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Wildlife, Wild Scenery and Wild Stories in Denali


By Fyllis Hockman

Forty pairs of eyes scanned the countryside looking for movement, any movement. With binoculars and cameras at the ready, we hoped for a bear or a moose but were willing to settle for some Dall sheep high up the mountain. Not a passenger aboard the bus maintained a semblance of composure. We scurried like kids from one side to the other, eager to be the first to announce the next sighting.

Such was my introduction to the Tundra Wilderness Tour, a more than five-hour excursion into Denali National Park and Preserve, larger than the state of Massachusetts and tenderly watched over by Denali, the highest mountain in North America.

On an African safari, the goal is to spot the Big Five -- lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and cape buffalo. In Alaska, the concept is the same -- just the names are different: moose, bear, wolf, caribou and Dall sheep. But when we initially stopped to see a snowshoe hare, I thought, "This is not a good sign." And in truth, you can't always accurately decipher what you see in the distance: Snow fills are mistaken for sheep, large boulders for bears. Hopes rise and are dashed, and the guide takes refuge in another snowshoe hare.

But this was a tour for the long haul -- and we weren't likely to be disappointed. Even more impressive, our driver-guide, with infectious enthusiasm, kept up a constant patter that covered vegetation, history, animal lore, Alaskan peccadilloes, personal experiences and other tantalizing tidbits for the duration of the tour. The fact that it was still interesting by that fifth hour is even more of a phenomenal accomplishment. The running commentary that accompanied our guide's driving along narrow, winding roads, clutching the mountainside while he rapidly gazed right and left for any movement that might indicate animal activity, was a heroic act of multitasking I didn't want to think too much about.

And there was always something to see -- over the course of the tour we saw numerous Dall sheep, occasional moose, caribou (the North American relative to the reindeer), the ubiquitous snowshoe hares, of course, and other native wildlife. And when the animals played hard to get for a period of time, just lifting our eyes to the proverbial snowcapped mountains in the distance was enough to keep us enthralled until the next native creature revealed itself.

Because the bus was so big, the sound of recognition traveled like a wave from front to back -- and there was always a risk the animal the front had viewed would be gone by the time the back of the bus caught up. But we didn't have to worry. On the off chance that we missed the mama moose and her calf or the Dall sheep straddling a steep slope, close-up images from the driver's video camera magically appeared on the TV screens lowered above the seats in the bus. I was torn between resenting seeing my "in the wild" Alaska wildlife resembling a Discovery Channel documentary and feeling grateful I could see them at all -- and close-up at that.

In truth, I was in it for the bears. Earlier in the trip, I had discovered that we were there too early in the year (June instead of July) for the peak running season of the sockeye salmon and, therefore, too early for the bears to gather around the streams just waiting for those happily spawning salmon to fly into their mouths. My own mouth had been watering at the very thought of watching such a spectacle.

Our guide kept reassuring us we would certainly see grizzlies, but by hour number five, when only a glimpse of brown had been seen once in the far distance, he finally, guiltily, sorrowfully, very apologetically acknowledged that maybe we wouldn't this trip.


And then suddenly, the cry went out -- waves of wows traveled along the bus -- as a mama and two bear cubs came into view. "Hallelujah," cried one excited passenger. "Thank goodness! We paid $5,000 to see that critter," noted another. Our guide admitted he was getting quite nervous -- only 20 times in 18 seasons had he not seen a bear. It was far away and it clearly wasn't catching any fish, but I did feel some sense of vindication.

At the end of the trip, our guide played back the video that captured the highlights of our bus trip from hare to bear and all the other denizens of Denali in between: the many Dall sheep, mama moose with twins, caribou, golden eagle, ground squirrels, ptarmigans (the state bird) and, of course, the bears. We just missed Alaska's Big Five by one wolf. Not surprisingly, like the ubiquitous gift shop at the end of every museum tour, the video was for sale.

But Denali was only one stop on the Alaska Explorer Tour. There were also glaciers and mountains and gold-mining history and Indigenous cultures and whale-watching tours and frontier towns and backcountry plus myriad experiences I've had nowhere else. In the process, I learned to appreciate not only America's last frontier but the hardy, independent-minded people who inhabit it. Still, next time I want to see more bears.



For more information: www.denaliparkvillage.com/tours/tundra-wilderness-tour


Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate, Inc.




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