June 30, 2008

Back to DENALI....

Ok, it’s June 26th and we’re back at Denali National park again with a four night reservation in Riley Creek Campground right near the Park entrance and major services.
In addition to spending time at the Visitor’s Center, watching various films on the history and beauty of the Park, we were able to join a Ranger lead hike the second morning.

We met at the Center and proceeded north to a small lake just near the highway. The volunteer leading the group was quite informed on the unique vegetation of the area, pointing out many of the interesting plants & trees along the trails.

The hike terminated at this large beaver dam, which apparently has served the beaver family for many years. Amazing what engineering & construction marvels these busy little mammals can produce!
Greeted the next morning with another cloudy, dreary day of rain, we opted for some shopping in town, which is more like a strip mall alongside the highway. The items were numerous & the prices were right, so I guess it was a success…let’s see the VISA bill this month, we’ll know for sure.

Back at the Park, we spent quite some time in the Murie Science & Learning Center http://www.alaskageographic.org/static/420/mslc-science-and-research . If you haven’t read or seen the story of Adolph & Mardie Murie you should. The Center is well worth spending a couple of hours in, and has a few excellent videos about ongoing research, including the debate about drilling for oil in ANWAR, which seems to abe a hot topic in the news and newspapers up here.

As I grow older, I have more & more mixed feelings about our earth and modern society...friends probably remember how some years ago I started to become more fed up with our consumptive, commercially driven, everything for growth mentality of South Baton Rouge & Ascension Parish. After the divorce, I decided to move to St Francisville, a small, rural largely undeveloped community north of Baton Rouge. (which is what Ascension was some 30 years ago!).

All that being said, here in "the wilderness" one can quickly see results of even the slightest intrusion of man, and that there IS some value in true, remote, desolate, untouched, almost inaccessible wilderness. For instance, there is a great difference in the "feeling" one gets in riding on a commercial bus into Denali National Park (which is off of the major highway that ultimately goes to Prudhoe Bay) and having to hike many, many miles away from the highway to not hear the buses & trucks any more verses driving to the end of a small, muddy, twisty 4WD trail in the middle of pristine wilderness, turning off the motor hiking about 50 ft and being in utter solitude & natural beauty...but, most people have never, and will never enjoy such an experience....opting for a trip to the mall, the Superbowl, or a ski resort instead.

Adolph & Mardie Murie worked their entire lives to "save" one of these places, a place that was totally remote and untouched by man, and could only be reached by small plane, boat or , as they did, by dogsled...the shear effort required to get there in a way protects the place. If you want to learn more about this effort, you should watch this DVD http://www.dickproenneke.com/mardy_murie.html John Denver was so moved by the Murie's efforts, that he wrote songs about it, and personally told their story & contributed to their efforts.

So, if we drill in ANWR, there will be a highway into that area, and trucks and equipment and noise, etc. After all, look at the effects of the oil & gas and chemicals industry in Louisiana, especially along the coast... And will drilling in the ANWR make an impact on the cost of gasoline?...I seriously doubt it! Will having more oil make people happier, will it make life truly more enjoyable?

Here's my take on all this energy stuff...Republican or Democrat, it will delay even further the need to develop some alternate forms of CLEAN energy, and MOST IMPORTANT the need to teach our children that this planet can only stand so much of our consumptive pressures and dependence on the resources that the Earth has to offer, and that there truly is value in the simpler things of life and the beauty of the wilderness, and that Nature itself is entertaining and rewarding!

I guess I have learned out here on the road that the less I have, and own, the happier I am. The more I focus on enjoying people, simple things, earth's beauty & Nature, the more I enjoy life. Maybe these folks that live way up here in Alaska, without many of the conveniences & entertainment that we've grown accustomed to, have figured out something. They appear to be happy and have a great life with far less than we might imagine! (oh, and I haven't heard about a murder, robbery or drug deal since we left the lower 48!)

So much for politics, now back to enjoying Denali….

