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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Into Denali

Wilderness is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium ~ Sigurd Olson, conservationist

Denali. The word is Athabascan for "High One" and was given to North America's tallest peak, also known as Mt. McKinley. Yet it has come to mean so much more than that. Say the word aloud. Denali. It evokes pure wilderness.

Today we traveled 66 miles into Denali National Park. Before I go further, I have to say I am extremely impressed with how this park is managed. The National Park Service is succeeding in both preserving wilderness and managing human access to experience it while sending a strong environmental and conservation message. It's really reassuring in a time of so many environmental issues to see something done so right.

As part of the plan to reduce human impacts on park wildlife vehicle access to the park is limited. While anyone can drive the first 15 miles of the only road that eventually leads deep into the park, after that vehicle access is mainly restricted to shuttle and tour buses. We rode one of the shuttle buses which pauses to see wildlife and also makes stops at set points where you are allowed to get out.

Now on to the animals! First of all, grizzly bears. Also known more popularly as brown bears in Alaska, as I had hoped we got to see our first grizzlies of the trip today in Denali. We saw two adults together, and our guide hypothesized that it was a male following a female. The picture above is of the bear that was being followed, presumably the female. The photo below is of the other bear who was lighter colored and potentially the male:

We got amazingly close looks at them and it was cool to see how little heed they paid to us. They just came out of the bushes, tromped along for a little ways, and then disappeared again without giving us so much as a glance.

From one of the largest animals of the day to one of the smallest, we also saw lots of Arctic ground squirrels. These little mammals were abundant, and as cute as they are they are also an important food source for most all of the larger animals that live in the Arctic tundra.

I was very thankful that our driver was also a bird-watcher himself and thus was also looking for birds and, even better, stopping the bus to look at birds! We got a closer look at some willow ptarmigans, a bird I saw for the first time earlier in the trip. Unlike the other ones we saw that were still partially white, the ptarmigans in Denali were already in their full brown summer plumage. Notice how the legs are feathered all the way down to the feet.

In addition to the ptarmigans, we spotted several golden eagles (year bird 197) including a great look at a juvenile perched on the hillside below us. The most exciting bird sighting of the day was a gray morph gyrfalcon (year bird 198, NA life bird 330), another bird I had really hoped to see on this trip. For those of you who aren't familiar with this bird, think peregrine falcon but much larger! This was my tenth lifer of the trip, and we are only halfway through!

Another fantastic sighting was a good look at a mother moose and her two calves. Having two offspring at a time is typical for moose, and as our driver explained, more than half of moose calves are predated upon so for the mama moose it is a good insurance policy in terms of successfully passing on her genes.

Dall's sheep were a common sighting today. We saw several groups including one nursery band of nearly 30 moms and young. This adult male was grazing just below another group of five males that were lounging on the hill above:

Another new mammal for me was the barren ground caribou. Going through the BC Rockies we spotted two woodland caribou, but these are their tundra counterparts. In BC we saw a female and a young male, so I was really hoping to see some adult males with their impressive antlers. My wish was granted as we saw two separate groups of males, including this big guy:

Another cool mammal sighting was a brief look at a hoary marmot! No photos of that one, but if you saw my post featuring yellow-bellied marmots from earlier in the trip they look similar but are blue-gray in color. We also saw a red fox carrying a lemming back to its den. I learned that if a fox is carrying its prey, it probably has kits and is carrying them back food, otherwise it will likely eat right on the spot. The only big mammal we didn't see were the wolves, which are a rare sighting though 70-80 of them are living in the park this year.

The wildlife was of course the highlight for me, but the scenery wasn't too shabby either. It was too cloudy to see Mt. McKinley today, as it is two-thirds of the time, but the painted hills of the Alaska Range were a beautiful landscape to take in all the same. Here are a couple photos to give you the feel of it:


Warren Baker said...

Another wildlife extravaganza Monika! Those scenery pics are just great, what a wilderness.

Julie said...

Great pics! I went on the same trip last year and, like you, found that place simply amazing. And I agree that the park folks are doing a fantastic job on giving people a chance to experience it while protecting such phenomenal wilderness.

Katie Jones said...

Ahhh, your pics and descriptions of Denali are making me really miss that part of the world. How I loved hiking that raw wilderness! The ruggedness of the mountains and encountering fantastic wildlife at every turn - truly unlike any other place on the planet. A SRKW update for you - K's and the L12's had a "super pod"-esque meeting on the west side yesterday. They are now headed west. J's are doing their typical loop, however, and have been around every day. Lots and lots of T's around as well. It's been an odd year, but lots of whale sightings so all is well :) Miss you!!