There are roads and there are Roads, there are roads much traveled and roads less traveled, there are roads to great cities and even, if you can imagine it, roads to lost and invisible cities, and then there’s the Denali Park road. The park has been described as one of the last of our Edens. It’s been written about, photographed, and documented, but until you’ve seen it with your own eyes it’s sometimes difficult to understand. It was labeled a “Living Eden” by the public broadcasting service PBS, and a famous film documentary was created as part of that series.
The spring season harbors an amazing and glorious time. The beginning of the wildflower communities, animals new to the world, a plethora of cubs, pups, kits and bird chicks. Each community in it’s own way breaking free from the strong hold of the iron fist of winter, renewing itself in a burst of vitality and life force. Combined with the majestic scenery it creates a feast for the senses.
The Denali region was first explored in the 1880’s by a handful of prospectors and adventurers. Because of the remoteness of the region and the difficulty entering, it was among the last regions in Alaska to come under European influence. By the turn of the century the pressure of European culture came to bear in greater numbers of prospectors, many coming from failed attempts in the Yukon Klondike gold rush of 1896. Usually basing themselves out of Fairbanks and gradually exploring other nearby regions.
1904/5 saw an explosion of prospecting in the Kantishna district, now in the west section of the National Park. Gold nuggets the size of potatoes fuelled what many hoped to be the next great Klondike. In the course of a little less then 24 months, thousands of veteran prospectors streamed in, creating several small ” cities ” in the process. Sadly for them it was all short lived. The big claims never panned out, and by the beginning of the winter of 1905 most people had left, headed back to Fairbanks. Some claims did provided a living though, and a few very hardy prospectors settled in for the long haul. It was among these conditions that we find some of the greats in Denali Park history showing up on the scene.
The spring of 1906 brings a remarkable individual to the region, Charles Sheldon. A retired businessman and self trained naturalist. Sheldon comes to the region primarily to study northern sheep (Dall). Well traveled, Yale educated he immediately recognizes the uniqueness of the place. Spectacular mountain scenery, Mount McKinley (Denali) the tallest mountain in North America, and the opportunity to see wildlife in such a majestic setting. After a summer exploration with Harry Karstens, another of the Denali greats, he decides to return the following spring. By August of 1907 Sheldon had established his camp along the Toklat river, building a cabin and spending the winter collecting specimens for the Biologic Survey. Noticing the hunting practices of market hunters coming into the area, he realizes that if the animal populations were not protected they would be extripated, hunted out. So begins a colossal fight to protect the animal populations and in turn results in the creation ( February 1917) of what eventually becomes Denali National Park and Preserve. A crown jewel in the national park system. Charles Sheldon is considered the founding father and guiding spirit of Denali, he laid out the original park boundary and in his diary on January 12, 1908, presumably in his cabin on the Toklat river, coined the name Denali National Park. Harry Karstens, at the suggestion of Sheldon, became the first park superintendent , and is considered to have set the standard for administration along with being a grand adventurer in his own right, having led a party, the first, to the top of Denali (June 7,1913).
The park however was not immediately available to the general public, in fact it was something of a back water. Even with the completion of the Alaska Railroad in 1923 access to the interior of the park was limited because of the rugged terrain and lack of funding coming from the Department of the Interior to develop an access road. It wasn’t until 1938 after 15 seasons of toil that a road snakes through to the Kantishna district.
Our journey into Denali Park follows the Denali Park Road a little more then 90 miles to the Kantishna Roadhouse. Along the way we try to locate moose, dall sheep, grizzly bear, gray wolf and caribou. For the birders on board we try for northern harrier, golden and bald eagles, gyre falcon, merlin and water fowl in the west end of the park. Other animals occasionally cross our path, 38 species in all, about 160 bird species are possible (17 birds of prey).