Forty pairs of eyes scan 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 6-8 hour excursion into Denali National Park, one of the highlights of my Gray Line Adventure Tour through southern Alaska. Denali National Park is larger than the state of Massachusetts and tenderly watched over by Mt. McKinley (called Mt. Denali — “the high one” — by the locals), at over 20,000 feet the highest mountain in North America.
On an African safari, the goal is to spot the Big Five — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, 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 rabbit — okay, our guide called it a Snoeshoe 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 is a tour for the long haul — and you’re not likely to be disappointed. And even more impressive, our driver/guide John Miller, with infectious enthusiasm, kept up a constant patter covering vegetation, history, animal lore, Alaskan peccadilloes, personal experiences and other tantalizing tidbits for almost seven hours. The fact that it was still interesting by that seventh hour is even more of a phenomenal accomplishment. The running commentary that accompanied John’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 an heroic act of multi-tasking 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 (AKA reindeer), the ubiquitous Snowshoe hares, of course, and other native wildlife. And should the animals play hard to get for a period of time, just lifting your eyes to the proverbial snow-capped mountains in the distance is enough to keep you enthralled until the next native creature reveals itself.
Because the bus is so big, the sound of recognition travels like a wave from front to back — and there’s always a risk the animal the front has viewed is gone by the time the back of the bus catches up. But never fear. On the off-chance you miss the mama moose and her calf or the Dall sheep straddling a steep slope, it will magically appear on the TV screens lowered above the seats in the bus. Close-up images from the driver’s video camera are reflected on the drop-down screens. I was torn between resenting seeing my ”in the wild” Alaskan wildlife resembling a Discovery Channel documentary and feeling grateful I could see them at all — and close up at that.
But, 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 running of the 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.
So once in Denali, I hoped at least to finally get my chance to see bears. John kept re-assuring us we would certainly see grizzlies, but by hour number six, 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 momma and two bear cubs came into view. “Hallelujah,” cried one excited passenger; “Thank goodness, we paid $5000 to see that critter,” noted another. John 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, John 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 Gray Line Escorted Alaska Explorer Tour. There were also glaciers and mountains and gold mining history and native cultures and whale watching tours and frontier towns and back country plus a myriad of 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.