Tuesday morning, August 25, we awoke to a semi-steady rain, which had begun the night before. We would be departing Wonder Lake Campground under a thick cloud cover that only occasionally allowed the lower ridges of the Alaska Range to peek through.
We laid in our sleeping bags listening to the rain for a long while. We had opted not to take the 6:30am camper bus back to the entrance area (and when we finally emerged, we were surprised by how many campers had already departed). Instead we were aiming for the 12:30 bus.
As we prepared hot coffee and breakfast skillet, we noticed that a lot of the campers who were still at Wonder Lake and had not taken the early bus were those whom we’d encountered hiking the day before. Apparently the early crowd were those who’d hung around the campground.
After breakfast, we finished breaking camp, and as it came time for the bus to arrive we trudged over to the shelter to wait with our fellow campers.
The actual camper bus was delayed (it was the equivalent of the bus that we’d rode in on on Sunday morning). After picking up the campers at Wonder Lake, the bus would continue on to the end of the road at Kantishna before turning around and heading all the way back to the park entrance area.
As we waited, a couple of tour buses pulled into Wonder Lake. The first one was completely full up. But the second one had some room. Sean and I decided to stay back and wait for the camper bus. Kristen and Brucek went up and chatted with the cheerful driver, and they decided to take that bus. We hadn’t exchanged contact info yet (for sharing photos later on), so I ran up to Kristen before they boarded to give her my e-mail address, and she convinced Sean and me to join them and take the final two seats on the bus.
Once we boarded and were on our way, we were glad that Kristen had convinced us to take this bus, which ultimately would get us back to the entrance area hours earlier than the camper bus.
Since it was a tour bus, it was far more crowded than the camper bus we’d ridden in on, and every seat was filled. It was also a much different demographic with far more families with children and older people. Anna Hendricks, the driver, had a disarmingly engaging demeanor (even as she kept us on schedule), quite different from the gruffness of Thomas, our previous driver.
At Eielson Visitor Center, the visibility was a touch better than it had been on Sunday (although Denali was still invisible). I couldn’t help but think of the women way back in the line to board our flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Anchorage who had told other passengers, “Good luck seeing the mountain,” with a wry certainty that they wouldn’t. I knew that each of the riders on this one-day tour bus must have been disappointed that they’d come all this way, gone out to Wonder Lake and back, without seeing Denali.
As we departed Eielson, we spotted a flock of Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, to the left of the road. They were in their reddish-brown summer plumage, but soon they would all be snowy white for the winter.
From Anna’s narration, we learned that they’d had a successful morning spotting wildlife, having seen Grizzlies, Caribou, Moose, and Dall Sheep. Even so, there was some excitement for an Arctic Ground Squirrel as we climbed Thorofare Pass.
We stopped at Toklat to use the facilities and to have a look at three Dall Sheep on a ridge across the river from the ranger station.
It was, by far, the closest siting that we’d had of the sheep, even if they were still some distance away.
It was a very wet and muddy day, and at each stop, we passengers would disembark and use squeegees to scrape the mud from the windows.
We continued on, winding our way along Polychrome Pass without stopping to look at the view. We did stop, however, when we rounded a tight bend and driver Anna spotted a Red Fox trotting down the road toward us. With a sheer rise above us to the left and a sheer drop below us to the right, the fox had no choice but to continue on the road past the bus, and it passed us on the outer side and disappeared around the bend. I didn’t manage to get a photo, but I did emerge from hiding under my cap from the vertigo-inducing twists and heights.
The inside of the bus was humid from the warmth of so many people, and the eleven-year-old girl in front of us, who made friends with a thirteen-year-old girl (hence our knowing their ages), was at that age when she had pretty strong body odor, but was probably still seen by her parents as being too young to use deodorant. Despite seeing some new wildlife, we were pretty ready for the trip to be over. The camper bus would have been a different experience altogether.
Nevertheless, soon we were passing Savage River and in the home stretch to the Visitor Center.
An eagle-eyed teenager behind us spotted a Moose on the left to the north of the road. There were actually two, a bull and a cow. (The bull’s photo is at the top of this post.) They were striking in front of the snowy peaks of the outer range.
As Anna pulled the bus into the Visitor Center parking lot so we four campers could disembark, she listed the facilities and included the park grill. Sean and I looked at each other. We’d not realized there was a park grill. Perhaps it was time for a supper not in camp.
We said farewell to Kristen and Brucek, who were off to other Alaska adventures, including visiting the Alaska State Fair on their way back to Anchorage.
Then Sean and I loaded our packs into the Jeep and trotted off to find the park grill, which was closing soon.
Because the grill was closing, we decided to go and set up our next two-night camp, back at Savage River Campground, where we’d spent our first night in the park. As we did that first night, we stopped at Riley Creek Mercantile to load up on firewood and some supplemental food stuffs. And wine and beer.
This time at Savage River, we found a great site, roomy but secluded. We were much happier with it than we’d been with our first site in this campground. As we were setting up camp, we had the Jeep running to charge my camera battery and our phones. Campground host, Liz, rode up on her bike. Like all the other campground hosts we’d encountered, she was retirement aged. But she was far and away the most immediately welcoming. She offered to take whatever we needed charged and plug it in in her camper so that we wouldn’t have to run the Jeep.
We chatted for a bit. She and her husband were from Texas (again, a motif) and would be hosts at Savage River through the weekend. She warned us that the temperature was going to plummet in the coming days (it had been cool and in the 50s that day). Off she went with our electronics and batteries, which she returned a few hours later.
We took our time setting up camp, taking advantage of the luxury of having the Jeep and in the lack of rain. While we settled in, we made supper (with vaguely racist tortillas) and a roaring campfire.
After supper, we sipped our beers and gazed at the fire as the long Alaska twilight deepened.