The six-seater Cessna 206 takes off from a small gravel airstrip in the 9 p.m. summer sunlight and soon is buzzing like a gnat around the imposing snow-covered tallest peak in North America.
From the air on a "flightseeing" tour, Denali— also known as Mount McKinley— looks like an inviting iced confection. But the 20,320-footer, whose name means "The Great One" in Athabaskan Indian language, is a killing ground for hikers. Frozen remains still are recovered, says Kantishna Air Taxi owner/pilot Greg LaHaie, circling over the spot where climbers begin their final ascent — maybe waiting a week or more for favorable weather.
"You sit in a crevasse for days in freezing temperatures with the wind blowing like a jet engine overhead," LaHaie tells his passengers. "Not my idea of fun." But the more than 1,000 climbers who try each year would disagree.
As the 49th state celebrates its 50th anniversary of statehood this year, Alaska — also in the spotlight thanks to suddenly retired governor and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin— is still the USA's Last Frontier. It's home to glaciers, spawning salmon, giant halibut and foraging bears, hardy outdoorsmen and women and moose, as well as political mavericks.
At 6 million acres, Denali National Park and Preserve is about the size of the state of Massachusetts. Visitors come from around the globe for one of the world's remote wilderness experiences.
Last year, the park logged 432,309 visitors, says Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. Even though it's a long haul from Alaska's major cities, it drew about 20% of the state's nearly 2 million 2008 visitors. Most come to Alaska, and Denali, during the peak tourist season from mid-May to mid-September, when the sun is still high late at night and temperatures can hit the 70s and 80s.
If tourists are lucky, and clouds or smoke from wildfires don't interfere, they'll glimpse the park's towering centerpiece. Many park visitors never see the mountain.
A checklist of fauna and flora
Driving to the Denali Visitor Center means negotiating "Glitter Gulch," the $1.99-T-shirt-shop and fast-food pit stop not far from the entrance. Travel by private vehicle beyond Mile 15 is restricted, unless you have a campground reservation. Tour and shuttle buses are the usual mode of transport down the mostly gravel park road.
Buses and the occasional cyclist roll past taiga, tundra, black and gray spruce, birch, rivers, valleys and alpine meadows.
The drive down the 91-mile Denali Park Road with frequent photo stops can take six hours and yields wildlife around most every corner. In fact, you can even buy checklists of animals and plants at the bookstore by the Denali Visitor Center. (Long-eared snowshoe hares are everywhere; ptarmigans parade, red squirrels skitter, a golden eagle circles.) There also are more than 650 species of flowering plants alone, plus scores of birds, and enough moss, lichen and other plants to thrill any botanist.
As on an African safari, visitors are primed for glimpses of the "Big Five," Denali-style.
Dall sheep. Caribou. Moose. Grizzly bear. Wolf.
The sheep with curled horns are easy to spot feeding on ridges; a caribou or two come into view.
The deeper in you go, the more likely are bear and moose sightings. Typical Denali tourist talk:
I don't see it.
I did; now he's gone.