Warning – Day 16 may be the best, most amazing day I have ever spent in Denali ever! The week leading up to Day 16 was pretty rough. It was all going really smoothly until Wednesday. I was leaning over to put Elias in his kennel and my back went out! I felt sharp pain and I went down. It took about 20 minutes to maneuver to my bed. I had to take two days off of work to recoup and I was not 100% on Saturday when we were leaving for Denali. The RV was all ready to go and it was great to have a bed to sleep in versus car camping with my back. We, well Josh, packed up the RV and we headed on out to Denali. We got a late start but made it to the park around 4pm. I was a little sad going into the park on this Saturday because Denali Interpreters were putting on an interpretive bike ride. I had originally planned on going on the bike ride but, with my back still recuperating, I had to bail on bike riding.
The road is officially open to mile 30! It was fun driving past the Savage river bridge and heading on down the road. We saw some ptarmigan. We looked so hard to find ptarmigan in February and March and now in April they are popping up everywhere! The ptarmigan are spectacularly white and some are starting to turn some brown. Glorious Denali was also completely out and visible. It was fun seeing the mountain a few miles closer!
We were driving and driving and driving. We passed Igloo Creek Campground and then what they call the drunken forest. We turned a corner and had our first visual of the Teklanika river. I stared off into the snow covered river bank and, to my surprise, I saw something move! I immediately told Josh that there was something on the river and that I was pretty sure it wasn’t a moose or caribou. We stopped the RV and looked more closely. We saw a wolf! We looked across the river and totaled up 9 wolves!!!!! The wolves were running and laying around on the frozen river bed.
I grabbed my camera and tripod and walked down the hill a little ways until it dropped off. Seeing the wolves was incredible. Last I heard there were only a little more than 50 wolves within the whole 6 million acres! To think we saw almost 20% of the wolves in the entire park, truly amazed me. The wolves were very, very far away, but you could definitely see that they were in fact wolves. According to research from the Denali National Park National Park Service website page (https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/wolfviewing.htm) the proportion of yearly bus trips where wolves were seen has significantly decreased since 2010. Supposedly in 2010 45% saw wolves, in 2011 21% saw wolves, in 2012 12% saw wolves, in 2013 4% saw wolves, in 2014 6% saw wolves, in 2015 5% saw wolves, and in 2016 5% saw wolves. I had hoped to see a wolf on my 100 Days of Denali Challenge, but I never dreamt I would see 9 within the first 20 days of my journey!
We sat on the hillside admiring and listening to the wolves. Three of them were coming a little closer. We were ecstatic to see them far away and even more pumped that they were coming a little closer. A few minutes later we realized why they were coming in closer, there was a dead caribou about 300 yards from us! We didn’t think that it was an actual wolf kill because the ground around the carcass wasn’t that disturbed and there didn’t seem to be fresh blood visible. The caribou probably died during the winter and with the spring breakup occurring and snow rapidly melting, it most likely uncovered the caribou.
Three wolves were eating on the caribou and then they switched out with two other wolves. We sat there for hours watching them rip and move the carcass around. At one point one of the wolves broke off a leg and brought it a few feet away from the carcass. The wolves started to sniff the air and back away and we couldn’t figure out why. We looked around and if this day couldn’t get more crazy incredible, to our complete surprise, in walked a large grizzly bear headed straight towards the wolves and carcass!
The wolves backed away initially. One black wolf did come back and approached the bear. The bear and wolf looked like the were so close together! The wolf eventually backed off while the bear was burying the carcass. The dark but daring wolf backed off even further when a beautiful lighter grey wolf came onto the scene. The wolf approached the bear. It tried to uncover the leg meat and bone that the other wolf dragged away from the carcass but was frequently stopped and scared off by the bear.
The wolf then went around to the front of the bear. The bear charged the wolf! It was incredible! The wolf then gave up and started making its way towards the other two darker wolves who stepped back from the bear earlier. They all trotted off together towards the river where they were met with the other 6 wolves. The wolves howled as the bear continued to bury the caribou carcass and charge the ravens and magpie birds away.
The lighting was harsh and low but we had some epically amazing front row seats to one of the coolest sites I have ever seen! This was something that Josh and I would joke around about. It was getting dark and we had to get back to the RV. I had originally planned on making it to mile 30 on day 16, but with the amazing opportunity to watch the wolves and bear eat the caribou carcass, we ended up turning around after making it back to the RV. On our way out we saw a lot more ptarmigan and three great moose sightings!
It was this evening on the 16th day of Denali that I was able to get another big Denali Photo Goal COMPLETE! I have goals for each trip down to the park but I also have overall photo goals on things I would dream about seeing and being able to photograph. My goal was to get an animal photographed in the foreground of Denali. One of the moose this afternoon, on the 16th day of my 100 Days of Denali, decided to pose in front of Denali!
After an incredible, unbelievable night we headed into Riley Creek Campground to make our dinner. We had burgers, chips, macaroni salad, beans, and potatoes! It was delicious. I love camping in regular tents and in our arctic oven, but the RV is so comfortable… A bed, heat on demand, and no clean up or packing up of a tent… I love the RV. We went to bed but set our alarms for early Sunday to try and head back to the site of the caribou carcass.
We woke up and enjoyed our Easter morning by rolling out early back into Denali National Park. Again, it was so great to just wake up, turn on the RV, and GO! On our way back to the carcass site, a snowshoe hare hopped across the road. I had seen two other snowshoe hare previously in the park during the first 16 days, but I haven’t had the opportunity to actually photograph one. Josh quickly stopped the RV and I jumped out scanning the area hoping that the hare didn’t hop out of sight. To my surprise, the hare was still around! I photographed the hare for a few minutes before it continued on it’s way. I was so excited to get to photograph my first hare of my 100 days of Denali and on Easter no less!
We made it back to the caribou carcass and the bear was sleeping on a large mound of dirt. The bear had buried the carcass very well. I took a few photos and then we decided to drive to mile 30 and then come back to the site. There were a few parked cars at Teklanika rest stop at mile 30 but we did not see any people. The rest area has a viewing platform that was covered in icy snow. I slowly made my way to get a few photos. When I got back to the RV we drove back to the location of the bear. We saw a golden eagle flying as well! I didn’t really get a photo of the eagle but we at least got to see it.
By the time we got back to the bear, it had gotten up and was starting to unbury and eat the carcass. We went back to the hill where we sat the night before and watched the bear consume some of the caribou. The wolves were nowhere to be seen. I could have sat on the cold ground watching the bear all day but the bear had laid down away from us and it was getting later in the day. We got back to the RV and made our way back to the entrance of the park.
On the way out we saw two very far away Moose. While watching and photographing them, a very close moose popped out of the trees! We drove parallel to the moose and stopped a few times for photos and to see if the moose was wanting to cross the road. The moose paralleled the road for awhile but never did cross. It went into the thick woods and we drove to the Murie Science and Learning Center. We restocked up on water to have lunch before we drove back home.
Overall it was an extremely fun and successful time in the park. What we got to see in the park is not typical, but more something a photographer, adventurist, and anyone who loves wildlife would dream about. I had entered day 16 disappointed that I couldn’t partake in biking to get more of an adventure. I left the day having watching the cycle of life occur right in front of me. You never know what you are going to see, experience, or find in Denali National Park. The most amazing opportunities and adventures can occur when you least expect them too. I had hoped to see a wolf within the 100 days of Denali and truly feel so blessed to have been able to see so many and some of them semi-close! I would always seem to get to the park the day after or the day before predation and it was pretty amazing to get the opportunity to view that true nature experience. Days 16 and 17 have definitely motivated me for my next trip into Denali National Park!