Denali National Park: Where the Wild Things Are

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Denali Sign
It seemed as though it took days for us to finally arrive at Denali National Park from Anchorage, even though our excursions through Wasilla and Talkeetna only lasted a couple of hours.  It’s about a 6 hour drive from Anchorage to Denali, but if you stop to stare at scenic beauty and have snacks in cute towns every few miles, it takes quite a bit longer.

At any rate, we made it to the Denali Bluffs Hotel by 10:00 pm. Due to the far north setting, the sun was nowhere near setting, so we felt like we were right on time. Or maybe it was 8:00 pm. Or 1:00 am. Who the heck knows in this part of the world.  We met up with Grandma Chris when we arrived, and she instructed us that the bus through the park was leaving at 6 am, so we’d better get to bed.  Her traveling companions, her sister Ruth and brother-in-law Ralph, had already retired for the night.

Tundra Wilderness Bus
The next morning or later that night, or whatever, we got up and boarded a converted school bus run by Tundra Wilderness Tours, to take a ride through Denali National Park. We were on the hunt for the Big Five in wildlife in the park:  Moose, Bears, Wolves, Dall Sheep, and Caribou.  By “hunt”, I don’t mean actually hunting them to kill them, just to take their photos and try not to bother them as much as is humanly possible for a busload of tourists armed with cameras.

Our bus was half-filled with people staying in our hotel, who were all instructed to sit on the left side of the bus.  We picked up the right half at another hotel down the road.  I think about 75% of the bus were very chipper Australians. We were a little bleary-eyed, but the Australians seemed very excited. It seems like everywhere we have traveled in the world, we’ve met groups of Australians who are raring to go at any time, any place.

Moose blur
Just as we pulled into the park, our guide, John, spotted a moose mother (cow) and baby (calf) by a stream by the side of the road.  Since we were still on part of the highway, he didn’t pull over, so we wildly snapped photos out of the moving bus window.  Unfortunately, my pictures all looked like “moose blur” and the back of the head of the man in front of me.  National Geographic is not likely to come and beg me for pictures anytime soon.  See if you can spot the moose in the picture above.  Or a caribou. Or a dinosaur.  All I see is a blur with legs.

People on the Bus
Most of Denali is not accessible by private car, so you have to take a bus, bike, or hike to get into the heart of the park.  The Tundra Wilderness Tour offered a hotel pick-up, and and eight-hour, 54 mile trip through the park and back.  The bus itself was much nicer inside than it appeared from the outside, with comfortable seats and video screens that dropped down for the guide to catch wildlife on his zoom-lens video camera.  That was a nice touch, since depending on where you were seated, you might not see much if the animals decided to only appear on the left or the right side of the bus.  One annoyance with the bus was the windows, the kind that slide up and down when you squeeze the locks.  I hadn’t seen or operated these since grade school.  They must be built for children to use, because quite a few of the adults had a hard time manipulating the windows.

We each had a box lunch on our seats on the bus, which consisted of a can of chicken salad, a roll, a bag of jalapeno potato chips, and a candy bar.  Chris had the foresight to order us some gourmet box lunches from the hotel, which contained much nicer fare. We were given strict instructions by John not to take any food off the bus at any time.  The bears in Denali have never been introduced to human food, since only buses go through and they control the unruly hungry humans, and the backpackers and hikers are required to carry bear canisters that mask the smell of the food and can’t be opened by bear claws.  Or at least that’s the theory.

Two moose

The road through Denali is a one-lane, unpaved affair, and passing can be treacherous.  It’s a good thing they don’t let cars in except on a very limited basis.  Most drivers would not be able to navigate the road, I would think.  I was happy to be on the bus, mainly because Frank has a habit of taking pictures while driving.  I would rather not end up at the bottom of a ravine as a bear snack.

After the moose by the highway, our first wildlife sighting came a few miles into the park, where a couple of moose were sauntering across a plain.  John said they were immature males.  How he knew from the distance, I don’t know.  Maybe it was the skateboards and bad attitudes that tipped him off.

They turned toward us at one point, and I snapped this picture of them.  They seemed pretty nonplussed at the sight of the bus, then turned and sauntered off the other way.  They were probably saying to each other, “Tourists. Meh.”

