Good Day to See the Big Five: Bad Day to be a Caribou

Published: June 17th 2017
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We rose early despite our tour not leaving until 8:30AM. We had to make our way up to the main entrance up the hill and we weren’t sure about catching the local shuttle to get us there. It showed up promptly and took us around the property, and eventually up the hill. We anxiously waited for Bus 10 (for tour group 10) to arrive and then we see Bus 11. Nine other tours had already departed to see the wonders of Denali! Our bus did arrive finally, some fifteen minutes late, and departed after Bus 11; but, our tour guide and driver seemed quite knowledgeable. He started by asking “Is everyone ready for a Great Day seeing the wonders of Denali!” He’d been doing this for over twenty years and said he got to go to work every day and see something new and wonderful each time. He’d come here from the lower forty-eight; but, fell in love with Alaska. First, he fell in love with the plants of Denali, captivated by a guest lecturer who had come to town and from that point on he had been hooked. And likewise, with birds. He asked if there were any birders on board, and there were two seated just behind him.

We haven’t seen any bears yet on our Alaskan Adventure; so, we hoped to see one today. Nor had we seen the grey wolf; which, we also hoped to see. We had seen a couple of moose and some caribou though. And people may not realize it; but, the whole purpose of Denali National Park was for the preservation of dahl sheep; which, we had seen on some steep cliffs. These are the “Big Five” that people hope to see when they journey into the park for wildlife sighting. Most National Parks are created to preserve certain geographic wonders, such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. In 1908 Charles Sheldon came to Denali when the only people to see these wonders were the gold miners, trappers and hunters who came to its lush valleys and powerful mountains. He had been enthralled by the dahl sheep but was concerned by the alarming rate that they were being hunted. He went to Washington and tried to lobby for the protection of this imposing creature; but, his pleas largely fell on deaf ears. In 1916 the National Park system was created; and, one year later his efforts finally were rewarded when Denali was added to the National Park System and a large area of land was set aside for the preservation of the dahl sheep that included the towering presence of Mt. McKinley. There had always been some irritation among Alaskans that the tallest peak in North America bore the name of a president who never bothered to visit Alaska. A couple of years ago the mountain was renamed to the name of the National Park: Denali. The name means “The Great One” in the local language.

At the first stop I asked our guide-driver if he could provide the name of a bird that we had encountered near Dead Horse, that Mike had said was his favorite bird; but, Sharon and I couldn’t recall its name. I described it as a small bird that will swim rapidly in circles to stir up its food. He immediately offered “That sounds like a Phalarope” and Sharon and I both recognized this as what Mike had told us. We both used the outhouses and were back on the bus within our ten-minute window. At our next stop there was a viewing overhang that allowed us to see the river and shores. Somebody spotted a grizzly bear in the distance below that appeared to be feasting on an old caribou kill. We did see the grizzly bear and snap some pictures but it was a bit away. Two busses were stopped on the bridge across the river and they had a much better and closer view. By the time we had boarded the bus and were crossing over that same bridge the other busses and the bear were nowhere to be seen. However, we did see two wolves on the other side of the bridge as they came in and out of the forest.

A short time later we crossed a small creek and the driver spotted a recent caribou kill and there was a wolf feasting on the fresh meat. The wolf was less that one hundred feet away from us; and, best of all, on our left side of the bus so we had the best view. We allowed those on the right side to squeeze in to take some pictures as well. The wolf was not bothered by our being there; although, there were a few magpies trying to squeeze in for a quick bite, but the wolf wasn’t really happy about that. There were the several red soaked ribs of the carcass and the massive caribou antlers remaining, and still some sizeable meat to allow the wolf to continue to gorge himself. We watched as the wolf tore off one massive chunk of meat and then he slunk disappearing into the brush. The wolf may have some pups to feed; or, he’s just retiring for a bit to eat later in his own leisure, and not risk a bear coming around and taking the remaining carcass for himself. He may have also been waiting for the other 2 wolves we’d seen from his pack to get their part of the catch. The drive said the caribou must have been killed over night or that morning since it wasn’t there the day before. There had been another one killed a few days ago and he said it was unusual to see them so close to the roads.

We spent considerable time watching the wolf; but, moved on once the wolf disappeared. We came upon our first chance to view Denali and it was magnificent rising above some clouds that floated in front. We took a few pictures and then continued on. Someone from the back yelled “Stop” having sited some dahl sheep on the side of a cliff. Our guide had instructed us to shout “Stop” whenever wildlife is spotted. We all had a chance to take some pictures. Shortly after this we had another “Stop”; and, this time for a moose sighting. Our driver stopped abruptly shortly after that stop because he said he had almost run over Alaska’s State Bird, the willow ptarmigan. The next Stop was for 4 or 5 caribou up on the hill but close enough to see.

Our next sighting was a mother grizzly with two cubs in a field about one hundred and fifty feet away. The cubs were playfully frolicking with each other, and roughhousing with the mother. The guide estimated that the cubs were perhaps two years old. Cubs will remain with the mother anywhere from two-and-one-half to four-and-one-half years; until, either the cub leaves on their own or the mother encourages them to leave. Their playful wanderings took them over a rise and out of view; but, possibly in view if we proceeded just a few hundred feet forward. Our guide mentioned that while these grizzly bears, away from the streams and creeks that can be teaming with salmon this time of year, are primarily vegetarians. He did say that these grizzlies will occasionally enjoy an Arctic Squirrel of opportunity. They will find a squirrel that has burrowed into the ground, and the bear will dig rapidly for a bit, and then pause, and then dig some more and wait, hoping that the squirrel will pop up; either there or out another hole. And when they do, the bear can move pretty quick. We came around the corner and spotted the bears again, and there was the mother, digging rapidly, and then pausing. The squirrel popped up and one of the cubs pounced on it, grabbing in and walking off away from the others to enjoy his catch.

Our driver next spotted a snow shoe hare, and stopped to record some video. We reached the end of our journey at the closest viewing point of Danali; but alas, the mountain was covered by clouds that had moved in completely hiding its solid white slopes. We still took some pictures from that promontory and we spotted a herd of caribou below, and took some more pictures of them as well.

On the way back we spotted another bear, but quite some distance off. Shortly later the driver stopped suddenly and said that there was a bear on the road. We pulled forward as we observed the bear enjoying the sweet grasses along the side of the road. He seemed completely oblivious to us. And why not, in this park he shares being the top of the food chain with the timber wolf.

Sharon observed that today was just about the best day ever, as good as it could possibly get. We’d scored a perfect FIVE-for-FIVE, seeing all of the major wildlife species that you can hope to find in the park. She reaffirmed, “Yep, today was just about the best day ever for seeing wildlife!” I cocked my head and looked at her and said, “It wasn’t a very good day for the caribou!”

Due to our many wildlife sighting and stops and late start, we were running quite a bit behind schedule. There were four people who had decided to catch a ride back on one of the busses going the other way to be certain that they didn’t miss a 5:30PM scheduled event. Unfortunately, they missed out on most of the wildlife sightings including the bears. We did get back around 5:15PM, which was in plenty of time for our 7:30PM dinner show. The show is a musical in which the performers first play the roles of our servers. We had brisket, salmon, mashed potatoes, biscuits, salad and an apple cobbler with whipped cream. I thought everything was pretty darn good; but, I ate much too much! Sharon ate less, the way that she picks at her food; but, I think she managed to get full too! The show was very good, featuring three men and three woman and one musician on the piano. The show featured audience participation, and two members of the audience were chosen to be part of the plays; but, mostly to be totally humiliated. So be careful about sitting towards the very front.

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