad because it was the one day of the whole trip it did not rain at Portage Valley. We drove the long but beautiful drive around Turnagain Arm to the very end of the road at the old gold mining town of Hope, AK to our camp site at Porcupine Campground. It was a very private campsite with ample room but ours was occupied by squatters whom we quickly threw out and made camp. It was still light out after we erected our tents but it was so late that we were soon off to bed. It was hard to sleep with it so light out.

June 21, 2009, the first day of summer, I got up and started boiling water for coffee. As soon as it began to boil the whole stove and pot fell over spilling boiling water onto my right hand causing a severe burn. Despite the mishap we had our breakfast and after admiring all the beautiful dwarf dogwoods that surrounded our campsite left for Chugach State Park. First we stopped at Potter Marsh to walk around the boardwalk. An Alder Flycatcher was singing away right at the entrance and a Lesser Yellowlegs flew repeatedly up onto the railing singing loudly. The boardwalk took us right over the marsh and would have been quite enjoyable except it was too close to the highway noise. Still we enjoyed seeing a singing Lincoln’s Sparrow and hearing a singing Northern Waterthrush. There was a Bald Eagle roosting near the marsh and a requisite Black-billed Magpie. I saw a Yellow-shafted Flicker (in California they are red-shafted) fly over and we heard some Black-capped Chickadees in the alders.

We left Potter Marsh and drove up to the Glen Alps section of Chugach State Park. A steady rain was coming down as we parked at the trail head for Williwaw Lakes. The trail descended to a drainage where many wildflowers were growing including the beautiful Chocolate Lily. Soon the trail split and we went right and began an arduous climb up a steep hillside. I was too worn out from our Arctic Valley scramble and insisted that we go back down. We returned to the split and began walking the left branch which was much more manageable though muddy, and Susan spotted our first moose of the trip munching on the wildflowers. We got within one mile of Williwaw Lakes but everyone was just too tired to continue so we returned to the car intending to make a last stop at Portage Glacier. We drove back through Anchorage and down Turnagain Arm again but as soon as we hit the Kenai Peninsula it again began to rain. We tried to stop at Beluga Point to look for whales but the wind was blowing so hard that I could barely open the door and so we continued. By the time we reached Portage Valley it was pouring. We pulled over at the Begich Visitor Center and could only take photos of the iceberg remnants of Portage Glacier from the car. The rain was so intense that we never even got out of the car but continued on down Turnagain Arm back to our cute little campsite at Porcupine CG where we had a wine and cheese social before turning in to bed with it still completely light out.

June 22, 2009, we decided to try Portage Glacier one more time before heading up to Denali. As we approached Portage Valley the rain came harder and harder. We pulled into the fish viewing area but it was too early for spawning salmon. Next we put on all our best rain gear and hiked the 1.6 mile trail to Byron Glacier. It was raining so hard but it was stunning to walk right up to the glacier and see it melting into a cold stream. We went to the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center where you can look at the icebergs from a tunnel but learned that the Portage Glacier has receded so much in the last 100 years that you now must take a cruise ship to walk on it. Where the icebergs are today is where the glacier used to be in 1860. The rain wouldn’t let up so we continued back to Beluga Point where we had lunch. Shortly thereafter we had our first bear sighting as two bears walked near the edge of Cook Inlet. Next we left Anchorage and drove to Denali State Park. We pulled into the Mt. McKinley View pullouts along the Glen Highway but Denali was obliterated by clouds as usual. I told Susan and Sharon not to expect to see North America’s highest peak while there because it is so high and so massive that it creates its own weather patterns and is frequently shrouded in clouds. At Denali State Park a ranger suggested we walk around Byers Lake which we did. Devil’s Club and Nagoonberry were growing near the trailhead. There were a lot of mosquitoes but we had our head nets on. We saw two Tundra Swans on a nest and a beaver in the lake. While stopped for a break I heard the unmistakable high wheeze and looked up in a Spruce to see my first ever Bohemian Waxwing! After circling the lake we had dinner at the Denali SP picnic area before proceeding to the entrance to Denali National Park some 80 miles further along the Glen Highway. We set up camp at the Riley Creek Campground at the park entrance while serenaded by several Varied Thrushes.

