Joining the 30% Club

We feel downright privileged to have been inducted into the 30% club! When we first arrived in Alaska, we had no idea such a club existed. The chalets where we worked were usually the final destination for our guests. They had already explored Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Anchorage. The Kenai Peninsula was the end of their adventures. Time after time, we heard stories of visiting Denali NP only to be terribly disappointed they didn’t get to see Mt. Denali. I mean, after all, it IS the tallest mountain on the continent – how can you not see it?!?!?

Mt Denali is 20,310 feet tall, that’s about 3 1/2 miles. Its 2 peaks are over 2 1/2 miles apart. It’s hard to imagine you couldn’t see it! But the fact is, given its location and size, it creates its own weather.

“Denali is so massive that it generates its own weather; much the way a huge boulder submerged in a river creates whitewater rapids. All mountains deflect air masses and influence local conditions, but Denali rises so abruptly and so high that this effect is more dramatic here than perhaps anywhere else on Earth. Storms barrel in from the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea and collide with Denali’s towering mass. Weather can quickly change from sunny and clear to blizzard conditions with fierce winds, intense cold, and heavy snowfall.”

                                                         From The Alaska Range and Denali: Geology and Orogeny

This pattern of weather convergences means it can be sunny and 70˚ in town and Mt Denali could be obscured by fog and clouds. It’s estimated only 30% of visitors actually get to see Mt. Denali. We were in that 30% – FOR 3 DAYS IN A ROW!!!!   Denali means “the high one” in Koyukon, a subset of the Athabaskan language family, sometimes thought to mean “the great one.” Every time we got to see Mt Denali, I was in awe.

The park has an incredible history and many of the stories can be found here.

The First 15 Miles

a map showing the predominately east-west road through denali national park

Private vehicles can only be driven on the first 15 miles of the 92 mile park road. To go beyond Savage River, you must take the park shuttle or hike. We spent our first day driving those 15 miles and seeing all we could see…

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The view on the left side of the road
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Compared to the view on the right side of the road

It was strange how the left side of the park was in bathed in dappled sun while the right side was shrouded in clouds. There would be no view of Denali today, but, we did get to see some informative signage…

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And when we made it to Savage River, we were treated with a surprise…

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A rainbow over Savage River

We weren’t worried we didn’t see any wildlife on the first day. Guided by the weather forecast, the next day we planned a trip on the shuttle to the Eielson Visitor’s Center – Park Road Mile 66.

The First 66 Miles

We opted for the transit bus, as opposed to the narrated tour bus. The up side of the transit bus is you can disembark, hike, then grab another bus, while you have to remain on the tour bus. We promptly departed at 7:30am, along with 58 of our newest friends. Our shuttle driver Annie filled us in on what to expect, she said we’d stop for all wildlife sightings and several scenic overlooks, in addition to potty breaks for the 8 hour ride.

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Our first view of Mt Denali was over the mist settled in the valley. But, we had seen it! Already a member! As the morning worn on, we stopped for several wildlife encounters…

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Meet Mr Caribou
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Those 2 black dots at 2 o’clock and 8 o’clock are grizzly bears

It was a bit frustrating for me, jostling for a view out the window, but we made it work.

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Those white dots in the center are Dahl Sheep

Are you noticing a pattern? Lots of dots. The colors on the mountains reminded me of Death Valley, except this color came from brightly colored fall foliage instead of minerals…

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The park road winds past colorful mountains

A good part of our day was spent taking pictures like this…

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At mile 46, we stopped to check out Polychrome Overlook. The myriad of colors were astounding…

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Lots of buses filled with tourists

We also stopped along the route for the iconic picture of the park road with Mt Denali in the background. Yes, everyone else has taken this picture, but I couldn’t resist…

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We did get a closer view of some grizzly bears, but unfortunately, the sun was shining toward us and the bears ended up with a halo…

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We also saw a couple moose in the distance…

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And lots more “dots” on the mountains…

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I loved watching this group of caribou. With winter around the corner, they are beginning to shed the velvet covering their antlers. It’s  not a good picture, but the antlers were almost orange…

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The views, despite being out the window, were breathtaking…

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When we arrived at the Eielson Vistor’s Center, Mt Denali provided an amazing backdrop…

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We decided to stay at the vistor’s center and catch a later shuttle. We were treated with a couple minutes of solitude before the next bus arrived. While we were basking in the splendor of Mt Denali, some of the wildlife posed for a closeup…

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An Arctic Squirrel
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Munching away on an apple peel someone had carelessly or purposely dropped

The park rangers go to great length to educate the public about the dangers of feeding ANY of the animals. Annie had reminded us time and again, it was best to eat on the bus so as not to leave so much as a crumb for the critters. But, you know people, some of them just can’t help themselves.

We walked along the trail and looked back at the visitor center…

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And ahead to the 33 more miles to the base of Mt Denali…

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Hard to imagine, Mt Denali is still 33 miles away!

One of the interesting things about Denali NP is the fact it is a “trail-less” park, with a few exceptions near the entrance. People are encouraged to find their own path. Go out and walk on the tundra. Feel the springiness of it under you feet. Enjoy it in your own responsible way.

It was time to head back. We had seen everything we had hoped to except the wolves. Pretty darn good day!

Up next…Cruising the Denali Highway and Abandon Igloos

Are you a member of the 30% club? Did you even know there is such a thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Where are the Bears?

