With a captive audience, Denali bus drivers can make visits magnificent or miserable

Rick Sinnott

DENALI NATIONAL PARK -- Many Alaska tales feature the exploits of trappers, hunters, prospectors or explorers. On a recent trip to Denali National Park, I wondered, why not bus drivers?

I spent the summer of 1974 in Denali helping a graduate student study wolves. I like to revisit the park occasionally, but it’s never often enough. My last visit was almost exactly 20 years ago.

Some things have changed in the past 40 years. The overgrown strip of hotels, gift shops and restaurants that cater to Denali tourists has earned the name Glitter Gulch.

Glitter Gulch looks like a classy version of Wasilla, without the big-box stores, auto dealerships and churches.

The most obvious changes inside the park are also clustered near the main entrance. You’ll soon encounter signs for a Visitor Center Campus, a Wilderness Access Center and many other amenities and support facilities. The park access road has a roundabout.

Remarkably, many things haven’t changed. Most of the road is still unsurfaced. If you get away from the road, you’ll see much the same wilderness Charles Sheldon praised in 1906 after conceiving the idea of creating a national park.

Since 1916, the National Park Service’s mission has been to provide for the enjoyment of national parks while leaving them unimpaired for future generations. That’s no easy task as visitor numbers climb. More than 530,000 people visited the park last year, about four times the number in the early 1970s

The agency seems to be doing an admirable job in Denali. One way of minimizing damage and disturbance has been to require most visitors to ride buses instead of driving private vehicles.

Glitter Gulch and the green buses

The park hasn’t changed much in 40 years, but I can’t say the same for the tourists. I saw far more people prowling through the shops of Glitter Gulch than hiking in the backcountry. And rooms in lodges outside the park outnumber campsites in the park at least 10 to 1.

Thousands of people appeared to be riding buses along the park road every day. Riding a bus to see the park, its wildlife and North America’s highest peak is a big step up from shopping Glitter Gulch. Nevertheless, according to one of the bus drivers, one-third of the visitors ride less than 20 miles into the park.

Several types of bus service cater to Denali visitors. Many tourists book one of the natural history tours or ride cushy buses provided by several private lodges in the Kantishna area, at the far end of the road.

The hoi polloi have two choices: a shuttle bus or a camper bus. Both are green but otherwise resemble standard school buses. The more abundant shuttle buses are required to stay on schedule. We caught a shuttle bus the first day and camper buses the next three days.

Although we saw scores of caribou, moose, grizzly bears and Dall sheep, I’m reasonably sure we passed more buses than wild animals. In fact, when you miss the early buses -- the ones most likely to encounter wildlife -- when all the windows on your bus are coated with a translucent film of muddy spray, when you can’t see The Mountain, your Denali experience may boil down to your bus driver.

Eccentric bus drivers

Our shuttle bus driver was beset by so many quirks that he shall remain anonymous. Fortunately, an eccentric driver can be very entertaining, because our round trip to Eielson Visitor Center, about 66 miles into the park, suffered from the aforementioned poor visibility.

Shortly after leaving the Wilderness Access Center, or bus station, I noticed a soft, sibilant echo emanating from his loudspeaker. It sounded like Gollum was repeating the driver’s last words. I soon realized it wasn’t an electronic glitch. He was repeating words under his breath.

His chief delight was naming mountains hidden behind low clouds that we couldn’t have seen anyway through the mud-splattered windows. “Coming into view is Mount Wright ... Wright ... Wright ... Wright.” Soon everyone on the bus was smiling and trying not to giggle.

Our bus was full going out and everyone was eager to see wildlife. After stopping a half-dozen times for small groups of caribou, our driver reminded us that he was falling behind schedule and wasn’t inclined to stop for any more caribou unless they were on the road. An extended family group in the back of the bus continued to holler choruses of “Stop!” for caribou hundreds of yards away. The rest of the passengers countered by yelling, “Keep driving!” Every bus develops a unique personality along the way.