Just down the road from the Center is the sled dog kennels. The Park maintains two working sleds (and appropriate number of dogs) that are used for patrolling the outer perimeter of the Park during the winter season. Before the invention of the snowmobile, this was the only form of patrol for these sections of the Park. The dogs are bred specifically for this task, and spend the first 8-9 years of their lives working here in the Park, after which they retire typically to “mushers” who use them to help train younger dogs. Dog sledding is still huge up here, and we have met several couples who actually moved to Alaska due to their love of the husky and sledding.

After a very informative talk about the life & history of dog sledding in Denali, a small team was hitch to a sled on wheels, and off they went! It’s amazing to see just how excited the dogs get at the very hint of pulling a sled. They’re bred for work, pulling that sled, it’s their entire life….and they love it!

The Ranger went on to explain that the dogs are "rewarded" after each work session, even after this short demo mush around the kennel. The they are allowed to return to their "homes" and relax for the rest of the day!

We were determined to do a couple more things before we left Denali. First, we wanted to see at least one new bird! Having been in the Park now for a total of five days, and not a single “lifer” was frustrating, especially when others had such good luck. Secondly, we just had to get out there in the middle of nowhere and do a nice hike. The choice was Tattler Creek, named for that elusive little shorebird, the Wandering Tattler, which we had yet to see even a feather of. We were able to get on the next days shuttle that would take us far enough into the Park (about 50 miles) without having to pay for the full ride to Wonder Lake again. The bus system allows one to get on & off as desired (assuming space is available), so off we went, opting to jump off at Tattler Creek.

Tattler flows down from the north (yes, that’s backwards up here! Everything normally flows to the north & west, unlike southern lower 48 streams), so off we went. We had hiked a mile or so before the canyon started to narrow, and not seen a thing, but this beautiful little creek ambling along through the towering scenery.
After some discussion, we returned to the park road, where the Creek crosses and parallels the road for a few miles. The Park Service had constructed rock dikes between the Creek and road to reduce the possibility of washouts, making the walking easy and the viewing along the Creek excellent…..but no Tattlers! The good news is that within a few hundred yards, we did spot several of the tiny, elusive Artic Warblers, a new bird for us.

Tattler crosses the road at the juncture of another creek flowing in form the south. Here we met a group of hikers returning from “way up there where the sheep are” (as one member pointed to a 2000+ foot high peak a couple miles in the distance). Good news is they had seen not only the Tattler but also a “Surfbird” (another pretty rare feathered friend) “up there past that last patch of ice & snow is, in a flat grassy meadow just beyond”.
So, armed with the knowledge of good birding, and a beautiful creek laying before us, up we went…..and up….and up….
I found crunching through the ice on the way up particularly satisfying, making sure to stay in areas where if I busted through, the creek was only a foot or so underneath. Kim chose the higher ground, opting for the surer footing of solid rock, rather than crispy ice.

About midway up to that “last patch of ice” I turned around to look for Kim, and saw this fabulous view behind, Wow what a place!
After a much longer distance than it appeared, we reach the “last patch” only to realize that the real “last patch” is still another mile or so, and hundreds of feet upward! But, the scenery is spectacular, there’s not another sole around and an occasional bald eagle passes overhead to keep things interesting.
Another thirty minutes or so and we actually do reach that “last patch of ice”, and boy, was the extra hike worth it! A wide canyon surrounded by the very tops of the mountains lay before us, painted in rich greens, golds & reds interspersed with thousands of yellow, white, purple & blue wildflowers…breathtaking!

By now the skies had cleared, and Kim suspected there may be a view of “the Mountain” (McKinley) just over the tops to our right, so off she went. The probablility of spotting the surfbird would be better up there also. I followed the now babbling, perhaps yard-wide, creek to it’s source at the upper end of these peaks, only to be somewhat disappointed in not seeing “the bird” (Tattler).

I sat alone, up there in that awesome place, surrounded by utter silence & beauty in the crisp, clean air and sunshine for some time, thankful for this wondrous gift!

A few hundred yards along the return, I see movement in the stream to my left….let’s see, grass swaying, water rippling, ah-hah it’s a small bird “wandering” along the stream, dipping up & down as it goes. Quick, the camera, no the bird book, no both! A couple good pix, and a flip of the birding manual, and sure ‘nuff it’s the Tattler!

