Denali Travelogue...

George: In the center of Alaska sprawls Denali National Park, one of the most visited spots in the 49th State. And no wonder, roughly center of the park looms mighty Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.

The local Indians (Tanaina) had called the tower of rock and ice, "Denali," meaning the Great One, but for purely political reasons in 1896 it was named in the record books for a distant politician, William McKinley of Ohio. That's politics for you.

The mountain towers above its surrounding plain, so large and ice covered that it can create its own weather patterns and is often shrouded in clouds. This makes it particularly fun for visitors hoping to see it, because when it does step out from behind its cover of clouds it practically takes your breath away. On the other hand, for the many hopeful climbers who dare its summit, the havoc of weather and steep slopes poses great danger.

The Park is the home of many large, wild animals, including moose, caribou, brown and black bears, wolves, wolverines, golden eagles and of course the most dangerous of all, tourists. Because of the treeless views, the critters can be easily seen as you ride along the only road into the Park, a 90-mile gravel path to Wonder Lake.

Salli: Finally on the road. It's June, and wild white daisies and yellow dandelions appear like french knots embroidered on long straight stitches of green grass bordering the highway north. In less than two hours we have slipped away from "town," Anchorage, and the four of us head into the stretches of fragrant birch and spruce that frame the mountains and rivers of Alaska.

We edge into Talkeetna for the first time in several years, and find that it has grown - still small and charming, but more of it. It could still be the model for "Northern Exposure." We checked out old haunts, the Fairview Inn and Talkeetna Roadhouse, but settled on eating lunch at the newer deli because it had the bowl of chili and grilled cheese sandwich it takes to satisfy the girls. The place was teeming with groups of climbers, tan and leathery (Samantha says they're "buff"), each with pale circles around their eyes from mountain glasses. Ttey were easy to spot. After lunch we walked around town, visiting the local public radio station and cemetery, and then we were off again, heading still north, catching only one quick glimpse of the southside of the mountain.

We reached the quiet shores of Byers Lake in Denali State Park where our public use cabin awaited us. Some describe the place as "mystical" for its scenic beauty and peace. Bears are frequent visitors to the area, so hikers must beware. We took a hike to the suspension bridge munching fiddle head ferns and enjoying myriad wildflowers while singing a rousing rendition of "Waltzing Matilda" (our favorite "bear song," a way to make noise to alert bears we were in their territory).

The next day we took the bus into Denali National Park (private automobiles are generally not allowed up the 90-mile single lane dirt road). It's a 12 hour trip during which we saw a red fox, ptarmigan in its "transition" dress of brown (for summer) and white (for winter), mountain goats, dall sheep, grizzly bears (mamas and babies playing near the road, a fatblonde bear asleep by the road, hardly moving), mew gulls, marmot, caribou with black velvet antlers, wolves and moose. And all the while the dapple patterns of light played against the deep purples, rust swirls, and rough greens and blacks of the mountains. Silver braids of river gleamed as they twisted through the gullies along the road. There were still snow patches left over from the previous winter, and a mist of a rain kept us cool. As the sun came out in short blasts, whole mountainsides turned to jet glitter and then faded back into their clouded shrouds.

This mother brown bear (also called a "grizzly") was busy digging up the soil, lunching on roots and hoping to add a ground squirrel (and protein) to her daily salad. Nearby her two twins played, practicing their fighting and chasing skills for preparation later in their life.

Recent studies show that her twin cubs have a 50 percent chance of survival. Their worst enemy are other roving brown bears, both males and females.

The brown bears of Denali, "brownies," are much smaller than their cousins, like the Kodiak Brown Bear who lives on the coast and whose diets are rich in salmon. Nonetheless, the Denali browns reach up to 350 pounds, and with claws, fangs and an attitude as well as the ability to outrun the winner of the Kentucky Derby and outswim an Olympic medal finalist, these beasts are to be respected.

Denali Narional Park is in the center of Alaska, 237 miles north of Anchorage and 121 miles south of Fairbanks. Despite the fact the park is larger than some East Coast states, only one rough gravel road cuts into its stillness. In this view we look across one of the many braided river beds at one of the Park's mountain ranges (but not "the Mountain" itself). For as far as the eye can see there are no roads, no shopping malls, no gang wars (at least no two-legged gang wars), no telephone poles, no billboards or warning labels. There is only a world like it must have been during the last Ice Age, during the dawn of mankind. Throughout the Park, views like this overwhelm and echo to our roots, and draw about a half-million tourists a year.

Majestic Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain on the world's surface from base to summit, and the highest mountain on the North American Continent. At 20,320 feet it towers above its base, the broad stretches of Denali National Park. It was first climbed by a group of sourdoughs in 1913, on an adventure organized by 49 year old Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal missionary.

Look up! The top of Mt. Mckinley in this picture is at the top of photograph—not those scraggly little peaks along the middle. (Don't feel silly, most people ask which "bump" is McKinley).

And all the while as we bumped along in that bus, The Mountain, the Great One, stayed behind her cloud-skirts, shy and retiring. Through hours of hard riding we craned to see a glimpse of her. At Wonder Lake, the end of the 90-mile road for us and the place where Ansel Adams shot his wonderful moonlit photo in 1948, we hoped again to share the view he once had. But no luck. We hung around Wonder Lake, swatting hordes of mosquitoes and watching a bull moose plod through a pond feeding. After a short break it was time to head back.

Just after we began the return trip a whoop went up, "She's coming out!" a visitor from California yelled. And another rider pointed, "See where the clouds are parting?" The bus stopped and we all climbed out. There, if you looked up ABOVE the clouds, we were treated to 15 minutes of sheer awe before The Great One retreated again. It was beyond our imagination - her sheer size, the subtle colors, her jagged powerful peaks and permanent glaciers. It was a perfect day.

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