This is one in a series of articles about our trip to Denali National Park.
Riding on the Denali National Park shuttle in search of wildlife was usually an all-day affair. We had plenty of time to meditate on the scenery and get to know our neighbors as the bus lurched along at 10 miles an hour.
Our contemplations, however, were often interrupted by urgent, single-syllable cries of “Moose!” or “Stop!” that brought the bus to a jolting halt.
When this happened, excitement ran from one passenger to another. We struggled to stand, grabbing for our binoculars and cameras while simultaneously unbuckling those annoying seat belts they make you wear. We were supposed to be quiet so as not to disturb the wildlife, but it was hard to squelch the excitement of seeing a bear or a caribou, and stage whispers filled the bus.
After we’d had our fill and the shuttle continued on, we returned to our seats and nodded at one other, sharing unspoken congratulations at seeing such amazing creatures. We all, regardless of age, became excited little kids in the presence of wildlife.
People come to the park to see the “big five”–bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves, but a ride on the bus or a hike in the park affords the chance to see all kinds of creatures big and small. The park has 39 mammal species, 160 different birds, 14 species of fish, and a lone amphibian, the remarkable wood frog, which freezes during the winter, its little heart ceasing to beat, and it doesn’t breathe again until the spring thaw. Now that’s adaptation!
Here are some of the animals that we saw during out time in Denali:
And it didn’t take long.
A short time into our first bus ride, someone cried out, “Bear! Bear!” The bus lurched to a stop, and on the hillside above us we saw a dark brown grizzly. He was enormous and round and beautiful, and our hearts were full.
A little later, someone spotted another bear, but this one kept his abundant bum toward us, and the only time we saw his face was when he raised his head to sniff the air.
We rode the bus six times and were never shut out when it came to grizzlies. We saw at least one everyday, and sometimes more. We also saw a lot of bear rocks—rocks that looked enough like bears that people called out, “Stop!” only to find that it was just a round brown boulder. The bus drivers were always good natured about it: “Better safe than sorry!” they would say.
It was September, and by this time of year the bears had been eating all summer, consuming an average of 20,000 calories a day. They were fat, with wide rumps and fleshy legs that wobbled with each ponderous step.
Brown bears can weigh up to 800 pounds, but, unlike the fish-eating behemoths on the Alaskan coast, Denali’s grizzlies get most of their calories from roots, berries, bulbs, and fresh vegetation, which is why they’re not as big as those coastal bears. Inland bears will also eat caribou, moose, sheep, and the Arctic ground squirrel (nicknamed “bear burrito” because grizzlies love to gobble ’em up).
Bears are opportunistic meat eaters and also pretty lazy; they eat carrion and will steal kills from other predators, using their girth to intimidate.
The bears we spotted from the bus were typically far up the hillsides grazing on berries, but on two different occasions we saw a grizzly near Eielson Visitors Center, one of the few buildings within the park’s interior and a great place to hike. When bears get too close to the visitors center, park staff respond quickly, closing trails and keeping people out of the area. This allows the bears room to wander and nap as they please without risking unwanted bear-human interaction.
Denali’s grizzlies are typically well-behaved and have little interest in people, but they also require a much larger personal space than in some other parks. At Yellowstone, for example, it’s recommended that humans keep 100 yards between themselves and bears; at Denali the guideline is a distance of 300 yards.
Around 300-350 grizzly bears live on the north side of the Alaska Range, where we were situated. Black bears live in a different area of the park, and the odds of seeing them from the bus were slim.
Another animal we badly wanted to see was a big bull moose. We’d spotted moose cows and babies on the Alcan but no bulls. In Denali, we got lucky and saw several. The first one was sitting in the grass, his harem nearby, and he was so tall that his immense head and rack was easily visible despite the tall foliage. The second bull moose was by himself, wading through the bushes, and it was then that we could see just how large he was.
Moose are the biggest deer species in the world, and the largest moose subspecies lives in Alaska. Alaskan bull moose can weigh as much as 1700 pounds and grow antlers almost seven feet wide.
I was surprised, then, at just how graceful these big guys were. I expected them to be lumbering or gawky, but seeing a moose cross the tundra was like hearing a precisely-tuned instrument being played. Each step seemed to be deliberately placed, and they were downright elegant.
Like bears, moose spend much of their time grazing and can eat up to 30 pounds of vegetation a day. Denali’s moose eat the leaves of the willow shrub in the summer, while in the winter they are reduced to eating the bark and twigs, which offer little nutrition but keep them from starving. They can lose up to 25% of their body weight in the winter.
During certain seasons, this normally passive, reclusive creature may become especially combative toward humans; in fact, Alaskans fear moose more than they do bears. “Moose will finish the job,” one Alaskan told us, and if it’s not with their horns, then it’s with their hooves. They’re powerful creatures and can run up to 35 miles an hour.
Cows with babies can be especially dangerous. We met a woman named Jenny from Vermont (where they also have moose) who told us a chilling story of an acquaintance who was stomped to death by an angry moose cow in the woman’s own backyard. “I respect moose,” Jenny said, and this is a woman who hunts them and then lives off of the meat for most of the year. She has killed, cleaned, and prepped a moose by herself. Impressive!