June 23, we drove as far on the park road as they allow to the Savage River Bridge which we crossed on foot and then humped it up 3000 feet to the top of Primrose Ridge. From the bottom it seemed like nothing but dwarf birch grew there but as we ascended we were regaled with a host of various wildflowers blooming including the gorgeous Brook Saxifrage, the ubiquitous Bluebell, Wooly Lousewort, Moss Campion, Eskimo Potato, Pink Plumes, Arctic Milkvetch, Bog Rosemary, Cinquefoil, and many, many more. The hike required numerous stops not just to admire the many wildflowers but to catch our breath. While breaking at one point a Golden Eagle flew over and put on a spectacular aerial display I’d never witnessed before. The eagle would fly up and up and then dive straight down with its wings folded into its body before swooping up again at the last minute and soaring up and up into the clouds only to swoop down again wings in like an arrow shot down to earth by god. Close to the summit Susan and Sharon petered out and I was left to myself to scramble to the peak looking all the while for a White-tailed Ptarmigan. I didn’t see any Ptarmigans but there was a Northern Wheatear, American Pipit, and a Merlin. All three species of Ptarmigans occur in Denali but the White-tailed can only be found above 4000 feet on rocky ledges. After enjoying the birds, flowers, and views down to the Savage River and across to the Alaska Range, I rejoined my compatriots and we had lunch before descending the steep slope. Back at park headquarters we picked up our park bus passes and then drove past the Savage River Bridge to mile post 29, the Teklanika Campground, our home for the next three nights.

June 24, I was awake in the tent listening to the rain bouncing off the tent fly and waiting, waiting for it to stop. When at 7:30 it still was raining I gave up and got up, made breakfast and lunch and prepared for a full day out in the last frontier. We stood at the bus stop and three buses wouldn’t let us get on until finally a bus driven by Monty picked us up. In Denali you may only drive your car as far as the Savage River unless you are camping at Teklanika CG and then you may only drive to the campground and back. No one may drive any further along the park road except a very few winners of an annual lottery. Everyone else must take a park bus driven by Aramark, the official park concessionaire. Denali National Park is six million acres of pristine wilderness crossed only by one road, the park road which goes from Riley Creek to Kantishna some 80 miles away. Just one mile after Monty picked us up the bus stopped again at Teklanika River rest stop. It continued to rain steadily and it was hard to see out of the park (Aramark) bus windows. So some Germans in the seat ahead of us got out and wiped the windows off for us and them. As we continued into the park the rain turned to a heavy snow and it became increasingly difficult to see through the muddy windows. However, the snow had driven the park mammals down the mountains and much closer to the park road than they would normally be. Soon we were stopping for a mother grizzly nursing her cub close by. We saw a caribou near the road with her calf close behind. It was the first time I’d ever seen a caribou calf and it was Sharon and Susan’s first look at any caribou. Monty explained that the Eielson Visitor Center at mile marker 66 was named after a bush pilot whose plane went down in Russia. We were all left scratching our heads at the connection with Denali National Park. There was little to see out of the window other than the snow storm so Monty told the story of Adolph Murie. In the 1930s the Park Service thought that wolves were the cause of a decline in the park’s Dall Sheep population so they were shooting the wolves. The Park hired Murie to conduct a study of them. He was the first person to conduct a scientific study of wolves in their natural habitat in Denali. He gathered enough data to prove that the Park’s policy of shooting wolves was actually imbalancing the fragile tundra ecosystem. Murie’s ensuing book, The Wolves of Mt. McKinley, remains a classic to this day among biologists. I had first read about Adolph Murie and his wife, Louise, in a book about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which they both tirelessly fought to protect throughout their lives.

In 1906, naturalist and hunter, Charles Sheldon, spent 45 days on the Toklat River studying wildlife. He returned back east and spent the rest of his life urging his influential friends and members of congress to protect the area. Finally in 1917 Mt. McKinley National Park was set aside as a wild life refuge with two million acres. Sheldon personally delivered the bill to President Wilson to sign into law. In 1980, the park boundary was expanded with an additional four million acres. Later the park name was changed to Denali the Athabascan name for North America’s highest peak. Close to lunchtime we arrived at the Eielson Visitor Center, the first certified green building in the US. There we learned that Eielson had flown a plane delivering goods and people to the area before it was a park and that he became famous for flying the first plane across the Arctic Ocean. Still I thought the visitor center should have more aptly been named the Murie Visitor Center or better the Charles Sheldon Visitor Center. We got off Monty’s bus at Eielson and hiked from there down a trail to the Thoroughfare River. The snow turned to rain as we descended. Somehow we got off the trail and ended up bushwhacking through thick willows the last quarter mile, but finally made it down to the river and found a moose there. We walked up the river toward the Muldrow Glacier and the clouds partially cleared exposing Mt. Eielson. We walked back up to the visitor center and Susan rested there because her shoes and socks were wet, while Sharon and I attempted to take the Alpine trail which was unfortunately closed due to bear activity. We walked the road instead. Snow covered everything and we saw little but some Arctic Ground Squirrels. We gathered Susan and boarded another bus headed back to the entrance with driver, John. On the way back we saw an additional nine grizzly bears very close to the park road, including one mother with three cubs. As we approached Polychrome Pass a broken down bus was blocking a hair pin turn. John adeptly maneuvered the bus through the turn and got us safely back to Teklanika. Despite the foul weather it was an exciting wildlife day.

