"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Denali National Park and Kantishna Roadhouse

We've been back in the lower 48 for about two weeks now, so these posts are my effort to get caught up. A lot happened in Alaska, in more ways than I think I can explain.

I've been dreaming about Alaska every night since we left it. I'm always in the landscape somewhere. I wake up not knowing where I am. What I will try to share with you in the next two posts about Denali is a just a suggestion of the feelings I have when I dream about Alaska. The only words I have to describe the feeling is archetypal wildness. Yet it is more subtle than that sounds, and those are just words; or they were to me until I felt Alaska.

I wish I could make these pictures bigger.  Alaska is bigger than I could really wrap my head around. Maybe that's why I'm dreaming about it.  On some level I'm still trying to get a handle on it.

We left Anchorage at about 6am for the drive to Denali National Park. This was the view along George Parks Highway, or Rt. 3 north.  Long flat expanses of green, dotted with dark spruce trees and speckled mountains in the distance. It was heavily cloudy with only rare patches of sun, about 60 degrees and drizzly off and on.



We arrived at the Visitor's Center and entrance to Denali National Park at about noon, parked in the long term lot and hooked up with our shuttle to the Kantishna Roadhouse. The only road into Denali is about 90 miles long, restricted to Park busses and the shuttles of the few lodges and camps at the end of the road. 

Our driver, Kirsty Knittle (also a wildlife photographer), was a miraculous wildlife spotter. But I nabbed our first sighting. Can you count the bull moose in this picture?



Can you believe how massive this guy is? I'm sure he's the hugest moose in the world. Look at that belly! His buddies were pretty big too.  But this was only the beginning of our wildlife sightings, thanks to Kirsty. 



We all kept our eyes out for more wildlife as we passed through vast valleys made by glaciers and rivers. This color scheme of green, blue and grey is predominant everywhere, even on cloudy days. 



Black and white spruce trees are typical of taiga or boreal forest through which we passed for first half of the drive. 



Peek-a-boo! Kirsty sees you!  She spotted this resting caribou with the eyes on the sides of her head, while she kept her other eyes on the challenging road. There's something about always looking for wildlife that is second nature to Alaskans. We got a feel for that too.



These are the lower mountains of the Alaska Range. Remember these when you see the pictures FROM ABOVE in the next post. We're getting into tundra now, with patches of permafrost. And notice the brown and gold color. That is kind of unique to the area we are approaching next.



That horizontal stripe across the foot of that ridge is our road.



Kristy spotted these Dall sheep way before we got even close to where the rest of us could see them.



Here we're approaching the famous Polychrome Pass.



Polychrome Pass and the Alaska Range. 



Oh, it's just another moose before we get to our destination.



After about four hours we arrived at the Kantishna Roadhouse, with two of our guides waiting at the door to greet us and take us and our luggage to our cabins. The main lodge, pictured here, held two dining rooms, library, saloon and sitting area by the wood stove. The place is simple, but it's all about the journey and a place to sleep when you get to the end of the road. The cabins house about 30 guests all together, and they host day guests as well. The food was pretty good, but we had been totally spoiled by the food on the Alaskan Dream Cruise. The service by the waiters was just sufficient. We figured out that the small kitchen and wait staff provide at least two, sometimes three or more seatings for each meal. So they're busy, and it felt that way. No waiting around to see what we needed. Once they put that food down in front of you, they are gone. 




We were at Kantishna for three nights and two days. It rained - lightly most of the time, and hovered between 50-60 degrees. But that didn't stop us from hiking every day, and returning to a warm lodge and comfy beds. 

Our first hike was Quigly Ridge, with a long ascent.  Our guide was good about giving us breaks as needed, and orienting us to the local flora.  Our gaze was down most of the time, due to drizzle, low clouds and the need to watch our footing constantly. Good thing there were lots of small wildflowers, mosses, lichen and low bushes to look at down there.  



There were lots of times when we passed through thick brush and our guide, Jeffery, kept up a constant mantra of "Hey Bear" in the hopes of providing warning to any loitering among the blueberries. We didn't see any bears during our stay at Kantishna, but we did see plenty of bear signs (scat, tree scratching, digging), especially the following day when we hiked in the rain out to the McKinley River.  Wolf signs (scat) too!

Once we got to the top of the ridge we hiked along it for maybe a mile. If it had been clear we would have had a great view of Denali. (FYI, Mt. McKinley and Denali are two names for the same mountain, so the names are used interchangeably now. Long story.)



We stopped for a damp picnic lunch.



This was the view we actually got from up there.  That's Wonder Lake in front of McKinley River in the distance.  Behind them would be Mt. McKinley. 



Here's our cabin, where we napped after our 6 mile hike.



As I mentioned, we took another hike the next day, but it was too rainy to take photos.  The grand finale though was our third day...

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