Monday, October 9, 2017

On the Little Green Shuttle Bus

Denali National Park, Alaska

When we registered at our hotel in Healy, Alaska, we had quite a fright.  "What tour did you sign up for?" the woman asked in an attempt to strike up a friendly conversation.

We shrugged.  "Don't know.  Haven't decided yet.  We'll just wait until we get to the visitor's center tomorrow."

She adjusted her glasses and gave us a sad, sheepish look.  "You do know this is the last week the park's open, right?  And that all the tours are booked?"

My heart stopped.  I was well aware that private vehicles were restricted, but I was under the impression that buses were plentiful.

"If I were you, I would drive back to the park and get whatever is available.  Even if you can't get on a tour, you better reserve a spot on the shuttle."  She looked at the clock behind her.  "You've got an hour."

Exhausted, jet lagged, hungry, thirsty and now furious at ourselves for lack of planning, we raced back to the car and hightailed it back to the Wilderness Access Center.  Sure enough, all the tours were booked, but we did get a spot on the little green shuttle.  In two days time.

And me, a seasoned traveler.  Yeah, right.

Turns out we probably would have opted for this mode of transportation anyway.  It's much cheaper and although there is no running commentary by an onboard naturalist, the bus pulled over at several scenic rest areas and whenever someone spotted wildlife.   
  We had a National Geographic moment when the bus stopped for us to watch a mama grizzly and her two cubs digging in the dirt.  After ten minutes, she pulled out a ground squirrel and dragged it away.

"She's not sharing," someone said in disbelief.

Our bus driver chimed in.  "Don't worry.  There's plenty more where that came from.  Ground squirrels are like Cheetos to these guys."
  And so it went. . .  a delightful eight hours of gawking at bears, Dall sheep and moose.  But truthfully, it was the scenery that stole my heart.  It was vast.  Raw.  Endless.  This was what Alaska was all about.  Tundra.  Mountains.  Rivers and lakes.  Millions and millions of acres of wilderness, much of it untrampled by man.

Frankly, we were glad to be inside a bus under the care of an experienced, capable driver.  If you have acrophobia, you may not want to go any further than the Savage Creek parking lot.  That's as far as cars are allowed and now I understand why.  The road becomes windy, steep and unpaved.  There are hairpin curves and no barriers to prevent a thousand foot plunge if wheels are to spin out on the wet gravel.

The bus stopped every one or two hours, giving us a chance to stretch our legs.  We brought sandwiches and water since no food is available to purchase along the way.  And unbelievably, we even fell asleep on the trip back.

Even though we berated ourselves for not planning ahead and reserving our tickets online, all's well that ends well. 

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