“Are you the two guys we are waiting for ?”, the bus driver asks in a somehow too cheerful way for this hour of the day. He was undeniably awake and had likely made some jokes about possible latecomers.
We can do without that kind of jokes.
Anyway, very kindly of him to wait for us those two minutes, but, for the second time, there were no window seats anymore.
“Good morning, folks, how are you
Lots of “Yeah, fine !” from everyone in the bus, except us.
We stare at each other with a face like “are we on the right bus ?”
“Alright, then ! ”, he continues his show, “you can just call me Dave and I will be your bus driver and guide today.”
Nice, Dave seems to be a talkative guy and he will do some animation the next few hours.
“Is there anyone here from Arizona by chance ? That’s where I am from, I’m from Tuscon”, Dave says, hoping to meet a fellow countryman, but he has no luck.
“Come on, Dave ! Let’s go, show us the bears”, someone yells excited from the back of the bus.
Dave starts the engine and takes off while he gives some basic instructions : that we have to shout when we have a question, that we have to scream “Stop” if we’ve seen an animal, that the windows may be opened but that we can’t shout at the animals.
“We don’t tolerate this rude behaviour, I would get a bad ticket for harassment if I let you guys do that !” No problem for us, we shall stay calm, hopefully the rest of the bus can do the same.
“Moose ! Moose !”, screams
Ron, my neighbour, hysterically after 10 miles.
Dave stops abruptly and drives backwards a distance.
“Over there !”, Ron continues and he jumps up from his seat. Half a bus follows his example. The windows fall open and cameras click everywhere.
After only 3 seconds, the animal in question has disappeared between the spruce trees, clearly not interested in a hysterical bus population.
While we cross Savage River, the real entrance of the park, we can catch a glimmer of Mt.McKinley.
“Dave, can you stop for a while, so we can look with our binoculars ?”, screams Lou, a rather chunky 40-year old guy in a jogging suit.
Dave reassures the man that we will see the mountain much more closer in a few moments.
Dave stops at some lavatories : 4 boxes in the middle of nowhere. Couldn’t these people “answer their call of nature” before we left or was the emotion of one moose that important ?
Ten minutes later we drive on.
The questions that Dave has to answer are sometimes a bit absurd :
“Are there lions in the park, Dave ?”
“No, we don’t have lions over here”, Dave answers diplomatically, “lions can be found in Africa, they prefer a warmer climate.”
Second pee-stop and still just one moose.
Dave slows down.
“Look over here !”, he says sappy, “this is bear-shit ! This is no moose-shit or kariboe-shit, this is real bear-shit. I am quite sure about it !”
As a biologist during his training, Dave has once studied excrements of all kinds of animals. Not a thrilling job, but nevertheless fascinating, he says.
“Is it still steaming ?”, Lou asks very interested, but he doesn’t get a serious answer.
From now on, everyone is in suspense : the bears are near !
Moreover, everyone has the feeling of sitting at the wrong side of the bus. The bears will certainly show up at the other side.
Further on there is a ptarmigan sitting beside the road. Dave tries his best to arouse some interest for the poor bird, but no one is excited. A bear, is what this bus population needs, and then they will be able to triumph.
“Stop ! Is that a grizzly over
there ?”, Ron yells again.
“It’s a white grizzly !”, Lou laughs back.
“No”, Dave replies in a pedantic way, “that is a Dall-sheep.”
It is clear that the stress becomes too high for a few, that they see a bear in any moving object.
Dave explains some characteristics about this kind of sheep and promises that we will see them much more closer.
“Stop ! Stop ! Dave ! Stop !”
The back of the bus seems to be more alert then the rest.
“It’s a bear ! It’s a bear !”, Lou shouts.
“Where is he ?”, asks an old, weak-sighted lady. She is immediately assisted by some helpful neighbours who have to explain the location by every means.
“Oh, there”, she says disappointed after a while, “I can barely see him.” She is certainly not aware of her literary discovery : “bear” - “barely”.
