Addie enjoyed the grizzlies immensely, even found being in their environment with them a very emotionally moving experience. It was that to me and more. When I was five years old, fascinated with wild animals in general, and bears in particular, my father told me about Kodiak Island and the huge brown bears. At that time, I wanted to go to Kodiak to hunt the world’s largest grizzly bears. Even when I passed the hunting phase of my life, I remained fascinated with the Kodiak bears. Visiting Kodiak Island was on my bucket list for a half century before anyone ever heard of a bucket list! Now, I want to go back.
“If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly…” is a phrase I have worn out over the past few years. However, never in my wildest imagination did I think I would get the chance to come as close to being a real grizzly as I did the other day. As soon as our plane landed on Kodiak Island, Dad and I hopped onto another plane (see Dad’s post about the Widgeon) and flew to Katmai National Park and Preserve to see the brown bears (Kodiak grizzlies).
Our guide, Jo, has been taking wide-eyed “mainlanders” to Katmai for the past 10 years, and she seemed to know all the bears personally. Have to admit, it made things a bit less frightening to have her there interpreting the bears’ every move and look. She completely understood their communication and used that to slowly get us close. As Jo put it, “the bears have extremely expressive body language.” For example, when they tense up, the hump on their back becomes more prominent. On the other end of the spectrum, they put their heads down and/or turn their hind end toward you when they want to show non-aggression.
To get close, we hiked across meadows and forded streams in hip boots. By completely immersing ourselves in their habitat, we were able to silently watch bears dig for clams, fish for salmon, snooze, and play. Besides all the “singles”, we also came across a mom with one spring cub, a mom with 2 spring cubs, and a mom with a 2nd year cub. These bears are seriously good moms..VERY protective and nurturing. We watched one mom chase a wolf she had been feuding with away from her cubs and another mom chase off two bears who were play fighting in a river near her cub. We also watched a mom stop, drop, and roll over so her whining cubs could nurse. Fun fact about brown bear cubs: they are born while their mom is hibernating and they nurse for several months while she “sleeps”. At birth they are naked, blind, and only weigh one pound. See videos. Love those bears!!
On the drive from Denali National Park to Anchorage, Addie and I saw an unusual arrangement for a small airport. On one side of the highway was the typical airport you might find outside of any small town with a runway and a couple of hangars. On the opposite side of the highway, on the edge of a lake, was a facility for float planes and amphibians that had docks for float planes and a hangar or two. It seemed unusual to us that there was a plane crossing across this busy highway so that planes could taxi back-and-fourth between the facilities. You would surely flummox your insurance agent if you reported a collision with a de Havilland Beaver!
Even the rear-view mirror views while driving across Alaska are distracting! We somehow managed to turn a 3.5 hour drive (according to the GPS) into an all day drive. Too many spectacular sights to blow by. Tried to capture some in photos, but as always, they don’t even begin to do the scenery justice.
Prevalent along the roadside from British Columbia to Alaska is a wildflower called Fireweed. It is the territorial flower of the Yukon Territory. We were told that Fireweed got its’ name because it is the first plant to reappear after a forest fire. In Alaska, the initial blooming of Fireweed is considered a sign the middle of summer has been reached. The flower blooms from the bottom to the top and it is said when the fire reaches the top summer is over.
After having seen Denali by land and air, we rafted down a 22.5 mile stretch of the Nenana (rhymes with banana..so fun to say) River which runs along the eastern border of the park. The Nenana is glacier-fed, meaning ~24 hours before it arrived at the stretch we were riding down, the water was ice. Nothing more refreshing than a face-full of glacier water first thing in the morning! Luckily, we were well-outfitted. I had on everything in my suitcase (anyone who knows me, knows this is not an exaggeration), plus they gave us full-body dry suits to pull on over everything else. I had a smile frozen to my face the whole time. Such an amazing experience. Made even better by the world’s best guide, Tim. He not only let me “ride the bull” (sat on very front of raft with feet dangling over water and rode rapids), but he also treated us to a very well-delivered, well-timed rendition of a song from Charlie and the Chocolate factory as we cruised down Train Wreck Rapid. Check out video clip!!
After lunch at the Kantishna Lodge, at the end of the road into Denali National Park, we had a choice of two optional activities, panning for gold or watching a presentation on dog mushing. Frankly, neither particularly appealed but, loving dogs, we chose the latter. Fate favored us once again; Emmitt Peters, Jr.’s presentation on dog mushing was a highlight of the trip. Emmitt, a competitive dog musher himself, is the son of an Iditarod hall-of-famer, who smashed the previous record of 21 days by winning his first Iditarod race in 14 days, changing the way the race has been run ever since. Emmitt, the father, Started the Iditarod thirteen times and finished in the top 10 ten times.
Emmitt, the son, has been mushing since before he can remember. His knowledge of the subject is encyclopedic. Even better, his comedic lines, delivery and timing are as good as any stand-up comedian you have ever enjoyed. He is knowledgeable, engaging and hilarious! The subject proved most interesting.
The embedded video is crude, the audio distracting and the videographer apparently dozed off towards the end. Stick with it, though, to see the dogs straining to get going.
Only thirty percent of the visitors to Denali National Park get to see the summit of Mount McKinley. Clouds obscure the peak most of the time. We were able to see it only because, on our flight back from Kantishna to Denali, the cloud layer did not reach the summit and our pilot was able to get us above the clouds. Had we not chosen to fly back out of the park, rather than riding the bus back, and been lucky enough to get a pilot who made a special effort to get us a view of McKinley’s peak, we would have been among the seventy percent who never see the summit.
We took a 90 mile bus trip from the park entrance to the small mining community of Kantishna, which lies within the park. The bus meandered along a very curvy..and sometimes nerve racking..road through the park. We crossed several passes with dramatic views, but the highlights of the journey for me were the animals. We saw a Moose, Dall sheep, Caribou, and a mama Grizzly with her two cubs.
Arrived at one of the most wild and wonderful places I have ever been..Denali National Park and Preserve. The park is the size of the state of Massachusettes (over 6 million acres), and the rugged terrain is unmarred by man. Access around the park is highly restricted with only authorized vehicles being able to travel the roads and NO vehicles of any sort allowed off the road. The vastness and natural beauty is overwhelming, and wildlife runs the show. The “crown jewel” is Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in north America (20,237 feet). The area is very seasonal, but the “characters” who flock there for the summer add a unique/quirky edge to the area. Dad and I fit right in 🙂 See posts on bus trip, flight, and whitewater for pics of park.