We checked the forecast for Denali the night before we left, and it said something along the lines of 63 and sunny with a very low chance of rain. I thought, "Fat chance!", after all I had heard about typical conditions in the park, i.e., only 30% of visitors to the park get to even see Denali (Mt. McKinley) because of fog, clouds and rain. As we drove the four hours toward the park the next morning, however, my cynicism was put to rest; there was not a cloud in the sky, and we could already see Denali, in all its glory, from 130 miles away.
Once inside the park we boarded the camper bus, because private vehicles are not permitted beyond Mile 15 of the 90-mile park road. The bus was brimming with excitement about the exceptional weather, and even Alan Seegert, our blasé driver who has worked at the park for decades, seemed eager. Alan carried himself much like Carl Spackler from Caddyshack, low-talking with a side-slung underbite and looking through catatonic eyes. He told us repeatedly that whether or not we were to see an abundance of wildlife was all "sloppy luck" but that we had come to the park on what was probably the most beautiful day of the year.
We rode through about five hours of slopes and valleys shaped by glaciers 10-14,000 years ago, and along the way we saw a grizzly and her two cubs grazing along a stream and a caribou taking a drink from a pond. The vegetation on the tundra was starting to take on burnt Fall colors, and the views of Denali made my heart swell. The four-mile high peak, with a greater rise and bulk than Everest, evokes a certain feeling of reverence that is rare and impossible to forget.
Other highlights of the bus ride included the caribou fight that Ashley and I had when we hoisted sets of extremely heavy antlers above our heads and also the friends that we made: a couple of guys from Milwaukee, who we saved from getting left behind by the bus, and a Frenchie named Julien, who we invited to share our campsite at Wonder Lake.
Our campsite, just 26 miles from the base of Denali, was not lacking for views or good company. Julien, so grateful that we had taken him in, perched his tent next to ours and promised us a French-themed party when we were all back in San Francisco, and a group from Seattle shared with us utensils and pulls from their bottle of Jaigermeister. We all watched the moutain range turn into a soft pink color when the sun set around 10p.m., and thanks to sloppy luck (or maybe karma), Julien spotted the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) a couple of hours later. As we watched the green lights make waves through the night sky I grabbed and hugged Julien and told Ashley that we did well in bringing him there with us.
The temperature had dropped to thirty degrees by the time we retreated to our tents, making it difficult to find sleep, but I thought it was a small price to pay for the day we had just had. What made it even more worth it was that conditions the next morning were optimal for seeing Denali's perfectly still reflection in the pond made famous by some Ansel Adams photographs. The bus driver that day, a guy named Chuck, told us that we were extremely lucky because a reflection that clear can only be seen about five days out of the year. Not only did we have that good fortune; we also got to see a large bull moose, a herd of caribou, and a grizzly that walked just in front of our bus for a good five minutes. Oh, la vie est bonne!