Stories from Walking the Park Road 2011
Lucy Tyrrell's stories are arranged in chronological order. To find the most recent stories scroll down, or jump using the list of stories by date:
On the Road Again
The Singing Wilderness
My walk began at Igloo Campground in late afternoon. Even in the mid-evening hours, the sun was hot. At least heading east, the glare of the sun was not in my eyes, and the breeze felt good, even if it kicked up some dust from the dry road. Tracks of moose were pressed into muddy places on the roadside. I sought the intermittent shade of spruce shadows on the road. A tiny yellow bird darted into the willow thickets.
These willows and the balsam poplars had branches with buds bursting, poised to unfurl leaves in the coming days. I passed a patch of windflower, the blossoms open wide and white like small clouds sailing on gray gravel skies.
My boots clunked over the concrete bridge across the Teklanika River, the steps echoing in the hollow spaces underneath. The river was tumbling and shouting as it sloshed against the curved sweep of late ice. In the small pond across from the Teklanika Rest Stop, a shorebird waded up to the tops of its yellow legs, mostly standing still, but occasionally bobbing and tilting. The reflections of spruce in the pond wavered with the wind. Runoff was coursing from twin culverts under the road.
These were small rewards for eye and ear during the walk, but what resonated most were bird melodies floating through the warm luminous air. I walked and had all the company I needed in bird song. A whinny from the Teklanika flats—what was that? A nasal "dee dee" cheerfully signaled from a spruce branch. Persistent whistles in distinctive pitches providing backdrop for strident squawks. Soft hum-whistles close at hand, and warbles and trills over there. Even this late in the day, the vocal machinery of small winged creatures captured the fleeting moments with notes and song. There was no music of fife to pace my steps. Instead these bird notes rose and fell as spring softly beat its intoxicating rhythms.
The bus I hoped to catch arrived too soon, and I had to leave this singing wilderness.
Spring Green and Spring Mean
I spent the entire time I walked wishing to adequately describe the green fervor of the landscape. For someone starved for spring green through the long durable months of gray and white and only spruce for green, the transformation to a green that seems to smother the landscape is tonic and reward.
Razzledazzle green. Shoots, spikes, spires, and swards of green.
If the wind were a color, that day it would have been green.
Adjacent to the Sanctuary River, the road stretched straight like a runway. To match this runway simile, I glimpsed a soaring thing that banked and headed toward me as if to use the road runway to land. The winged thing approached, closer and closer. There were black beady eyes on the smooth white head, and the bird held its gray wings taut and unyielding. The descent continued. Now it became more apparent that the target of the "landing" was not to be the road but my head! The bird was about to make an attack landing.
While I was still was a bit baffled by this unexpected maneuver, at the last minute the gull veered to my right, and swooped higher. At its closest approach, it uttered a loud bold shriek-loud and bold enough to startle me into shrieking too.
Once I recovered, I came to my naturalist senses. That gull, that Mew Gull, must be nesting nearby. Where would the nest be?There on the gravel bar in the middle of the Sanctuary River was a gull, hunkered down, presumably incubating eggs on a nest!I had been the target of the runway "landing", because I was the perceived intruder. No harm done, but that gull meant mean when it needed to.
A Rich Cheese Sandwich
Before we got to Toklat, my friends and I had seen the Big Five. There was a haggard and shaggy cow moose not too far from Savage Campground, and a distant caribou somewhere along the way. There were nine Dall’s sheep rams with curled horns—munching as they lay on the Polychrome outcrop south of the overlook. We saw a sow grizzly with two cubs, and witnessed that the bus behind ours had the close encounter with the bears that we missed, and for some reason, I didn’t record anything about the bears in my notebook.
“Stop!” someone signaled to the bus driver. I only had a fleeting glance of grey fur gliding among the willows. However, when the bus moved forward again, an area less dense with willows and alders afforded a leisurely look at two grey wolves gamboling over the tundra, prancing in youthful exuberance as if they were pups which they were not. One wolf paused at the edge of a tundra pond, and lapped.
Wow. Not only did we see wolves, but we saw wolves doing wolf things and living wolf lives.
We began our road walk at Eielson Visitor Center, with a modest goal of three miles. Usually three miles would take me an hour, but the five of us took our time birding and botanizing, so it took us two hours. Two hours well spent.
