Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Denali - Checkpoint Drama & Wilderness Backpacking

Backpacking in Denali is special. The front country of the park has a few maintained trails, but once you go beyond milepost 15, you backpack trail less into a true wilderness area. After spending several busy days in the visitor center and at the checkpoint due to holiday weekend visitation, I was ready to escape into the wilds of Denali.

Before I left, we had one of the more dynamic wildlife situations at the Savage checkpoint work station. A moose cow with two recently born calves had a standoff with a grizzly bear about 300 yards northeast from the checkpoint. The dramatic scene began on the hiking trail (to the lower left of the top image) at around 9:00 PM. The cow did a magnificent job protecting her calves. As the bear approached she made several aggressive full out running charges at the bear, one time chasing the bear into to the Savage River. The bear was persistent and continued to attempt to remove the calves from the cow by approaching from several different angles. This went on for 30-40 minutes. Park visitors certainly accumulated and without the help of another ranger (my friend Dave who I met in MT. for the ALCAN trip north to AK) would have unmanageable. Next, the moose/calves retreated into the parking lot (as seen in the second image, bear following in third). Another 10-15 minute standoff and the moose decided to retreat taking the calves back down the river. At this point the bear decided he was going to head across the bridge towards us (me and 20+ visitors) to approach the moose/calves I’m guessing to approach from a different angle. Needless to say, I was asking the visitors not to run, but to please quickly exit into the checkpoint cabin and available van and bus. All went well and the bear decided to go back and follow cow/calves down the river. The bear lost ground by coming across the bridge and the cow now had a several hundred yard distance ahead of the bear when last seen (10:40 PM). The 4th image is the cow heading south on the Savage with the calves. Apologize for the poor quality of the photos, but due the challenging light and no tripod, had to shoot at 800 ISO.

So, I decided to backpack to the top of Mount Wright. A herd of Dall Sheep frequents the flat top of the mountain and I was hoping to photograph some lambs. An all day hike to the top and searching all the ridges and valley no sheep were found. I set up camp on top of the mountain to hopefully see Denali at sunrise. A severe thunderstorm hit the mountain that evening and I was glad my MSR tent withheld the strong winds (guessing 30-50 mph gusts). The storm passed relatively quickly and the temperature dropped nicely. I awoke around 4:00 AM to catch the sunrise on the range. The top photo provides you an idea of what an outstanding a view I had. The image is a photo merge of 6 photos. The immensity of this landscape cannot be captured in one image. Denali was slightly obscured due to some clouds. Its hard to describe in words, but for those who have experienced this do understand, that when gazing upon a vast scene like this in solitude, it grabs one’s soul and emotionally connects you with this land.

During the trip into the park I was able to see a number of species. The Wolf and the Rock Ptarmigan (still mostly in winter plumage) were my favs.

Picking up a shuttle bus out on my way back to the cabin we saw 11 bears. Several of the sightings were of a sow with cubs. All sightings were distant, the bears were foraging (heads down), thus were not conducive for quality images.

The Camera Gear Lackey arrives on Saturday and we are flying into Nome. The town is known for the end of the famous Iditarod and birding. We also hope to see and photograph the rare Musk Ox.

Blue Skies.


Ron Niebrugge said...

Wow, wow, wow!

Brad Myers said...

What an exciting time. There seems to never be a dull moment in Alaska. Enjoy your summer, I will be watching for more great stories.

Liz Warner said...

omg, the photos! their lovely

Zack said...

Great blog post! Thanks for taking the time to write that up and share with us in the lower 48! Keep the reports coming and we look forward to seeing some great Musk Ox images soon.

Elaine said...

Lovely photos! The bear/moose encounter couldn't have been fun to see. I hope mama moose was able to get her babies to safety. Unfortunately the moose calf survival rate in Alaska is low, and only about 25 percent survive the first year, with the first six weeks the most dangerous time. Most are killed by bear and wolves, and it is all part of the natural order of things. However, that is not something I want to witness.

I hope you manage to see some musk oxen while you are in Nome. Have fun!

Philip said...

WOW! what a view then all of alaska is :)