100 Days of Denali: Day 29, 30, 31, & 32

IMG_0482It is officially summer, tourism season, and construction season in Alaska!  The Denali National Park shuttle buses have begin.  When I was planning for our campaversary the only input Josh had was that he didn’t want to be on the first bus out into the park.  I did listen to him and scheduled the second bus out!  He wasn’t very amused.  I reserved my shuttle buses early because we were bringing the bikes in with us.  Each Denali Shuttle bus has a bike rack in the front with two spots for bikes.  I reserve early so I can have the bus I want with the bikes.  We were on the 7:30am shuttle bus out to Toklat.  Toklat is the farthest that the tour and shuttle buses will bring you into until June 1.  Toklat is located at mile 53 on the park road.  I was super excited to get out into the park and I was hoping the dall sheep would still be around the road in polychrome pass.  We quickly realized how easily busing into the park was versus biking.  It was a fairly active first 15 miles in the park.  We saw four moose and Denali!

We also got to see a new bird of prey.  I believe it is a northern goshawk.

In sable pass, where it is closed off for 5 miles for a critical wildlife habitat, we saw a really far away bear for a millisecond and some caribou right on the road!

Heading up Polychrome Pass we saw another marmot!  It is crazy I have traveled in the park probably almost 150 times the last 5 years and have never seen one and now I saw about 4 in the last two weeks.

As soon as we left the Polychrome Pass stop, which is just a photography and fresh air stop, we got to see the dall sheep rams right off the road!

May 20 (20 of 45)-2

Coming closer to Toklat we got to see Denali again.  This is now the closest we have seen it so far.  It is looking larger and larger…  I can’t wait to hopefully see it coming into the Eielson Visitor Center, which is at mile 66 on the park road and shuttles will start heading there June 1.  We saw a bear that we could actually watch for a few minutes on the Toklat river bed.  From the Toklat Rest Stop we also saw a sow bear and two older cubs.  Toklat rest stop is located right on the Toklat river.  There is a bubble tent at this rest area where you can talk with rangers, learn about the history of the park, and purchase some souvenirs.  I like to go into the tent every so often to check the climbing stats of both Denali and Mt. Foraker.  At the rest stop you can also become a member of the honorary caribou herd!  They have caribou and moose racks for you to pick up and feel how heavy they are.

The stop at Toklat is typically about 30 minutes long.  Long enough to view the river, search for dall sheep, bear, or other wildlife on the river or hillside, check out the tent, and eat lunch on the bus.  I recommend eating on the bus so you don’t leave any crumbs for the animals.  I also recommend what you take in, you take out.  It is important to keep the park clean and leave no trace for the next generation to have the opportunity to witness the true beauty of Denali National Park.

After lunch we started down the same road back up to Polychrome Pass.  We decided to bike around polychrome and exited the shuttle bus.  One of the huge perks of the shuttle bus is that you can get off and on the shuttle buses just about any time you want.  The only times you can’t get off the bus are at wildlife stops or close to wildlife stops.  The scenery was gorgeous.  We ended up doing a little hiking and running into some dall sheep.

We got back to the road and continued biking when we found some more dall sheep on a hillside.  We put our bikes on the side of the road and watched the sheep at an angle so we weren’t too close and that they had enough space to cross if they wanted.  Wild animals are so unpredictable and it is important to maintain the designated distance from the animals.  We were enjoying the sheep when one of them ran down the hillside towards us.  We backed up the road but didn’t have time to grab the bikes.  They crossed the road and started munching on branches on the other side.  They didn’t seem bothered by the bikes and we didn’t want to approach them.  After a few minutes a biker came up the road and spooked the animals.  All three dall sheep that had been eating so peacefully sprinted up the hillside.  We were able to grab our bikes and keep riding on.  We didn’t bike much further before catching another shuttle out of the park.
On our way out of the park we saw some more marmots, ptarmigan, and two more moose!