In an effort to get caught up, this post is going to be about several day trips we’ve taken around the Kenai Peninsula. We are always on the lookout for wildlife, particularly bears. Black and brown bears (grizzlies) live on the peninsula and we spend a lot of time exploring the area looking for them. We’d been told the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was famous for bear sightings. We set off early one morning to drive Skilak Lake Road, an 18 mile dirt road in the refuge. We had barely gotten a half mile from Waldo when I had to stop and admire the reflection on Upper Trail Lake…

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When we finally arrived at Skilak Lake Road, I realized something – it was Memorial Day weekend. There were people everywhere, the campgrounds were packed and the bears were in hiding! But, the scenery was lovely…

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Mt Redoubt, in the background, is a volcano – it last erupted in 2009

We did finally get to see some wildlife…

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Oh ya, and we did see a squirrel, but i didn’t get any pictures of it. Another day, the town of Hope was our destination. The Alaskan gold rush began in Hope and there are lots of places to explore. After we turned off the Seward Highway, we were treated to some stunning vistas overlooking Turnagain Arm…

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Usually, we make sure we have a full tank of gas before we head off to do any exploring but we had both verified there was a gas station in Hope, so we didn’t top off the Jeep. What we didn’t know was the price of gas in Hope was $4.50 a gallon! Holy crap! Over a dollar more than in Seward. AND – cash only! That’ll teach us! After we emptied our wallets, we drove along Palmer Creek Road…

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The breathe taking views eventually led us to a hiking trail. There were quite a few cars parked at the trail head, but we grabbed the bear spray and our cameras and started down the trail…

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It didn’t take too long to realize the snow covering the trail was too deep for us to enjoy the walk. As we were debating turning around, I caught movement in the brush…

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This willow ptarmigan was foraging in the underbrush, making way more noise than you would have thought for something that small. We watched until it disappeared and headed back to the Jeep. Since it was getting late in the day, we decided to head back home. As we passed Tern Lake, I saw a pair of tundra swans. But, Steve saw what I had missed! The babies…

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It didn’t take long for a crowd of onlookers to appear. It seems when one person stops along the road with a camera in hand, everyone stops. Apparently, I’m guilty of the same thing. We were driving along Kalifornsky Beach Road, just south of Kenai, when I saw a guy on the side of the road with his camera. Steve and I turned around to investigate – was it a bear? Nope, but almost as cool. It was a caribou, munching away on the tender new shoots…

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We hadn’t driven 3 miles further down the road when we saw Ms. Moose doing her part to control the dandelions…

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After turning off of Kalifornsky Beach Road, we headed north to Captain Cook State Recreation Area. The weather wasn’t the best, so we didn’t have a very good view across Cook Inlet, but we did see some more wildlife…

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We finally got a few sunny days and we headed to Cooper Landing. We stopped at the boat launch and watched as the rafters and fishermen began their journey to the Upper Kenai River…

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Steve decided to drive down Snug Harbor Road which follows the back side of Kenai Lake.  I was enjoying the scenery when Steve abruptly did a u-turn. Why? Was it a bear? Nope (again) it was a beautiful waterfall that couldn’t be seen from  the passenger side of the Jeep…

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We finally made it to the end of the 18 mile road and found Snug Harbor…

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While we were sitting there, a couple in a canoe returned to shore, only to find out their battery was dead…

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We tried to jump start them, but to no avail. We ended up giving them a ride back to Cooper Landing so they could call for a tow. They were grateful we were there, it would have been a very long walk back to town!

Another day, we when were looking for bears, we saw mama moose and her baby…

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So, we’ve done all this driving around Kenai Peninsula looking for bears when we could have stayed at home and let them come to us…

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I took this picture in our driveway! I watched until I thought it was gone. Steve drove to the bottom of the hill and didn’t see it anymore, so we figured it had moved on. Come to find out, it had circled back to Waldo and checked out our grill…

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Like the bear print on the lid to the grill?
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 I guess it was unhappy dinner wasn’t ready!

One of our guests shared this picture with me…

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Now we know where the bears are!

 

 

Our First Day Trip

So we crossed from the Yukon into Alaska on May 1st. Here it is July 1st and I am posting about our first day trip on May 12th. Reminds me just how far behind I am.

We’ve actually been in Alaska for 8 weeks and we’ve been on several day trips now. One thing I have decided is that Nat Geo has been lying to us for years! There is not a moose standing in the road around every bend and there aren’t bears catching salmon in every river and creek. As a matter of fact, I saw my first wild bear just this week. That being said, if you want to make sure to see all of the Alaskan wildlife, you need to take a day trip to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

We drove past the entrance to the AWCC because we had heard there were a bunch of eagles in Turnagain Arm. The tide was out and, who knew that eagles will stand in the shallow waters to hunt…

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It was amazing to see so many eagles in such a small area.

It was a cold, raw day and the skies kept threatening to drench us. We had dressed for it and were ready to explore the AWCC. The conservation work being done there is truly impressive. They have helped re-introduce wood bison and other large game back into the wilderness. Some of their wildlife are movie stars, having been on loan for the filming of Into The Wild.

I loved how much room the animals had and how natural their habitats were. Here are my favorite pictures from our day…

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Elk
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Musk Ox
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Grizzly bears
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Black bear
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Looking for lunch
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Something’s on the wind
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Part of the caribou herd – I think they see the lunch truck coming
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Wood bison with nursing baby
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Learning to walk

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Successful fishing in Turnagain Arm
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Wolf surveying his domain

There were several other species I didn’t get any decent shots of, like moose, lynx, porcupine and reindeer.

I’m hoping to see most of these animals in the wild and if you’ve been following me on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll know which ones I’ve seen so far.

Up next…Kenai Fjords National Park.

Thanks for coming along!