July 12-14

The weather report looks grim for the next 10 days and we really want to see Denali before leaving Alaska.  At a rest stop on the way, we talked with a young couple who suggested Nenana as a worthwhile stop, and not very touristy. More about Nenana in a later episode!

Day one:  Denali.  To our surprise while dogs are allowed in the campground they are only allowed to walk on the paved street/road and at no time can they enter forested area. This could have put a crimp in our stay here but we had the foresight to check in Fairbanks for Kennels in the area.  Most of them were for dog sledders but there was one about 7 miles from our campsight, Caribou at Riley Creek campground within the park boundary away from the wilderness area.

When I made the call to Donna at Tonglen Lake Kennels I knew immediately Mocha would be in good hands, so bright and early the very next morning we took her up there for the day in order to catch the shuttle for our prearranged, eight hour bus tour of the park.  It was money well spent, as the kennels were spotless and there was an exercise room larger than a basketball court with agility equipment no less!

Tonglen Lake

We were very comfortable leaving her there and it turned out Donna also trains for agility and obedience and she had a number of dogs in the kennels as well as her own 4 border collies. To keep the doggies calm, classical music was played all day in the kennel Donna had done research that showed how dogs are calmed by certain sounds. For dog lovers I think the CD is called calming sounds for dogs.  It turned out to be a good for her to be away from us and sort of play date to boot.

Day two:  Like Yosemite, the roads are closed to private vehicles other than park transportation, emergency vehicles and professional photographers who can prove they make a living taking photos.   Eielson Visitors Center tour was reached in about 4 hours, we opted for the less expensive shuttle (green bus) where a fee is paid depending on how far into the park you go, over the formal Tour Bus with a guide on mic. and a box lunch. We lucked out as our driver Dawn Needham was not only a skilled driver but exceedingly knowledgeable about all the animals, the flora, fauna, tundra and everything Denali. As a bonus it was a good spotting day as well.

We finally saw a ptarmigan (chicken) and a few little chicks. Ptarmigan are important in the history of the park and in all the gold mining areas because the ptarmigan was a main source of protein for the sourdoughs (miners) during gold rush times. In the winter Ptarmigan (tar-meh-gin) look like a white dove and in the summer they are flecked brown more like the coloring of a turtle dove.  We also spotted one moose, a few dall sheep that were hanging out on the distant mountainside and looked like little white dots even through binoculars. On our return trip a male sheep came down low enough for a partial photo op. Due to Human hunting, the dall sheep population were almost wiped until 1906 when a man by the name of Charles Sheldon began to study them and concerned with their survival developed the concept of a “park”.  Now about 2500 of them live on the  range in Denali.

dall Sheep

We counted 13 Grizzlies, a record day for the season, some with their cubs and one came right up to the bus, their color is blond not brown as we see in “the Lower 48”, a term that is used a lot here.   300 to 350 of them currently live in the park, which if I recall is close to two million acres. Because the rules are so strict in the park, bears have little or no contact with humans other than vehicles, they are fearless and will come right up to a bus, it a was very exciting photo op, but in my excitement I managed to blur and shoot off center.

On the way down we saw a caribou bull who while beautiful, was really shaggy, in ghe midst of losing his winter coat.


There are about 2,000 of them in the park and they favor the tundra over the higher elevations where they eat lichens.  We learned from the animal research center in Anchorage that the males drop their antlers once a year but the females retain theirs for life as a protective devise.  Because the males shed theirs researchers can see how old they are by reading annual rings the same as a tree trunk.

Day Three:  We took Mocha back to Tonglen Lake Kennel. In the morning light, the roadside was brimming with wildflowers in blues, purples, whites and creams all in full bloom, which resembled a carefully manicured English Garden only planted in the middle of a forest.  Mocha never looked back as she was led to her play spot for the day and we were able to spend ours walking around without feeling guilty leaving her behind.  Eight hours in the bus the previous day after countless hours traveling across Canada and now Alaska can become tiresome so it was novel just to hang out at the visitors center. We watched a quality video that portrayed what Denali looks like in the various seasons. Later, we went to a dog sled demonstration that was really fascinating and we were able to pet the pups and watch the grooming take place.  Since no transportation is allowed in the wilderness area, the entire park is explored by dog sled in the winter.  The kennels are located in the park where dogs and mushers live year round.  Bred for particular characteristics necessary for sledding many of the dogs are related often, litter mates join the team.  One of the required qualities is people friendliness, it is one of the reasons people are encouraged to see the demo and interact with the pups and working dogs even the park employees volunteer to walk them everyday during the summer season when they, huskies are not working.  Even without snow the mushers were able to drive the sleds around the area (really fast) as if they were in competition yet working in concert, excited and anxious to work, the lead mature dogs full of knowledge and the young ones playful even when harnessed.

After the demonstration we signed up for a guided nature hike (walk) where different wild flowers, bushes and berries were named and explained.  We saw some remains of cabins, discarded refuse mostly rusty cans, pieces of furniture and iron works located in the gullies where traders and trappers once occupied the area before it received historic landmark status about 50 years ago. The original train tracks, the only means of transportation into the park for many years remained in tact and even the trestle was interesting to look at.

The weather had been drizzly everyday and rained most of the day when we left.  Mt. McKinley was never spotted but neither was the Matterhorn when we visited Switzerland so what else is new? We’ve seen such gorgeous mountains, that missing this one was just not the end of the world.  As we were almost packed and ready to go, we met a newly wed couple from Alaska, Jami and Brad, who were on honeymoon but decided after just one soggy night, for more comfortable quarters than a wet tent. They gave us invaluable information for the next leg of our trip, the “Turnagain Arm”.   It seems the young ones we give us the best information while the retired, life RV’ers as they call themselves lead us to not so great spots.

There is plenty to do in Denali but not a very good place to bring a pet.  If you don’t have a car, shuttles are a good means of transportation we used them to get from our campsite to various locations in the park and they were free.

To be continued…