A cross fox trotted towards us on the road, and slunk by on a fox mission. A golden-crowned sparrow posed in the bushes, striking black cap split by a strip of gold, singing in patterns that might sound akin to “I’m so weary.” But, we weren’t weary at all because we were seeing wonderful sights along the park road!
Both alpine azalea and moss campion were low sprawls of pink among the white of mountain avens, and the rock jasmine held tiny white flowers--clutching yellow centers--suspended on a narrow stalk above the rocky roadside. Two golden eagles soared overhead. The two birds were clearly different in size, but the difference in coloration was apparent too. The juvenile had a white band at the base of the tail, and white windows in the wings; the adult had a head that almost looked white as the golden feathers shone just so in the light.
Once we were back on the bus headed east, we saw the same three bears. This time, where the bus stopped, was right where the bears chose to walk parallel to the road, beside the bus. By the time I got my camera out, all I got in the shot was the large derriere of the sow as she walked around the bus. The passengers were hushed, the bears strolled by nonchalantly, and the moment was magical though fleeting.
As so often happens, today's road walk experience was magnificent and rewarding, and we had bonus wildlife sightings from the shuttle bus before and after our walk. If the golden eagles and golden-crowned sparrow and the gold centers of the rock jasmine provided a rich cheese for the day's sandwich, then the wolf drinking and the bears walking within inches of the bus were the thick slices of sourdough bread on either side of the cheese.
Kind of App: Bumping Nature
I missed the Savage River shuttle by a few seconds. My plan had been to ride the shuttle to Mile 9, then walk back to Park Headquarters. Instead I started at Headquarters walking west. Because of my change in plans, one of the first things I encountered on my walk was a sign that warned of a “BUMP.” It was hard to miss the large sign leaning against an orange striped easel with a neon orange cone nearby.
Seeing this sign prompted me to think that, quite coincidentally, I had just heard (within the last few days) a story on public radio about how two smart phones can touch each other to transfer photos and other information using an application called “bump.” Literally bumping phones together allows the agreed upon items to stream from phone to phone after only a few seconds.
As I continued to walk, I thought about my walking—my being outside—as a special kind of app that allows me to bump nature with my senses, and transfer to my experience some of her rich insights and images.
With my new nature bump app, I gleefully bumped lupine with pearl drops of fresh rain on the leaves. I bumped swaths of horsetails, spring green and brushy. I bumped a thrush's song. I bumped an American tree sparrow--smartly dressed with reddish brown by the wing’s edge and a dark blotch on its breast. Sun after the rain bumped warmth onto my cheek.
As I walked, I could bump the sky, yet there was still room for the ragged mountains on which new snow had just fallen and for the clouds that still held the potential for cold rain or more June snow.
I bumped another side of nature too.
I bumped a smashed junco on the asphalt, crimson entrails spread about. How could it be that this gray and white bird was more colorful with spilled innards than it ever was singing?
After I caught the shuttle bus at Mile 11, the bus driver, the other passengers, and I used our nature app to bump a dark grizzly limping across the road. This “three-legged bear” reported by bus drivers wasn’t missing a leg, but it was missing its right front foot. Part of this not-so-pretty bump with nature was seeing the bear’s gruesome raw stump on the end of the leg where the foot was missing.
Whether my bump with nature was aesthetically pleasing or revealed part of nature’s darker side, I realized that this nature bump app can provide transfer of both knowledge and inspiration. How wonderful that this app is available to everyone.
Go bump nature!
No Skipping, No Fanfare
The most challenging thing about this short-mileage walk was trying to remember exactly where I boarded the bus last time, so I would know where I should start walking. I didn’t want to miss walking any part of the road. Because I couldn’t be sure by the configuration of spruce or the changes in pavement lines (did I stop where the double line ended and became a passing lane?), I asked the Savage shuttle driver to let me off sooner than I probably needed to. Better to walk an extra half mile than to wonder if I had perhaps skipped a half mile.
The sun was intense. Shadows of Eskimo potato's pink flowers lay like black feathers on the gravelly roadside.
I noticed that the runoff from recent rains was enough to provide a narrow rivulet in one of the "dry" creek beds.