Uncharacteristically, our driver sometimes left sentences dangling over the void. Approaching Eielson Visitor Center, the turnaround point for most shuttle bus riders, he announced, “If you want, you can...” And that was it. All of us followed his suggestion to the letter.

Much of the park road seems to be barely 1 1⁄2 times the width of a bus. Perversely, the longer the drop, the narrower the roadbed. I don’t know how bus drivers contrive to pass one another. Two decades ago, rounding the downhill curves through Polychrome Pass, where a rock kicked off the road can tumble hundreds of feet, my mother-in-law asked in a stage whisper, “Do you think he can talk and drive at the same time?” Denali bus drivers most certainly can.

Our three drivers had worked in the park from two to nearly four decades. But it must be a stressful job. Take our first driver’s word for it. Somewhere in Polychrome Pass he said something that ended with the word “stress ... stress ... stress.”

No wonder that, approaching the end of the trip, he glanced in the large rearview mirror and exclaimed with relish, “We are almost here.” Obviously we had been “here” all day, but we knew what he meant.

The next day we rode a camper bus, which was not half-full. After all backpacks were stowed in the rear and everyone was settled in, the dispatcher leaned through the front door and said, “You know what they say about the camper bus.” The declaration was met with puzzled looks. “It smells good on the way out.” I think I heard that one 40 years ago.

Our driver to Wonder Lake campground, 85 miles down the road, was Alan Seegert, a man with a dry wit and perhaps the most knowledgeable driver I’ve met. If he told any tall tales, he did it seamlessly. That’s one advantage of a dry wit. It wasn’t until later that I noticed his name on the definitive guidebook to the park’s birds, “Birds of Denali,” an updated version of a 1984 bird identification guide he also co-authored. Seegert has been driving buses in the park since 1977.

Wolves vs. coyotes

Seegert was a hard act to follow, but the next two days we lucked upon the park’s most iconoclastic bus driver, Dick Merrill. Merrill has been driving park buses for 28 years. After decades of repetition, his voice, his mannerisms and even the way he waves his hands have been honed to the sharpness of a sideshow barker. Indeed, stepping into Merrill’s bus is a lot like going to a carnival.

Part of the show is playing with the passengers. Rolling up to a small group of hikers bunched on the left side of the road, he slid his side window open, leaned into the opening like the gatekeeper for the Emerald City of Oz and declared, “I can’t pick you up. You’re on the wrong side of the road. It’s a new park regulation. They’re trying to keep people from being injured while crossing in front of buses.” Each sentence struck the stranded hikers like a ball-peen hammer to the forehead. As small murmurs of dissent crossed a few lips, Merrill announced definitively, “Next bus will be along in about three hours.”

Walking to the back of the bus to load their packs, he remarked with evident pleasure, “They still seem to be afraid to walk in front of the bus.”

Never fear. The new arrivals were instantly absorbed into the spellbound audience.

A woman boarding from one of the Kantishna lodges told Merrill their connections were tight and launched into a detailed explanation of how they needed to get back to the bus station on time to catch a bus to Wasilla. Merrill stared at her coolly and asked if she knew the difference between coyotes and wolves. The non sequitur stopped her in mid-sentence. “Bus drivers in the park are wolves,” he said. “All the other bus drivers are coyotes. They don’t dare come into the park.”

Merrill drove his bus like a pro, cutting the engine to glide up to a bear standing near the road. He has also perfected the rolling stop, inching past a moose partly hidden behind a screen of trees so each row of seats had a momentary glimpse, rather than coming to a complete stop where only a few passengers could see it.

Somebody ought to write a book about Denali’s bus drivers, past and present. Expect more than a few tall tales.

I was a little afraid to ask Merrill how long until he retires. I didn’t want to give him any ideas. Here’s hoping he’ll still be driving a camper bus in Denali on my next visit. It may be as long as 20 years.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com.