8-5 Driving the Nabesna Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
46 Degrees and Drizzly
Staying at Grizzly Lake Campground
The northern road into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a 42 mile dirt and gravel road into the wilderness. The park is unique in that there are scattered private properties throughout, so we did see a few cabins and places where people are living, as well as a sportsmen’s lodge. We stopped at the Slana Ranger Station before going into the park to pick up the free audio tour they offer on loan, and it was really a nice addition to the drive. We were able to learn about the history of the area we were traveling through as well as to know what to look for along the road.
It was interesting to hear that as recently as 1986 the US government opened up 10,000 acres of land in Alaska in this area for $2.50 an acre to homesteading. 800 claims were filed, but only 100 were patented, and today only 50 residents live in the Slana Settlement in the park year round. People found the harsh temperatures, the lack of a way to make a living, and the fact the land was unfit for farming enough to send them back to where they came from.
Part of the Wrangell-St. Elias is National Park and part is National Preserve, and we had wondered what the difference is. Several parks in Alaska are set up this way, and it all has to do with hunting. Only subsistence hunting (for food) is allowed in the National Park, but both subsistence and recreational hunting is allowed in the National Preserve.
We crossed the Slana River, and drove through wetlands and boreal forests. We were supposed to be getting beautiful views of the Wrangell Mountains, but unfortunately everything was in the clouds. There are over 1200 plant species in the park, many considered rare, as well as the numerous animal species. All of those animals were keeping themselves well hidden from us.
There were numerous pretty, small lakes that we passed, and a number of primitive campsites for tents, but not suitable for trailers. The audio CD told us there are a number of cabins that are restored hunting or fishing cabins that can be reached by backpacking or plane for public use. One within a 10 minute walk of the road by one of the lakes is a restored homesteader’s cabin, is very popular, and has to be reserved.
By 12:15 the weather was beginning to clear and we were starting to see a little more of the surrounding area and some of the lower mountains. The road was getting progressively worse the farther we went, as we had been warned. We drove through 3 creeks that thankfully were only a trickle, and drove through 2 or 3 wide areas of large rock that were either the remains of glacier moraine or volcano flow. We saw large chunks of lava among the rock.
At the end of the drivable road, there is private land, with signs not to continue. There is a parking area if you wish to continue by hiking into the interior of the park. There is also an airstrip which is nothing but a grass field, and a house and a number of outbuildings. There is actually a town of Nabesna about 3 miles past where you can drive, at the actual end of the road. It is an old mining town that is now privately owned.
On our return trip the scenery was greatly improved, with mountains viewable along the way, as well as a bit of sun. We spent some time going both directions scanning the slopes along the sides of the road near Jack Creek where the Dall sheep reside, but were unsuccessful in spotting any. The park has a greater concentration of the sheep than anywhere else in North America, but you wouldn’t have guessed it today.
Mike spotted a snowshoe hare earlier, and we both caught a glimpse of a small animal crossing the road. We think was probably a pica but we haven’t been able to verify it.
The park has both black and grizzly bears in large numbers, but they weren’t out waving to us today. We have heard repeated a number of times since we have been here that the brown and grizzly bears are one and the same. Often the larger coastal bears are referred to as the Alaskan brown bears, and they tend to be larger because of the diet of salmon they have available to them. The bears in the interior are called grizzlies. Sometimes they have a little bit of a white tip on the hairs of their coat which makes them appear “grizzled.” Actually, though, both black and brown bears can come in all colors from blond to light and dark brown, to black, and a cinnamon color, so color does not tell them apart. The grizzly has a distinctive hump on its shoulder, is larger, and has smaller ears. The claws are also longer and straighter. Bears are very good diggers! You can often see places on the ground where they have been digging up roots or small animals.
We were home by 4:30, in time to enjoy a lovely afternoon and evening by the lake again with a fire. The loons and muskrats provided our entertainment.
Tomorrow we move on toward TOK.