Words and pictures don't even come close to the experience of being in Alaska. It feels to me like being in a different country, maybe on a different planet. Time is stretched here. Sunsets meet sunrises. Darkness is reserved only for the winter months. Seeing the local wildlife, quite literally, takes my breath away. If I had a gigantic lens that zoomed out till I became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared, there would still be the Alaskan landscape, sprawling and infinite.
I realize I'm seeing this great state in its most ideal season. Days have been hovering around the mid 70s, nights are chilly but not freezing. The evenings are endless. While preparing for this trip, I was a little afraid that the long days would mess with my sleep rhythm. They haven't. Winter, of course, is full of darkness and snow. Challenges abound and it's a lot more solitary. Part of me wants to have that experience in Alaska but the other half just chickens out at the mere thought.
One of the most anticipated places on our itinerary, for me, was Denali National Park and Preserve. I knew the experience would be unique on many levels. Unlike any other park I've been to, access is quite limited for vehicles. Once I got used to how the bus system works, it was easy. It's actually nice to explore the park this way and not encounter hundreds of cars clogging up the road.
The bus drivers are all different and they wield a lot of power. What I mean is that they can influence the experience of your day. The road inside the park is well maintained but it still takes hours to get to each destination. In essence, most of my day was spent on the actual bus just getting to where I wanted to go and then deal with another long trip home. If the bus driver is full of information about our surroundings and is willing to stop anytime an animal is seen, it can be a fun day. For the most part, the drivers I rode with were quite accommodating but I did encounter at least one who thought the road home was a racetrack and remained silent the whole time (except to tell us that we had 5 minutes at a particular stop, no exceptions).
Riding the bus was always an adrenaline rush. It reminded me of seeing bear jams in Yellowstone. Someone would yell "Stop!!" and the bus would screech to a halt. We would look around for wildlife. For the split second before it was announced, I would think is it a bear, a moose, a sheep, a wolf....a squirrel?? Then someone says "Bear!". Tablets, phones, compact cameras, big DSLRS all point out the window, everyone clamoring for a view. I thought the bus might keel over! Mostly these larger animals were quite far away, say a quarter to a half mile distance. Still, it was thrilling to see them. It's a distinctly different feeling than viewing animals behind bars in a zoo.
The landscape is indescribably beautiful. Aside from the mountain itself, my favorite range inside the park is Polychrome (many colors). That now familiar feeling of insignificance is at its height in this park. The valley floors are vast and the mountains touch the clouds. It had a feeling of spirituality for me. It made me glad to be alive, grateful for those moments.
And what of Denali itself? There was a good chance it wouldn't be visible during our stay. A week beforehand, the weather forecast was for rain the entire time. Thankfully, the sun shone for three straight days and the mountain flaunted its magnificence.
The first day we rode the bus, there was a particular part of the journey where all of Denali comes into view. Every passenger says "Wow!" at the same time like one collective voice. Pictures don't do it justice. You think you know what to expect but it never holds up to the real thing and feeling the scale of it all.
The day we left Denali was the beginning of rain for a couple more days. There were people heading into the park as we were leaving. I felt sorry for them because they probably wouldn't see Denali during their stay. At the same time, it made me think that my experience really had been a rare privilege and that made me smile.
Although I can now strike it from my bucket list, I will write a note that says "come again" because I'm already looking forward to my next encounter with "the Great One."