(Although I haven’t had time to blog about our summer adventures with my son Chris and his fiancee Kimmie, and Steve’s daughter Kayla, I wanted to write about this past weekend and the annual Denali Road Lottery. It was quite the experience! I’ll write about the summer as soon as I can, but for now… enjoy Denali National Park’s amazing scenery and wildlife. Many thanks to all of you who continue to follow my blog, despite the longer breaks between writing!)
DENALI ROAD LOTTERY 2015 - Sept 17-21
For those who are new to my blog, let me explain what the Denali Road Lottery is. Each year, during the month of May, people from all over Alaska, the country (and the world) can apply for a coveted road lottery pass. The cost to apply is $10/pp. You can find information about the application process at the Denali National Park website. You can apply for as many people as you want, but each application must have its own email account for notification. Most people apply for themselves, their children, family members, etc. to improve their odds of winning a pass.
In June, the park announces the winners, and notifications are sent out. Winners are then assessed a $25.00 park permit fee, which automatically goes on the credit or debit card used when the application was made. Information is sent via email, explaining what you need to do if you are a winner.
The Denali Road Lottery is held the third weekend of September. Four days are set aside for winners, and one other day is set aside for those serving in the military (passes are provided to various military units for distribution to service members). This year, Saturday was set aside as Military Appreciation Day, with Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday being days for lottery winners.
Although I was not a winner this year, I was gifted a Sunday pass from a friend who lives in Kenai, who couldn’t make the drive that day. Needless to say, I was SUPER EXCITED!
I invited my friend Amanda to go with me for company, and of course she was also excited. Because I wanted to get an early start, I booked a room in Healy - about 15 miles north of the park - for Saturday night. Rooms were scarce at such a late date, and I had to call several hotels before I found an available room at the Totem Inn. This was my first time staying at the Totem Inn. The winter rate is $90/night (single occupancy). The room was a little dated and worn, but it was clean and comfortable. The bed was comfortable as well, with a memory foam mattress. The room had a small refrigerator, microwave, flat-screen TV and a fan (a MUST when I travel). There is a restaurant and lounge on the premises, but the restaurant was closed due to lack of staff. There is also a complimentary hot breakfast buffet each morning in the lobby. (Scrambled eggs, sausage, waffles, toast, etc).
We drove into the park to mile 15 - as far as you can go without a permit. We saw some blue peeking through the clouds, but by the time we reached Savage River, it was snowing. The bright white flakes were plentiful and swirled over and around us, a virtual snow globe.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in,
where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” - John Muir
I had a hard time sleeping (excitement?) and found myself wide awake at 3:33am. We had the alarm set for 6am, so we could have breakfast before heading to the park. I couldn’t go back to sleep. It was going to be a long day of driving, but I couldn’t wait!
The park had snow just about every day during lottery weekend, and it was snowing when we left the hotel on Sunday morning. The park service was able to keep ahead of the accumulation by having the plows at the ready.
A few miles into the park, we started seeing blue skies peeking through between the cottony clouds above. This was a great sign! Soon, the bright light of the sun filtered through, illuminating the snow-dusted mountains. Maybe we’d luck out and have a gorgeous blue-sky day in the park. Friends who had done the drive on days prior had very snowy and cloudy photos, and while we were prepared for anything, we also hoped the weather would break for us.
When we reached the gate at Savage River, the Park Ranger checking us in let us know that Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66 on the park road) had 8-10″ of snow fall overnight and it was still coming down. The road was closed at the Toklat rest stop (mile 53). Crews were working to clear the road, but there were no guarantees that they’d get the road open. We were disappointed, but just being able to get past mile 30 (which is as far as you can go during the shoulder season), was a good thing.
Between mile 15 and mile 30, the sky changed from sunshine and thick puffy clouds to overcast and foggy. It was very muddy too. I was glad to be wearing my lightweight snow boots.
When we neared mile 25 or so, I could see far ahead on the park road, as it skirted the base of the mountains. Cars were stopped, and people were on the road. That could only mean wildlife was spotted. I sped up a little to get down there. As we made our way, I caught a large flash of white in the thick willow bushes halfway up the side of a hill. Bull moose antlers!!!
By the time we reached the others, there were more vehicles stopped. We watched the huge bull come down the hill, heading toward the road. It looked as if he wanted to cross. If he did, we were in a good position for photos. And then the occupants of several vehicles moved closer to him, making him hesitate for a minute or so. Obviously they were too close, and very much ‘in his space’. Not smart!
The bull moose looked to be assessing the situation, before turning and heading back up the hill to the ridge. Due to the selfish idiocy of several, we all were missing out on seeing this magnificent creature out in the open, where we all could have enjoyed his majesty and made beautiful images.
We watched as he walked the ridge toward us. He was about a hundred yards above us, making his way through willow and birch bushes. The tall bushes only allowed us to see bits and pieces of him as he walked, but we could clearly see his large antler rack, the paddles filled with fresh snow. Fresh snow also dusted his back. He was such a handsome fellow!
As he climbed even higher on the hill, he eventually was silhouetted against the winter white sky. Amanda and I walked below, watching. And then he turned toward us, perfectly posed so that we could see his face and his antlers. We saw several other bull moose in the first 30 miles, but they were off in the distance. Seeing this guy was a real treat! This is my favorite image from that series of photos (shot at a 400mm zoom):