Another day, another trip to Denali National Park! I had a day and a half to regroup after my Dad and Julie left Alaska. Josh was traveling for a wedding and I was taking the RV with the pups down to Denali. I left town in later afternoon. The highway wasn’t bad but it is always an adventure with the RV. I am still not used to driving it around. There was some construction right near the Denali Park Village area but other than that, roads were clear. I checked into the Riley Creek Mercantile and chose a spot in the back of the Wolf Loop. I took the dogs for a little walk around the loops before heading out to do a little hiking.
I chose to do the Horseshoe Lake trail, a small loop trail at the beginning of the park. I knew I was doing the hike rather late in the evening so I made sure to make lots of noise. I turned a corner down the trail and about 15 feet away was a giant cow moose! I jumped back and quickly backed up a long ways. I hid behind a tree and watched as two little moose calves came up the trail behind her. I was now quite a ways from them. I snapped a few photos but then went further up the trail. I kept retreating up the trail because the cow moose kept coming in the direction I was hoping to travel. I ended up almost to the top of the trail before the moose family went into the ravine on the right side of the trail. As I watched the family move away and out of sight I decided to head back up the trail. I had heard a beaver family was at horseshoe lake and I really wanted to see them!
I kept on the trail, being loud and very observant. A little ways down the trail I ran into some people. They informed me that a cow and two calves were on the trail ahead. I was a little confused because I just had turned a corner into a cow with two calves but was assured it was actually a different moose family. I continued on my way to find the beavers. I did end up seeing the cow moose in the woods over 30 yards away from the trail. I kept walking and eventually made it to the lake. I looked around and read the sign about beavers being in the area, although I didn’t see a single beaver. I saw a duck family, and the beaver den, but no beaver.
I turned around and decided to go back the way I came. That moose cow seemed to be closer to the other side of the trail and heading towards it. I thought if I headed back the way I came, without following the loop, I would possibly miss and not disturb the moose family. Well you can never predict wildlife, the moose family ended up coming right by the trail! I saw a man on the trail right in front of the moose. I tried to yell to step back and run from the moose. He just stood there taking photos. He actually told me to get back. I saw the calves deeper in the woods. The cow seemed pretty uneasy with the man being so close. I backed away and watched the family from afar. I was then approached by another wild animal, a snowshoe hare! It came so close! I got a photo in before it hopped back into the woods.
The man moved a little when the cow came a little towards him. The moose then went back in the woods to her calves and then back to the trail. The family crossed the trail and was feeding on brush on the side of the trail. I waited until it got a little ways off the trail and then I went into the woods on the other side of the trail to get around the moose. I met up with the man and decided to walk back with him. I like hiking with others when I have the opportunity to! We walked back and I informed him a little on the moose and how dangerous they can be. He told me about his trip so far and wanted tips on what to do and see in Denali National Park. When we got back to the entrance of the trail, the first moose family was across the road! Moose were everywhere!!! The man stayed and photographed the family and I went back to the RV and drove back to the campsite. After all of that excitement I had some snacks and went to bed. I was doing a bus trip to Kantishna! Kantishna is mile 92.5, the furthest back you can go into the park. The road opened to it’s entirety on June 8. I was on my trip with family but I wanted to get to see the entire road as soon as I could. It was going to be a long day!
I woke up, got the dogs out, fed, watered, and taken care of. I packed up my camera bag and biked to the wilderness access center (WAC). I had to deviate from my normal trail because there was a moose right next to it! I locked up my bike and headed in to get in line for my shuttle. I talked with Brooke, who has a pretty challenging position in Denali. It is her job to help organize all of the visitors who are taking buses into Denali National Park. She works with people from all over the world, all different languages, and helps them find where they are supposed to go to get on the specific bus they have tickets for. Her job can be very challenging when people miss their bus, when people are mis-informed about the shuttle and bus services, and when there are wildlife, such as a moose, at the WAC. Today she had to try to get everyone ready to get on their bus with a moose right in front of the WAC. It is always exciting to see a moose! Moose may look a little goofy, horse-like, and harmless, but they can be very dangerous animals. She would put out signs stating, “please don’t cross” or tell people to get off the trail, that a moose was on the trail, but people seem to not listen. People would nod, yes, I understand it is a moose and continue to take cell phone photos of the moose, or cross the please don’t pass sign. She seemed pretty stressed out, but handled the situation very well! Brooke let me know where the line for my bus was going to be formed and I stood and just watched the chaos.
I got on the bus and was ready to head in for a full day of Denali! There wasn’t a whole lot of action and wildlife until we got passed Igloo Campground. We saw some Dall Sheep up on the rocky cliffs on one of the mountains. They were Sheep dots, but I love getting to see the Dall Sheep! After the Dall Sheep viewing we went a little ways up the road and saw a carcass! On the carcass was a brown bear!
