Sunday, July 7, 2019

All mammals, all the time!

We got up and had every intention of hanging around Fairbanks for the day. We had not hit any of the local birding or butterfly spots. We ate breakfast and started towards a road well known for butterflies. As we turned onto the road we had taken out of Fairbanks to Denali two days prior, I was thinking we really should have gone back and done the bus trip. When would we ever get the chance to see Grizzly Bears? Just then Martin said "What do you think about us going back to Denali instead and do the bus trip?" I almost shouted "YES!" He was a bit surprised at my enthusiasm and I told him I had just been thinking that. It was about 8AM, which gave us plenty of time to make the 11AM bus.

Most bus ticket sales are advanced purchase. There are a few available at the bus station, but it is a gamble. I went online to see what was available. I had trouble connecting to the web page, so I called. The 11AM bus was full, but there were two seats on the 12 PM bus. This would get us back to the but terminal at 8PM and we would still have over a two hour drive back to Fairbanks. We decided it was totally worth it. We hustled up, though we had plenty of time. We stopped and got way more food than we needed in Healy. (There is no food or drinks available in the park.) We arrived at the park and went in to check in. We were over an hour early.

They told us to start lining up outside for the bus about 15 minutes before departure. We got in line over a half hour before, to make sure we got first choice of seats. People started filtering in and we chatted a bit. Finally, the bus pulled up. We decided to sit one row back from the front, thinking it might be a better view. The bus loaded up and we were stunned that no one sat across the aisle from us. I figured if no one wanted the seat, I would move over there, as that would have us on both sides of the bus to spot stuff. I felt a little guilty, having a seat to myself, but not guilty enough to move.

Our driver Brian got on and we took off. He gave us the lowdown on how the transit buses operate and what he expected from us. The transit buses run on the hour. Some go to Toklat River, which is at mile 53; some go to Eieslen Visitor Center, at mile 66; two other buses go further into the park, the farthest to mile 92. We had chosen Eieslen, which would be four hours in and four hours back. You are free to get off the bus whenever you want, hike or whatever, and flag the next bus down and get on. Of course, if that bus is full, you have to wait for the next one. They make rest stops every hour or so for 10 or 15 minutes, and stop for any wildlife.

Brian told us to keep all body parts inside the bus, though it was ok to put camera lens out the windows. He also said IF we had any wildlife encounters to try and maintain silence. He stressed how we were visitors and the park was the animals' home. They don't want them to be accustomed to hearing a lot of voices. The bears and other mammals don't associate the buses with human beings. If they hear hikers talking they take off to avoid them. The park wants it to continue this way. We were also instructed to not eat food outside of the bus. I was a bit concerned about his use of the words "IF we have wildlife encounters."

We covered the first fifteen miles pretty quickly, aiming to get into the part of the park not open to the public. Brian shared a lot of good information with the bus. He had been working in the park in various capacities for the last 15 summers. We found out he was a birder! Even before we passed the gate at mile 15, we were looking for animals, with no luck. Shortly after passing it Brian called out to look ahead on the road, where a Willow Ptarmigan was sitting. He looked for chicks, but didn't see any. A few people asked questions about what to expect. He was noncommittal, saying there were no guarantees. He said because it was so warm the mammals were likely to not be active. This did not make me happy. Deep inside a voice was saying, "No bears for you!"

We had gone quite some ways, and had even had our first bathroom break, with no mammals. That voice was getting louder. Brian knew Martin and I were birders, so he let us know we were coming up to a Gyrfalcon aerie, though he said he hadn't seen one there in the last few days. We were still stoked. We came around a bend to it and there was no Gyrfalcon, but there was a Dall's Sheep, one of the "big five." We had seen Dall's Sheep outside of Anchorage on my first Alaska trip, but they were tiny white dots up high on a mountain sid. This one was on eye level!  We pulled in a bit farther up the road to maintain some distance and allow everyone on the bus to get a look. This sheep was very well photographed! Right above its head was a long streak of Gyrfalcon shit. I think, since the bird's DNA was present, I should be allowed to count it!

We finally saw a Caribou by the Toklat River. It was a bit manky looking, shedding its coat, but still impressive. We pushed on. We were getting near the end of the line, where we would turn around, and still had not see any bears. I had asked Brian if there were trips where they didn't see them. He answered they usually did, but he had had several this year without any. I was feeling more and more uncertain, but still happy we had come. The scenery was unbelievable, and Brian was a fountain of knowledge. (Boy, does that sound trite!) He explained why the rivers were so muddy. The water was from glacier melt, which happens every year. He did remark that with climate change the rivers were higher and the glaciers were shrinking. The water is muddy because glaciers pick up debris as they move. The melt is full of dirt and stones. So much for pure glacier bottled water! I had to laugh.

