Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Denali - it ain't just a river in Egypt!*

.... it's a wildlife preserve in Alaska! Howdy folks, Bayard here, doing a guest post on the blog as Pete and I prepare to finally head for Maryland tomorrow night and conclude the epic Alaska leg of our long journey.

I want to share the scoop on our 11-hour (!) trip through Denali yesterday, as seeing animals was one of my hopes for this Alaska adventure. I'm partial to critters, and this state has some nice ones (some "delicious" ones, Pete would say, but it's only a joke, as he's a vegetarian.) Alaska's interior has five large mammals (known as the Big Five) and in the following missive, I'll reveal how many we were able to shoot (with our cameras - of course)!

All aboard the fun-bus to Wonder Lake!

When setting up the Denali trip, I was concerned about the hit and miss prospect of animal viewing, which is dependent on many factors, perhaps the weather being the most critical. Weather.com predicted rain for a week or more, but Kim assured me the weather just isn't predictable here (well, it is almost always cloudy and cool, but it's hard to know for sure ahead of time). Sure enough, it turned out to be a very decent day weather-wise. As we began the bus ride, our driver promised to get us there and back safely, and informed us that looking for wildlife was our job - when we saw an animal, we were to shout "Stop" and describe its location using check-six (clock) directional language (for example, "Six o'clock" if the critter was directly behind the bus.) No one did this, but we got along fine anyway. The driver cautioned us that bear spotting had been so-so and that it was very hard to see animals like wolves or wolverines. The folks I'd met along the way said they hadn't seen any of these shadowy creatures.

The first 20 miles or so were animal-free, and we were told the next 30 were the best territory for animals. A long time seemed to pass without incident, and I began to wonder if the 11 hours would go by without an exciting sighting. Then people asked for a stop, due to a majestic caribou silhouetted up on a ridgeline. Pete and I had already seen quite a few in the far north on the Dalton highway, so this was not new to us, but it was good to see signs of life.

For the pictures, feel free to click them to bring up a larger size - the critters were a ways away in some cases.

We saw some lovely Dall sheep, named for the naturalist who first studied them:

We also spied a very nice female moose:

And then, the heavy hitter - an enormous lumbering grizzly, making his way along a river bank (he looks a little small in this photo, but we could see his tremendous girth - "Only" 350 to 400 pounds, the grizzlies of the interior don't achive the even more massive size of their coastal brown bear brothers, due to the lack of fat salmon in their diet):

I was happy to get to see some grizzlies; on the return trip, we spotted what appeared to be a family unit of very blond bears (I am told all Alaskan brown bears are the same species, but the ones with some gray in their coat are called grizzlies):

But still we had not seen the piece de resistance for me - I had really wanted to encounter a wolf on the trip, and so far, we had had no luck,
and I was about to resign myself to not seeing one. Then the driver broke his rule about the passengers being the ones to spot the wildlife, and commented that the white speck a mile or more in the distance, just might be a wolf. I was glad to have my rented binoculars in hand, and felt lucky even for this distant view of the Gray wolf - so often and quickly killed outside the park boundary. To my surprise, she came closer - and closer! Eventually trotting next to and even in front of the bus! From the stance she took while "marking her territory," we guessed her to be a female.

What a thrill to see all these wild animals - all of the Big Five! It was great. I was also fortunate to see many other animals on the trip, including Dall porpoises jumping a few feet away, super active and shy black bears all over Canada, many moose carefully crossing the road in Canada and Alaska, cute, curious and human-like ground squirrels, Steller's sea lions swimming in formation off the south coast, funny sea otters doing the backstroke in Ressurection Bay, snowy and great horned owls and other birds of prey, and perhaps my most unique sighting, a wolverine creeping into the underbrush. Less welcome were the many visits from some of the 40 species of mosquito they have up here - jokingly called the state bird.

Many thanks to Pete and Kimberly for making this such a memorable and fun trip, and to all we met along the way - human and otherwise. Loved ones, looking forward to seeing you soon!

* for those whose brains don't employ the same pretzel logic as mine, this is a joke about "Denali" being an anagram of "Denial". De Nile - get it? Oh, never mind.....


  1. You guys are my heroes for doing this!!!Thank You!!!

  2. Used to have a "colon therapist" (i.e., he administered what he called "turbo-charged colonics") come in to the restaurant all the time.

    He loved to use the line, "Most people are in Poop Denial...my job is to make them Poop De Nile!"