The bus driver didn’t really see the carcass and bear, it had moved from the evening before. What the driver had seen was a wolf! A beautiful black wolf! The wolf was down the river a little from the carcass and was carrying a small piece of the caribou. The wolf quickly went into the brush but then re-emerged with a piece of caribou leg. As fast as the wolf came into view, it traveled up into more thick brush with its snack. Unfortunately for me the wolf took the caribou leg and never looked back at us, but what an incredible opportunity to see!
We headed down down the road towards Toklat. Again the wildlife viewing was a little nonexistent but the scenery was fabulous! We had our rest stop at Toklat and then headed up towards Eielson Visitor Center. It was on this stretch of road that we came across our next bears! It was a sow with two yearling cubs. They were taking a snooze on a hill a ways off the road. We took some photos and then went on our way to Eielson. Denali was completed covered in the clouds with no hope in sight to see it later in the day.
This was my first time this year getting to travel up the road past Eielson! It was pretty mucky with dense fog. You couldn’t see a whole lot. We made it all the way to Kantishna without another wildlife stop other than a few ducks. The ducks quickly swam away from us. Kantishna has a lot of history with the Park. It was once a mining community. One of the main occupants of the Kantishna backcountry was a lady named Fannie Quigley. She was a strong woman who not only kept herself alive out in the wilderness, but also fed and cooked for the other miners. Rumor was her shot was better than the other men in the area. I have gotten to see the last cabin she lived in and ended up dying in before. This trip was special though. There was someone who let us in the cabin so we got to see the entire inside! It was really awesome to get to see the rooms of the cabin and her small custom kitchen. After enjoying Fannie’s cabin we headed on back down the road.
The rain fell pretty consistently and the bugs were starting to get pretty fierce. We stopped at Wonderlake for about 10 minutes. I didn’t get out at this stop. After leaving Wonderlake I noticed that a part of Denali was showing! She was coming out! As we got closer and closer to Eielson she continued to show more of herself. What a day! I had no hope of seeing her. Denali never ceases to amaze me. I love seeing Denali on perfectly clear days, but there is something about Denali poking through thick clouds.
On the way back we saw the nursery herd of caribou which consists of the all females and the little calves. We also saw a long-tailed jaeger on a nest.
When we arrived back at the carcass the only animals on it were magpies. The bear was a little ways down on some snow snoozing. The bear looked exhausted. It must have been a long day gorging itself with caribou.
Day 41 started with a trip to the Denali Visitor Center. I wanted to go on a Discovery Hike and had to check to see whether there was room for the next day. Discovery Hikes are ranger led hikes. There is one ranger led hike in the east part of the park and one ranger led hike in the west part of the park each day. The locations of the hikes vary. The rangers only lead 10 people or less on the hike and do not hike the same area more than twice a year to discourage trail formation. The discovery hike is not something you can sign up for online. You must go to the Denali Visitor Center and sign up with the rangers at the front desk area a day or two in advance in person. When I signed up there was one space available on each hike. I chose the one on the East side of the park, which was planned to be near Cathedral Mountain (near the kill site). The ranger was very thorough in his explanation. He expressed the possible difficulty of the hike, the necessities that you need to bring on the hike, the length of the hike, the elevation gain of the hike, and the possibility of river crossings. I believe the rangers want to make sure you are truly in shape to complete such a hike to have the opportunity to enjoy it. I signed up and then headed back to the campsite.
At the campsite I took the dogs for a walk before heading to the WAC to catch an 11am bus out to Eielson Visitor Center. I wanted to see if there was anything left on the kill site and also to have another opportunity to enjoy Denali National Park. When I got in line, I got to talk with a friendly lady who ended up living in North Pole, Alaska, only about 10 miles from Fairbanks. The cities really run right together. She was taking her daughter to Denali National Park for her birthday. She takes her daughter to the park to ride the shuttle bus every year on her birthday. What an amazing opportunity and way of celebration. Her daughter also had a friend come with. They ended up sitting right next to me and with me at one point on the trip. It is great to meet new people and enjoy the company of others who enjoy Denali and it’s wildlife as much as I do! She is also a very talented photographer – you should check her out on Facebook: Arctic Lens Photography!
Our first wildlife was right before Sable Pass when two moose decided to run down in the valley. Lucky got us one of the moose was a bull and the other was a cow so we got to see both! The cow almost had a mane with her fur in transition. They say moose look a lot like horses and now I totally see it!
The wildlife flowers are really starting to bloom! I took a few photos of the flowers at the Polychrome photo stop.
After Toklat it was all about the bears! We saw a sow with two yearling cubs and then a sow with two spring cubs! It was my best look at the spring cubs this year! We got to see the spring cubs and sow a little closer on our way back from Eielson as well.