We passed many buses on the way. Martin and I both were surprised at how much traffic we saw. Besides the transit buses, there are actual tour buses, cruise ship operated buses, and camp buses, going to the various camp grounds. I wondered how they saw any animals at all. As we passed one of the buses, a passenger asked Brian a question. He said "I'm sorry. I was distracted. The driver of that bus signaled me on something." We came around the bend and I saw three pale brown shapes in the grassy field below us. BEARS! That was what the driver was telling Brian.

We reached a good vantage point. It was a sow with two half grown cubs. Brian said they were probably three years old or so, and would be leaving her in a year. We all behaved and didn't talk, other than quiet whispers. We watched them for quite a while, taking many photos. The bears shuffled around the meadow, constantly eating. I was so incredibly happy, I was very close to tears. I felt like it was one of my very top travel days ever. We finally tore ourselves away and moved on. I felt like if I never saw another thing on the trip, I would be happy.

We stopped at the Eieslen Visitor Center and walked around for about a half hour. We were delighted to get reasonable views of Denali itself, making us part of the 30% club. Only 30% of the people who visit Denali National Park actually get to see the mountain. We were pretty sure we had seen it the day we visited earlier, but this nailed it. I photographed some wildflowers. An Arctic Ground-squirrel looked at us with begging eyes, but we resisted giving him something to eat. Some of the passengers chose to stay and do some hiking. Some new passengers got on to return to the bus depot. The bus was still empty enough that we each had our own seat. Now I really felt guilty. :-D Martin and I had talked that maybe we would see more animals going back, as there was less traffic and it was later in the day.

We quickly got to the spot where the bears had been and they were still there! We took a lot more photographs. How can you not? Shortly after we saw another Caribou, this one as tattered looking as the first one, but, holy cats, did he have a nice set of antlers! As we came around a bend, a Red Fox was trotting along the side of the road. When I say Red Fox, I mean the species. He was far from red. There are many variations on the coat color. This one was browner, with black legs. He walked along side of the bus for a while, then crossed in front of us and disappeared.
One of the passengers sitting directly behind me called out "Moose!" There was a young bull, buried in the willows, with only part of his head and antlers visable. I commented, "Good spotting!" to her, and she said they were from Alaska and saw Moose all the time, so she was keyed in on them. We paused and took a number of photos. He seemed blissfully unaware of us. Then Brian called out, "LYNX!!! On the road!" I looked up and saw the cat running across. I gasped and then did what I sometimes do when extremely excited, I dropped the F bomb, rather loudly. Lynx was one of my most wanted mammals, only after Wolverine, which is almost impossible, and Wolf. I never expected to see one. I was a bit embarrassed by my outburst, and leaned up and apologized to the young couple in front of me. He turned and said "Are you kidding? That was hilarious!" At the end of the trip, I also apologized to Brian and he said "That is absolutely the proper response to seeing a lynx!' The very bad news was, Martin missed it. He thought it was right in front of the bus and didn't look up. I felt really badly for him, but he handled it really well.

Brian said we were running a bit behind, so we had to press on to try and get back by 8PM. We spotted six Dall's Sheep up very high on a mountain. We got to the Gyrfalcon aerie again. There was still no Gyrfalcon, but the cooperative Dall's Sheep was still there. We took a few more photos. As we drove on this stretch of the road, Brian pointed out areas where the ground was slipping down. He said that the permafrost was melting, so the ground was shifting. The area of the road we were driving on was losing the edge and would not be able to be driven in the not too distant future. A geologist was working on the problem, but there was still no solution. He said the permafrost would all be gone in the park by the year 2050. This was extremely sobering. I also wanted to say "Drive faster!" as we were on a very narrow stretch of road with a high drop off.

We picked up a few passengers, but none of them wanted my seat. I quit feeling guilty. We made our last rest stop and Brian suggested that if we wanted to, to walk ahead on the road and he would pick us up. I was debating whether to walk, or be lazy. I heard a high pitched wheezing sound, and thought "Waxwings!", though when I hear waxwings here the sound is more constant. Brian asked me if I knew what the call was. I said "Waxings?" rather tentatively and he said "Yes!" One flew onto the top of a spruce and I got a distant photo.

We got back to the bus depot near the park entrance at about 815PM, only a little late. I wish I could express just how amazing this bus trip was. We ended up with 9 species of mammals, Snow-shoe Hare, Arctic Ground-squirrel, Red Squirrel, Caribou, Moose, Dall's Sheep, Red Fox, Grizzly Bear, and Canadian Lynx. We didn't have a big number of birds or butterflies, but who cares? I would highly recommend doing this trip. I hope you are lucky enough to get a driver as good as Brian was. This will stay with me for the rest of my life!

I only have one album for the day, the mammals. I am sorry I don't have one of the lynx. -

Bird list for the day:
Willow Ptarmigan
Golden Eagle
Northern Shrike
Canada Shrike
Black-billed Magpie
Bohemian Waxwing
White-crowned Sparrow.

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