Day 10 … Denali National Park

Mount McKinley is also known as Mount Denali ... This shot is from 60 some miles away.

Mount McKinley is also known as Mount Denali … This shot is from 60 some miles away.

Sorry for the delay between posts but with work and Warbler’s I’ve not had a ton of time to edit pictures.  Migration is in full swing in South Florida and I’ve actually birded something like 6 days in a row … more on that after I finish with Alaska.

                                   Denali National Park was unbelievable! 

Our group boarded our bus at 8 am and after meeting our guide for the day … Mary Jane or MJ as she preferred we were off to the park.  MJ was/is one of the most incredible guides and I knew very early on that today’s trip was going to be a blast.  She has been guiding this same trip for 13 years … 13 years, that is incredible and she was intimately familiar with all things natural, including not just the mammals but also the birds, trees and Geology of the park.  Her banter was also very refreshing and entertaining!

Moose ... We only saw a few of these impressive animals.

Moose … We only saw a few of these impressive animals.

MJ was very funny and has an amazing eagle-eye.  She spotted many of todays sightings before anyone else on the bus.  The busses have video capability and she was excellent at getting our sightings in focus and on the screens for those who didn’t have binoculars or couldn’t find what we were seeing.

Grizzly Bear family ... I was so excited to see real live wild bears ... little did I know what was coming up!

Grizzly Bear family … I was so excited to see real live wild bears … little did I know what was coming up!

We were warned not to stand up on the bus while she was driving because she told us she would slam on the breaks when she saw something or one of yelled out stop!  Not long after seeing the Bears she was true to her word and quickly stopped for a family of Willow Ptarmigan.  I was thrilled because this was a “Lifer” for me and the views were incredible.

Willow Ptarmigan ... This is an adult and one of 5-6 juveniles.  In another month they will have all white feathers.

Willow Ptarmigan … This is an adult and one of 5-6 juveniles. In another month they will have all white feathers.

Willow Ptarmigan ... This is the state bird of Alaska.   I liked this shot because you can see the feathers growing in around the feet, an adaptaion so they don't freeze their feet off at 60 below zero!

Willow Ptarmigan … This is the state bird of Alaska. I liked this shot because you can see the feathers growing in around the feet. This is an adaptation so they don’t freeze their toes off at 60 below zero!

The park only allows private vehicle traffic on the first 15 miles of road so once past the gated checkpoint pretty much the only traffic are the busses.  The busses run about every 30 minutes and we were the 10th bus out.  The drivers inform each other about what’s been seen and a stopped bus is a sure sign they are looking at something.

From quite a distance away MJ noticed a bus pulled over and she thought she saw a Grizzly fairly close to the road.  As we pulled up we could see a huge Grizzly eating Blueberries not to far from the road.  He must have been full of eating berries because he soon took an interest in the busses.  I never in a trillion years thought I would ever come face to face with a Grizzly.   Now granted I was on the bus but he came soooooo close I could hear him panting!

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear … Looking right at me!

What an impressive specimen!

What an impressive specimen!

He eventually got bored with us and wandered back into the brush.

He eventually got bored with us and wandered back into the brush.

We stopped for a bathroom break and MJ, having found out I was a birder told me to just start walking down the road and she would pick me up when everyone else was done.  I walked for a half mile or so and was lucky enough to pick up “lifer” number 2 for the day a Gray Jay.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

On quite a few spots along the drive we were able to see Dall’s Sheep … they were very far away … very, very far!

Dall's Sheep ... They looked better through the binoculars!

Dall’s Sheep … They looked better through the binoculars!

The turn-around spot for our trip was at the Stoney Hill Overlook.  This was as close to the mountain as we were going to get and even though a few small clouds had come in the view was still incredible.

Mount Denali ... This is from about 40 miles away.

Mount Denali … This is from about 40 miles away.

We had seen 8 Grizzly’s on the way out and MJ told us her record for a single trip was 11.  She also mentioned that she had only seen the mountain 3-4 times all Summer.  She kept going on about how lucky our group was, and that after seeing the Beluga’s, Mount McKinley cloudless, the many Grizzly’s and other wildlife on the way out we were her luckiest group of the Summer.  She kept going on saying how lucky we were and then said, jokingly that she wouldn’t be surprised if the next thing we saw was a Lynx chasing a Wolverine across the road.

We were all laughing when not 2-3 minutes later she screams out Wolverine.  I’m thinking to myself WOW another lifer mammal not knowing just how rare our sighting was.  We watched it climb up the side of a valley for over 3 minutes … according to the timestamps on my pictures.

Wolverine ... One of the rarest mammals to see in the park!

Wolverine … One of the rarest mammals to see in the park!

After he had crested the hill MJ told us that in her 13 years of driving through the park day after day she had only once before seen a Wolverine and that was for only 5-10 seconds.  She said there were drivers who have driven for over 20 years who have never seen one … imagine the thrill on our bus after hearing that!

Up till now we had not seen any Caribou.  All eyes were looking intently to get the last remaining large mammal when one crossed a river bottom just as the bus was going over it.  I got one quick shot but it was really far away.  We continued out of the park and not 5 miles from the entrance we ran into 3 busses stopped due to a huge bull Caribou in the road.  He conveniently ran right towards the front of our bus allowing for a few quick closeups.

Caribou

Caribou

Sadly the trip did have to come to and end but our bus was the talk of the hotel after people started hearing that we had seen the Wolverine and so many Grizzly’s.  For the next couple days I showed my pictures to dozens of people who couldn’t believe it without seeing it!  By the way we saw 4 more Grizzly’s on the way back setting a new one day record of 12 for MJ … I guess we were the lucky group!

The Tundra Wilderness Tour is a must do if you are ever in Denali.  It was an incredible day for me and one that hopefully you could enjoy through my pictures and words!!

Thanks for stopping by and God Bless!

 

 

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About sheriffsmith

I have worked for the Broward County Sheriff's Office the last 13 years and spend most of my free time birdwatching / naturewatching and photographing the birds and nature that I encounter. I believe God has blessed us with a world that is so absolutely fascinating and wonderful and I'm doing my best to discover and show others all that he has provided us with in nature.
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4 Responses to Day 10 … Denali National Park

  1. Jet Eliot says:

    Oh wow, close-close-close-ups of a grizzly and then a wolverine too! All of your photos here are terrific. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. westerner54 says:

    A wolverine!!! That is awesome, awesome, awesome. The Willow Ptarmigan shots are fantastic, too. What a day. Thanks for letting us in on it.

  3. Sheriffsmith,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your wildlife photos and narrative from Alaska. There’s always a surprise when I come to your blog. I was impressed by the Willow Ptarmigan. A beautiful bird. Didn’t know it was the state bird of Alaska. Thanks
    Betsy

  4. grizjohnson says:

    This is really great! I think I was in Denali on the same weekend you were – if you saw any broken down bikers that might have been me ;). Great captures – amazing that you got the wolverine, what a treat! This trip was my 3rd into the park and I finally got my Denali Wolves – also a treat!

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