On Day 42, I woke up a little nervous for my hike. I am a wonderer type of walker, not a quick hiker. I like to stop and enjoy the beauty around me. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. I made it to the WAC and found out it was Dale, a very friendly bus driver I have frequently had in the past who was driving the Discovery Hike bus! It was great to see him and get to ride out with him, although we didn’t ride with him long. Due to the kill site being by the designated hike we were to take, they re-routed the hike to near Sanctuary Campground and river. I was a little disappointed but was actually okay with the change. The area around Sanctuary Campground and River had been closed off for awhile due to a close wolf den. The only opened the area a few days prior to our hike. I was pumped to get to explore this newly opened area.
Dale spotted a porcupine on our way our to Sanctuary. The porcupine ended up being the only wildlife spotted before we made it to our hiking destination. We walked to the Sanctuary campground area first to regroup, get orientated by the ranger, and to use the bathrooms. We met everyone we were hiking with, all of which were super nice and friendly. It was actually a sunny day and the bugs were starting to buzz. After everyone was introduced and we learned about the emergency equipment and supplies the ranger had brought we headed on our way. We walked back up to the road and then walked past the bridge. We hiked up the road a little before heading into the brush. The ranger wanted us to walk alongside each other versus single file in a line. This would decrease our impact we had on the wilderness. It was hard at times when there was a nice defined game trail amongst the thick brush.
We spotted lots of bright and colorful flowers along the way. One of the ladies on the hike was in charge of the fauna and flora book and would come and determine what each wild flower or plant was. During this hike I really appreciated the abundant amount of time I have had the opportunity of spending in Denali National Park. After seeing the flowers I thought of how only a few weeks ago everything was brown, and a few weeks before that all white. It has been an incredible journey getting to watch Denali change and liven up over the last few months.
We ended seeing quite a bit of bones on the trail. I first spotted a caribou rack, one that had a skull attached. We later found a smaller vertebra and then a large vertebrae and skull of a moose. We saw two sheds of moose antlers and then to top it all off, a dall sheep skull with horns attached. This seemed like quite a bit of bones for this area but then I remembered why it was closed. If a wolf den was close by, these animals could have been taken down by the wolves.
I got to meet a lot of new people and share a marshy, buggy, river splashing hike. It wasn’t too strenuous, but truly enjoyable. We hiked up a little hill and had lunch looking down over the valley. The girl I ate lunch with and probably got to know the most ended her lunch finding a spider with an egg sack attached on her leg! All I know is that she was way more patient and calm than I was! I would have flicked or smacked that spider as soon as I saw it! This probably would have been a bad idea. The ranger came and removed the spider with the egg sack all intact.
Along the hike the ranger talked about energy and how we act towards nature, specifically how the river or stream can be greatly affected by how we treat and react to the water. It was really fascinating! At the end of the hike most of us went our separate ways. A few of us decided to travel west into the park to see what was out in Denali since we were pretty much at the beginning of the park. Other people decided to head on back out of the park to the entrance. I was super glad I ended up staying and going westbound.
Over the years I have noticed a trend of seeing less animals when it is very sunny or hot out. So typically I have seen that when the mountain was out, the animals seemed to stay in. Luckily for me today was an exception to that hypothesis. We saw some Caribou “chilling” out in the snow before Polychrome Pass. After Toklat, the real show began! It started with us rounding a corner to quite a few caribou right in the road! The caribou quickly made it up a small hill but then paused to pose and snack a little for us. We went a little further up the road and saw a bunch of buses stopped. We looked around and saw a sow with two yearling cubs meandering up the road alongside the buses. We got to watch the family walk right up the road, into a little ravine, and then to a hillside. The bus was all pretty darn excited!
A little further down we saw the nursery herd of Caribou. There were too many to count and most of them were laying in the patches of snow on the hillside. After watching the caribou for a few minutes we headed on down the road where we were stopped again. This time a sow and two spring cubs were pretty close on a hillside. The sow seemed to have smelled something in the dirt and was attempting to dig it up. At one point one of the cubs got in her way and she quickly taught the little cub a lesson. The cubs watched their mom dig and dig and dig, but she ended up not getting anything. The family walked across the hillside a little only to plop down and start nursing! It was a beautiful sight. We watched the family for awhile before heading on our to way to Eielson.
The mountain was not out at Eielson, in fact I only had seen the mountain for a brief few minutes in Sable Pass. Our way out was maybe not as exciting as our way in, but we did get to see a different bear munching on grass right by the road. It was one of those special moments where the bear was super close, I had to zoom out on my lens, and it was amongst some wildflowers… the setting was perfect… the only possible negative was that it never looked up. I am glad that the bears behavior didn’t change or that she/he didn’t see agitated, but I would have loved to see the bears face! It was an incredible close and safe way to see a bear! Both sets of bear families had moved off or were sleeping a ways from the road but the caribou were back on the road!
