Saturday, June 19, 2010

Genuine Denali

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA -- This place is real, as real as Fairbanks was an exercise in cheerful tourist deception.

An all-day "tundra tour" aboard a dusty school bus bouncing through the approaches to the Alaska Range in the 6.2-million-acre Denali National Park brings travelers remarkably up close and personal with the Alaskan wilderness, even though we're not allowed to get out of the bus except for pee stops.

These eight-hour journeys, part of Holland-America's Alaska cruise tours, are hit or miss.

Some of them result in no sightings of animals at all. Some of them slog through a steady rain and fog that obscure sight lines. It's catch as catch can in this part of the world; everything depends on fate and chance and the vagaries of weather.

As luck would have it, "I've hit a home run!" crowed Jason Blaylock, our driver, as we returned to the McKinley Chalet Resort, Holland-America's choice hostelry just outside the park on the highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. His passengers were just as delighted.

We'd seen a moose a few feet away from the bus, dozens of grizzlies munching in the tundra a safe hundred or more yards in the distance, as well as caribou, golden eagles, Dall sheep, ptarmigans, snowshoe hares, a red fox and ground squirrels -- an outdoor smorgasbord of wildlife.

And, glory of glories, the clouds briefly lifted so that we could behold 20,300-foot Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, through its attendant peaks in the distance. Only about 30 per cent of visitors to Denali ever see McKinley, so capricious is the weather.

Photographing wildlife from the bus is not easy. The windows get too dusty for sharp shots, and although they can be lowered, shooting through them requires some contortion, not easy for geezers. All the same, I managed to get some fairly good photos of grizzlies, and will post them on this blog in the next few days.

A word on the McKinley Chalet Resort: It's a big place, with dozens of large cabins scattered throughout the property. One gets about either on foot or by using free jitney buses. The amenities are as lovely as they are rustic. I just wish the cabins had wi-fi; only the main lodge has it in the lobby. But it's free, not an expensive add-on as in so many American hotels.

As is true all over Alaska, meals are not cheap, for most provender has to be shipped in from the Lower 48. We budgeted $100 a day to eat in the hotel and in the cafes across the highway, and that's tight.

But that's part of the glorious reality of Alaska.

In the next blogpost, we'll do some railroading.

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