Alaska Trip (Part 4) — Denali Animals   Leave a comment

After our brief stop at Exit Glacier outside of Seward we hopped back on the bus for the 6+ hour drive back through Anchorage and on to Denali National Park.  There were not a lot of highlights, unless you consider the bus driver pointing out Sarah Palin’s house on the far side of a lake in Wasilla to be a highlight.  (Apparently she now lives almost full time in Phoenix, making it anti-climactic anyway).

Mostly we drove through mile after mile of willow and spruce forests, passing fishing lodges, hunting camps, and the occasional small town.  But we had fun becoming more familiar with others in the group, eating sandwiches on the bus, and catching some Zzzzzz’s.

Denali, as we soon learned, is a national park that is focused to a large extent on the wildlife contained within its borders.  There is certainly no shortage of stunning scenery, but Denali is first and foremost about the animals.  So instead of mixing up a post with anecdotes about camping, hiking, cooking meals, and waking up to 45-degree sink baths, I’ll simply focus on the animals in this post.

First, we learned a lot from the NPS Rangers at Denali:

For example, you never ever run from a grizzly bear.  Why?  Because bears assume that anything that runs away must be tasty.  So  if a grizzly sees you, you are supposed to stand there, wave your arms over your head, speak sweet nothings to it, and wait for it to figure out that you’re not something it wants to eat.  (Nothing on a grizzly’s dinner menu can lift its arms above shoulder height or speak in a human voice.  And everything it eats tries to run away first).  Now if said bear is perturbed for some reason it is likely to charge you.  According to the NPS Ranger , 95% of the time the bear will veer off at the last second (I was beginning to doubt him at this point).  In this case — and if you haven’t dropped dead on the spot — you will now have a wonderful story to relate to your friends when you get back to camp.  In fact, I suggest taking a picture of the charging bear since no one will remotely believe your story.  Supposedly confused by your failure to run away, the bear will now leave you alone (uh-huh).  However, if it doesn’t leave you alone the next step is to drop face down, cover the back of your neck with your hands, and then spread-eagle your legs so the bear can’t flip you over.  (By now I was pretty sure that this ranger — from Pittsburgh of all places — was totally full of it).  But hey, there has never been one single human fatality from a bear attack since Denali was declared to be a national park back in 1917.  On the other hand, some people have been maimed when (you guessed it) they ran away.  So maybe Ranger Pittsburgh knew what he was talking about after all.

Moose, on the other hand, are really ornery and have killed the occasional tourist.  If one of those bad boys charges you, you are being asked to leave its’ territory, and according to Ranger Pittsburgh you should accommodate the request as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately, a moose is faster than you.  Actually, it’s faster than Usain Bolt, too.  But the one saving grace is that a moose “has a turning radius of an RV”, quoting our urban east coast ranger.   So you should run like a drunken sailor, get behind a (big enough) tree, and play ring-around-the-rosy until the moose loses interest or one of you drops dead from exhaustion.

That was it.  Nothing else poses much of a threat, unless you decide to chase after a porcupine.  In which case you’ll have a self-proving story that everyone else back at camp will enjoy hearing over and over again.


Edit:  Unfortunately, our fellow travelers and friends Chris Hoffert and Brian Jackson inform us that a photographer was killed by a grizzly within the past few days — the first person ever killed by a bear in Denali, and something that was brought to my attention after having already written this blog post.  According to the Anchorage Daily News, the hiker / photographer apparently ignored instructions given to all backcountry hikers to immediately leave the area upon coming across a bear.

Photos on the camera and the images’ timestamps showed that White was within 50 yards of the bear for at least eight minutes, without retreating. Permitted backcountry travelers in Denali are required to stay at least a quarter-mile from bears and leave the area if they happen upon one . . .

A very unfortunate (and avoidable) situation.

(Above)  Speaking of moose, here are a mother and calf.  Image taken from the safety of the bus that was taking us to our campsite immediately after we arrived.

(Above)  A watchful ground squirrel.  Image taken during one of our hikes along the Savage River.

(Above)  Unfortunately, these little guys occasionally become tasty treats for the grizzlies.  In the arctic we saw several places where the bears simply dug up the underground dens to get an easy ground squirrel meal.

(Above)  Caribou in Denali are protected and showed little fear of the humans running up the slope to photograph them.  Several rangers had to warn people to back off.

(Above)  A recent grizzly paw print next to Melanie’s hiking boot.  There must have been a big bear attached to that paw.  Taken during a four-hour hike along the Savage River.

(Above)  A very young and unconcerned caribou on Mt. Margaret.  The Mt. Margaret hike was pretty aggressive (elevation-wise) and tiring, but well worth it as there were even greater photographic rewards awaiting us at the top.

(Above)  The photographic rewards included these Dall Sheep near the peak of Mt. Margaret.

(Above)  These were a couple of youngsters “play fighting”.  They still rammed into each other with surprising force.

(Above)  The sheep allowed us to get within less than 100 feet.  They probably saw me do a face plant on the tundra after stepping in a ground squirrel hole — I was watching the sheep instead of where I was walking — and rightly concluded that we were no threat to them.  Walking on tundra is like walking on pillows.  It’s exceptionally tiring, but a good place to do a face plant if you’re going to be a klutz.

(Above)  Our group leader, David Radcliff, an accomplished photographer, checks out some of the images he was able to capture.

(Above)  The backdrop for these photos could not have been better.  Well worth the two thousand or so feet we climbed to get up there.

(Above)  Within minutes of leaving the herd of sheep David spotted this ptarmigan in the tundra grass.  Well camouflaged member of the grouse family.

(Above)  A grizzly bear grazes on berries.  They eat upwards of 100,000 berries a day, raking them in by the paw full.  Photo taken from a bus with a 300mm zoom lens and cropped.  Otherwise, this would be way too close.

(Above)  A pair of bears foraging in a berry patch.  Again, image taken from the safety of a bus with a 300mm zoom lens and heavily cropped.

(Above)  Porcupine carcass along the Savage River.  I have no idea of the cause of death, but my research indicates that the only real and consistent predator of porcupines is . . . you guessed it — grizzly bears.


Posted August 26, 2012 by ~ Bruce in Landscapes, Nature and Wildlife, Travel Photography

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