Bears, moose, wolves call Denali National Park home
While rummaging in my backpack, and stowing the snack I had just eaten for lunch, I looked up at the long, gravel stretch of braided river before me. My hiking partner, Michelle, knelt by the riverbank, pumping water through her filter. We’d been hiking for a day and a half, and were headed deeper into the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve on a nine-day trek.
Alders and willows sprouted from the high points between the current and at first, the brown mass looming in front of me looked like a fallen tree. But as I squinted in the distance, the mass grew, and it suddenly dawned on me that it was a bear. And it was coming our way.
“Michelle,” I called, trying to sound urgent, yet not panicked. “Bear.”
I’m sure I said more, but now, so many years later, the memory has been condensed into that one terrifying second in which fear shot through me and survival kicked in.
The story ends anticlimactically. Sure enough, the bear continued toward us, and by the time it was 15 feet away, Michelle had rejoined me and we had put on our packs to stand side by side and make ourselves look larger. We told the bear firmly to “go away!”
But it just kept coming.
Now, just three feet away, it stopped before us, its close-set eyes peering at us like an old man who has dropped his reading glasses and is having trouble seeing. Its head swayed side to side, as if to help it figure out just what we were.
Michelle and I did not budge. We continued to tell it to go away, and after circling us for another second – it seemed like an eternity – the bear did just that. It wandered past us down the river bar, as if on a Sunday stroll, likely completely oblivious to the fact that its curious inspection had left us rattled and endorphin weary.
This, we laughed later, is not what we meant when we both had talked about our desire to see wildlife during our trip.
Instead, we hoped for more pleasurable moments, like the morning a trio of caribou trotted past us like cows, coming from nowhere and disappearing before we could even comment. Or a few days later, as we camped along a high open ridge and watched Dall sheep clamber on the rocky cliffs so very close that we could hear their hooves clinking over the rocks on the slopes. Even the second time we saw bears – a mama and three cubs, running up a slope in the opposite direction of us – we felt lucky, so incredibly lucky, to be right where we were, right at that moment.
Denali National Park is home to nearly 40 species of mammals, 170 species of birds and 14 types of fish, making it truly the best place to see wildlife. This 6 million acre park and preserve has maintained a primitive feel since its inception in 1917, and thanks to carefully controlled backcountry use, the number of wild animals roaming the land continues to outnumber that of the visitors who come here to see them. In fact, the park – at the time a 2-million acre portion of land called Mount McKinley National Park – was created with the purpose of protecting wildlife, particularly the abundant population of Dall sheep. It was the first park of its kind to be established with such a goal.
Today, Denali National Park is home to caribou, grizzly bears, black bears and red foxes. There are snowshoe hares, pikas, wolverines, wolves and moose. And don’t forget the little animals – hoary marmots, arctic ground squirrels, shrews, mice and voles. Together, this wealth of wildlife congregate, and people the world over come to see them in their natural habitat.
However, seeing a bear so close that you can watch its pupils constrict is not the best way to view it. Instead, at Denali, visitors can take advantage of the bus system, which has been fine tuned over three decades to enhance your park experience. From this bus, I’ve watched bears wander alongside the road like it’s their own personal trail (and it is). We paused once to enjoy a moose, standing belly deep in a kettle pond and dipping its head underneath every now and then.
These buses even stop to count sheep along the hillsides – and there are times when dozens upon dozens can be spotted at once.
Over the years, McKinley Village – the restaurants, lodges and shops at the park’s entrance – has grown. It’s no longer the sleepy little outpost along the Parks Highway, rather a summertime tourist attraction that can be crowded and hectic. It’s earned the nickname “Glitter Gulch.”
Yet travel just a mile into Denali National Park, and venture off the road, and you’ll rediscover the wilderness. The wildlife here roam, the people disappear, and you have a sense that you are just a tiny part of the ecosystem, lucky to share it with the wild animals of Alaska.