Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Blessing From Denali

For two days travel before we reached Denali National Park, the mountain of mystery and awe was possible to view- but only if conditions were perfect, and only if you knew where to be looking, and only if you were damn lucky! In truth, a scant 20% of the people that come looking for Denali, the Great One, the Tall Mountain, will ever even catch a glimpse of the majesty that supports the legend. And so, for two days, as our agenda drew us closer and closer to the mighty mountain, we tried and failed to see even a hint of Mt. McKinley, finally resigning ourselves to the sad fact that the odds may catch up with us and deny us the sighting we had longed for as we approached. Upon arrival to our camp site about 10 miles north of the park, but still 70 miles or more from the mountain, the conditions boded poorly for us as it was overcast and freezing cold and wind a blowing at gale forces. Such is the weather around Denali- a mountain of 20,000 feet elevation that it creates its own weather year around and it- not the tour guides nor anyone else decides who sees it and who goes away disappointed with the journey. So ready to face the worst we turned in for the night, such as it is, and awoke the next morning to sun already shining and a relatively clear but not perfect day. Maybe we would get lucky.
We drove the 15 miles allowed for private vehicles in the direction of the mountain. I snapped a photo over Cathedral mountain, where Denali, if she was willing, would appear in a robe of white some 3000 feet thick- but it was not to be. Resigned, we drove back out of the park, in the hopes that our scheduled 8 hour tour the following day would bring us some good fortune.
The next morning we arose at 4 AM. There were some clouds of concern, but nothing to do but hope for the best so off toward the mountain we went. Two cow moose, one with two calves, caught our interest along the 10 mile traverse to the park entrance; maybe this was a good omen. The tour took us 62 miles from the entrance to the park, across the Tundra, toward the mountain. Along the way, foxes chasing birds in the brush, Ptarmigans, like pheasant along the side of the “fit for mountain goat” road, much of the way. Dall Sheep dotted the high mountains along the route in large numbers, Caribou crossing the Tundra plains far below in the valleys by the river, snow shoe hares and ground squirrels by the hundreds nearly everywhere you looked. Two Grizzly Bears, a long way off, definitely hooking up for mating season which is just now beginning- but still a thrill in the binoculars and with the digital zoom on the camera to prove they were in fact out there. But would the mountain appear. At the first possible place to see it- a resounding no, but the tour driver expressed hope that the clouds of this day were low, and that we could drive past them and still have a chance. And when push came to shove, there it was! Or at least part of it- the north peak- the second highest peak of the mountain poked is head out through the clouds that shrouded much of the mountain. The base was clearly evident, the peak was playing coy. Still, it was a “silencer” for the group and we stood in wonder of a mountain that claimed the landscape as its very own, without even showing its true hand. The long day ended and we slept, knowing we had seen Denali. We were not disappointed, but we were left wanting for more if that could possibly be.
Today we traveled from Denali, National Park, through Denali State Park, to Talkeetna, where the rivers of the mountain glaciers begin to merge to form the salmon fishery that is legendary to Alaska. The fish have just started to show up here so maybe we will not have time to catch the early king run this far north. But a beautiful rainbow trout presented itself at X-Y Lake. (NO! I’m not trying to hide the name of the water where the fish was caught- that IS the name of the lake!) The trout, like the first graying hooked a day or two ago was released. My sacrificial offering to Mother Nature for providing me the opportunity of a lifetime. But no more Mr. Nice Guy. Unless I fish catch and release waters (which are prevalent here) the next big fish will provide nourishment for the body as well as the soul. I’m getting powerful hungry for salmon.
But back to the mountain:
Today we traveled 160 miles. You would think the mountain would be long gone from the landscape…and towering above the rest of the Alaska Range and tall pines only in our minds. You would be wrong. The day proved out to be cloudless, or nearly so. The almost perfect day. And Denali loomed larger and larger and more powerful at every turn in the road. It has never taken me so long to drive that distance in my life. Not because the road was bad ( it was excellent) but because it was necessary to stop and take another picture with every new view of the mountain that presented itself. To each other, and to all those fellow travelers who pulled over like we did, and leap frogged with us all day long, we patted our backs in congratulations. We all understood we had received the blessing of the mountain. We all understood we had been granted the best view the mountain has to offer. Perfect clarity- all three peaks! We all understood that a once in the life opportunity had come our way. Four out of every five days, the mountain is totally invisible to the hopeful viewer. Four out of five are sent away without out seeing any of the mountain. Others are sent away with a mere glimpse of the base. Still others with a peek at a peak- or one peak of the three- but we had it all today, and we had it all day long. And still do tonight. No other geographical feature I know of any where in the world dominates its landscape like Denali. From hundreds of miles away- it’s still the biggest game in town. Or gone.
I can’t show you all the pictures now, though I feel like I want to; here are some shots from yesterday and today:

Denali SHOULD be visible over Cathedral Mountain from this vantage point 15 miles into the park. As you can see, it's not a bad day. But NO mountain showing.

Look closely at the top of the cloud. That's the north peak of the mountain Denali poking through just a tad. Clicking on the photo, like always to enlarge, will help. Those "other" mountains in front of Denali (without the snow cover) are the same BIG mountains of the Alaska Range we have been posting for some time now. They are dwarfed by Denali! It takes your breath away- altitude or no....
Caribou antlers...
Moose antler...

A Raven's nest in Denali Park. A rare find, these birds nested before the park opened for the season...or they never would have been so near the road and the traffic that comes with it. These chicks are just about ready to take flight. Good timing for us!
These two yellow "dots" in the grassy area mid photo are grizzles caught with my 10X digital zoom lens. Though they are nearly a mile off, they were still mighty impressive in the binoculars! I confess to being happy I took this out the bus window. I've read all the "what to do if you come across a grizzle" and ,my dear, I'd rather not.
At every turn in the road, Denali presented another face....

1 comment:

Chris said...

Spectacular!! I'm SO glad you got to see THE mountain ... so you could share it with the rest of us!
How about using Picasa Web Albums to upload all the photos? There's a lesson on how to do it on :-) Just click on the link under Video Tutorials to Picasa.