The 400-lbs animal is sniffing around at the other side of the valley, about 100 meters away from the bus. Lots of pictures are taken and Dave drives on after a few minutes. The man sitting behind Lou is impressing Lou’s wife with breath-taking stories about the wild animals he has seen in the Serengeti in Kenya. Lou himself is staring at the hills, looking for bears.
Dave stops at what he calls Marmot Rock. It is a regular stop, because there is always a marmot or two looking around with his nose in the wind. The funny creatures, Dave likes to call them whistle pigs, have obviously seen the shuttle buses before. Just like the squirrels, who come sitting beside the road as our bus passes by. They just look out not to get under it.
The road continues along Sable Pass and suddenly some passengers don’t like the window seats anymore. The abyss at the left side of the bus is becoming too steep for them.
Half the bus has fallen asleep while I enjoy the vast landscape, the emptiness and the snowy peaks on the horizon.
“A caribou !”, Lou screams. According to Dave, Lou has eagle-eyes, because someone who remarks the difference between a caribou and a shred of snow, certainly has good eyes.
As a consequence, Lou has to explain to everyone which white dot he has discovered to be the chest of a caribou. He gets a warm applause for his performance and Dave even has a reward in store.
We arrive at Stony Hill, the furthest most point of our bus trip.
“You, folks, are the first people on tour buses this year to see the base of the Mt.McKinley !”, Dave congratulates us. The Americans among us find it “incredible”, almost like the first step on the moon. The fact that there is already a bus before us on the parking place, it doesn’t look a extraordinary event to me.
There is an ice-cold wind blowing at Stony Hill, but the view on ‘The Great One’ is even though magnificent. Coffee, tee and hot chocolate is being distributed. Everyone gets a mug with an image of the Mt.McKinley o it. The plastic thing is a souvenir of the Tundra Wildlife Tour. To Dave, this mug costs at least $5 in the gift shops.
After ten minutes, most people are back in the bus, enough seen the highest mountain of the North-American continent, it’s too cold outside.
On the way back, Dave tells us about the Golden Bear Award that he received some years ago. It’s a trophy that is being rewarded to the bus driver who has made the bloomer of the year. We had never thought that Dave would merit such a trophy. But okay, it’s human and so is Dave …
We get another flock of caribou in sight, but only a few passengers are interested. A moose, that’s what they need to see !
We drive through Porcupine Forest, or what remains of it. Some years ago, after a cold and long winter, the porcupines of Denali devoured this forest almost completely. Most of the trees did not survive this disaster.
We encounter a bus in the opposite direction. Virginia, the other bus driver, tells Dave that she has seen a bear with 3 cubs, close to the road some miles back. Everyone in the bus, who is in a sleeping state, jumps up. Did they hear ‘bear with cubs’ ? They all get excited and look around nervously.
Dave tries to find back the location where the wildlife was spotted. Minutes go by but no bear comes in sight. Some people have given up already and fall asleep again.
We pass some Dall-sheep and caribou’s , but in vain, Dave doesn’t have to stop anymore.
The Tundra Wildlife Tour is terminated. In his end speech, Dave praises some participants for their remarkable sense of observation and thanks everyone for their environmental skills of sorting out the garbage of the lunch pack. I suppose it is just another way of thanking for not having made a mess of his bus.
It’s still early in the afternoon, so we drive back to Cantwell. We want to drive some miles on the Denali Highway, just to taste how it was when the Parks Highway did not exist yet. The Denali Highway then was the only way to get to the Park.
And of coarse, we also want to enjoy the scenery!
The first part of the highway is asphalt, but after a couple of minutes the real job begins : the gravel. We leave a big cloud of dust behind us and sometimes I have to skirt around the dips and bumps. The maximum speed is no more than 30 mph.
After about 20 miles we decide to turn back. At a turnout point we stop for a while to admire the beautiful Nenana valley. A bald eagle glides high above us and lets himself lifting up by the turbulence. The valley is his territory, we are just visitors. He keeps an eye on us, but he tolerates our presence.
Such a moment makes us forget the crowded bus with American tourists …