Similar to other National Parks in Alaska, Denali offers limited access by car. There is essentially one road into the interior of the park, and personal vehicles are only permitted on the first 15 of the total 92 mile dead-end road. The park operates a shuttle system of school buses, and for $27.50 I caught the last ride out to the Toklat River Ranger Station.
My bus driver’s name was Ken. He was a funny old timer who had been driving this road seasonally for the last four years.
He spoke slowly into the PA system and allowed his stories to meander in order to fill the long drive time. Whenever he told a joke he would immediately remind everyone that he was kidding. For example:
“My wife and I are celebrating … our 50th anniversary … this year. Now I can finally tell you … how old I am. I was married … at a very young age. I was 9 years old at the time – Oh no, I’m just kidding.”
He told another story about how on his first drive through the park he spotted a grizzly bear silhouetted on the crest of a hill we happened to be coming up on. Then he said he saw it again on his second day in the exact same place! What are the odds!? Then he exclaimed “Oh wow there it is again … just to our left … in the exact same place!” and immediately recovered “Oh no, I’m just kidding. Thats just a boulder … but it does look like bear though, right?”
Ken had dozens of jokes and stories, but he only peppered about a quarter of them with punchlines or climaxes. He was a nice guy who loved his job, and after I settled into his style, I came to enjoy his commentary on the 5 hour ride.
We saw all the big name animals: grizzly bear, moose, caribou, dall sheep, raven, and a few ptarmigan (Alaska’s State Bird, wiki). They were usually a good distance away from the bus so the pictures I took don’t look like much, but since I’m sure you’re still curious, here’s an example of what I mean:
I camped at Igloo Campground (8/14/15) and decided to check out the dog sled kennel the next day. That visit turned out to be the highlight of my trip into Denali.
The kennel was established in 1917 as a means to access the park during the winter to protect it from poachers. The dogs are Alaskan Huskies which have been bred specifically for mushing. Most of them had relaxed, almost indifferent, temperaments, and they were good sports about having people approach them for pictures and petting.
The park allows one pair of dogs to breed each year, and they only keep a few dogs out of each litter to be trained for service. They are born in Spring, and they run unharnessed alongside the team during their first winte. These dogs can enter full service when they’re as young as 18 months. A single dog team can range in size from 5 to 13 dogs depending on the weight of the sled. Each dog pulls between 50 and 100 lbs depending on the snow and distance. Their legs are long and their massive paws have extra fur between the pads to track up in snow better. They are comfortable in temperatures down to -40 ºF.
These dogs are athletes.
I get along well with dogs. I look forward to partnering up with one once it becomes feasible.