We are the ones the people like the lady driving the shuttle bus to the Denali Princess were warned about.
We aren't signed up for a cruise, and so we're not folded into any package tour deals...and even if we decide to sign up for something involving a guide, it's not going to be a deluxe operation.
What do we do? We stay in the lodge on our own reservation, and we call up the National Park Service and reserve space on an early morning shuttle bus to the Eielson Center located three-quarters of the way into Denali Park. We get ourselves up at the crack of an Alaskan summer's nearly endless dawn to get on that shuttle bus. And so it goes.
The shuttle to Denali's Wilderness Center had us stopping for a moose mother and her baby. We switched over to the Eielson bus, driven by a fellow who was initially a reticent sort - but he loosened up a little as we went along. It was a fantastically sunny day that caused us all to shed our jackets after our first bathroom stop. We passed over braided rivers, drunken forests, and on to the mountainous tundra. It was when we were making our way just past Polychrome Overlook when things took a whole 'nother turn.
We'd made it past most of the hairy, cliffhanging turns of the overlook (also nicknamed "Poison Point", as in "one drop'll kill you") despite the gasps of the girl sitting behind me. The tiny, moving dots of grizzly bears had been spotted across the valley - and it was then that the driver discovered the bus' left front tire was flat. Twenty minutes of waiting ensued for us until we could hitch a ride on another Eielson shuttle going our way. We may have gotten another set of wheels to our destination, but we'd also gotten a new driver who was condescending and not a little misanthropic in her tone. Thank goodness we were only going another 19 miles or so...those miles passed quickly despite stops for a wolf sighting and a caribou and calf in the road approaching the shuttle.
A quick attempt to hike to the outwash plain in the shadow of Mount McKinley/Denali led to a frustrated little guy, as he'd wanted to throw rocks into the river there just as he'd done at the Toklat River rest stop earlier in our trip. We turned him back to the environmentally friendly Eielson Center by convincing him that at least he'd seen a ground squirrel on the trail. Don't judge us - it helped get him on the shuttle out of the park.
Maybe it was the fact that the bus was going in a different direction, or the way our third, very sweet grandma of a driver was edging a tad closer to the steep drops of Polychrome than the first driver we had, or, probably, I was just paying more attention to the road now that I'd seen a lot of wildlife, but I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn't start gasping like the girl behind me had been doing on the trip into the park. The way down was indeed quite long - a film we saw when we got back to the Wilderness Center let us know Polychrome had been that way since the 1920's, when it had scared visitors so badly, some of them preferred to walk up rather than drive up that stretch of road. Thankfully, we passed through it without incident.
So we weren't a part of any of those fancy, overpriced package deals. Big deal. We still got to see caribou, ground squirrels, ptarmigan, moose, snowshoe hares, a fox, a wolf, and miniscule moving specks of bear and of Dall sheep on a gorgeous day that revealed the peaks of Denali to us, which is more than most park visitors get to see.
Who are we? We are "independents". And that's the way we like it.
All the pictures of our Denali jaunt can be found here. Click on the photo above to see a larger view.