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!