Denali Dispatch

It is our pleasure to present Denali Dispatch, a journal of the goings-on at Camp Denali.

 

Written by members of our staff, Denali Dispatch is an opportunity to peek into life in Denali: notable events, wildlife sightings, conservation topics, recipes from our kitchen, and insights into the guest experience at Camp Denali. Denali Dispatch will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.



All We Wanted was to See Wildlife

January 02, 2024

by Benjamin Alva Polley

“Do you think maybe we could head down the road to see more of the landscape?” asks my wife to nobody in particular in our group. My wife is not a birder, but Caitlin, the naturalist guide, and the two other people are birders. We spent over an hour watching loons, Greater White-fronted Geese, scaups, and some swans.

On our first full day at Camp Denali, my wife and I chose to do the mellower Naturalist Foray excursion, which included short walks, birding, botanizing, and looking for wildlife along a 23-mile stretch of the Denali Park Road. The opportunity to view wildlife unencumbered by traffic, noise, and dust is optimal right now with a multi-year road closure due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide at the road’s midpoint.  The fact that the road was closed to most tourist traffic was monumental regarding wildlife. Animals still veered away from the road, but not like during the middle of the visitor season. We were tired and chose the foray instead of a more significant hike. We just spent the last eight days pack rafting solo in the Brooks Range on a remote river, where we didn’t see much wildlife or a single person. We saw tons of fresh tracks from caribou, grizzlies, moose, wolverine, and wolves, but we only saw one cow moose and two separate caribou. We hoped Denali might offer up more sightings.

Acquiescing to my wife, Caitlin drives the Sprinter van a few miles down the road and stops above the vast glacier-fed, multi-braided Thorofare River Valley. Two sleek,  milk-chocolate-brown caribou carouse a mile out, then canter and clop over ashen   and tawny stones and fine gravels before disappearing like ghosts from view. We felt relief to see larger mammals within a few minutes of heading down the road.

Caitlin drives on. Until our fellow guest George Bumann, a writer and artist who is this session’s guest speaker at Camp Denali, says, “Can you stop the van?” Bumann glues his binos to his brow as he directs his gaze near a draw. We all pull up our binos to glass where he’s looking.

“I think I see some wooden stumps, but they seem out of place,” he says. There are no large trees where he has us looking. Then he exclaims, “Oh, I think I see moose paddles!” It’s fitting; just moments before, Caitlin told us this area was called Upper Moose Creek.

We climb out of the van. We jaunt twenty yards higher above a slight rise of dry, spongey tundra that feels like walking on top of furry basketballs. Caitlin sets up the tripod of a spotting scope. We all gather around. Four bull moose sit out of sight, the only sign of their presence a line of five-foot-wide paddles rising above dwarf birch and willow shrubs, grasses, and sedges. Moose antlers are one of the fastest-growing tissues of mammals on the planet and can grow an inch per day. The hickory and umber velvet-lined paddles resemble thick, broken-branched stumps rising next to  the edge of a willow-lined creek. All four bulls’ bodies are hidden from view as they sit, chewing their cud and relaxing. In another month, this same bachelor group will put aside their bromance and challenge each other in the fall mating ritual to see who will come out as the top patriarch to pass their genes to the next generation.

After twenty minutes of moose watching, we decide to see what other wonders we might be graced with. Not long after we start driving again, I say, “Hey, I think I see something. Can you stop?” A few hundred yards out, through my binoculars, I see the unmistakable hump of grizzly grazing on a swath of late-summer blueberries. We clamor out of the van again and take turns looking through the scope. A vast expanse lies in front of us, with waves of tundra rising and falling into green and brown ridges becoming foothills, and the snow-crested Alaska Range towers above, with glimpses between clouds of the “Great One,” Denali, lording above. Soon, someone else spots a smaller grizzly close to this one. This ursine is lighter in color. We watch the pair as they eat and weave over the landscape.

Further out in our viewshed, we spot another two grizzlies ambling in different directions over the tussocky ridge with erratic boulders and a few short, interspersed spruce. We all confirm the ursine sighting. Ten minutes later, we see yet another and then another. We can’t believe it. This place is crawling with grizzlies.

Driving further down the gravel road, we pass big, sunbaked, charred-plum-colored piles  of bear and dusty hairy wolf scat. Someone on the van yells, “You won’t believe  it. I think I see another grizzly bear.” We climb back out: it's a sow with cubs, the three of them also mawing on blueberries. Early August is prime time for blueberries.

On our way to Eielson Visitor Center, 23 miles from Camp Denali, we spot nine grizzlies, all through binos, before lunch. We pull into the Visitor Center parking lot as a rotund hoary marmot scurries off to hide under a large blue shipping container. Caitlin unloads bicycles from the van’s rack so we can cycle the winding and rolling road back to Camp for a new way to see the landscape. George and his wife decide to get a head start and begin biking. We ride further down the road with Caitlin to see a bit more. Upon our return to the visitor center, she left us to drive back.

Ten minutes later, the bears we saw this morning are now well below the road. We notice the sow tuning into something in her viewshed when a bull caribou unknowingly heads up the draw toward the bear family. The bull stops mid-stride before approaching too close and returns downhill. We stop one more time to watch three different bears. We are astonished by how many we saw. That day, I broke a personal record, sighting no less than 15 different grizzlies.

Wildlife viewing in Denali is about as good as it gets, but having Camp Denali dine, house, and guide you, showing you the sights and sounds, takes it to another level. The staff and food are world-class. I am still dumbfounded by it all. We spent a week in the remote Brooks Range in northern Alaska and hardly saw any wildlife, but here in this national park, there were wildlife opportunities around every bend. The key was to stop long enough and allow yourself to look for anything out of the ordinary in this extraordinary landscape.

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Benjamin Alva Polley is a freelance writer living in Montana. His stories have been published in Audubon, Earth Island Journal, Esquire, Field & Stream, Outside, Popular Science, Sierra, and here on his website.

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