Saturday, 01 September 2018

The Road to Kantishna: An Alaskan Grand Slam

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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The High One it is called, Denali. The highest peak in the United States soars above the tundra of central Alaska. Seeing Denali is rare as most days it is shrouded in clouds and mist. It is one of the sights of the Alaskan Grand Slam: Mt. Denali, Grizzly Bear, Moose, Caribou, and Dall Sheep. If you see all five during your trip into Denali National Park, the 13 hour bus trip to Kantishna has been worth it.

The late July morning was basked in the early glow of a nearly cloudless Alaskan sky. A good omen, I thought as I boarded the Kantishna Experience tour bus. The first thirteen miles into Denali National Park are paved and can be driven by passenger cars but most wildlife encounters occur beyond that limit. You have to take a tour bus or one of the national park shuttle buses into the depths of the park if you hope to see the Big Five of Alaska.

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The bus traveled along the well graded dirt road as I watched the vistas of the Alaskan Range drift by. We stopped at the Teklanika river crossing at mile 29 of our journey. You could feel the wild remoteness of this park as you looked out over the vast river valley.

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The first wildlife encounter lay just ahead. I could see the white dots on the hillside a mile or more away. With my long camera lens I could make out the sheep with their curved horns and all white coats lying in the grass high on the mountain side. No way to get good pictures of this member of the Big Five. Denali is sometimes called the Serengeti of North America for the abundance of wildlife. I hoped we would see more animals and a bit closer as we continued into the park.

The road climbed steadily up towards Polychrome Pass when we saw it. The mountain peeked through the high clouds surrounding it to give us a view of the snow covered ridges. We passed a group of the Alaska state bird, the Willow Ptarmigan, along the road as we reached the crest and pulled into the viewpoint at Polychrome Pass at 5700 feet.

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The colors of mountains showed why this location had gotten its name. A whole palette of Blue, Green, Yellow, and Purple stretched before me. The weather so far had been wonderful but I could see the clouds rolling in as we continued on toward our next stop, the Eielson Visitor Center.

A Caribou was seen grazing on a nearby meadow. Another was seen a short distance later. This member of the deer family travel in huge herds across the tundra further north. We ended up seeing seven caribou before our trip was done. The animals winter coats were still being shed as they grazed on the green sprouts of new growth amid wildflowers. The summer is short here and the animals must graze while the forage is good.

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Last modified on Saturday, 01 September 2018

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