Hours of Wildlife, Wild Scenery
And Wild Stories
Story by Fyllis Hockman
pairs of eyes scan the countryside looking for movement, any movement.
With binoculars and cameras at the ready, we hoped for a bear or a moose,
but were willing to settle for some Dall sheep high up the mountain.
Not a passenger aboard the bus maintained a semblance of composure.
We scurried like kids from one side to the other, eager to be the first
to announce the next sighting. Such was my introduction to the Tundra
Wilderness Tour, a 6-8 hour excursion into Denali
National Park, one of the highlights of my Gray Line Adventure Tour
through southern Alaska.
Denali National Park is larger than the state of Massachusetts
and tenderly watched over by Mt. McKinley (called Mt. Denali -
the high one -- by the locals), at over 20,000 feet the
highest mountain in North America.
On an African safari, the goal is to spot the Big Five
- lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, cape buffalo. In Alaska, the
concept is the same - just the names are different: moose, bear,
wolf, caribou and Dall sheep. But when we initially stopped to see a
rabbit - okay, our guide called it a Snoeshoe Hare -- I thought,
This is not a good sign. And in truth, you cant always
accurately decipher what you see in the distance: snow fills are mistaken
for sheep; large boulders for bears. Hopes rise and are dashed and the
guide takes refuge in another Snowshoe Hare.
But this is a tour for the long haul - and youre
not likely to be disappointed. And even more impressive, our driver/guide
John Miller, with infectious enthusiasm, kept up a constant patter covering
vegetation, history, animal lore, Alaskan peccadilloes, personal experiences
and other tantalizing tidbits for almost seven hours. The fact that
it was still interesting by that seventh hour is even more of a phenomenal
accomplishment. The running commentary that accompanied Johns
driving along narrow, winding roads clutching the mountainside while
he rapidly gazed right and left for any movement that might indicate
animal activity was an heroic act of multi-tasking I didnt want
to think too much about.
And there was always something to see - over the
course of the tour, we saw numerous Dall sheep, occasional moose, caribou
(AKA reindeer), the ubiquitous Snowshoe hares, of course, and other
native wildlife. And should the animals play hard to get for a period
of time, just lifting your eyes to the proverbial snow-capped mountains
in the distance is enough to keep you enthralled until the next native
creature reveals itself.
Because the bus is so big, the sound of recognition
travels like a wave from front to back - and theres always
a risk the animal the front has viewed is gone by the time the back
of the bus catches up. But never fear. On the off-chance you miss the
mama moose and her calf or the Dall sheep straddling a steep slope,
it will magically appear on the TV screens lowered above the seats in
the bus. Close-up images from the drivers video camera are reflected
on the drop-down screens. I was torn between resenting seeing my in
the wild Alaskan wildlife resembling a Discovery Channel documentary
and feeling grateful I could see them at all - and close up at
But, in truth, I was in it for the bears. Earlier in
the trip, I had discovered that we were there too early in the year
(June instead of July) for the running of the salmon and, therefore,
too early for the bears to gather around the streams just waiting for
those happily spawning salmon to fly into their mouths. My own mouth
had been watering at the very thought of watching such a spectacle.
So once in Denali, I hoped at least to finally get my
chance to see bears. John kept re-assuring us we would certainly see
grizzlies, but by hour number six, when only a glimpse of brown had
been seen once in the far distance, he finally, guiltily, sorrowfully,
very apologetically acknowledged that maybe we wouldnt this trip.
And then suddenly, the cry went out - waves of
wows traveled along the bus - as a momma and two bear cubs came
into view. Hallelujah, cried one excited passenger; Thank
goodness, we paid $5000 to see that critter, noted another. John
admitted he was getting quite nervous - only 20 times in 18 seasons
had he not seen a bear. It was far away and it clearly wasnt catching
any fish, but I did feel some sense of vindication.
At the end of the trip, John played back the video that
captured the highlights of our bus trip from hare to bear and all the
other denizens of Denali in between: the many Dall sheep, mama moose
with twins, caribou, golden eagle, ground squirrels, ptarmigans (the
state bird) and, of course, the bears. We just missed Alaskas
Big Five by one wolf. Not surprisingly, like the ubiquitous gift shop
at the end of every museum tour, the video was for sale.
But Denali was only one stop on the Gray Line Escorted
Alaska Explorer Tour. There were also glaciers and mountains and gold
mining history and native cultures and whale watching tours and frontier
towns and back country plus a myriad of experiences Ive had nowhere
else. In the process, I learned to appreciate not only Americas
Last Frontier but the hardy, independent-minded people who inhabit it.
Still next time, I want to see more bears.
For more information, visit www.graylinealaska.com
or call 888-452-1737
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