Sorry folks! I have been crazy busy trying to catch up at home and even put a short trip in to Colorado…but that’s for another post! Our last full day in Denali was spent on a 13 hour bus tour that took us 92 miles into Denali National Park. It is the furthest you can go on a tour bus and it did not disappoint! I know what you are thinking….how can a 13 hour day on a bus seem like any fun at all? Well, I have to say that God was certainly shining on us that day…not that He doesn’t everyday…but this day was extra special. First off, it wasn’t a school bus. You may laugh but 13 hours on bumpy roads on a school bus sounds kinda miserable to me. We had bucket seats in a school bus shell. Second of all, we had a fabulous driver! His name was Erik. He is originally from Washington state, but lives his winters in Colorado…near the mountains in the cities of Breckenridge, Telluride, etc. Swanky ski towns. During those winters he drives school buses for the local elementary school kids. He had a shirt on that simply said, “Listen to Erik” It was his only rule for the day. Of course a lot of rules can stem from that simple concept – this was not lost on me. I would say that Erik was in his 30’s, and man, does he love his job. First, he told us about his job as a school bus driver in Colorado. He knows each of his student riders by name. He goes to their sporting events and goes to their music concerts. They, in return, sounded like they were enamored with him Erik”. They would organize days where the whole bus would wear their shirts and he would come in and eat lunch in the school cafeteria with them. He had a long school bus-esque rectangular rearview mirror to keep an eye on all of us. We, in turn, could see his face as well. There was a time when we were all ogling at a big grizzly bear that was only a few yards from our bus and he said what was even better than watching the bear was watching all of our faces as WE watched the bear. Erik spends his summers driving tour buses in Denali National Park and he really knows his stuff. He was able to talk about the flora and fauna of Alaska, history, the wildlife, rock and mountain formations, and hiking techniques for those who try to summit Denali. (About 5 years ago they changed the name of Mt. McKinley back to Denali-meaning the ‘great one’). He has climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington state in the hopes of someday getting a chance to hike Denali. So Erik was enthusiastic about what he was sharing with us and he went the extra distance to help each side of the bus get good photos and opportunities to see scenery and wildlife. We were very fortunate that we were able to see Denali that day. The smoke from wildfires were in the air much of the time we were in Alaska, but we had a couple of clear days that we got to see Denali, so we are in the 30% club….because that’s about the percentage of people who get to see her when they come…30%. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some pretty scary roads we had to traverse in order to get to the lodge at the end of the road. After 15 miles into the park, the farthest you can go in a personal vehicle with a park pass, the road becomes a gravel/dirt road and the further you go, the skinnier it gets. When there are only tour buses and a few park rangers/scientists/road workers, it gets a little dicey…especially if you are doing hairpin turns around the sides of mountains. I was very very very impressed with Erik’s ability to drive that bus, even if my stomach dropped to my knees a few times when I was sitting on a ledge that was a sheer cliff drop off.
If you have been following along with our Alaskan adventure, you know that we haven’t seen a ton of wildlife. We saw a moose that was 1/2 a mile away whilst on the train. We saw a porcupine (that I thought was a large, wide cat) about 20 yards away – it was dusk….and I figured it out before I went to pet it, a couple of eagles seen from the train, a very industrious beaver couple building a dam across the river from our hotel, and a lynx slinking on the same side of the river as the beaver couple, which caused them to disappear for awhile. So really, it was nothing real close (except for the porcupine – which was I think an oddity all the way around for Alaska). We weren’t seeing Moose walking down Main Street or bears munching on blue berries. (another 2 weeks and the blue berries would have been ripe and maybe it would have been different). Remember way back when on TV there was a show called Northern Exposure? I loved that show! Anyhow, we weren’t seeing the animals I thought we would see frequently. Locals talked about them, but it was just too warm for them to be out and about for us to see. Even Rich, who has been to Alaska several times, was shocked at the lack of wildlife. However, our luck changed on our bus ride. We saw 7 moose, 6 arctic ground squirrels (which Erik called “bear burritos”), about a dozen caribou, 4 dahl sheep (although they were very far away), a whole brood of ptarmigan, and 8 grizzly bears….including a momma and her cub. We got to see a grizzly bear and a caribou up close and personal because they walked around our bus as it was pulled over on the side of the road. I had my nice camera with me and have not had time to go through those photos yet. These will be all the ones from my phone. But they aren’t too bad!
At the end of the road, there is a lodge and we had a nice lunch there and then had the option of taking a class on botany, panning for gold, or a few other informative hikes about legends from the area. Lily and Rich decided to pan for gold. They listened to a briefing and then set to work shoveling and sifting. Rich found a pretty impressive little chunk of gold colored rock that he was really excited about. His hopes were dashed when the nature guide did the thumbnail check on it and it exploded to dust. Lily, however, found a couple of flakes that were real gold. They laminated them on a card for her. They got some massive mosquito bites until I dusted them with Alaskan cologne….aka deet. They had a good time though! Watching them, I often take a step back and think that maybe they will be okay when I am gone. That they will have each other and they won’t need me to be the glue to connect them. As sad as it makes me to think I won’t watch her become a mom or a wife…it makes my heart feel good that Rich and Lily will look after each other.