Here it was. The big, brown, Grizzly bear. 

A window was separating us, I was seating in a bus, stopped on the side of the road. There was a short moment of quiet  before everybody else also noticed the bear and jumped off their seats, pushing each other, yelling, elbowing me, and smooshing my face into the window to get closer to snap a picture ... or ten. I  made myself smaller  in the chair and cautiously moved my head left and right from the people to the bear, and back. Inside, in the cage, it was chaos. Outside, in the wild, the bear could not care less about all the fuss. 

The bear

(If this were a movie, this is where the camera would zoom out;  the inside noise would be replaced by the quiet of wilderness, and the bus would become a small green dot on a big green map, then disappear.)

The bus

My day had started several hours before that moment, around 4 am in the parking lot of the Hilton in Anchorage, Alaska. Powered by caffeine and anticipation,  I then drove for several hours on a lonely highway guarded by mountains covered in snow, to make it just in time to catch the first bus  that would take me deep into Denali National Park to see Denali Peak mirrored in the Reflection Pond (like this ). By the time I arrived at the park, it became obvious that the weather will not cooperate, it was overcast, rainy, windy, definitely did not feel like summer. I was a bit disappointed as many of my fellow bus travelers. The appearance of the bear shifted the energy, like an awakening,  and that excitement carried on for the rest of the day. We were after all, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Mirror Lake, Denali National Park

Denali National Park and Preserve is the largest park from North America. It spreads over 6 million acres, most of them preserved from visitors and human impact. It is the home of many birds and animals like caribou, moose, wolves, and grizzly bears. The crown jewel is the Denali Peak which at 2,310 feet or 6,190 m is the highest peak in North America. Its name means "the tall one", in Athabascan.  (You can learn more about the Alaska Native culture and traditions at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.) Most of the park is not accessible to preserve the wildlife and the natural ecosystem. There is a single road going through about  90 miles, and with the exception of a few miles at the entrance, no cars are allowed on the road, other than the buses managed by the park. The last stop is at Wonder Lake Campground, the closest to Denali and close to the Reflection Pond so much I wanted to see. 

Prince William Sound, Alaska

Lake in Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

While I did not see Denali mirrored in the Reflection Pond, I saw plenty of other mountains reflected in blue and green waters broken by ice or green leaves, on the Turnagain Arm near Anchorage, or near Prince William Sounds, or during a very beautiful drive South on Alaska Route 1 in Kenai Peninsula (Denali is North from Anchorage).  One of the main attractions there is Kenai Fjords National Park, another paradise for wild life, and which can be seen by boat taken from Seward. 

I ended my first day in Denali at  the 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern. As I was enjoying one of the best leeks and potato soup I ever had, someone explained to me and a bunch of strangers gathered around by our love for good food and nature, how he believes there are two types of people. The first who hate their first trip to Alaska, they never come back, and the second (you guessed) who let it get under their skin, and never leave. He went on then telling us stories of people he knew that came for a vacation or for a summer job, and never left. He was one of them lured to Fairbanks by the undeniable beauty of the place. Just as I was getting ready to live, exhausted after being up for more than 24 hours my new Alaskan friend turned to me and asked: ``So, are you coming back ?'' To Alaska that is. I guess I paused for too long cause he looked disappointed and rushed to say goodbye, ``Oh, well... have a safe trip then ...'' So I never got to tell him that this was my second time in Alaska and second time in Denali. Never got to tell him about how pretty the drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park was, and how many times I found myself gasping with a wonder I thought lost in childhood when the most wonderful book revealed new surprises with each turned page... There is something uncontrived, raw, and pure about Alaska that can not be put in words. 

The next day the sky cleared up. Getting ready for a hike, I noticed several people stopped at the side of the road, animated, full of joy.  I stopped and asked what happened. One of them smiled back to me and pointed out in the distance  ''Look, you can see Denali, over the clouds, right there, you can see Denali.'' 

Parts of this were written in 2008 on a very cold, very long, rainy, perfect day.


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