Heading into the Igloo Canyon, the colors on the mountains were fantastic. They looked painted and surreal! The last main animal sighting on this trip was a sad one. It was of a little moose calf in a river bed. The bus driver had told us that the day before the moose calf had an injured leg. The calf could no longer stand. The mother cow moose hung around the calf the day before but the mother cow moose was now gone. The little moose calf was a sitting duck to whatever predator was out there. Some photographers had their tripods ready, anticipating the calf to be taken at any time. It is the way of life, but I still had a little hard time with it. The little calf was so helpless and alone. I knew that whatever animal was going to take it was then going to have a meal and possibly support it’s young. After the bus ride was over I took the girl I was talking to on the discovery hike back to her lodge.
The dogs were all over her and I felt bad but she was super nice about it! I had been having a headache on and off all day. While I was driving her, it was really starting to hit hard. I was able to get back to the campsite and take care of the dogs but then I had to lay down. I felt back not taking them out for a walk but I was not in good shape. I drank lots of water all day but I think the hike, the heat, and long days were getting to me. I decided to take a hot shower in the RV, which ended up helping the headache immensely. I was able to let the dogs out again, take them on a little walk, and then drive out to the little moose calf again. I sat in the RV across the road and river from the little calf. I was the only human around the little calf. I sat there for about an hour and a half, watching the little calf twitch it’s ears and look around. It actually was in a pretty good little hiding spot, but without mother’s milk and the ability to eat vegetation, it would not be long for the little calf. I stayed as long as I could but it was getting darker and I was getting very tired. I prayed for the little moose, hoping for a little miracle or for it not to suffer too long and then left the area. Right before I turned into the campsite area, another moose was in the brush near the road. I slowly passed and headed on back to get some rest! It was a long day!
The next morning I was feeling much better! I took care of the dogs and packed up! I drove into the park and saw a moose! It was munching along and there were about 12 cars and a bus piled up on the road near it. I decided to take one quick photo and let the rest of the Denali Park Visitors hash it out. I got to the spot of where I last saw the little moose and it was gone. Where once lied the little moose now were red critical wildlife closure. I was happy the moose was no longer in misery and alone. I didn’t see any other animal around in the area and there were no other cars on the road. I kept heading out towards Savage River, mile 15.
At Savage River I parked the RV and had some brunch. I got the dogs out but they aren’t allowed on the trails so I did some loops in the parking lot. We loaded back up and started heading back down the road. About 4-5 miles down the road I had the car in front of me slow down and then stop. In National Parks this is the cue that there could be wildlife around. I looked to the left and to the right and I couldn’t see it. I finally looked down and there was a porcupine scurrying down from the side of the road. I hoped out to see where it went. I realized he actually went into the culvert! I got my camera and real quietly sat on the other side of the road a little ways from the culvert. The other car ended up leaving. I sat for a few minutes and then here came this adorable porcupine!
The porcupine looked around, looked at me, and then quickly waddled a few feet. The porcupine then stopped, stood up a little and looked at me. I hadn’t moved. The porcupine must have decided I was not a threat because it then carried on it’s business, which was eating. It went plant to plant chomping away. Eventually it decided that the brush right in front of me was the best around. It approached me and ate less than 3 feet from me. It didn’t even really look at me. I became part of nature. I just sat back and listened to the ripping the leaves from branches. It was one of the coolest encounters I have ever had. It was me and the porcupine. Most of the time I wasn’t even photographing, but just watching and listening. The magic moment didn’t last long though. Two children came running up with their IPads with their parents an RVs distance and a half away from them. The running of their feet spooked the porcupine and it was out of sight. What an incredible moment while it lasted!
After the porcupine I had to leave Denali! It was sad leaving Denali this trip because I knew I wouldn’t be back for another 2.5 weeks! I had to rush off to home to do laundry and pack for trip #3! Trip #3 will be broken up into 2-3 parts as it covers over 3 weeks out in Alaska! I am a week and a half in as I am typing this in now! The trip has been an unforgettable one and I can’t wait to share sometime soon! As far as this trip to Denali is concerned, I didn’t see any new wildlife, but did get to see some closer little spring bear cubs! I got to see one of the largest groups of Caribou I have ever seen and officially went on my first discovery hike! I met so many fun people that I got to share these days with! If you have contacted me and I haven’t gotten back to you it is not because I don’t want to or am ignoring it! I am not getting great reception in some of these locations and am not having a lot of down time! I will get back to you! So to all of you getting out and enjoying summer, even if it is just for a few days on the weekend or 4th of July holiday, be safe (drink responsibly), keep clicking (photograph responsibly), and have some fun! Adventure is out there! Also – carry bear spray!