We made such good time, that we decided to take a detour into the tiny town of Talkeetna, which is known for its old buildings and country charm. There was some kind of local festival taking place, and the place was packed with tourists. I didn’t enjoy my visit to Talkeetna, but I did enjoy seeing the metropolitan airport.
On the way out of town, we stumbled upon this display of an antique snowmobile.
Back on the road to Denali, we ran across a herd of caribou grazing by the side of the highway.
There is one road into Denali National Park. The 92-mile long stretch of road is paved for the first 15 miles, which is as far as cars are allowed to drive. The rest of the road is unpaved, winding along sheer cliff faces, and only buses are allowed on it. The road is closed during the winter months, and in the spring, road crews begin the difficult, dangerous task of restoring the road for traffic. As they repair the washouts, remove rockslides and fill cavernous potholes, the road is gradually opened in stages. In late May, when we arrived, the road was open as far as mile 53.
We boarded one of these green buses operated by the Park Service, and began the long, twisty drive into the park. The buses operate at frequent intervals, and we were told that we could get off the bus at any point, and simply catch the next bus to continue our journey or return to the park entrance.
Some people ride in with backpacks, hike into the wilderness and camp. It sounded like camping paradise, until the bus driver gave us the bear lecture. Alaskan brown bears inhabit the park, and they are huge and dangerous. Alaskans do not call them “grizzly bears,” although they are the same species. The driver tried to impress upon us exactly how deadly bear encounters can be. If you climb a big tree to escape one, they will climb up to get you. If you climb a small tree that is too skinny for them to climb, they push it over to get you. If confronted by a bear, we were told to make ourselves look big by opening our coats, back away slowly, and DO NOT RUN.
At rest stops, the bathroom doors were made bear-proof as a refuge in the event of an attack.
As we drove slowly into the park, we saw moose, caribou, ptarmigan (the state bird of Alaska) and yes, brown bears.
This bear was digging for something, and the driver told us that it was probably looking for tubers called "Eskimo Potatoes."
At the mile 53 stop, a small naturalist display building was set up, which included antlers and skulls.
The air was clean and crisp as a MacIntosh apple, so rich in oxygen that it was nearly intoxicating. We hung out for awhile, and then someone noticed this bear, wandering along the valley floor, headed our way.
The bus driver announced our departure, and I confess that I was relieved that I wasn’t going to have to hide in the bathroom. We left the parking area, but the bus driver stopped to let us watch the bear approach. At the same moment, we noticed a guy on the road coming from a different direction. He was waving and running towards us, obviously wanting to catch a ride back to park entrance. He couldn’t see the bear. Everyone on the bus began yelling to warn him, but he couldn’t hear us. When he got to the bus, the bear was only about 15 feet away.
We pointed out how close he had come to running directly into the bear, and he collapsed into a seat, white-faced. The bear crossed directly in front of the bus without so much as a sideways glance, and continued up the side of a hill, seemingly unaware of the bus and the 30 or so tasty tourists inside.