There is a ranger about 15 miles inside the park that is the farthest point a private car can go.  Beyond this, only buses are allowed.  Many people park here and hike or bike further into the park. Right by the Ranger Station, a Willow Ptarmigan was perched on bridge railing.  The Willow Ptarmigan is the state bird of Alaska, so it seemed fitting that he would be there to greet us and welcome us into the park.

Denali gnawed branches

We were watching for bears, but a few people noticed a number of rabbits running around near the road.  John the Tour Guide/Bus Driver told us they were Snowshoe Hares, and had become quite abundant in the park.  The Snowshoe Hare eats the bark off the willow bushes, and he pointed out dense areas of willow that had the bark stripped clean, about 2 feet off the ground. He said the reason that the bark was not stripped at the base was that the snow cover in the winter makes the exposed part of the bark that is accessible to the hares above the ground.  The hares had become over-populated and that was bad for the trees, but eventually, the trees die, which starves the hares, then the population stabilizes.  It’s about a ten year cycle of abundance vs. starvation.  I couldn’t help but start humming “Circle of Life” from The Lion King at some points.

Denali McKinley

At one point, John pulled over and got very excited, saying we were getting to see something very rare, something only 20% of park visitors get to see.  After people guessed all kinds of animals, he very proudly pointed out into the distance, and said, “Denali!”

The mythic mountain was making an appearance, but we were not terribly excited, having already filled up about 4 GB of memory taking pictures of the mountain on our way to Denali National Park. Others on the bus were thrilled.
Caribou blobs

John was also very excited to point out some grazing caribou off in the distance.  To me, they looked like white rocks.  Some of the rocks seemed to have legs, so I guess those were the caribou.  I think they must have been about 20 miles away.  Chris said they looked like blobs that moved.  We started saying, “Blobs on the move!” to indicate that there might be something to see off in the distance.  Even with a 200mm zoom and a lot of cropping, this photo is the best I could do with the caribou.

Bear Mountain We finally saw a bear about 20 miles into the trip.  It was close enough that I could actually see that it was a bear, and not just another blob on the move.  It was very light, which surprised me, since I always think of grizzlies as black or dark brown.  John estimated that it was a young male.  The bear was  bounding up the side of a hill, and was surprisingly fast.  It was far enough away not to notice us or to care that we were there.  Other than at the zoo, I don’t think I would like to be any closer to a bear than that.

Moose Mom

The most dramatic moment of the tour came when someone spotted a mother moose and two moose calves trotting across an open plain.  We stopped to see how cute they were, when someone noticed that on a distant ridge, two bears appeared and started running toward the plain. The mother moose must have noticed it too, because she bolted.  The two calves kept up as best they could, and were sometimes hidden in the dense brush.  One of them could not keep up and laid down in the brush.  The mom and other calf just kept running.  After going several miles, she stopped and turned for a headcount, and realized one was missing. Alex got very agitated and worried that the little slow calf would get eaten by the bears.  Fortunately, the bears stopped at the bottom of the hill and didn’t go any further.

Red Fox
Frank spotted a very cute fox in the brush alongside the road and yelled for the driver to stop. The fox was curious about us, but by the time I got my window down and aimed my camera in the right direction, the fox was bored with us and wandered off. I got a nice picture of his tail.

Alex Moose
At the turnaround point, we stopped at the Visitor’s Center, a tent with some restrooms out in the middle of nowhere.  There was a small gift shop featuring books on wildlife, and a limited selection of Alaska Geographic and Denali souvenirs.  There were some moose and caribou antlers that visitors could feel, to get a sense of the weight of the things.  Alex decided to try out the antlers, which were quite heavy.  John told us that caribou grow a new set of antlers every year, and the ones they shed provide a source of calcium for other animals.

The journey back was less eventful, maybe because I was on the wrong side of the bus to see anything and I was tired.  I saw a golden eagle fly by, which was a magnificent sight.  It went too quickly to get a picture, and by this time, I decided to give up.

My conclusion: Wildlife photography is best left to the professionals. I don’t have the patience or the skills to make it work.  I’ll stick with landscapes and people.  They’re much more cooperative, even shy mountain peaks that only come out once in a while.  Despite my lack of skills at capturing the wildlife, we had a wonderful time in Denali National Park. It is truly one of the most spectacular wild places left in the United States.

Denali Again

despair for the world grows in me… I go
and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and
the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild
things who
do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. I come into the
presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting
with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am

–Wendell Berry

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