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Close Encounters in Alaska’s Denali National Park

Chandana Ghosh

"Look behind you, guys!"

We had just about settled ourselves on the jetty with our fishing rods that midsummer evening, holding our breath, waiting like many other fly fishers for a salmon catch, anticipating the big bite, when the cry of warning echoed from across the lake.

We turned in unison to find an enormous bull moose staring fixedly down at us from the grassy shoreline of Wonder Lake. Snorting through flared nostrils, his heaving body glistening with sweat, his gigantic antlers pointing in our direction, he lowered his head menacingly. Was he about to charge us? My throat ran dry at the thought of those many-splendored antlers excavating my entrails. This wasn't, however, our first encounter with a dangerous wild animal in Alaska's Denali National Park.

It was only yesterday, while we were traveling along the 92-mile Park Road, that a grizzly had crossed our path and settled himself comfortably by the roadside to gorge on berries. “Don’t move... Maintain silence… Don’t get too close...” Sebastian, our driver cum guide, had warned us in a stage whisper. As he maneuvered the National Park Service bus away from the bear, he had shared the mandatory training guidelines with his passengers: “For a bear, maintain silence, be normal, and don’t surprise the animal. Call out, 'Hey Bear!' as you walk along an unexplored trail so that if there's one around, he can get out of your way...”

As the bus rolled along the narrow mountainous pathway, Sebastian had introduced us to the many wild inhabitants of this area: the caribou family lazing around, the dall sheep precariously perched on the mountain tops, the bald eagle resting between flights and the lone moose watching over his young.

And here we now were, confronting yet another moose as we struggled to recollect Sebastian’s words about how we were expected to react. Slowly, changing direction, the large Bull Moose lumbered off the shore and waded into the lake, muzzling his way through the water to quench his thirst. With only his antlers now visible above the surface of the water, we came awake, as if of one accord, and beat a hasty retreat from the jetty without uttering a word. It wasn't until several minutes had passed that we would regain our composure and realize that this was one splendid photo op we shouldn't miss!

The 6 million acres of Denali National Park is home to a variety of wild beasts and birds. Wildlife encounters are eagerly anticipated by every traveler, but are never quite predictable… and therefore all the more thrilling. There are few who venture in to stay in the wilderness lodges, in the interiors of Denali, with no communication and city amenities… hoping to sight wildlife in their own natural habitat. Cruise ship travelers usually end their tour at the Denali National Park Entrance (Healy), which has many more stay options. The National Park Service Bus from the Park Entrance offers a day tour along the Park Road, where you can chance upon the bear, a moose… and sometimes even a pack of wolves. The Park Road does lead up to the Wonder Lake, but to catch the bull moose settling on his supper?... a day trip may not allow enough time for such an adventure.

Known to be the crown jewel of Denali, Wonder Lake is a large kettle pond created by retreating glaciers. The calm waters reflect the beauty of the snowcapped Alaskan mountain range on a clear day and offers a stunning view of the Denali valley, shrouded in Tundra vegetation, wearing the pretty colors of the season. Denali, or Mt McKinley – as we commonly know it, stands tall overlooking the Wonder Lake. If one believed in the local folklore, only 30% of travelers are lucky to sight Denali during their stay in Alaska. Denali Flightseeing is possible from only a few airstrips, Talkeetna – a quaint town that stopped growing a few centuries ago- being the most popular of them all. The few who stay in Denali, however can opt for the spectacular North Face flight climb (the Wickersham Wall ascent), right up to the summit. But given the unpredictable nature of the mountain weather, the locals also believe, sighting Denali is a calling from the Mountain Gods, and the destiny of only a few privileged travelers. We did not consider ourselves to be amongst the lucky ones, since it was only the other day our flight schedule from Talkeetna had to be called off on account of poor weather conditions.

But destiny proved to be different.

Earlier that morning, we were woken up by excited voices outside our cabin door. Fearing a bear or moose on our property we scrambled out to find that it was neither… but a sighting of “the Tall One”. Greg the pilot from Kantishna Air Taxi had “called upon us”, to fly us to the summit.

Unable to contain our excitement, we hurried to the airstrip; where Greg studiously planned our seating arrangements, after checking our individual weights and meticulously balancing our loads. The flight was not more than 90 minutes… but it held memories of a lifetime. We swooped down on the Denali National Park… dotted with myriads of kettle ponds; followed the McKinley River, and traced it right up to its source − the Muldrow Glacier. As we gained height, the strong mountain winds jostled us. We tightly held onto the safety of our seats as Greg steadied the aircraft....it was only then we appreciated our careful seat planning exercise.

We peered through the window of the small bush plane, identifying the majestic mountain peaks, snowy glaciers and multi-shaped mountain lakes. The extensive Ruth glacier looked like freshly scooped out ice cream, and the lateral moraine strewn across the ranges… like chocolate chips. This is the spot where the flight descends for us all to fulfill our childlike fantasies of thrashing around in an ice bowl! The flight time being the same, you can choose to be in the air or make a descent − weather permitting and pilot willing are the only two conditions.

But the most memorable moment of the flightseeing trip was when we were held suspended mid-air − face to face with Denali, the 20,000 plus foot of monolithic ice, glistening and glinting in the sun. Spellbound and unwilling to let go of that moment … photographing the summit seemed like a lesser priority at that time. Post that intimate and fulfilling encounter, it would be difficult for me to refer to it by anything else but Denali or “The Great One”, the original local name of Mt McKinley, the highest peak of North America and the third of the World’s 7 summits.

Close encounters with a Moose and Denali, are indeed very rare…even more so to happen in a single day.

During my three day stay in Denali National Park, I encountered many memorable experiences. Venturing on an unexplored trail over Quigly Ridge armed with a bear spray to view the panoramic view from the hilltop; panning gold in the shallow brook waters of Kantishna or just breathing in the fresh mountain air as we paused to view the colorful splendor of the Polychrome mountain pass. None of these however, could measure up to the events of that day!

Back in the comfort of our lodge, my thoughts went back to Sebastian. Found it difficult to believe that he was once a professor in Harvard, who had come to Denali as a traveler and never wanted to go back. There were many others who had similar inspiring stories to tell … about their passion for Denali. It was only then that I recollected the training guidelines that Sebastian had shared in case one were to encounter a moose… … run … yes, run zigzag and take cover in a bush if a moose were to chase you!! And if they were to visit the lodge, do not lock your cabin door so that you can easily slip into the nearest cabin.

I got myself out of bed, unlocked my cabin door before I could close my eyes and sleep again as the midnight sun streamed in through the cracks of the log cabin.