Alaska Day 6: Denali Backcountry Adventure

Alaska Day 6: Denali Backcountry Adventure

We’re booked on the Denali Backcountry Adventure today, an all day (13 hour) guided bus trip taking in the full 92 miles of the park road and back again. We’re picked up at 6:00 am and after collecting passengers from other hotels, enter the park about an hour later.

Our driver guide is Anna and she explains the procedure. Her job is to get us there and back in one piece so it’s best if she keeps at least one eye on the road. Our job is to spot wildlife. If we see anything – or think we see anything – we are to shout “Stop the bus! Bear / Moose / Rabbit (as appropriate) at 11 o’clock!”

As it transpires, both Carole and I prove to be appallingly bad at this; neither of us is the first to spot anything. Fortunately, there are a number of eagle-eyed hunters on board who are able to distinguish a rock from a feeding elk a mile or more away so our day is one of frequent loud shouts and sudden stops. Invariably this is followed by me peering through binoculars and telling Carole that I really can’t see anything until she patiently points out a feature on the landscape that eventually guides my eyes towards the beast that everyone else has been looking for the last 20 seconds.

We see numerous moose, elk, and caribou throughout the morning and Anna keeps up a constant – and entertaining – commentary on what we’re seeing and the park in general. Yesterday, she tells us, was the best view of Denali she’d seen in her seven years at the park, a day so clear and the mountain so sharp, that she’d been moved to tears. And today is just the same, with crystal clear views all the way through until early afternoon when a few wispy clouds begin to develop around the summit.

If the mountain is the main attraction, spotting a grizzly runs it a very close second and a few hours into the journey we hear our first “Stop the bus – bears at 3 o’clock!” They’re some way off, scrabbling for food under rocks on a steep hillside, but sure enough, there are our first grizzlies of the day. Other follow but, it has to be said, always a little too far away to engender anything more than a buzz of satisfaction.

Lunch is a buffet at the end of the road and we then have an hour in the fresh air with a choice of activities. I go gold panning while Carole opts for a short guided hike; each activity proves about as successful as the other. All I find is dirt, while Carole’s walk doesn’t take place at all due to a medical emergency requiring the attention of the guide.

The return journey is just as interesting as the outbound leg, possibly more so as, while assisting with the emergency, Anna manages to acquire a deep gash to her hand. This requires constant re-bandaging by passengers concerned for her welfare (and also I suspect, out of self preservation: the last thing you want is a blood-slippy interface between bus and driver as she negotiates scarily tight switchbacks with almost sheer drop-offs).

Despite very obviously requiring medical attention herself, Anna continues to respond to any animal sightings although, as the afternoon progresses, we agree to keep moving for elk and caribou. Only when the cry comes up “Stop the bus! Grizzly at 4 o’clock!” do we once again pull over and sure enough, there he is, no more than maybe 50-60 yards away, turning over logs in search of protein-rich insects.

It’s the icing on the cake of a great day out – what everyone was hoping for – and we spend the next 10 minutes engrossed as we watch him forage on the low hillside, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

Then slowly we make our way back out of the park, tired and ready for a beer but satisfied that all the boxes have been ticked (we didn’t see wolves but hadn’t expected to anyway). It’s nearly 8:00 before we reach our hotel (first pick-up, last drop-off), but Anna still has to go to the emergency room before returning home, cleaning the bus and getting it ready to collect tomorrow’s adventurers. It can’t be a bad life, getting paid to spend every day looking for wildlife in Denali National Park, but she sure earns her money!