Took pillow on schoolbus tour through Denali National Park (DNP). Smart move. Reason #1: boosts you up so you can see out the **** window! Reason #2: At the end of six hours no amount of standard seat padding is enough. Passenger cars are only allowed in the first 5-10 miles on the only road into/out of the park. The rest of the day-long trip is bus only, through the park service. This controls access and helps keep the park pristine and animals relatively unscathed by human contact. Box lunch provided and a fair amount of stops to stretch legs. Our first stop was a doozy--panoramic shots of mountains, tundra, braided silver satin rivers, and various wildlife dots. Moose dots, caribou dots, golden eagle dot, almost ran over a ptarmigan (not much bigger than a dot), Dall sheep dots, grizzly sow and 2 cub dots (waaay over there, thank you), one fox dot. They were dots to the eye and my stupid camera at the time. The cuz from CO was bragging about her zoom until she tried to print out the zoomed image and found out the megapixels or something weren't enough and her image was broken up into...DOTS! Heh, heh, heh.
Ah, but then the trip got better. We turned around at a point where, 20% of the time one is supposed to see Mt. McKinley (Denali--the native people don't have a word for "mountain", so it's not Mt. Denali, just Denali--the Great One). However, having consulted my Alaska for Dummies book and been told that since Denali is oh, about 20,000 feet higher than anything else around, it attracts all the clouds like gawkers around a really good busker, so most of the time it is socked in. Only on rare occasions is the weather clear enough, long enough to glimpse it. In other words, one is told by one's guide that, over there, where all the clouds are, is Denali. So, I was not disappointed, having already determined that some guy w/a really good camera has already published a postcard that will do it much more justice than I could. After the bus turned around, somebody yelped (which means "Stop! There's a critter nearby (or a 1/h mile away, or something). Looked out the port side and lo, an arctic fox trotted out on the ridge next to the bus, right at window level. Pretty lil feller, and obviously used to tour buses. Looked right in the window, ears perked at the clicking sounds, and vogued. Oh yes, he posed! First there was a direct stare, then a profile, a yawn, a scratch, and for the finale, a nice strech before he ambled off into the brush. That was followed anticlimactically by the requisite souvenir/potty stop, and then on the way out the sun came out. Well, this old bird started snoozing, only to be woken up by a young cow moose staring in the window at me! She gave a snort ("Ugh, another tour bus!") and vanished into the bush! I mean vanished--not so much as a ripple to betray her presence. Amazing. Then three caribou caused a major traffic jam when they decided to amble down the road in front of the bus. Just my luck, my best wildlife shot all day and it's the westbound sides of eastbound caribou. Sigh. Sensory Overload had begun and this little brain was full. So, being warmed by the sun, I snoozed blissfully until awakened by another round of in-bus commotion: a silver wolf had just crossed in front of the bus! (Figures!) All in all, well worth the effort, even if it does get a little long--and that was one of the short tours! There are some roadhouses in Kantishna, at the end of the DNP road, but it takes over eight hours to get there! Man, I would like to stay in one of those--totally surrounded by wilderness, yet indoor plumbing! My kind of roughing it. Just for perspective: DNP is about the size of Massachussetts.
Now, here's where it gets really interesting. Our next tour was to take us back into DNP. By air. In a helicopter. Most of you know I had back surgery and roller coasters are now verboten. Baby, I found my adrenaline-rush substitute!! We got the obligatory safety talk, weight limit talk, and another lecture from the pilot on the use of the headsets. We sprung up from the pad, headed off toward the park, gliding like a mag-lev. smoooth. Including pilot, the 'copter sat six, cozily. We headed straight at a mountain, then, perfectly level went straight up, forward, back down on the other side. We were all howling for more! Pilot checks in to make sure all the noise was good noise and not someone getting sick. When we assured her we were fine and were wanting a roller coaster ride, she demonstrated some of the agility of her craft. Darn near stood the thing on its main rotors banking into a turn that had us facing the backside of the mountain we'd just jumped. At least that's what it felt like. No jerky, bumpy movements, all smooth as silk. Somebody say "Yay-ess"! Right then and there I'd found my new adrenaline prompt. They don't have a smilie with a big enough grin for this! All the while Stacia (pilot) was giving aeronautical lecture on why the craft could do what it did. Whatever, lady, just do it again! Oh yeah, and the scenery was properly spectacular, too. Flew over some landlocked glaciers with tiny cracks, or so it seemed. I asked the pilot to give me some idea of perspective. She said we were about 100' up and those tiny cracks were 1-200' crevasses, not crevices. Gulp. OK, so we won't be landing on that one... Dall sheep look different at eye level. We weren't close enough to spook them, but we weren't a few hundred feet below them, either. Next time I want to do a glacier landing. Flight was waay too short for us, but they wouldn't let us get back on and go around again. OK, so it's not quite the same as a roller coaster.
Back to our cabin-looking motel room, but we were too excited to sleep; just kept talking about the helicopter tour. However, this venue was our first that came close to twilight, as the sun dipped behind the mountains surrounding the complex. Same crappy pillows as the first three nights, made out of cellophane or something. The bath-towels-as-pillows technique worked pretty well, so I repeated the procedure, grabbed the earplugs and mask (still needed). Nighty-night!