July 31, 2015, Teklanika CG inside Denali NP

Bull Caribou Resting
Bull Caribou Resting

First Impressions

Yesterday, I first stopped at the Riley Campground along the Park Road to visit their dump station and fill up with fresh drinking water. There is a very nice three station setup there along with dumpsters. My day started rather poorly here as my sewer compartment door wouldn’t open so I was forced to get down on the wet sewerage covered pavement and crawl under the motorhome to loosen the door catch to finally get it open.

I next headed to the Visitor Center Parking Lot where you are allowed to park your toad and tow dolly for your stay at Teklanika since you are not allowed to bring them into the park. Discovering that I had a strong Verizon signal at the Visitors Center, I checked up on last minute emails and decided I would do a last minute blog post, so went to download some images from a card … and in my haste, bent a prong in the card reader, making it unusable for downloading images, just as I was getting ready to enter the park. Panic began to set in.

I went into the Visitors center and asked one of the nice folks there if there was a camera shop or any place in Denali that might have a card reader for sale. Fortunately, it turns out there was a place in Denali, just north of the Park that did have a card reader ( unfortunately, an $18 card reader happens to go for $70 there, but at least I now do have one for downloading the many images I hope to get inside the park ). OK, so now I am finally ready to enter the park and drive the 29 miles into Teklanika. Cue the storm clouds, I am ready to go.

Of course, as soon as I turned onto the Park Road, the skies opened up and it poured all the way in to the campground. No way to see any wildlife along the way, and I got the motorhome just caked solid with mud.

Teklanika Campground

Arrived at Teklanika and settled into Site 15. Sites are not too bad, sort of close but not as bad as other places. Lots of spruce trees between sites, but with overhead clear for solar, assuming that the sun will shine again someday. Needless to say, this far inside the park, there is no Verizon coverage ( or any other, I imagine ).  All the sites have a flat gravel pad with fire ring and picnic table. You are in the woods so there is no view, but it is only a short walk to the Teklanika River. Unfortunately I forgot to take any shots of the campground.

Through the Bus Windshield
Through the Bus Windshield

First Bus Trip Into the Park

You are not allowed to drive your private vehicle past the 14 mile mark of the Park Road, all transportation beyond there to the end of the Park Road 85 miles in is by a Park Shuttle Bus. These green buses leave the Vistors Center starting at 5:30 AM and buses leave there every half hour throughout the day. These same buses stop to pick up passengers at the Teklanika CG and there is nice bus shelter there to protect you while you wait, in case of inclement weather. One of the supposed advantages of staying at Teklanika CG is something called the TEK Pass for the shuttle buses. You see, all passengers on the buses pay a fee to ride each day, ranging from $27 to $52 depending on how far into the park the bus goes. If you have a Tek Pass, you just pay one $35 fee and then can ride every day for no additional charge.  You are not, however, allowed to ride the bus back out of the park, unless you want to have to purchase another ticket to get back in to Teklanika. I was told the first bus out in the morning was usually never full and so that worked out well for me since I am up early and this also happens to be the best time to get wildlife.

So on Day One I waited for the Wonder Lake bus, the first one in the morning arriving at Teklanika at 6:30 AM. Six others from the campground were getting on here also and the bus was all but full already. No window seats open but I got seated next to a woman who grudgedly moved over a bit to make room for me. At the first rest stop, when she reboarded, she fortunately went and sat with her husband, so I did end up with a window seat after all. But this crowded bus first thing in the morning is kind of distressing to me. Being all but a hermit, crowded conditions like this make me uncomfortable to start with. Plus, if you are not seated by the window, it becomes very difficult to get any chance at a decent photo when, and if, the bus encounters wildlife along the way. And, even if you do end up by a window, if the bus is full, and another adult is parked next to, or, in reality, on top of you ( remember, these are school buses, designed to seat school children, not full sized adults ), then there still is really no way to hope to get any decent shots since there is no room to move or turn to shoot with a medium to long camera lens. I never even bothered to bring my 600mm lens ( that is what I most often could have used because of the distance the animals usually were from the bus ).

On our way into the park, our driver flew past many potentially great landscapes on the way towards Sable Pass. Now, I understand that they have a schedule to maintain and everyone would rather stop for wildlife sightings than for landscape shots, but it really hurt this photographer to see so many wonderful photo opps go flying by. Lots of fireweed along the road and some nice patches on the hillsides with the sun poking through dense cloud cover and sometimes rain. The muddy road threw mud on the windows until it was all but impossible to see out. Fortunately, at the Toklat rest stop, there were squeegees and pails of water for window washing, as there were at most of the rest stops, self service though. Unfortunately, it only took a few miles down the road until they were covered once again.

Collared Wolf
Collared Wolf

We did encounter this lone collared wolf, a very rare sighting ( though certainly no great photo ) according to our driver. She explained that one could expect to see a bear or caribou almost every time out, a moose once every other time out, but a wolf only once every 20 times out.

As always, click on any image for a larger, sharper version.

Polychrome Pass Colors
Polychrome Pass Colors

Clouds concealed the usually brilliantly multicolored Polychrome Pass. One should be forewarned that if you are at all queasy about heights, you may not want to travel this road, as the narrow road barely clings to the steep side of the mountain and there is a 700 foot drop to the river below. At times, especially in the rear of the bus, you feel like you are hovering in air over that 700 foot drop. I might mention, there are no guard rails along the road. I suppose I should also mention, there have never been buses disappearing over the edge either.

Distant Grizzly
Distant Grizzly
Distant Grizzly and Cubs
Distant Grizzly and Cubs

The bears today were always far too distant to get any decent shots, just dots on the valley floor or up on a hillside, and with a full bus, if you were seated on the wrong side away from the bears, you were out of luck anyway. These two images were taken with my 400mm lens and they were probably half a mile away..

No Mountain Today
No Mountain Today

The wonderful rest stop at Eielson would be great for Mount McKinley shots on a clear day but no mountain was visible today. In an encouraging sign, there were bits of blue sky starting to show while we were there. From Eielson to Wonder Lake and back was about a three hour trip with out any wildlife sightings, a common occurrence according to our driver. Other than if one liked to pick blueberries at Wonder Lake, to me there really is no reason to go past Eielson after making one trip all the way out to see Wonder Lake.

Artic Ground Squirrel
Artic Ground Squirrel

Eielson is a great spot to get up close to these cute little guys, the bottom of the food chain in Denali, the Arctic Ground Squirrel.

Artic Ground Squirrel
Artic Ground Squirrel

On our return trip we did encounter a couple of caribou bulls relatively close to the road and stopped for a couple of shots.

Young Bull Caribou
Young Bull Caribou
Caribou Portrait
Caribou Portrait
Bull Caribou Resting
Bull Caribou Resting

Getting back to the campground around 3:30 made the total bus time a pretty long eight and a half hours. Our driver Wendy Hester, was entertaining to listen to along the way. But the full bus made me very uncomfortable, packed in like sardines. With so many wonderful photo opportunities bypasssed and no wildlife anywhere near the road, plus the normal rain and cloud cover, this turned out to be a rather sad trip through some absolutely wonderful country.

But the weather calls for some slowly improving weather in the next few days, so if I can get a seat on the bus, things may start to look up soon.

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