We were pretty much in the sun all day, until we got back to mile 15.  At mile 15 we entered a pretty epic rain, snow, sleet, hail cloud!

It was a very successful day in the park.  To celebrate we went to dinner at 49 State Brewery in Healy.  It was, as always, delicious.  I love the pretzel and with the beer cheese and some meat lovers mac n cheese.   It is our 6 year wedding anniversary weekend and having a cold beer and mac n cheese was a pretty fabulous way to spend it.

When we got back to the campsite I had a few s’mores before heading to bed and getting ready for our next bus adventure the next day.  I got Josh out some s’more ingredients but a grey jay bird ended up swooping down, knocking down the plate with the items, and picking up the chunk of chocolate.

Day 30 was a very interesting one!  We biked to the Wilderness Access Center, where you catch the shuttle and tour buses.  On our way out to the mile 30 Teklanika Rest Stop we saw a close moose and some close caribous!

It was a cloudy day but we did get to see part of Denali.  It was a cloudy day, but the views were still pretty amazing.  In Igloo Canyon I got to see my first moose calf of the year!  In years past I have frequently seen bears in Igloo Canyon and I didn’t think that it was the best place to see a little calf.  It was so tiny!

When we got to Polychrome Pass the sheep were high up on a hillside.  Instead of seeing a few smaller groups of dall sheep, they were all hanging out together.  There were 14 of them lounging around.

May 21 (9 of 31)-2

Coming down from polychrome we hadn’t seen a bear but to our amazement a beautiful black wolf walked right by the bus!  Josh and I were shocked.  It is always a pretty epic day getting to see a wolf in the park.  The bus driver explained that the wolf population actually increased from last year.  Last year there were less than 50 wolves in the park and this spring 72 were counted!  So exciting to have that number start increasing.

Heading into Toklat it looked pretty mucky so we decided to hop out and head back up to polychrome.  We didn’t make it far before we pulled up behind a bus.  It was a tour bus so we couldn’t get on to take us the rest of the way up the hill to polychrome pass.  We figured they were watching some wildlife so we ride right up next to the bus to where the driver was.  I looked forward and that same black wolf was making it’s way up the hill to polychrome as well.  We didn’t want to stress the animal out so we waited with the bus and ended up following the bus the entire way up the hill.  We found out later that that wolf actually went from where we had first seen it all the way to igloo canyon!  What a distance!  I think it was getting pretty stressed out with all the buses though.  I was also told that the poor wolf was limping before it finally got off the road and out of sight.

By the time we go to the top we had to stop about 4 times to wait for the wolf to move forward and out of the way.  I never really got a good opportunity to actually document this process, we wanted to give that animal enough space to travel where it wanted.  After the fourth time we had to stop we decided to just bike on down to Toklat.  On the way down we ended up running into two more wolves!  By the time we saw them they ran into the brushes and I wasn’t able to photograph them, but we did get to see them for a few seconds.  We went for a short hike, our bums hurt pretty bad from all the bike riding.  We got to see some cool wolf paw prints though!

We saw lots of bear and caribou or moose prints on the little hike.  When we got back to the road another biker had said that a bear was right around where we were hiking!  I am glad we didn’t come across it on the hike!  We saw the bear and I took a quick photo before heading back down the road.  We went through porcupine forest and then on to Toklat.  We spent quite a bit of time at Toklat waiting for a shuttle that had two bike spots available on the bus’ bike rack.  Luckily there was a sow and two large cubs on the hillside across from the Toklat Rest Area that we could watch while waiting.  We also got to have a celebratory beer we had bought at the Wilderness Access Center for our sixth wedding anniversary!  You can’t drink beer on the bus, so we sat at the edge of the Toklat river and enjoyed the semi-cold beers.

