North To Alaska

America's last frontier is unquestionably located in the interior of its 49th state, Alaska and if nature and wildlife is on your agenda a visit is a must.

A quick four hour flight from Vancouver will land you in Anchorage, the state's largest city and a bus or train will deliver you comfortably to Denali National Park, the setting for a spectacular visit to one of the world's last wildlife sanctuaries.

Denali Park is also the home of North America's tallest mountain, Mount McKinley (The Alaskan government has renamed it Denali, but the US federal government has not yet recognized the change). The park is 6million*** acres of trees, mountains and the 'big five'; moose, grizzly, mountain sheep, caribou and wolf.

Just to clear up a few things, which have always confused me. First of all, caribou and reindeer are the same animal (reindeer are domesticated). The European name is elk - one animal, three names. Grizzly bears are actually known as brown bears. Females are referred to as sows and males as boars. Antlers fall off every year and regrow. No matter how old or big an animal is the antlers fall off. Horns on the other hand (as in mountain sheep), are made of the same material as our fingernails and stay with the animal forever (unless they are damaged). The white little animals on the slopes of the mountains are Mountain Sheep. If you call them goats you stand the risk of being laughed at.

The only time to visit this area is June, July or August, as the park closes for the balance of the year. The town of Denali is closed from September until May because temperatures drop to 40 below and daylight in the winter is non-existent. The summer months, however, bring with them an extremely spectacular experience. 20+ Hours of daylight and temperatures, which can soar into the low thirties, add a favourable element to the experience.

Driving a car in the park is limited to a 20 kilometre stretch of motorway. The road goes another 60km., but is restricted to special tour buses in an effort to preserve the environment. This is perhaps the strictest enforcement of environmental law I have ever experienced. I would recommend the bus tour to anyone who visits the area, for without it you will miss a great opportunity to see some of our planets final frontier.

The trip from the town of Denali to the end of the road takes about 4 hours. Round trip it is an eight hour journey where comfort is not a priority. The old buses are reliable, but worn. Fortunately the windows open to enhance photographic ability and the driver narrates informatively along the route. All the passengers participate in the viewing of wildlife by yelling 'stop' as soon as an animal is spotted. Nothing surpasses the first grizzly or caribou sighting and anticipation causes adrenalin levels to rise.

I was fortunate to see dozens of caribou, a few wolves, mountain sheep dotting the hillsides and thirteen grizzlies. In one instant a sow with two cubs approached the bus and wandered around it for at least half an hour. I was able to crouch in the closed doorway and experience an amazing view of these massive animals, with claws as long as fingers.

Nearing the end of the road I was pleasantly surprised by a spectacular view of Mount McKinley only 60 km. away. As the clouds parted and the mountain came partially into view, I was told that only 30% of visitors witness the sight. The mountain is usually shrouded in cloud cover.

Wanting to see this giant peak from every possible angle I chartered a small plane to take me as close as I could conceivably get. I was in luck for the sky was clear and I saw the mountain as soon as we took off. McKinley stands 20000 feet and lies in the Alaskan Range. The views are breathtaking and as you approach you start to feel quite insignificant in the scope of the unfolding of the world.

Whether you cruise or fly to Alaska, Denali Park is a must. Most cruise ships offer excursions inland and some allow you to leave the ship for a week and catch the next boat back. If wildlife is on your list of things to see, make Denali Park in Alaska’s interior, a destination on your bucket list.

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