Leaving Fairbanks the road climbs up on a range of hills from where you can see over the tundra stretching to the West.
Denali is one of the must-see sights of Alaska. I cover the 140 miles or so in a few hours and at 11 miles from the entrance the highway passes through Healy, a small village a little bit lower on the left, when a state trooper pulls me over. "Did you know you were doing 60 in a 45-mile zone", he asks me, staying behind my left shoulder all the time, "and did you have a reason for driving so fast". I honestly say that I have not even noticed a 45-mile restriction. He takes my papers and moves back to his car to go and check them out.
From the first time I was pulled over, on my way to Key West in Florida, a number of years ago, I have learnt to stay quietly in my seat and not move. Then I had come out of the car when stopped, only to be told to get back in and when it took some time for him to check out stuff, I got out again to collect something from the trunk. Wrong move entirely. With his hand hovering close to his gun he ordered me back in and told me to stay put. I came off with a citation that gave me two weeks to decide if I wanted to take a refresher driving course or pay a fine. I wonder if that will still be on the books when I get back to Florida next year.
When the Healy cop came back I told him it had come back to me why I had not seen the 45-mile speed restriction. Coming into Healy a sign on the left side of the road had drawn my attention, it read "regular $3.299 a gallon" and I thought: "That is expensive". In Fairbanks I had filled up for $2.859 a gallon, and then the next sign... "Was even worse", he finished the sentence for me. And it had been, it had read $3.329 a gallon. He let me off with a warning.
The Denali Wilderness Access Centre is about to close when I get there and luckily there is still a seat available for the Tundra Wilderness Tour the following afternoon, the 18th. This would have been the last tour of the season, were it not for the fact that the weather is still very nice and they will continue for a few more days.
David our driver turns out to be a fountain of facts, figures and stories about the park and the wildlife.
Denali, with 6 million acres, is three times the size of Yellowstone and is as big as the state of Vermont. Only a tiny fraction can be visited by car, the tour takes you up to Teklina River at mile 30 on the only road into the park. Only 400 private cars, lucky enough to win in the yearly lottery, are allowed on to Kantishna, an old mining village at mile 95. We are 37 pairs of eyes on the bus but we only manage to sight one weasel, one snow hare, one brown smudge, magnified 40 times by the driver's binoculars and shown on the on-board video system, that he identifies as a bull moose and lots of white specks on the rocky ledges of the upper slopes, nursery groups of Dall sheep. No wolves, no black bears, no grizzlies, no caribou.
On one or two occasions we get a glimpse of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America and rarely visible. Its 6192 metres of glittering white slopes and glaciers stand out magnificently in the distance. So it is up to David's stories to keep us entertained for nearly five hours and they do. About the last day of the season in 2004 when a snow storm had blocked the road, I make a mental note to buy snow chains as soon as I am in Anchorage, about the Toklat wolf pack and how they lost their Alpha couple, about the breeding of the moose (only 10% of the calves survive the first year) and the hardiness of the Dall sheep (only 2% fall victim to the wolf packs, but 70% of the lambs perish the first winter up on the high slopes).
It was due to the Dall sheep that the park came into existence in the first place. Charles Sheldon, a wealthy traveller from the East, very much in the same vain as Mary Schäffer who discovered Lake Maligne near Jasper, spent the winter of 1907 in the area. The Dall sheep were hunted for their meat by the isolated mining communities and on the verge of extinction. Sheldon single-handedly lobbied the US Senate until President Woodrow Wilson signed the then McKinley National Park into being in 1917.
As of today the same stretch is open for private cars, so I tried my luck again. I had to wait until the end though, when finally I saw a grizzly bear with her two cubs in the river bed of the Teklani River. They were at the other side of the river, still quite a distance but clearly visible to the naked eye. She was enormous, her coat was light brown almost blond and the two cubs, who were already quite big, were dark brown. The light was already fading a bit and my camera was flashing futilely as I try to capture them in a picture. Well at least two are visible.