Another potentially dangerous time is during the rutting season (September/October), when sex-crazed bull moose are, to quote one of our bus drivers, “hopped up on hormones.” They can become territorial and aggressive, and if you enter their personal space you’re likely to be charged and risk being stomped.
As we learned, rutting season is also the best time of year to actually see bull moose because they’re out chasing tail and picking fights with other bulls. A few areas were closed to hikers because of increased moose activity, but the park didn’t want this to keep visitors from exploring. We did several hikes but kept moose safety in mind:
- Keep a distance of at least 25 yards from moose, and do not approach.
- Moose are herbivores, so if you see one, flee, as fast as you can, in the opposite direction. Unlike with bears and other predators, which may view you as prey if you run, moose just want you out of their territory.
Dall sheep are the reason that McKinley National Park (now Denali) was created in the first place; a conservation-minded hunter saw that the sheep, along with other area wildlife, were being over-hunted, and he campaigned to have the area protected as a national park.
Dall sheep are a type of Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. They stay high in the mountains on steep cliff sides, and from our vantage point on the park road they typically looked like white specks. Their mountain agility is their only defense–sheep can’t outrun bear or wolves, but neither predator can follow them into their steep shelters.
There are around 750,000 caribou in Alaska, and large herds migrate hundreds of miles every spring and fall between their calving and wintering grounds. The population in Denali National Park, however, is small (around 1,760), and the caribou live almost entirely within the park boundaries.
We saw caribou several times, including several bulls with enormous racks similar to these:
We saw one red fox, the only species of fox in Denali National Park. Red foxes can be found throughout the United States.
It was a big deal to see the wolverine, a rare sight in Denali National Park. Rumors had been circulating that a wolverine had been hanging out near the park road, and the bus drivers–veterans who’d seen just about everything and rarely got excited about anything–really wanted to see the wolverine for themselves. In fact, each time we rode the shuttle, the bus driver told us, “Keep an eye out; this is where the wolverine was spotted.” We saw it on our fourth trip, and it spent at least 10 minutes in view, wandering the hillside. On subsequent bus trips, Dale and I had serious bragging rights, telling the other passengers, “Oh yeah, we were on the bus that saw the wolverine.” (The envy in their eyes was strangely satisfying.)
We spotted some beautiful birds in Denali and even checked a few off of our life list:
There were numerous golden eagles, including a pair that was chowing down on ptarmigan (see below).
Gray jay (a.k.a., “Butter Thief”)
We first met gray jays in Washington, and these lovely birds are so adept at stealing food from humans that they have earned the universal nickname of “Camp Robber.” Dale cooked all of our meals while in Denali, and we were cautious about keeping a clean campsite and not feeding the wildlife (remember: “A fed bear is a dead bear”). Despite our best efforts, we fell victim to the wily gray jay.
It happened while Dale was cooking breakfast; not once, but twice, a gray jay stole chunks of butter right from under his nose. The first time, the butter was sitting close to Dale on the table; the second time, it was actually in the pan! The bird waited patiently until Dale turned his head for a split second, and then it swooped in and nabbed the butter. Crafty little bugger! Hopefully that fat-filled treat will help him get through the winter.
We saw sandhill cranes flying south for the winter by the thousands. One day we watched for over 20 minutes as wave after wave flew overhead. It was amazing. Sandhill cranes migrate from their breeding grounds in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada to their wintering grounds, and they may go as far south as Mexico. We first saw them years ago in deep south Texas, when we lived near the Mexican border.
The ptarmigan is the state bird of Alaska and also apparently a tasty treat. During our shuttle bus travels, we witnessed various predators snacking on them, their white feathers scattered everywhere.
We saw numerous spruce grouse, a bird that you will only find in Canada, Alaska, and a few northern U.S. states. Several grouse wandered into our campsite during our time in Denali, but fortunately they didn’t try to steal condiments from us!
The northern goshawk was a life-list raptor for us, and Dale spotted it on our last day, when we were driving out of the park. What a way to end the trip.
What we didn’t see: Wolves
Other than bears, the creature we most wanted to see in Denali National Park was a wolf. Wolves are one of the most elusive creatures in the park, and yet as recently as six years ago visitors had about a 45% chance of seeing one. In 2016, however, our odds were about 5%. The number of wolves in Denali National Park has dropped dramatically over the past six years, and as of 2016, the population stood at an estimated 49, the lowest density since 1987.
Why? The answer is complicated, political, and–as is often the case with wolves–contentious. Not being an Alaskan resident (yet), I don’t fully understand all the factors at play. All I can say with any certainty is that we were very disappointed that we didn’t see wolves while in Denali. (You can read more about Alaska’s dwindling wolf population on the National Park Service’s website. Publications such as National Geographic, the Washington Post, and Alaska Dispatch News have also recently written about the issue.)
Of course, when you go into the wilderness hoping to see wild things, sometimes you’re successful, and sometimes you’re not. We saw an extraordinary amount of animals during our short time in Denali, and for this we are grateful. I know that most Americans won’t travel as far north as Alaska, but it should be a comfort to us all just knowing that places like Denali National Park and Preserve exist. The sole reason the park was established was to preserve the wilderness within its boundaries, and, with its six million acres, Denali does just that.
We left the park with the conviction that not only did we want to move to Alaska, but we wanted to do whatever we could to spend time in–and even find ways to help protect–amazing places like Denali.