Alaska 2008

Healy, AK
Denali National Park

10 July 2008

Town Information

Denali National Park Information

Local Map

Photographs and Commentary
Click on pictures to enlarge

Today was about the animals. We booked an eight hour excursion into Denali Park. We took this same excursion three years ago and saw only a few animals. I had taken a lot of photographs of the scenery but never got a shot of Mount McKinley, or as the locals refer to it, Denali. Clouds obscure Denali, the highest mountain in North America about 80% of the time. The best time to see the mountain is in winter when the air is clear and dry. Today, was a 20% day and we could see the mountain after we had been on the road for only a few minutes. It stayed in the clear until we got to our turnaround point, 60 miles into the park and about 30 miles from the mountain. Not long after we turned back towards the park entrance, the clouds started to cover the mountain and it disappeared from view. Out driver/guide told us that she has only seen the mountain a few times since May.

Now for the animals... We should have gotten a hint of how the day was going to go from the way it started. We were supposed to be picked up near the park entrance at 7:30 AM and were headed south on the Parks Highway to get to our pickup point. The park entrance is about eight miles from the campground and were rounding a series of curves when we spotted a moose cow with calf coming onto the road. I slowed down and mama stopped on the road in very defensive posture, facing us with her ears pinned back. Moose are known to charge when you get into their space and the cow was doubly concerned because of the calf. Once the calf was safely in the bush, the cow turned and followed. So why don't I have a picture of this encounter? I was too busy thinking about what am I going to if the cow decided to charge. They can hit 30 MPH and I don't know if I really wanted to do the same speed or better in reverse. Still, it was not something you see every day, even in Alaska.

Denali National Park is a wilderness park and man's imprint on it is quite limited. About the only significant mark is the 90 mile Park Road. The public can drive on only the first 15 miles of the road and must use busses to go any further. The major large mammals in Denali National Park are the Grizzly Bear, Caribou and Moose. In addition the park has other mammals like Wolves and Dall Sheep. Denali Park consists of over 6.000,000 acres (bigger than the state of Massachusetts) and can only support so many animals. For example, there are only about 300 Grizzlies in the park, that is one bear for every 20,000 acres. Similarly, there are only about 2,000 Caribou migrating in the park. The probability of an encounter with these animals is slim. Today was our lucky day.

We saw a number of Caribou, many of them cooling themselves by lying on pockets of snow. While stopped at the Polychrome Rest Area, one bull decided to walk through the rest area and came within a few feet of us. Some of the people were worried, but in reality the bull was more scared than we were and was just looking for a way out of his predicament. Of course, since bulls can weigh up to 600 lbs, if he wanted to go where I was standing, I would yield the right of way.

The last time we were in Denali, we saw one Grizzly Bear sow with cubs a long way from us. Even with my telephoto lens, it showed up as light brown spot in a field of green. This time we saw a sow with a cub walking towards the road as we were heading into the park. She was still some distance from us, but not as much as in our 2005 photograph. As we were coming back towards the park entrance, we saw her again, only this time she was walking towards the road and then crossed the road to disappear in the bushes. I was unable to to get a shot of the bear while she was on the road because of where I was sitting on the bus. At the same time that the sow was giving us the second show we spotted a male (boar) not far from the sow. The sow was probably moving away from the boar to protect the cub.. The boar was probably looking to mate. Females won't mate while the cubs still need them (about 2 to 3 years) and the males will kill the cubs so that he can mate with the female. As a result of these encounters, we saw 1% of the Denali National Park Grizzly Bear population.

We also saw some Snowshoe Hare which are enjoying a population explosion because of an abundance of their food in the park. Unfortunately for the hares, they are eating themselves into a population crash. They have destroyed so much of their food that there will not be enough to sustain the population in the near future and the number of hares will drop until there is more food around. We also saw the Alaska State Bird, the Willow Ptarmigan, a Golden Eagle flying overhead, Dall Sheep and Magpies.

It was a beautiful, mostly sunny and warm day in the park and this evening the rains returned. Hopefully, the rain stops by morning because we have plans to do a hike in the park.

Mount McKinley/Denali

First Look at Denali

First look at the mountain from about 80 miles away

Denali from a distance of thirty miles from its base

View of the mountain from a distance of about 30 miles from its base

Denali National Park Animals
(At least some of them)

Caribou on ice

Caribou on ice. Cooling off in the heat... 65 degrees (Picture by Susie)

Collered Caribou

A Caribou wearing a tracking collar as part of a research project

Caribou on the road at Polychrome rest area

A Caribou bull walking down the road at the Polychrome rest area. He saw the people standing on the road and ran up the hill in a panic.

Caribou bull at Polychrome rest area

When he got to the top of the hill he saw more people and after running back and forth, he finally made it into the bush

Dall Sheep grazing

Dall Sheep grazing. They are much more vulnerable to their predators in this terrain. (Picture by Susie)

Dall Sheep at home on rocky hillside

Dall sheep "on the rocks" where they are much more comfortable. Most predators cannot reach them here.

Grizzly sow and cub

Grizzly sow and cub

Grizzly boar

Grizzly boar

Willow ptramigan family

Willow Ptarmigan family

Willow Ptarmigan close up

Willow Ptarmigan, close up

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle in flight

Susie and Sam
(didn't want to include us with the animals)

Susie climbing at the Polychrome rest area

Susie climbing the hill at the Polychrome rest area just before we were joined by the panicky caribou

Susie and Sam with Denali

Sam and Susie with Denali (or Mount McKinley) in the background

Seen on the Road

Sanitation truck with sign, "The Excess Express"

We spotted this sanitation truck while waiting for the bus to the park. I just liked the sign on its side.

The End

The End

This is the only picture I got of the grizzly sow as she left the road for the bushes. I thought it was an appropriate way to finish today's page.

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