I waved to Kim, and watched the now cooperative bird for the next ten minutes from only feet away awaiting Kim’s arrival. So, after many weeks of looking both in the upper reaches of the Yukon and now here, we find this solitary fellow up here in the middle of nowhere!

Kim got out a snack, sat back and relaxed in the beautiful bouquet of wildflowers!

The hike back down was equally enjoyable and considerably easier, putting us back on the road by 7 or 8pm (it’s crazy here, you know it just never gets dark!). After another couple of miles, we hop on a return bus thinking the day is done and we’ve seen enough.

Before long the bus stops, driving shouts, everybody looks & just ahead a wolf is walking towards us on the road. She slips away in the bush before I can get the shot. But just ahead another great opportunity, sitting out to the right is the Hawkowl, another lifer for us!

Great, now three in one afternoon, and unlike the wolf, this one poses for the picture ending a wonderful week in one of this country’s premiere national parks!

June 26, 2008

Denali Highway - Brushkana River

We are finally starting to see the crowds, it's pretty busy at the Park. Since we couldn’t get a campsite for the first few days at Denali National Park, we decided to drive part of the Denali Highway ( a real misnomer – it’s a pot-holed, barely two-laned, rough dirt road) to do some birding and stay at least a night before returning to the Park. The Highway is on the opposite side of the “Parks Highway” (which runs north-south from Fairbanks down to Anchorage), and runs east-west some 130 miles from Cantwell to Paxson.

Within a few miles one really gets that feeling of remoteness, very different from being on a busy tour road in a bus with 50 others.

We knew this was going to be a place we’d like when we stopped at this small lake used to make occasional floatplane drops here in the wilderness.

We took our time, stopping along the way to enjoy the scenery. We stopped at the only café along the west side of the route for some delicious homemade pie. The local “décor” reminded us a bit of rural Louisiana!

At roughly 35 miles east, we had lunch at Brushkana Campground, and by now we knew we’d be back for a longer stay on the Highway, so we opted to proceed no further and stay the night here. As luck would have it, a great decision, with this beautiful campsite right next to the river available for us….. We got space #4 which positions the trailer door about 15ft from the water, beautiful! There is a family of tiny baby harleguin ducks just outside the front door. The little things are about the size of a small chicken egg, but very frisky & fast!

The CG host said they have had rain every day here for past 3 days, so the water is "too high & fast for fishing". But do I listen, course not, fished for 1-1/2hr that evening and caught 3 nice Grayling in 1st 30 minutes, then lost the only lure I had in a "hot green perch" color. So, what is fishing in Alaska really like? Well, here I am armed for combat, against the mosquitoes and the current....

The fishing was slow & tedious. To get a strike you had to throw way upstream in slow-med velocity water, and bounce the lure down on the bottom...very hard to tell strike verses hitting a rock. Even though I had cut 2 of the 3 hooks off, I still got hung up a bunch.

Before I quit, I had hung several others, bringing two right to the bank only to lose them. I cleaned the three and we ate for supper...delicious. I fileted two & kept the smallest whole...it cooked much better & came off the bones very well. They really don't cook like Louisiana fish, not as "pretty" in the pan, but still extremely tastey.

While fishing I saw a Tufted Duck the beautiful creature flew right in front of me! Later Kim & I saw the Bohemian Waxwing, both new "lifer" birds for us.

This Morning I waded up to the bridge, made a few casts, caught a nice 14" grayling and then got the line badly fouled so, fought that for about 15 mins, gave up, threw the one fish in the skillet for breakfast...Yummy!

On the way back we got this fabulous view of Denali (the mountain) from the Highway. It was completely in the clear, something they say happens here only a few times a year. We pulled out own lawn chairs and folding table and had lunch with that splendid view. We had a Boreal Owl land right near us, and confirmed definitely the call, with the IPOD, but instead of calling it in, it scared him away, so we never got a look. But, by birding "rules" a positive id on the call counts as an identification, so we get another "lifer".
We took our time driving back westward to the Park, just enjoying the magnificant scenery along the way. Our plans are now changed (something we are doing more often these days) to come back and drive the entire Highway prior to heading south to Anchorage, so we'll have more on this next week.

