Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Alaskan Journal Part 7

One of the main reasons for us travelling to Denali was to see the local wildlife in its natural setting. As access to the main areas of the park is strictly controlled and allowed only on permitted transport, the best way we could do this was to take one of the tours on offer. We opted for a 7 hour excursion called the Tundra Wilderness Tour which started just before 3 pm, the idea being that the evening was one of the best times to see whatever may be out there. This is a time when the long days this far north are an advantage - sun rise is around 4.30 am and sunset around 11.30 pm. We had a very informative and engaging guide/driver and a group of fellow travellers who gelled well for the duration.
Was it worth it? Definitely yes. We saw all of the things on our mental lists and went away happy bunnies. And the day ended with a somewhat bizarre and disorganised meal at a local hotel restaurant. When the food came one of us had a good plate, the other so-so after a wrong order boomeranged back and forth a couple of times.

A fairly typical landscape as we made our way into the park. These wide river beds were not caused by snowmelt torrents but by many cycles of freezing and thawing. The thick layers of ice that result from this scour the beds and throw up the gravel. Apparently these beds act as good corridors for the wildlife to move around.
OK, just a raven but what black plumage.
A male Willow Ptarmigan in its winter plumage. Give it a few more weeks and the white feathers will have moulted and the bird will be relatively dowdy with a brownish coat.
As well as having white plumage, another winter adaptation the Willow Ptarmigan have are 'feather feet'. The extra area these produce makes it easier for the birds to hop across the snow as they search for food. These feathers will also be lost fairly soon.

Not our bus but another heading back. Some of the terrain was not good for anyone suffering from vertigo. Vertiginous was certainly the right word for describing some of the drops from the side of the narrow single track road.
Dall Sheep. Normally seen as little white dots on the hillside, we were lucky enough to have a good close up encounter with a flock. The overhunting to near extinction of these was one of the main reasons for the founding of the park as a nature preserve almost 100 years ago.
And talking of little white dots. This little white dot by the river is a blonde grizzly bear. Those with binoculars could make out a couple of cubs with this one.
And that brown dot laying on the river bed in the distance?
That's a brown grizzly bear. Our guide told us that this one had been around here for a while, guarding its cached moose body that it had killed recently. That's what they do, apparently, kill something and then secure the body of their prey as they gradually eat their way through it.
After all those bears in the distance and at the limit of my zoom lens, we get one ambling up the road in front of us. Without a care in the world, it made its way slowly for about half a mile before wandering off into the brush. One word to describe its gait? Sashay, that's the one. Swaying from side to side in an unhurried manner. The rule of the road here is 'bears take priority'. No overtaking when you come across one. Just wait for it to do whatever it wants to do and if it takes time, just be patient.
The highest point on our route was Polychrome Pass at just under 4000'. The various colours in the rocks give a clue as to its name.
In amongst some scrub willow were four or five male caribou lying down and having a munch. Look closely and you can see the down on their antlers which are in their rapid growth phase
A bull moose in the distance. We saw a reasonably sized group of these munching on willow trees. The female moose were too busy having babies to join in the feast. The birthing of moose seems to be well synchronised with many females producing in a short space of time. Apparently this is a survival tactic: too many moose calves for the grizzly bears to pick off. 
More of the spectacular scenery that surrounded us for the entirety of our trip. As far as the park management can achieve, it's in pristine condition.
Long may it remain that way.

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