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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A DAY IN DENALI IMPRINTS A MEMORY FOR A LIFETIME

As morning breaks each day in Alaska I know something marvelous awaits me around the next bend. On our Day of Denali—I must think of it as a proper noun—I enter the grandest National Park, six million acres and bigger than the state of Massachusetts! It is the site of North America’s highest peak. At 20,320 feet, it is “Denali” which means “the high one” in the Athabascan language. If measured from their bases, Denali is higher than Mt. Everest. Most people know Denali as Mt. McKinley, but once I see it, I know it will always be Denali.

Denali National Park is another wonder of our National Park Service. Cars are only allowed to mile 14 within Denali National Park, and by limiting the number of visitors and vehicles, care is taken that the environment is not over-used. Park-run shuttle busses move people from site to site. Visitors can also take tour busses to travel the 90 mile road—one road, a turnaround, and the same road out. This is wilderness. This is an area predominately trail-less too, and the joke is that once you are out there on foot, you become part of the food chain. I like our tour bus and the narrated tour. It is awesome to see the animals in their natural habitat.

Our guide, Dana, is another wonderful example of the Alaskan. She studied archeology at the University of Wisconsin and came to Alaska in the 70s on a summer dig. Smitten, she went home just long enough to pack her bags. She never looked back. As a guide, her knowledge of the area is formidable, and her evident concern for the varying ecosystems is palpable as she explains the web that bonds the vast variety of nature together. It’s a wonderful verbal tour of the ebb and flow of nature with its natural corrections.

One important rule on the bus—no loud talking. Animals should not become accustomed to human voices because they will stay too close to humans, like backpackers in the wilderness. Remember that food chain joke. On the other hand, if you hike in the wilderness, do talk or whistle as you go. The last thing you want to do is to startle a bear. It’s not really contradictory. In this case, familiarity breeds danger.

Surely Denali is another world. As we enter the park, my world morphs into a watercolor landscape with reds, greens, browns and whites flowing like waves toward the inevitable mountains. The climate stunts vegetation growth; here things grow slowly, and the result is low, melding textures and hues.

Berries are a staple, for the people as well as for the animals, and we see animals foraging in the distance, swimming among the waves, their bodies appearing and disappearing.

We see incredible wildlife. Everyone in the bus watches and we let each other know. Our driver tries to stop so we can photograph through the windows. There are caribou, bear, prairie dogs, eagles, and moose. I’ve been dying to see a moose since we arrived. What I did see in Denali are moose rear ends! Pooh!

These are Dall Sheep high up on the tundra.


The day, crisply clear, allows Denali to lose her cloud cover and reveal herself in all her breathtaking glory. Seeing her for the first time, seeing the North and South slopes from this angle and realizing how fortunate we are to be in this place at this time creates emotions I will never forget. It is truly spiritual.


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