June 25, 2009, the sun was out but it was 29 degrees! Holy Toledo. I got up and was excitedly making coffee when I heard a high pitched wheeze– two Bohemian Waxwings were right there in the campground– an auspicious beginning to our day. I roused Susan and Sharon out of bed and we caught a bus headed for Wonderlake driven by Cindy. Cindy found some Dall Sheep high up on a ridge, the first ones of the trip. We also saw some caribou, more grizzlies, and moose, and one Red Fox. As we rounded Sable Pass at 3900 feet, Mt. McKinley, some 55 miles away, came into view. Cindy announced it so nonchalantly that I almost thought I misunderstood her. After spending an entire week in Denali in 1996 and never seeing it not once, I didn’t think we would see it this trip either. I wasn’t going to chance the famed Denali clouds covering it before we got to the viewing area at Eielson, so I took some pictures of it before Polychrome. By the time we reached Eielson sure enough Denali was partially obstructed by clouds. The family sitting behind us on the bus was from Ibiza and they were speaking Portuguese. The parents spoke enough English to ask me to put the window up every ten minutes but the kids spoke no English and couldn’t understand the interpretive dialogue provided by the bus driver. They talked incessantly even while Cindy was explaining the park flora and fauna. At Eielson we took a 20 minute break so I walked as far as I could up the Alpine trail. It was sunny and full of wildflowers and surprisingly following yesterday’s heavy snows, three species of butterflies– Common Ringlet, Common Alpine, and Arctic Fritillary. It’s a long drive just to get to Eielson and the Portuguese chatter was mildly irritating but turning to extreme by the time we got to the kettle ponds after leaving Eielson and headed toward Wonderlake. There were nesting Tundra Swans in one of the ponds and Cindy stopped so we could look at them. There were also Green-winged Teal, Barrows Goldeneye, and Greater White-fronted Geese with goslings. Opposite the kettle ponds we passed along Muldrow Glacier, one of the many glaciers at the base of Mt. McKinley, and all along the back side of the Alaska Range and Mt. McKinley which remained shrouded in clouds the duration of the day but was spectacular nonetheless. Almost to Wonderlake a Chinese boy pulled out his Gameboy and started playing it with the sound on. I felt like I was on the number 14 Muni Bus! I had had it. So I told the boy it was inappropriate to play a video game with the sound on while in a wilderness area. Meanwhile the Portuguese morons’ son behind me started singing Star Wars. When he began to sing the Flintstones, instead of asking him to be quiet, the father started humming along with him. Even while stopped to admire wildlife with Cindy imploring everyone to be quiet the little stentorian family continued their Portuguese palaver. I was outraged. Just before reaching Wonderlake Cindy told us that those beautiful photos you see of McKinley with Wonderlake in the foreground are taken from Kantishna further down the park road! We should have gotten out at the kettle ponds and Swan nest. We got out at the lake but it was full of mosquitoes and so we only used the bathroom before departing again. Almost ready to pull away, Mr. Ibiza said in broken English to Cindy, “my wife, she not on bus.” I thought to myself too bad we couldn’t have left both of you there. As the bus headed back toward the entrance the Ibeza brats continued to hum and even that deteriorated into a tuneless monotone drone. I couldn’t take it and so we jumped out when the bus stopped for a lady to take a photo of Mt. McKinley. I preferred to walk back than spend my afternoon with those horrible people. As we walked along I was shocked to find two more species of butterflies– Theano Alpine and White-veined Arctic. As we walked along admiring the Alaska Range it began to hail: it was only a matter of time since we had seen all other forms of precipitation. After a while a bus came and we got on. This bus was driven by this character named, Dick. Some weird lady who was camping at Teklanika was on the bus telling Dick about this evil bus driver who would not stop for wildlife. I almost thought she was joking it was so outrageous. Dick said there was one Nazi bus driver who was behind us. We asked Dick to let us off at Highway Pass, a pass Cindy had pointed out earlier in the day as a nice place to take a walk on account of all the wildflowers. As we approached Highway Pass Dick pointed out a Golden Eagle. Just as we all turned to look at it, a Ptarmigan bolted out and started chasing the eagle. Dick then let us off and our walk did not disappoint. First of all there were four bears across the drainage. Secondly there was a field of an endemic flower, the Arctic Poppy, growing there. And thirdly there were hundreds of species of flowers clinging to the tundra, that you could admire if you were willing to get on your hands and knees to examine them. I could have spent hours there in that one spot. We walked along across the tundra enjoying the solitude and scenery. But it was getting late so we crossed a willow patch to get back to the road and flushed a Willow Ptarmigan family. There were more butterflies in the tundra and some Arctic Warblers in the willow patch. It was a delightful walk marred by our unfortunate luck to reach the park road just as the Nazi bus driver pulled up. We got on and the harridan demanded to see our bus passes even though it was nearly 7:30 PM and we were miles from the entrance with no other way to get there than by our bus pass. I pulled them out of my pocket and we sat down. Oh how I wish we had not gotten on with that officious, punctilious, harpy. As the bus approached the Toklat River someone spotted two Gray Wolves and yelled stop. Ms. Punctilious said, “I can’t stop.” I yelled “Stop!” She said I cannot stop the bus. I said only 15% of park visitors get to see a gray wolf. She said I won’t stop. I said well then let me off and she said “no, no walking is allowed here.” I said this is false imprisonment. This officious intermeddler on the bus jumped up and jabbed her finger in my face and yelled, “you need to get control of yourself missy.” I wanted to punch the virago but instead I sat down because it was obvious I was on a bus full of abused sheep. I looked at the front of the bus for the driver’s name which was posted above the rear view mirror, Chandra Willig. Chandra the chanticleer pointed the bus toward the left and said, “here on the left we have…” I thought she was going to point out a Snowshoe Hare, the most common mammal in the park. Instead she said, “a park sign that says no stopping.” I wanted to point out that the park service spent years shooting wolves and I found it ironic they didn’t want a park bus to stop to look at one. Also extremely ironic was the man walking near the sign Chandra just took pains to point out to me. We pulled into Toklat and I used the toilet and again began walking the park road. I would rather walk the 20 miles from Toklat to Teklanika than ride with that punctilious harridan and her bus full of Dall sheep. We stopped at the Toklat River Bridge for some final pictures. As we walked along I scanned the spruce trees for a Northern Hawk-Owl. Pretty soon another bus came along and we got on. I never learned our new driver’s name but the bus was full of some folks from Tennessee with thick accents talking about grizzlies over yonder and curiously the driver had one too. She was very sweet though. At Polychrome she asked if anyone wanted her to stop for a Gyrfalcon. She said incredulous, “no one wants to see the largest falcon in the world?” Someone yelled “get your hands back on the wheel!” I said I would like to see one! This idiot from Germany who spoke no English would not even bother to put her window down and I was stuck in an isle seat so all I got was a shaky video shot. When she dropped us off at Teklanika I thanked her for stopping at the Gyrfalcons and she seemed very pleased. Back at camp Varied Thrushes were singing but the temperature was dropping fast to 42 degrees by 10:10 PM.

