Denali: The Kantishna Experience

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7/23/19  Blackburn Cabins, McCarthy, Alaska

On our second day at Denali, more than a week ago as I write this, we took one of the bus tours I talked about in my first post on Denali.  As I mentioned, the only way to get out past mile 15 on the park road, is to purchase a ticket on one of their buses.  The green buses aren’t guided in any sense and serve just as shuttles, taking a rider out to some point, letting them off, and then picking them up later at the same spot or a different one.  This allows hikers, and campers, to more or less plan their own excursions.

The yellow buses are used for more structured excursions.  The bus driver serves as a tour guide pointing out wildlife and geographic features.  And, on some of the tours, a park ranger joins the tour for specific presentations.  There are several different themes, like wildlife, and they also vary in length.  Cost is proportional to length and isn’t cheap.

We decided to go all in and bought tickets for the longest tour, at 12.5 hours, The Kantishna Experience.  This is the only tour that goes all the way out to the end of the road, stops there for a ranger presentation, and then returns.  They include a ‘lunch’ of sorts, although most of it was snack items like trail mix and cookies, but ours did include a lettuce wrap with turkey and cheese.  It was, shall we say, sustenance – not exactly a gourmet meal, but it kept the hunger pains away.  The bus also makes stops every couple of hours at designated areas with restroom facilities, or at least, port-a-potties.  So they manage that part of the day as well.

Foggy Morning at the Start of the B us Ride

And that’s good because on our tour, the ride to the end of the road, all 92.5 miles of it, takes about 5 hours.  Then you spend some time learning about what is at the end, get back on the bus and return to the bus depot, which, of course, takes another 5 hours.  I’ve heard others say that, when it is really hot, this trip can be miserable – the bus air conditioning is closing and opening windows – and the road can get dusty.

We lucked out, the day started with a lot of clouds, so our viewpoints were limited.  And it rained some during the first couple of hours.  But the clouds lifted later in the day, not enough to see Denali, but enough to see the landscape around us.  Plus, as the driver liked to point out, you are much more likely to see wildlife when the temperature is cooler.  So instead of looking up to see the mountains, we looked out to catch glimpses of animals.

Braided Rivers are Common Because of Glacial Silt

And we saw lots of them.  Caribou was perhaps the most common sighting-including a herd of several dozen, but we also saw a couple of brown bears, moose, beaver, dall sheep (high up a mountain side), a pair of trumpeter swans, golden eagles,  and an assortment of other birds that I didn’t recognize, and quite a few squirrels.  Of course, seeing them and getting a picture of them are two different things with radically different probabilities of success, so you will have to take my word for it.

Some Fairly Steep Dropoffs

What I found more interesting was the geology of the place.  In at least two places, the road threads through mountain passes with sheer drop offs of hundreds of feet.  The colors of these rocks can be intensely red, black, and different shades of brown.  Then, where the tundra has grown on what little soil might be present, you see multiple shades of green.  At one point, there is a terrific view of the Polychrome Mountains which, as the name suggests, sport a rainbow of colored rock.  Then, in the broad, glacially formed valleys at the bottom of these mountains, carpets of green moss and lichen are punctuated with some scraggly spruce trees.

And this is Taiga

The landscape between the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range of mountains is known as the Alaskan Interior.  It is punctuated in a few places by some tall uplift mountains, but mostly it is a bed of rolling hills and plains.  Interestingly, this interior section of Alaska – except for patches right at the base of the mountains, was not subject to glaciers during the last set of ice ages.  So this landscape has developed a slightly different from the flat areas north of the Brooks (real tundra), or the coastal plains south of the Alaska range.  This landscape is called Taiga and while it is similar to tundra, it is different enough to be considered its own ecological zone.  In taiga, as opposed to tundra, you will actually find trees.  They might be scraggly and sparse black spruce, but there are trees nonetheless.  This form of boreal forest is different from what is found in say Northern Minnesota, because of the tundra and permafrost.  So it is a type of boreal forest that is unique to these latitudes.  I found the taiga intriguing – not quite a forest, and not quite a flat prairie, but something sort of in-between.  And it occupies pretty much the whole interior section of the state.

I love the lines in this shot.

But, back to the bus ride.  The ‘Kantishna Experience’ involves a lot of nature simply because you can’t avoid it in a park like this, but the main story the trip is trying to tell is a cultural one – the people and history of the town of Kantishna.

I like it when experiences in different parks start to come together into some common themes.  There are lots of them in Alaska: mountains, glaciers, rivers, and volcanoes, for example, are all a huge part of the Alaskan geology.  These themes surface in a number of the parks in different, and similar ways, all to help get the flavor of what Alaska is all about.

Less forest, more tundra

A different theme re-emerges here in Kantishna.  Our first park on this trip was the Klondike – Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway.  There we learned about the gold strike that started it all in 1898.  Skagway, and its sister town of Dyea, were supporting thousands of people struggling to get across the coastal range to the gold strikes on the Yukon river in Canada.  Kantishna revisits the gold town theme.

Small amounts of gold were discovered in the hills surrounding Kantishna a few years after the Yukon gold strike.   That triggered the ‘gold strike’ theme here in Kantishna.  By this time, Fairbanks had been established as a major town on the river and in Alaska’s interior.  But Fairbanks was 150 miles away and there were no rivers or even well-worn trails to get to Fairbanks, which is where the claims had to be registered in order to be legal.  That was also the nearest place to buy supplies.  But it wasn’t exactly an easy trip.  In the winter, the snow and cold made it passable only with dog teams and in the summer, the wet bogs bred mosquitoes and flies that could easily eat you alive. Plus, anyway you cut it, 150 miles is a long trip.

The bus trip to the end of the 92.5 mile road takes you to a scattering of buildings that remain from that era.  About an hour before you get to the end, the bus stops at a ranger station, where a park ranger joins the tour.  We were fortunate to pick up Ranger Frank Jahn (‘the ranger with two first names’).  He was terrific in his story-telling ability and managed to create a story in many parts as we moved around between different locations, always leaving you with a question or mystery to ponder before he answered it at the next stop.

The key person at the center of the story is Fanny Quigley, a rather amazing but very tiny woman at just under five feet tall, who not just survived in these wilderness conditions, but did everything any man could do.  First as a single woman, theno[ as a wife, and then, again, on her own – she persevered under extremely harsh conditions and developed a reputation as a small woman with a very big heart.  

Another stop on the bus tour was at the Eilsen Visitor Center.  In addition to some pretty awesome views of Denali, and a large bas relief map of the whole area, the building itself is of interest.  Built into the hillside, it is so environmentally efficient that it won a LEEDs platinum certificate.  (Since we live off grid, I’m interested in those kinds of things.)

‘Foothills’ below Denali

The Kantishna Experience is not cheap, but as long as it isn’t too hot, there is no better way to get a good overall introduction to the Denali Park.