Heading north to Anchorage, I spent the night at the Copper Whale Inn. Beautifully situated just above Cook Inlet and almost on top of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, the Copper Whale has impressive views of the Alaska Range, and is just steps from downtown restaurants and activities. Anchorage was my stopping point before venturing into the heart of Alaska--Denali National Park. Camp Denali is family-owned, and is one of only a handful of lodges located deep in the park near Wonder Lake. All of the employees at Camp Denali commit to at least two summers to guarantee a dedicated and knowledgeable staff, with many employees returning for even more. The naturalist-led bus rides and hikes provided an abundance of information, from caribou antlers to bear mating habits, to tectonic movement within the park. During one of my hikes, we had traversed the spongy tundra to explore new glacial ice, and a bear wandered up right on the other side of the creek! It was starting to cross the icy water with terrific strength. We were far closer to the bear than recommended by the park rangers, and the group scrambled back, practicing all the bear safety strategies such as making a lot of noise and waving your arms and hiking poles. Our guide, Esther, taught us "the bear song," a catchy rhyme that I don't think I will ever forget, we sang it so many times! Once the bear had gone, we trekked back to examine its footprint, large and clear. While bears can be very dangerous, they are not usually interested in human activity, and in cases like this one, handling the situation safely usually secures a comfortable escape.
Nearing the end of my second evening here, Mt. McKinley had still failed to show itself. Typically, the mountain is only visible about a third of the time. The amount of snow on the mountain is so great, that the sunlight evaporates it and creates an almost constant cloud layer shrouding the peak from view. Being that Denali is the tallest mountain in the world, I wanted to see it one way or the other! Short flights around the mountain are offered whenever the weather is clear, and I eagerly took this opportunity to get the best view possible. This experience was more intense than I could have possibly expected; Mt. McKinley is truly enormous, even that is an understatement. The jagged peaks, the whiteness of the snow, the steep slide of the Wickersham Wall, all of these contribute to the dominating presence of Mt. McKinley. By the end of the third evening, Denali finally decided to give its visitors what they were pining for: a nearly cloudless sunset, with the dreamy alpenglow illuminating the mountain and rendering camp guests nearly silent. A moose and her calf had wandered up to the pond, oblivious to her awe-struck onlookers. I really couldn't have asked for a more perfect evening in Denali National Park. In the morning there was not a cloud to be seen. It was a perfect day, and we had a long drive ahead of us through the park. It had snowed the day before near the visitor center, and it seems the sunshine brought all of the park's animals out to play. Along the way, we saw caribou, moose, fox, Dall sheep, bears and their cubs, and endless photographic opportunities of the mountain. Even our guide, who spends his whole summer in the park, could not refrain himself from stopping the bus around every bend to get a closer look at a bear or snap a photo of Denali. Incredible is only the first word that comes to mind after an experience like this one.