My inventory of
flattened fauna on the pavement included a red squirrel and a snowshoe
hare. A raven croaked a raucous call as it flew by.
I tried to remember the reason the hillside has an iron-colored patch (I couldn't at the time).
People who spilled from the RVs, which were parked at the pullout overlooking the Savage River, stood in the wind and wondered if they were missing anything. Where was the wildlife they had driven all that way to see?What they could see and what I admired was the shimmer of the river shifting its braids. A magpie flirted with the wind.
I caught an East-bound bus at the Savage Check Station. No fanfare. Yet, I had completed one more set of miles walking the Denali Park Road.
Images from Denali
I stepped off the bus at the East Fork Bridge. The slate lining of the gray and white clouds matched the gray and shimmer of the river braiding through the gravel bars. Some cheery Arnica posed at the rim of the road as a gold beacon in the somber gray-green landscape.
My eye caught motion near my feet. At first, I could see only a beady eye and a rusty-furred forehead emerging from a crevice in the dirt. I stood motionless. Little by little, more of the creature appeared—some delicate nails on furry feet, and a small rounded ear behind those beady black eyes. Eventually, a soft brown-gray body with tan undersides became visible too, its backside hidden by fuzzy Artemisia leaves. More waiting and the entire creature was out of the burrow. Now I could confirm it was a young Arctic ground squirrel, sitting on its hindquarters propped by its tail, giving me an inquisitive stare. When I moved on, it scurried back in the hole.
Looking far and wide, I saw the sweep of the road curve below the high ridge line and the land fall away dramatically to the river below. Looking close at the wall of rock, an Arctic poppy danced in a pale yellow skirt.
Ahead on the rocks
to the right of the road, I saw two pairs of large animals that seemed to be eyeing
each other. Two Dall’s sheep—slightly offset in elevation—were ensconced in
their rocky “safe zone,” secure from any intentions of a closer approach by the
pair of hikers who traversed the ridge crest.
Beyond Polychrome where the arcing road comes down from the colorful cliffs, a patch of lingering ice was visible on the plains. Small specks fidgeted like mosquitoes over a white plate. When I looked with binoculars, each “mosquito” was a caribou, milling about nervously, likely to evade real mosquitoes. Then one caribou streaked across the ice. Others trotted briskly off the ice until they were all camouflaged in the vegetation.
Flowers were color
magnets for my eyes: deep-blue larkspur flanked by sky-tinted bluebells and more
scattered bluebells adrift in a green ocean of horsetails.
I saw the bull on the grassy upper slopes of Sable. He was moving on a mission toward the road. Swinging large antlers, he pranced onto the road very near where I stood still. I held my breath. I'm not sure what held my attention more, the closeness of this marvelous creature, the thick, rich-chocolate velvet of the newly-formed antlers, or the distinctive castanet click as the caribou walked.
He saw me and spooked, trotting away on the road. In indecision, the caribou stopped and trotted back onto the tundra then returned to the road. It strode again on the road away from me, but an oncoming bus prevented a direct passage East. The caribou walked toward me hooves clicking in a surreal cadence.
The caribou was gone. I let out my breath.
Walking with a Special Visitor
Today my playful self brought along an unusual visitor to walk with me on the park road. Effie played a large role in creating today's blog. Click on the link to find the illustrated chronicle of Effie's visit to the park. If you are also playful, you can try printing, cutting, folding, and gluing or taping the pages into a tiny book...
Effie Goes to Denali National Park and Preserve (pdf 9.88 MB)
East from the End of the Road
At the loop of road near the Kantishna airstrip, a burnt-sienna sign with white stenciled letters announces that it is “THE END” of the Denali Park Road. For me, the end of the road was the beginning of today’s road walk. I photographed the sign and headed east, east being the only direction to go and be on the road.
