DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA — YOU want to see a moose. That's what you came all the way up here for, right? Still, when your wake-up call is at 4 a.m., you haven't slept because it never even got dark, and it's 38 degrees F. outside, you begin thinking the last Bullwinkle cartoon you saw was enough.
Get up, pull on those longies, and get out there. Bus leaves in 20 minutes.
Chilly mornings are better for seeing wildlife, we were told as we piled aboard a bus for a 110-mile, seven-hour Denali Wildlife Tour. When it's too warm, resident fauna tend to sit it out under a local spruce.
As is usually the case in summer, Mt. McKinley's 20,320-foot summit was wrapped in swaddling clouds this morning. Fortunately, we had seen its creamy peaks the day before. McKinley is almost a pejorative word here. For years Alaskans have been trying to change the mountain's name to Denali - an Athapaskan Indian word for ``the high one.''
Whatever the name, our duty this day was to watch the tundra, not the mountain. ``We'll use the clock system,'' said Alan Seejut, our driver. ``If you see something yell, `Moose at 3 o'clock, or caribou at 9.' You don't have to be too precise. None of this `moose at 7:37 stuff,''' he laughed.
We had hardly left the McKinley Chalet Resort parking lot when ``Moose at 3, I mean 9 o'clock, 9 o'clock,'' came a confused shout from the back of the bus. Sure enough, there was madam moose taking an early breakfast by the side of the dirt road.
With an air of mooselian nonchalance, she'd nip a young willow mid-branch and pull it through a set of domino-sized teeth, denuding the stem before moving on to the next. An adult moose may consume 60 pounds of willow leaves a day, Alan told us.
Oddly for this time of year, she didn't have a calf. It had more than likely been killed by a bear or other predator, we were told. ``It's traumatic to see a calf killed, but animals have worked out their own dance. They've been here a lot longer than we have,'' Alan said as we slowly drove away. ``You can't interfere.''
It takes a few hours here before Denali's vastness begins to take hold. The park is larger than the state of Massachusetts. Its one road moves like an endless ribbon between mountains too numerous to name, and through great yawning valleys of harmony and pristine beauty.
But there's a harsh side not easily apparent during the short summer. The weather here isn't for sissys. Moose, grizzly bear, Dall sheep, caribou, even the delicate Arctic poppies along the road are survivors - along with the mosquitoes! And winters are eight and a half months long.
We moved slowly across along the Denali fault, above the tree line and down the north side of Sable Mountain. Ptarmigan, or alpine grouse, changing from their winter white to summer brown plumage, could occasionally be seen seeking refuge in the tundra.
``Bear at 3 o'clock! Two bears! Three!!'' came a chorus of shouts.
Sure enough, there was mama bear and not one but two baby bears just 30 feet from our bus.
``That's old No. 102,'' whispered Alan, spotting a thin collar around the grizzly's neck through his binoculars. ``She was moved up here after ripping tourists off at a campground,'' he said.
Further on we stopped at a precipice to watch a herd of about two-dozen Dall sheep skip along the sheer cliffs. The lambs challenged and butted each other while the ewes quietly grazed.
Lower down a family of marmots scurried among the rocks. These furry rodents look like a cross between a gray squirrel and a badger. Below us a small herd of caribou moved languidly across the green and cinnamon tundra while a rare gyr falcon caught the thermals above.
We saw most everything Denali had to offer that day, with the exception of wolves - and Mt. McKinley's peak. The mountain is visible only about 20 percent of the time.
The wildlife bus tours are easily arranged by the McKinley Chalet Resort. The cost is $18. Plan to take the earliest bus tour available: It's in the early morning that animals are more active and out feeding.
The buses make frequent stops at rest areas, where you can get out and stretch. That's when ravenous insects can be a problem, so stock up on a potent bug juice. A camera and binoculars are also musts.
For further information write to Denali National Park Hotel & McKinley Chalet Resort, 825 W. 8th Ave. No. 240, Anchorage, AK 99501. Tel. (907) 276-7234.