Sunday, November 9, 2008

Denali National Park; Taiga and Tundra Tour

Denali National Park is managed very differently than most national parks. Of course any national park is by definition, a public asset. Public access is what allows for their true value to be realized. But certainly there is a limit to how much access can be allowed at once, and about what the ultimate impact of that usage will be. The other aspect of protection of these assets by definition must be preservation. The magnificence of stately forests, or towering granite walls, majestic mountain ranges, the enormity of jagged gorges and raging rapids, could only have been created by awesome forces in nature. These are not theme parks! They are in fact treasures of natural wonder that need to be protected and managed as the delicate environments that they are.

This is a balancing act, because we all know that the general public does not have the necessary appreciation for these assets, or level of responsibility it takes to really manage them without being bound and restricted by a plethora of rules and regulations. While visiting parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone, the extent of development becomes all too obvious at times. The accompanying throngs of visitors have rendered these magnificent, irreplaceable, treasures into veritable centers of human culture. It’s as though our greatest natural wonders are being converted into profit centers of public amusement, rather than being preserved for their true intrinsic value. Of course I could beleaguer all of this into a great thesis with lots of quotes from everyone from John Muir to Edward Abbey. But that would be way beyond my theme in this post.

Denali, despite its vast area, still has only one mostly unpaved road into the interior of the preserve, and very few marked hiking trails or facilities. This park system and preserve exists largely because of the efforts of naturalist, hunter, and conservationalist Charles Sheldon, who traveled here with packer and guide Harry Karstens between 1906 and 1908. It was Sheldon who first observed that the Dall sheep that inhabit the high peaks of this region were in fact a unique species, although a close relative of the bighorn sheep. With that fact as a catalyst, Mt McKinley National Park was first commissioned in 1917 primarily as a wildlife preserve. The total area was more than tripled in 1980, and was renamed Denali. In 1972, due to the increasing visitation, the National Park Service created a bus system. This was done both to protect visitors, and to reduce threats to wildlife and the ecosystem. There are a limited number of permits which are granted by lottery to drive on the park road, mostly for camping reservations. If you are lucky enough to have a camping reservation you can hike in the interior at will, on your own recognizance, but there are no trails, and lots of wildlife. But for all others, you must utilize the park’s own eco-friendly tour bus system. I suppose you could backpack into the park if you had the proper level of preparedness for the terrain and weather, but that would also require a permit.

If you love to day hike this seems unusual, but it makes sense. The creatures that inhabit Denali are the landlords, not the public. Honestly, I’m not sure I would like to camp in such an active wildlife area anyway. As much as I cherish and respect nature, I wouldn’t care to take unnecessary risks. I might even be a bit of a “scaredy cat” where it comes to encounters with grizzly bears in the wild. So we went on the nearly full day long “Taiga and Tundra Tour”.

The buses used for this purpose are specially outfitted for using a special low sulfur fuel designed to protect the ecosystem. Although adequate, the coaches are not what you would call luxurious. They’re rather reminiscent of bouncy old school buses. The tour provides a box lunch, and makes it a point to collect all the trash. No food or drink is allowed off the bus at any time. The rules are very strict about this because it goes to protecting animals from receiving human food, not just about litter. Something they strongly preach at Yosemite, but seem lax at enforcing. Hard to do when there is a pizza parlor and a taco bar in the village. The bears in Yosemite Valley can afford to have very discriminating palettes. Funny, but at the same time a terrible shame and a disgrace.

We saw lots of wildlife on the tour, but the landscape is just as intriguing. The terrain here is defined as permafrost. That means that the ground is frozen all year long. The only trees and vegetation species that can survive here all have very shallow roots. I wouldn’t attempt to detail all of it without the help of a real naturalist, but I did take some pictures. Also my brother-in-law Dave was along, and he is a much more accomplished photographer than I am. I have provided links to both sets of pictures below. We were in late August which is the beginning of fall there. The colors were amazing. There is a haunting and lonely beauty out in the tundra this time of year. Whenever anyone spotted wildlife the driver would make it a point to stop to allow viewing and photos. The bus is outfitted with a hand held zooming video camera that allows the driver to display images on a series of monitors for long range viewing. Plus there is always someone who doesn’t see what everyone is looking at. This came in handy for viewing Dall Sheep high on the peaks. We saw quite a few of them, appearing as clusters of little white dots that appear to be moving. My little compact binoculars were barely adequate for viewing them. The drivers know all the best places to spot grizzlies too. They are found most frequently foraging along the riverbeds. The only major animal known to inhabit Denali that we never saw at all were wolves. It was a great trip, and a lot of fun.

Click here to view my flickr pix.
Click here to view Dave’s pictures (


Roy said...

Hey Randy, I think you've done a bang-up job here! I'd sure love to take that trip someday. My one trip to Alaska was just a short business trip to Fairbanks.

Waypoints said...

Thanks roy, I'm sure you'd enjoy yourself if you take the tour. I checked out your camping blog. Great stuff.