Aug 3, 2015 Inside Denali National Park, Alaska

Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake
Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake

Mount McKinley, At Last!

( This is an edited repost for August 3rd, inside Denali National Park )

I was up early to catch the first bus out today. For the first time in four days, there was a new driver for this first bus to Wonder Lake, a scruffy looking guy named Mike Dyas, and after making the trip with him, I can’t tell you how much I missed our chatty Kathy ( wordy Wendy ? ) bus driver of our first three trips. This guy was surly, brusque, downright rude at times and must really hate what he is doing. Turns out your bus driver can really make a difference in how your day turns out.

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

Foggy Start
Foggy Start

The weather report hinted that this might just finally be the day to see Mount McKinley in all it’s glory, supposed to be warm and sunny, but it certainly didn’t start out that way as we climbed Sable Pass in dense fog. All opportunities for seeing any wildlife through this area went by the boards quickly, as the low lying cloud just wouldn’t quit.

Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds

By the time we reached Polychrome Pass, we had finally started to climb above the fog/clouds, and this produced a rather different look to the valley below.

Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds

As we left Polychrome and headed towards Eielson, the sky was turning blue and my hopes for Mount McKinley were rising.

Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley

And finally, after around a dozen or more trips in here over two years, I caught my first glimpse of the mountain glistening in the noon day sun.

Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley From Eielson
Mount McKinley From Eielson

From the Eielson Visitor’s Center, Mount McKinley in full view is a very imposing, grand sight indeed, probably worth my waiting twenty two years to finally experience.

Having said that, I really was a little disappointed that there was no way possible a bus passenger could get out here early enough to catch this magnificent sight in some nice early morning light. I can only imagine how spectacular this scene was at seven or eight this morning, the harsh noon day light makes a great image of the mountain impossible for me.

Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake
Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake

We continued on to Wonder Lake and had the rare opportunity to see the mountain from another perspective as we continued down the road.

Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake
Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake

There were several small kettle ponds along both sides of the road that would have yielded some great reflection shots of the mountain, if only we weren’t flying past them at thirty mph, with a schudule to keep and a very indifferent driver at the wheel.

Willow Ptarmigan
Willow Ptarmigan

On our return trip to the campground, we saw very little wildlife, just a few ptarmigan …

Bull Caribou
Bull Caribou
Bull Caribou
Bull Caribou

… and some wandering caribou.

The bright blue skies and warmer temps make life a bit uncomfortable if you happen to be wearing a fur coat, so most wildlife stays put somewher out of the sun on beautiful days like this.

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August 3, 2015 Teklanika CG inside Denali NP

Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley

The Mountain at Last !

I hopped on the first bus out this morning and managed to get a window seat! Hopes were high that this would be the day to finally get to see Mount McKinley as the morning sky was quite clear and starting to show signs of blue.

Foggy Start
Foggy Start

Those hopes were dashed a bit as we headed up though Sable Pass and encountered fog, or perhaps some low hanging clouds, though I suppose they are one and the same. The pea soup out the windows obscurred any chance of seeing wildlife this morning as we headed up to Polychrome Pass.

Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds

Kind of neat to actually drive up through the clouds and suddenly find those same clouds below you.

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

Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds

Certainly a different and rather unusual look to Polychrome Pass this morning.

Polychrome Above the Clouds
Polychrome Above the Clouds

And looking ahead, the prospects of seeing Mount McKinley this morning once again brightened.

Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley

And finally, there it was! Just peeking over the hills ahead of the bus.

Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley

Over those hills and the mountains foothills appeared as we continued along the Park Road towards Eielson.

Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley

This morning turned out to be that one in three when clouds did not block the view of the mountain. For me, this was my one in fifteen. That’s how many trips in here it has taken for me to finally get this view of Mount McKinley.

Mount McKinley From Eielson
Mount McKinley From Eielson

The view from Eielson was simply spectacular. All these shots were taken at high noon with the worst possible light of day. I can only imagine how incredible this sceme must be in the early morning light, but unfortunately it is impossible to get in here on the shuttle buses before 11 AM.

Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake
Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake
Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake
Mount McKinley From the Road to Wonder Lake

Our driver told us that even on the days when the mountain is visible from Eielson, it is very unusual for the mountain to be seen in the clear from the road to Wonder Lake. He says that by noon clouds begin to form and rise from the base of the mountain itself, that McKinley generates it’s own clouds, normally leaving the emountain in the clear only in the morning.

Bull Caribou
Bull Caribou
Bull Caribou
Bull Caribou

On the way home, we ran into a couple of caribou bulls,

Willow Ptarmigan
Willow Ptarmigan

and Alaska’s state bird, the willow ptarmigan. No bears, moose, or wolves as the warm, sunny weather keeps them laying low to escape the heat ( 70 degrees ) of the day.

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August 2, 2015 Teklanika CG inside Denali NP

Grizzly
Grizzly

Bear Wishes Granted !

After a so/so day on another crowded bus yesterday, with only distant animal sightings and no landscape shots due to the low cloud cover, today I kinda hit the jackpot.

Grizzly
Grizzly

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

Grizzly
Grizzly

The cloudy, overcast conditions at the start of the day were actually a blessing as not one, not two, but three different bears showed up close enough to the road for photographs from the crowded bus windows.

Grizzly Portrait
Grizzly Portrait

One actually approaching close enough for this portrait.

Grizzly Feeding
Grizzly Feeding
Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly

Kind of a thrill to be able to observe at such close quarters, without fear of attack, a creature as powerful as this. Watching as he went about his routine, feeding on grasses and berries, as he does for about 22 hours a day at this time of year. In fact, the most difficult thing about shooting bears right now is that as they gorge themselves, getting ready for hibernation, they seldom ever lift their head from the ground where they are grazing.

Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly

A little different from the shots of bears that were only dots on the hills the past two days.

Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly
Grizzly

Polychrome Pass

Polychrome Pass
Polychrome Pass

The clouds parted slightly as we ascended to Polychrome Pass.

Polychrome Pass
Polychrome Pass
Polychrome Pass
Polychrome Pass

Today, with shafts of sunlight peaking through the clouds, some of the colors of the pass were finally on display. The bus usually makes a ten minute stop here for passengers to get out and take some shots as well as stretch their legs.

Polychrome Pass
Polychrome Pass
Polychrome Pass
Polychrome Pass

By the time we were reboarding the bus and heading up the road to Eielson, the clouds were giving way to a fair amount of blue sky. We were all hoping today might be the day we finally see Mount McKinley out in the open.

Mount McKinley Summits
Mount McKinley Summits

But when we arrived at Eielson, there were still clouds surrounding the mountain and concealing it’s peaks, although there still was a lot of blue sky above.

Mount McKinley Summits
Mount McKinley Summits

For about five minutes, the two peaks of McKinley were visible through the clouds, then the clouds rolled in from the east and once again completely concealed the mountain. Maybe tomorrow !

Mount McKinley Summits
Mount McKinley Summits

On our return home, at the Toklat rest stop, high up the mountain …

Distant Dall Sheep
Distant Dall Sheep

… a small group of Dall Sheep could be seen ( barely ). I had really hoped that I might get some shots of these white sheep on this trip, but at this time of year, you must do some very serious uphill hiking to get anywhere near these guys.

Later in the afternoon, back at the Teklanika Campground, Brenda and Hector Lopez stopped by to say hello ( their blog is here Island Girl Walkabout ). I had met these wonderful fellow Full Timers last year out on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Hector is an avid photographer and was fortunate enough to snag one of the few photographer permits given out each year that allow photographers to travel the Park Road in their private vehicle to take photos. So if you want to see all the images I have been moaning about missing from the bus, check out their website! ( Give him some time to get them uploaded to their blog since they are still in the park with no internet access ).

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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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