An adventure began. I planned on spending a summer in Denali National Park. I did not know what to expect, I had no expectations. Oh I was curious, but I did not comprehend the excitement of our coach when we loaded up the vans and headed for the Park. We would be the first and only group, besides the road maintenance workers and the rangers to drive along the 92 miles of dirt road from the park entrance to its very end at Kantishna. Then, I did not know the privilege of having this experience. And what a trip it was.
It was a gorgeous day. Blue sky, the sun brought the snow alive, the road was a dark band winding its way along rivers that had just cracked the ice. Breakup was in full progress. A late snowstorm had dumped a couple feet of snow in the higher elevations, giving the mountains a pristine look.
At mile 30, the ranger checked our placard and waved us through. All other vehicles had to turn around at this point. The road to Kantishna had opened the day before. It was muddy, wet, and just wide enough for one van in places. Our advance team had called that we should not stop in muddy places and under no circumstance drive on the shoulder. The road around Polychrome Pass reminded me of India. A single-lane winding mountain road without barriers. If you had a window seat on the “wrong” side pf the van, it like the view from a low-flying plane. Right down the ravines into the valley floors. We stopped for wildlife and at all the tourist attractions, which were deserted, even Polychrome Pass. Only months later, I started to appreciate the solitude of this special day.
Our coach had guided many years in Denali National Park and he was a walking encyclopedia… We learned about wolves, caribou, moose, and off course bears. It did not take long and we encountered our first bear. Two mountain bikers stood in the middle of the road making wild gestures. We stopped the vans, and learned from the bikers that they had spotted a grizzly near the road a couple hundred yards ahead. The bear had disappeared behind a curve and they were “uneasy” about finding out, where he went. We looked, couldn’t see a thing and decided to move on, slowly. And after a few turns, there he was. Digging on the side of the road for some roots or squirrels. We stopped the van, turned off the engine and gawked at the bear, who did not pay any attention to us. Good. He meandered around, inching towards our van. Stopping, digging. I am not sure he found anything edible, so he kept going getting closer and closer. Finally, he was less than 30 feet from the van and everybody snapped pictures through the windows, doors closed.
I held my breath, not sure about everybody else, but seeing a bear that close (from the safety of a van), was quite thrilling. The bear kept going and headed uphill away from us. We started the engine, only to realize that we had a flat tire. Oh wonderful, there goes the safety net. Getting out of the van with a bear roaming around is one thing, but we also had food for 30 staff and 2 weeks in the van. Naturally, the spare tire was underneath the food. So, we had to unload the food, change the tire, with a hungry grizzly around. Luckily, the bears in Denali are not familiar with human food, otherwise this may have been a different story. When all was set and done, we had a good story to tell. No harm done.
There is one more memory of that day, the moment I saw Denali for the first time up close, if you can call 20 miles up close. It feels up close, because that mountain is so huge. There are valleys and 5000 ft tall mountains in front of the massive formation of Denali. In other areas they would look like impressive mountains in itself. But then on top of those “hills”, Denali rises another 15,000 ft. I don’t know how to describe this. This has to be seen with our own eyes. It’s a jaw dropper.
Well, that’s it for today. It was a good day then, and it is a good day now.