June 26, was our last day in Denali. We packed up our tents and left Teklanika. We stopped at the Savage River Bridge and walked the lovely Savage River Loop Trail. On the trail we saw a whole family of Willow Ptarmigans and a female Northern Pintail in the Savage River. As we were driving from the Savage River to the entrance Susan yelled for me to stop. She spotted a Northern Hawk-Owl  in a spruce tree. I got out and it let me get pretty close to it. A Mew Gull tried to swoop down over it and caused it to squawk. After admiring the Hawk-owl, we took a much deserved shower at the Riley Mercantile and then left Denali and drove the Denali Highway, a 135 mile mostly unpaved road from Cantwell to Paxton with incredible views of the Alaska Range and the Wrangell mountains. We spotted two Bohemian Waxwings doing a mating dance. Then we stopped just past the Brushkana CG and got out to look for Smith’s Longspurs. We heard one singing but could never find it. There was a Wilson’s Snipe winnowing. We drove further stopping at some ponds but it began to rain and by the time we reached the Tangle River CG no one had the heart to take the tents out in the rain. We cooked dinner under the hatch of the car and then left to find a lodge. We stayed at the Tangle River Lodge and in the morning drove further to Milepost 13 to look for Smith’s Longspurs. It was so windy that Sharon returned to the car. Susan and I doggedly continued. We met a caribou that looked at me as if it were about to be shot. We found a female Lapland Longspur but finally the wind drove us hurrying back to the car. There were magnificent views of the Wrangell mountains from the hill top.
A Whimbrel flew over and there were some Arctic Warblers in the willows. A Bald Eagle was perched on a cabin top. As we returned down the Denali Highway we saw three Common Loons in breeding plumage in one of the many ponds. We stopped at McLaren Summit and took the trail there with commanding views of the Alaska Range and the McLaren Valley. On they way back to the trailhead I spotted a Long-tailed Jaeger. Gray-cheeked Thrushes were singing from the trees. We found a breeding Least Sandpiper at MP 104 and then we left the Denali Highway. We stopped at Denali State Park for dinner and then drove from there back to Anchorage for the night before our flight home. Despite the foul weather, the stentorian Portuguese family, the crazed punctilious bus driver, and the mosquitoes, it was hard to leave the astonishing last wild place in North America.
New birds:
Northern Hawk-owl
Bohemian Waxwing
Smith’s Longspur
By: Michelle Brodie July 7, 2009

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