June 24, 2008


The best way to describe Denali National Park is a single 90 mile long dead end road stretched through six million acres of untouched wilderness!
Add to that several visitor centers, a bus depot, and a few campgrounds near the entrance and there you have it. Access to the park’s interior with your own vehicle is restricted to the first fifteen miles (you can ride a bike or hike in further on your own). Park buses provide shuttles & tours of the “deep interior” daily, with many stops at various points of interest and “primitive” camps along the way. Overnight camping is by permit only, whereas day hikes require only a day or bus pass.

We finally arrive at the Park only to find that all that tourist traffic we've been missing was here, that's why we haven't seen any! Yes, every rv camping spot, tour, tent camping spot, interior back woods camping, shuttle....everything booked for the next three days! BUT late yesterday we checked ticket status and, we got lucky and did get on the twelve hour shuttle that runs all the way to Wonder Lake.
We had tried parking at the overflow lot in the Park, but were run off by a ranger at about 9PM, so we joined a small group of boondockers back out on the highway. Turns out, we had this beautiful view of the roaring Nenana River right outside our doorstep....pretty nice!

This morning started out quite cold & rainey, and to worsen matters, our bus driver ("RJ") had "mechanical problems" and was about 30 minutes late. But, I will say that he made it for it by working hard all day to stop & position the bus whenever he could to spot the birds & animals. His efforts paid off because by the end of the day we had managed to find the “Denali Big 5” (Grizzly, Moose, Caribou, Dall Sheep & Wolf) and an excellent summary of the history of the Park. With a small group onboard, some sharp eyes spotting things that were way, way out there, we really didn't have too much luck going in (to Wonder Lake).
We did manage to see a nesting site of a great horned owl. The mom was there and one of the fledglings. The rest had "flown the coop", so to speak.... and I never was able to get a good pix of mom. It didn't take us long to realize that this scenery beat the Dempster (Highway...up to Artic Circle) that we have been bragging about so much. The immense valleys, with multi-shaded greens, golds & browns set against a spectacular backdrop of snow-edged mountains was a sight to behold, even in the clouds & rain.
We saw both moose and caribou on the way in, our first two of the Big 5. And, when we got to Wonder Lake, we saw many of the most vicious, angry, attacking creatures in all of Alaska.....yep, you guessed it, the notorious Alaskan mosquito! The planned 20 minute stop lasted all of 5 minutes... glad we didn't get a pass to camp here overnite.

As we headed back towards civilization, the rain began to break, and our luck improved. At one of the "view" stops, a lady in front of us, with eagle eyes, spotted this grizzly sow and here cud, way, way out there...hey, but it counts!

Shortly after, we found a nice group of the Dall sheep with a couple of large rams within....turns out that this was to be the first group of several seen on our way out.

The ride out was highlighted with a long stop at the Eilson Visitor Center. The stop here provided this magnificent view of the glacial valley which stretches most of the entire length of the park road.

Just outside, was a recently found pair of moose antlers, locked together from a battle of mortal combat, a scene which is frequently observed here on the tundra during the rut. We walked out to a small point below the Center, and discovered a myriad of tiny wildflowers.

Back in the Center we found a stunning example of quilt art, showing us what the view outside would be like on a clear day!

Kim and I have been determined to see the Gyrofalcon, but after spending many hours “in the right places” and passing right by this active nest twice during the bus drive, we have yet to see this unique bird of prey. I guess we can say that we did get a picture of the nest…so, ok ABA birders, does that count as a lifer?

We stopped at a known wolf den for some time without seeing anything. Then, Kim’s new Nikon binocs really paid off as she noticed the alpha female lying far below in a small path. We also saw one of the pups, but not long enough to get the lens on it. But, hey we had now “scored” the entire Big 5 on what most said was a poor day for viewing. Our only regret was not being able to see Denali (Mt McKinley), but I guess we’ll save it for another day.

The driver could only stop at a couple of "viewpoints" on the return, but I did manage to get a few shots to help convey the feel of Denali!