|Denali National Park
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
I have spent fourteen summers in Alaska and it's one of the greatest spots in the world for wildlife photography. Thirteen of those summers included spending months in and around Denali National Park. My first trip there was in 1966 and, because of the difficulty of driving to the park, there were few visitors. We had unlimited access and spent several months in the park itself. The completion of the road between Anchorage and Fairbanks brought so many thousands of people to the park that restrictions on access had to be put on in the early 1970s and they have become increasingly restrictive ever since.
It is unfortunate that most photographers will never have the chance to drive their cars all the way through Denali National Park, but you will readily acknowledge that an increase in road traffic is just not possible when you see the narrow, twisting dirt road and the 700' - 800' almost sheer drop-off when you go up over Polychrome Pass. Only the first fifteen miles of the park road is paved and this is open to the general public at all times when the road is not blocked with snow. To drive beyond the Savage River checkpoint you must have a professional photographer's permit, which is increasingly difficult to get as the number of permits and the number of days allotted have been greatly reduced. Without that permit, the only access to the park is by paying to ride one of the private buses contracted to transport visitors through the public park for a fee. As onerous as that situation is, Denali has much to offer.
Denali National Park is still the best place that I know of to photograph grizzly bears. I know that, scientifically, the grizzly bear and the big brown bear are now grouped together as a single genus. However, anyone working with the two subspecies will quickly note the difference in size and temperament. Basically, I still refer to the coastal bears as brown bears and the smaller mountain bears as grizzlies.
I have seen as many as nineteen different grizzlies on a single trip through the park. Not all of the bears were within photographic range. The park is so huge, and most of it is a treeless tundra, so the bears could be seen, but were often just mere specks on the horizon. One thing that favors the photographer is that sows with newborn cubs tend to stay close to the road where the proximity of people prevents the more wary, big males from feeding. It is a well-known fact that the big males will frequently kill young bears as females that are not nursing will come into estrus again and can be bred.
It is to the park's credit that bear-human mishaps have been kept to a bare minimum. The park does everything possible to make sure the bears do not associate humans with, or as, food; the bears have never become beggars as they have in other parks. In all the time I've hiked way back off the road for photography, I have never had an encounter with a bear in Denali. I have seen bears but, by giving them a wide berth, I have avoided a confrontation. When I am hiking away from the road, I always wear bear bells on my pack to let the bears know I am coming. I don't ever want to surprise a bear. When working in bear country, I always carry "Counter Assault", a can of red pepper spray that is a proven deterrent to even aggressive bears. I, personally, know three people who have stopped charging grizzlies with "Counter Assault". My advice to everyone is to use extreme caution when working with any bears so that you don't have to use your "Counter Assault".
The moose is the largest member of the deer family and the Alaskan-Yukon is the largest of the four subspecies found here in North America. A big bull, and they are big, will stand seven feet high at the shoulder, weight up to 1600 pounds and have antlers over six feet across from tip to tip. The cows stand about six feet high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 800 pounds. Almost everyone knows that, during the rutting season, the bulls can be extremely truculent and may attack. I would rate an irate cow moose, defending her young, as an even greater threat.
For seventeen summers I guided canoe trips into the wilderness area around the headwaters of the Ottawa River in Quebec. I once saw seventeen moose in one day. The habits of the Eastern moose and the Alaskan moose are entirely different. The Eastern moose are more solitary and pair up just for the breeding season. They are found in the lowlands where they frequent the lakes and search for food. The Alaskan moose also feed in ponds and lakes but, at times, I have found them higher in the mountains than the Dall's sheep. They do so to keep the grizzlies from attacking their calves. In the rutting season, the dominant bull will gather together a harem of six to eight cows and defend them from the advances of lesser bulls that hang around the periphery of the harem.
Fortunately for photographers, the moose are usually accessible to everyone in Denali. There are almost always some cows and calves in the woodland around the visitor's center. The cows know that the wolves and bears will not be there because of the large number of people. Moose can also usually be found feeding in Horseshoe Lake, a half mile walk from the visitor's center.
You will need to take the bus to get to the big bulls in the summer, as they frequent the western end of Sable Pass. They can be found feeding in the lakes around milepost 87, the area between 87 and Wonder Lake and in the pond before the Wonder Lake ranger station.
During September and on through the middle of October, the moose concentrate on their traditional breeding area between milepost 7 and the Savage River campground. This road can be driven by anyone, any time.
The caribou herd in Denali National Park has declined dramatically. In 1926, the herd numbered close to a million animals. In the 1940s herds of up to 8,000 animals could be seen. In 1966, the largest group I ever saw numbered about 400 animals. Today, if you see 100 animals in one group it is exceptional. What caused the decline? It is believed that the herd split up in the 1930s and many did not migrate through the park. Prior to the use of snowmobiles, most hunters could only get a shot at a caribou when they crossed a road. With snowmobiles, hunters can go back into the wilderness for miles to take caribou. Outside the park, both hunters and snowmobiles have increased dramatically and the herd has decreased drastically.
Both wolves and bears are common in Denali National Park. It has been proven that predators take a tremendous toll on all forms of wildlife. In 2001, the biologists in the park told me that they estimated there were about 1700 caribou in the park. Their research showed that predators had killed seventy percent of the calves born that spring before the calves reached two months of age.
Forget the notion that wolves take only the calves, the infirm and the old animals. When the opportunity presents itself, wolves are perfectly capable of taking down healthy, mature animals and I've seen them do it on a number of occasions. Denali is one of the best places to photograph wolves. Unfortunately, many of them are collared.
The Dall's sheep population is holding steady at a little over 2,000 animals. They can readily be found on Primrose Ridge above the Savage River check station. Ewes and lambs frequent both Igloo and Cathedral Mountains, both easily accessible from the road.
The mountain range west of Polychrome Pass, all the way to the Tok River is excellent sheep range on both sides of the river, as is Divide Mountain. You can usually spot the sheep, and should be sure to, before you attempt to climb up to them. It's hard work, but well worth the effort.
Unfortunately, because of health problems, I can no longer climb up after the sheep. I just thank God for all the magical days I have spent up on the ridges with them.
Red fox are very common in the park and they usually den in the Stony Creek and Eielson Visitor Center Area. You are not allowed to approach a den, but the foxes frequent the roads and, at Eielson, they often walk right in among the visitors as they try to capture the Arctic ground squirrels that are very numerous there. Overall, the Arctic ground squirrels probably provide more tons of meat for all the predators in the park than do any other species. It's a good thing they are there by the untold thousands.
Hoary marmots can be photographed on the rocky peak just above the Savage River parking lot. Pika can usually be found there, too. Both willow ptarmigan and mew gulls can be photographed in the parking lot area.
Lynx are being increasingly seen in the Igloo Canyon area and, occasionally, a wolverine is also sighted there.
One of my favorite animals to photograph is the beaver and I have spent countless hours doing just that at the colonies on Horseshoe Lake and those in Grass Valley. In 2001, there were 28 active beaver colonies from Grass Valley to the Wonder Lake area. The advantage to photographing beaver in Alaska is that it doesn't really get dark at night in the summer so you have ample light to work with.
It is exactly a 5,000 mile drive, one way, from my home in northwestern New Jersey to Denali, via Fairbanks. Each time I get home I say never again, but I don't really mean it. Denali National Park just keeps calling me back.