We were on a new bus and pretty exhausted.  The bus we got on ended up seeing three wolves down in the river bed from Polychrome pass trying to take down a moose calf.  The cow had two calves and was able to fend off the wolves.  We also heard a bear was near the same cow but the cow had been able to keep the calves alive!  A pretty strong cow!  We ended up see the cow and the two calves at the bottom of the river from polychrome pass but no wolves or bears around.  She seemed safe for the moment.  We also got to see the same bear that had been wandering around near us on our hike.  It actually crossed the road in front of us and then went up a small hill and quickly out of sight.

Between polychrome pass and igloo canyon we saw the same huge group of sheep and some ptarmigan.  We turned the corner in igloo canyon and found a grey wolf on the road!  The wolf weaved in and out of the road in front of the bus for a few miles!  It was truly incredible.  The wolf traveled fast but I was able to get a few photos.  It was truly an epic day in the park.

As if the day couldn’t get more amazing, a bus at the Teklanika Rest Stop at mile 30, a bus driver informed our bus driver about a bear on a kill down the road.  When a driver tells another one about an animal sighting, you never know whether it will still be there or if you will see it.  Fortunately for us, we did see the bear!  It was feeding on something but we couldn’t tell what it was.  There didn’t seem to be a lot of blood on the bear, so we didn’t think it was a fresh kill.  There was also no cow moose running around upset, which is what I have seen at moose calf kills.  Right before we were leaving the area with the bear, the bear looked at us and stood up!  What an absolutely incredible day in the park.  It was like the grand finale of the day!

When we got back to the campsite we took the dogs on a walk.  They did not walk all that well without their harnesses on.  We had to turn around to put their harnesses on, they are such silly dogs!  We had some left over mac n cheese and some hot dogs for dinner.  Not exactly 49 state quality of hot dogs, but the mac n cheese tasted pretty fabulous.  We played some poker in the RV after dinner and I pretty much kicked his butt!  So fun!

Day 31 we had another bus ride out.  There is a promotion with the bus shuttles that you buy two bus fares and get one free!  I believe the days have to be consecutive but I am not 100% on that.  We went out at 8:30 this time.  Our bums were pretty sore but we decided to again take the bikes.   In the first 15 miles we got to see a far away moose and a small portion of the bottom of Denali.

Between mile 15 and the Teklanika Rest Stop we saw a closer moose!

May 22 (3 of 32)-2

Once in Igloo Canyon we ended up driving up and seeing a bear on the road.  It briskly walked down the road and then ran off into the bushes.  Before we could move too far forward, it ran back onto the road.  It again walked down a little before heading back off the road.  I wasn’t able to get a whole lot of photos due how fast it was traveling and the thick brushes the bear ran into but it was awesome to watch.

In Sable Pass we saw another small piece of the mountain and some caribou!  This caribou sighting was a little different than most that I have had.  We actually got to see a baby caribou calf!  Usually the female caribous travel together and they all protect and care for the new calves.  This calf was in the open with just one female and one male caribou.  It was a very odd sighting.

The sheep were all pretty close together up on a cliff.  It was cool seeing them walk along the jagged rocks.  We made it to Toklat and ate our lunch.  On the way back we got off at Polychrome Pass again.  This time we decided to bike down towards Sable Pass.

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After we got about halfway down the hill to Sable Pass we stopped and decided to hike.  We didn’t want to go back up the hill on Sable on our bikes.

May 22 (11 of 32)-2

We ended up hiking a small foothill!  It was nothing like the hike I did with Miles but we did go pretty high up.  There were patches of snow that were a little scary to me.  We hiked around the back of the little mountain versus the front and realized we had chosen the wrong way.  The one pretty positive of this choice was that we got to see a spring bear cub across the canyon on top of the ridge line.  It was a little bear dot but I could see the little ring around it’s neck indicating that it was a spring cub versus a yearling or older.  My first spring cub!  We saw some evidence of bear as well.

