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Fyllis: Denali National Park
Alaska’s Denali National Park:
Hours of Wildlife, Wild Scenery
And Wild Stories

Story by Fyllis Hockman

orty 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.

a group of Dall sheep on a mountain slope, 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.

Mt. McKinley at sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

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 can’t 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 you’re 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 John’s 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 didn’t 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.

female moose and a pair of calves, Denali National Park

Because the bus is so big, the sound of recognition travels like a wave from front to back –- and there’s 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 driver’s 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 that.

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.

brown bear fishing for salmon on a stream

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 wouldn’t 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 wasn’t catching any fish, but I did feel some sense of vindication.

bear with two cubs, Denali National Park

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 Alaska’s Big Five by one wolf. Not surprisingly, like the ubiquitous gift shop at the end of every museum tour, the video was for sale.

bald eagle and gull in flight

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 I’ve had nowhere else. In the process, I learned to appreciate not only America’s 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

Related Articles:
Denali National Park video; Alaska's Interior; Alaska Marine Highway; Tongass Rain Forest, Alaska; Return to Alaska; Alaska Small Ship Cruise

(Posted 3-13-2012)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy


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