Buffeted by strong winds, hundreds of anxious Alaska drivers got a chance to stare down wolves, moose and even grizzly bears through the windows of their vehicles last weekend during the annual Denali National Park road lottery.
Thousands of Alaskans apply each year, but only 1,600 permits -- 400 vehicles a day -- are awarded for the four-day weekend. Denali National Park spokeswoman Kris Fister said 350 permits were actually issued Friday, 361 Saturday, 343 Sunday and 312 Monday.
Until the lottery, the only access to the 89-mile road that stretches from park headquarters near to Wonder Lake and a former gold mining camp was by park bus.
Occasionally, snow or other bad weather can prompt partial road closures during the September public opening. On Monday, for instance, the road opening was delayed until 10 a.m. to allow ice that had formed in high passes to melt.
Fister said there was also some concern the road would be closed Sunday due to winds gusting up to 60 mph near Polychrome Pass, starting at about Mile 44 of Denali Park Road. Fister said three vehicles had windows broken from rocks falling or, in some cases, “flying.” A set of port-a-potties near the top of the pass was blown over.
“I've worked the road lottery 14 or 15 times and I've never seen winds like that,” she said.
Power was out in some park buildings Sunday, including at the road lottery check-in. The road lottery marks the end of the visitor season in and around Denali National Park. Everything in the area began shutting down as the lottery ended, and Tuesday was the last day the visitor's center was open. The park road stays open for its first 30 miles until snow flies, Fister said.
The weekend is highly anticipated by wildlife photographers, according to freelancer Chris Beck.
"It is a tough ticket to get," he noted, "but when you get eight photographers to put in for it, you might get lucky. As a photographer living and working in Alaska you get a chance to know a lot of other photographers -- in fact we are all good friends.
"I can't think of anything better then getting together with like-minded people in the middle of Denali with over $200,000 of camera gear."
Several of the shooters contacted Canon, which loaned the photographers several expensive lenses as long as 800mm to use for two weeks.
"Needless to say, we were ready for anything," Beck said. "We had a lot of fun, as you might be able to tell from the pictures (accompanying this story). We got to see everything from bears to moose to sheep -- and incredible landscapes. And we got a chance to play around with some fun photos of ourselves in the field.
"We can't wait till next year!"
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com