Saturday, August 23, 2008

And We're Walking (Along the Road)

Previous post: What a Difference a Day Makes
Well, we don't actually start off walking.

After loitering a long time at the Eielson Visitor's Center we check to be sure we can get on and off the buses wherever we chose. That conversation goes something like this:

Me: Can we just ride to the top of that pass right there and then get off again?

Park Staff: Sure, but that isn't very far - you should just walk up there.

Me: It's up hill. I don't want to waste energy walking up the hill when I can just ride up there and then walk DOWN.

Park staff: Ah, I know your type. Yes, you can get off at the top of every hill, if you like - just so you realize that sometimes it might be awhile before another bus that has open seats will come by.

With that we are off - taking the short trip to the top of Thorofare Pass - and then, very soon, we are standing on the road, watching the bus drive off.

As the bus trundles off in a cloud of dust, the land around us suddenly seems unbelievably still and vast.

Sometimes when we were on the bus we would pass people walking along the road and someone would always question why anyone can do that? If you aren't going to hike into the back country, why walk along the road? You can see the same things from the bus.

The answer is: Even along the road, the moment the bus disappears, you are alone in an incredibly vast and beautiful landscape. For those of us lacking either the time, the physical ability, or the aptitude for back county hiking, the roadway isn't a bad alternative.

We stand for a few moments, just trying to absorb the landscape around us.

It's awesome, but I wonder if there are bears nearby!

As we start up the next hill, we catch a ride with a passing bus. Soon, the bus passes a caribou standing near the road.

I wish we were still walking.

At what I think is Highway Pass, it again seems like the right time to be on foot.

I'm not sure how it can be, but standing in the road, the view seems more intimate. Standing on the road we are a part of the land in the way we aren't while we are on the bus.

It's simply amazing.

On foot we also have the opportunity to examine the details of this landscape. For example, it is easy to examine the thin the soil that supports the lush plant life all around us.

As we wander along the road, we keep an eye out for bears (after all, from the bus we have seen many grizzlies wandering right on the road) and my fear of large toothy mammals keeps me nervously watching the brush for signs of movement. In this terrain, a bear could be invisible while only a few feet away.

I'd never have a clue.

Aside from a variety of small birds, the only wildlife we actually come across are snowshoe hares. They gather on the road to chew on the gravel (which retains salt from winter road maintenance).

I expect them to run off as I move closer to photograph them. Instead one turns and starts slowly loping toward me, casually moving closer and still closer (looking huge through my camera lens), like some demented creature conducting a slow motion attack.

I keep backing up, more quickly as the big hare continues toward me. Is it crazy? Finally I jump to the side, which seems to throw the hare off.

Whew! A close call! :-)

By now we have been walking a very long time and the sun is hanging low in the sky. A few buses have passed us, but none have had space. Occasionally a pickup or SUV carrying a ranger or photographer pass by, but there is very little traffic here. We meet one other couple along the road, moving in the same direction, but moving much faster than we are. Otherwise we are alone here.

My feet hurt and the approaching evening is bringing a chill to the air, but we can see the Toklat River ahead of us. (Far ahead of us) We remember that there is a small bookstore there and all the buses stop. We can sit and wait there.

Once we get there. . . it's still a long way off.

We finally arrive at Toklat, only to find a bitter wind is howling through the river valley. I forgot that RJ had told us that the wind is always particularly ferocious here. There are few places to sit, little shelter, and it's miserably cold.

It is beautiful though.

Too bad there aren't any bears to watch. THAT would take my mind off the cold!

Buses roll in regularly, but they are all full. Darn. I'm more than ready to go. It will be too dark to shoot at Polychrome and I'm freezing. . . where are those sweeper buses?!

After what seems like a long wait, we find a bus with space (and an entertaining driver) and continue on our way out of the park.

Soon enough we find more bears, including one determinedly digging at something in or on the ground.
Whatever it is the bear has found, it isn't giving up on it. We watch for a long time as it works over whatever it has found - until suddenly the bear is leaping and twisting in the air, snapping at something (invisible to us) near its face.

(I suspect it found some bees.)

Our final wildlife stop of the day is spent watching moose.

It is a good end to a very good, but very long day.

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