of Parnassus bloomed in the moist ditches, clumps of white petals streaked with
faint pink lines. Flying raptors that I suspected were Merlin, were screeching
at each other--or at me, I couldn’t quite tell. I could see Moose Creek where
it rippled along, my view of it framed by balsam poplar, willows, and spires of
spruce. If I stopped long, the mosquitoes swarmed, but moving along, my walking
pace kept them air-brushed away. Wads of cottony catkins of the balsam poplar
trees lined the road at its edges, in curls or short segments, like giant
caterpillars, or fluffy cocoons. There was no question as to why the trees are
Parsnip, Purple, and Porcupine
This stretch of the road has different wildflowers. Here near Wonder Lake, cow parsnip stalks stood tall with huge jagged-toothed leaves and large heads comprised of small white flowers. Sitka burnet was flowering too, with long wands of flowers that looked like old-fashioned bottle brushes in white or maroon. Fireweed brushed a blaze of pink on the roadsides-the flowers were already open nearly to the tips of the inflorescences as summer progressed. Dozens of monks in deep blue-purple cowls gathered along the roadside as if spilling beyond pews for matins or vespers-it was Monkshood in abundance.
Looking toward the McKinley River, I saw the dark green-black of what the bus driver had called the “big timber.” Small scattered ponds and rivulets spattered silver on the flat expanse.
While the flowers were pleasing to the eye, I realized that I hadn't seen any wildlife during my walk. While riding the bus, there had been a cow and calf moose lying down near the Savage River, and later five Dall's sheep strolled across the upper rocky ridges above the Teklanika. There had been a sow grizzly along Sable Pass, her fur matted with wetness and her nose turned up to sniff the air. She had urinated, stream flowing, while she walked along, seemingly oblivious to the bus. There had been caribou on a ridge line above Sable Pass, some lying down, some standing. A pair of antlers without a caribou rested on the south side of the road. I learned that two days before, there had been a caribou killed by wolves here, and now the antlers were the only remains. Beyond Eielson, the camper bus driver had spotted a grizzly working in the soapberry bushes, a mere dot moving near the river below the Eielson Bluffs.
But, now, while walking, no wildlife. This part of the road has relatively few large mammal sightings based on more than a decade of wildlife observations by bus drivers. But I yelled "hey bear" periodically nonetheless while walking by thickets of alder brush and willows that blocked a distant view from the road. Then I heard a sound. I could tell it was a creature parting grasses with a swish. I gulped not knowing what it was, until I saw the waddle that could only be porcupine. It had already disappeared in the bushes.
I rested on the bus ride east, ravenous as I watched a father dole out meat sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to his family. The guy behind me had an entire box of fig newtons. Even though I thought about what I would eat when I got off the bus, in my hungry state, I still knew I had feasted well visually in the park, both on the bus, and even on my walk, having seen parsnip, purple, and porcupine.
The Last Miles
There was much anticipation as I rode the bus to Mile 76. Today I would finish my "section hiking" of the 92-mile Denali Park Road. Ironically the bus today had the Alaska license plate: END 725. No it wasn't July 25, but it was going to be the end of my road walking for 2011!
The recent rains had rendered the road surface muddy and slick. Despite the warning of the "Slippery When Wet" sign, a bus and an RV were delayed in separate incidents by unplanned maneuvers-vehicles stuck in the soft road shoulders.
Torrents of water had flowed into the Teklanika River and the branches of the Toklat River. Below Polychrome, the color contrast was striking between brown (mud) and gray (silt) water flowing among the braided gravel bars.
My hiking partner and I peered out the bus as it lumbered beyond Eielson. We would be walking this section of road in a few hours. We took special notice when two bears ran west ahead of another bus. Even though one can expect to see a bear anytime, anywhere, bear sightings from this part of the road aren't that common. We knew we wanted to be especially alert around the gravel pit at Mile 70.
Once off the bus, we donned our rain pants and rain coats against the drizzle. Clouds were hanging on the peaks with no chance for a view of Denali.
The walk itself was uneventful. It rained. We walked. We talked as we walked--alert for bears, but seeing none.
At Eielson, I stood by the metal caribou to pace my steps of celebration.My boots took the last steps. I staged a photo of my finish, as if I were breaking a race finish line ribbon.
My road walk was complete! Now for five summers in a row, I'd completed the 92-mile road walk. It felt a little bittersweet, knowing I would probably not venture again to walk all Denali Park Road miles in one summer.
Or maybe I would!
Did You Know?
Recent climate warming has affected Denali in ways that are readily apparent, such as reduced spring snowfall, earlier snowmelt, earlier green-up and thawing of permanent snowfields. Subarctic ecosystems, like Denali, are extremely sensitive to climate variability and change.