May 22 (12 of 32)-2

It took a lot of encouragement and a few breaks but we both made it up the little hill/mountain.  The scenery was pretty spectacular.  I walked down a little to see if I could find a better path down the mountain and I walked almost right into a sheep.  There was a little cliff and I hiked down and looked over and right there a sheep was looking up at me.  I backed away, grabbed my camera, and we sat and watched the sheep slowly creep up the hill, eating grasses and flowers.  We were sitting on a more flat area with our gear and the sheep kept getting closer and closer.  I backed as far as I could on the flatter part of the ledge.  It was pretty cold and windy and I didn’t want to roll down the hill.  The sheep got pretty close.  While they were just eating we just watched and they didn’t seem phased at all by our presence.  A little later one came really close to us and we ended up backing away and eventually heading back down the little mountain.  I never felt threatened but the experience went from enjoying their natural environment and normal behavior to seeing and sensing a little displeasure on our break spot.  It was much easier going down the front of the mountain and we made it down quite quickly.

From the road you couldn’t see the sheep, it is always fun to look at where you were once you are back down on the road.  Getting up the little mountain was a little taxing but after getting to see the incredible views and experience some positive dall sheep interaction, it is all worth it.  We waited for a green shuttle bus.  When we finally saw one we flagged it down.  When the bus got closer I realized that the bus was empty…  The drive stopped and explained that the bus was actually a fixed broken down bus from earlier that day.  Our bus driver from Day 30, just yesterday, had his bus break down on my Day 31!  She let us on the bus but expressed that she couldn’t stop for wildlife.  We decided to ride with her until the top of sable.  After a few miles she opened up more to the idea of stopping for wildlife, especially because a bear popped out on the road!  It was trying to dig up some roots.  It eventually walked down the road behind us and sniffed the closure sign.  I was thinking it might stand up and rub on the sign or bite it, but it was a polite bear who just seemed to want to read and smell the sign.

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We pressed on and ended up picking up a lot more people heading back to the entrance of the park.  The original out of service bus turned into a sweeper bus, or a bus that comes through picking up people when more people get off the bus and there aren’t enough seats on later buses to take everyone out of the park.  We ended up seeing three more moose on our way back to the entrance of the park.  The one bear that had been on a kill or was eating something was not there on Day 31.  This seems to be further evidence that what the bear was consuming was not a fresh kill. When the bear has a fresh kill it will bury up excess meat and lay on the mound, taking it’s time eating the carcass.  The bear could lay and stay on the kill for days.  This bear was gone less than 24 hours after the first spotted instance of the bear eating something.

We made it back to camp sore and hungry.  Josh ordered a pizza from Prospectors and then went to pick it up.  It was delicious, as usual.  We ate the pizza pretty fast and then had to head to bed pretty early.  We had to get up early, see part of the park, and then head down to Seward to pick up some friends who were coming in from Iowa to visit and see Alaska!

I was very sleep on Day 32.  I had to get up early.  Josh and I split up, he took care of the campsite and the dogs.  I went into the park to see what I could see.  I didn’t make it a mile out of the campsite when I came across a cow moose with little infant twin calves.  Their interactions were so precious.  I watched from the opposite side of the road for a little bit before heading into the park.  On the park road I saw some hares and a little clearing in the clouds.  The clearing was no where near Denali.  Denali was completely invisible.  I turned around and headed back out of the park.  The moose and calves were too deep in the woods to see.  I met back up with Josh and we headed on down to Seward to pick up our friends!

Well it is official, I spent a month in the park!  I have gotten past my hatred of driving, fear of going alone, and hiking alone.  This challenge does take take a lot of time, time I could be relaxing at home, time I could be spending with friends, and time I could be traveling to see family.  I do feel bad I am not able to be around my family and friends as much this year or summer.  looking back so far, not only have I been able to expand my photography portfolio, but I have lost some weight and have gained incredible experiences. I am excited to see what the next 30 days will bring!  I am just about 1/3 the way through my 100 Days of Denali Challenge!

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