ALASKA is one of the world’s last great wildernesses, with the emphasis on the wild, from grizzly bears to muscled moose, soaring eagles to mountain-hugging daredevil dall sheep.
And nowhere more so than Denali National Park – more than six million acres of taiga, tundra and towering mountains.
It pays to keep your wits about you, we’re told by a ranger. Not just so you can spot the wildlife but because it can certainly spot you.
The golden rule is to keep your distance, at least 300 yards, from bears. If you can easily identify it as a bear, you’re too close.
“If you encounter a bear at close range, do not run!” we’re warned. “If the bear is unaware of you, detour quickly and quietly away.
“If the bear is aware of you, back away slowly while waving your arms above your head and speaking to the bear in a low, calm voice.
“If a bear charges, do not run or drop your pack! Bears sometimes charge, coming within 10ft of a person before stopping or veering off. Dropping a pack may encourage the bear to approach you for food. Stand still until the bear moves away, then slowly back off.”
And if, in the worst case scenario, (yes, I’ve seen The Revenant) a grizzly makes contact, play dead.
Moose are a different kettle of salmon. They weigh up to 1,600lbs – that’s up to four times the weight of a grizzly in Denali – and will charge anything they think is threatening.
“If a moose charges you, it’s because you’re in its territory,” says ranger John. “Get away as fast as you can. Run between trees, that will hinder the moose’s progress.
“Moose aren’t predatory, and they will not try to eat you. They’ll just trample you instead.”
Suitably reassured, I find myself riding an ATV (that’s a quadbike to you and me) along the edge of the park. We bounce along rocky paths that tip the bikes from side to side, under the watchful eyes of instructors Jakub and Marie.
They came out west from the Czech Republic, loved the place, and simply stayed.
We splash through a river, pause under giant gravel escarpments and stop for several, sublimely silent photo opportunities, looking out across the park.
It’s fun, even exciting at times, but not the way to sneak up on the wildlife, although bears have been seen. Quiet, quadbikes are not.
Next day, we leave our base at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and take instead to the white water of nearby Nenana River.
Fully wetsuited and booted, we ride Grade II and III rapids with guide Bo, a double for Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.
For two hours we get gloriously soaked, taking tranquil time out between rapids to marvel at the cliffs on either side of the ravine, dotted with dall sheep.
Eagles fly overhead and the last of the salmon linger in the water – we’re two weeks too late for the height of the run – as we make our way downstream.
At times it’s impossible not to think of the Fellowship making their way down the river in The Lord Of The Rings. Yes, it’s that spectacular.
But to experience Denali National Park in all its autumn glory, rich in reds, yellows and golds, there’s only one place to go.
Head into the heart of the park itself. At most times of year, entry is only on school buses manned by rangers, keeping the park pristine.
Be warned, however, that once a year there’s a lottery. Locals get the rare chance to drive their own cars in, although it’s limited to 400 a day.
Over four days, winners can drive as much of the Denali Park Road as the weather allows.
Our visit coincides with the first day, meaning that there’s more traffic than usual, and the wildlife is wary. Although they are spotted during the day, the grizzly bears keep their distance, doubtless watching the fuss with bemusement from the trees.
Still, we see snow hares, ptarmigans, grouse, dall sheep and eagles. There might have been a moose, but nobody was sure.
It matters not because the scenery is breathtaking, especially when Denali, the mountain formerly known as McKinley, makes a rare appearance as the clouds part.
As few as 30% of visitors ever see the 20,308ft peak, which is usually hidden by its own forbidding weather system (locals are still unhappy that it has been downgraded from its previously accepted 20,320ft – size does matter).
But we’re fortunate to have what the rangers tell us has been the best weather of the season. Denali is bathed in sunlight, reaching up into an impossibly blue sky.
Only days before we’d been further to the south, at the Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge in Trapper Creek, and there’d been scant sign of the mountain then.
The Wilderness Lodges, owned by Princess cruise line – hence the name – are the largest hotels in Alaska.
In the middle of nowhere, sprawling grounds house timber-clad blocks of bedrooms dotted around central restaurants, exhibition spaces and lounges with roaring open fires.
The rooms offer rustic comfort, albeit with all mod cons. There’s wi-fi in the public areas, but you can kiss your mobile phone signal goodbye up here. And that’s part of the attraction, the chance to get away from the routine, to relax in the best Mother Nature has to offer.
When I visited, the McKinley Lodge was just opening a new, and impressive, tree house from whence to watch for the mountain. It’s a bit of a trek uphill but the views from the balcony are stunning.
Cameras traced the building of the new attraction for an edition of TV’s Treehouse Masters (think Grand Designs with lumberjacks) and, during our visit, a golden eagle which had been nursed back to health was released into the wild from the tree house. It was an emotional moment.
As was an axe-throwing contest by the side of the tree house. Let’s just say that I won’t be applying for that lumberjack job just yet, although my wife proved to be an expert shot.
At Denali Princess Lodge, we meet Iditarod sled race veteran Jeff King, a local legend and winner of the gruelling event dubbed “the last great race on Earth”.
Iditarod veteran Each year, the husky-sled race crosses 1,000 miles of jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast. Temperatures are far below zero, visibility is a bonus, and mushers and dogs face long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs.
It runs from Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. Jeff is still racing at the age of 61, and now faces competition from his own daughter, who’ll be taking him on this year.
“She’s good,” he says. “Is she as good as me? I hope not!” He brings four adorable husky puppies to meet us in the Lodge lounge. We’re privileged to enjoy the private audience.
Visitors can meet the dogs at his Husky Homestead on a guided tour for which reservations are essential (huskyhomestead.com).
Our time at both lodges is comfortably laidback bar the occasional adrenaline adventure outing, a minor earth tremor (did the Earth move for you, too?) and the appearance of the hauntingly beautiful Northern Lights on two nights of our stay.
Food and wine in the restaurants are good, with salmon unsurprisingly high on the agenda.
But what’s it like when winter sets in? We’re on a Princess Cruises Land & Sea Vacation. We’ll shortly be leaving by train for the nine-hour journey to board the good ship Star Princess (more of which another day), for the last sailing south before the ice tightens its grip.
Denall Lodge general manager Bonnie Westlund says a skeleton staff remains behind during the long, cold, dark months before re-opening is possible.
“We gather in the lounge each year after all of our guests have departed,” she grins. “We put a big sheet up and we watch The Shining together.”
Only in Alaska. Jack Nicholson would be proud.
I visited Denali National Park as a guest of Princess Cruises during a land and sea cruise package, including four days on dry land, followed by a cruise to see the glaciers.
The Land Tour visited Fairbanks, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge (Talkeetna) and Whittier. The cruise visited Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and the Canadian city of Vancouver.
I’ll be posting about the glacier cruise soon. See princess.com for itineraries.