Still Wild – the Roadside View of Denali

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You could travel the wildest reaches of Alaska for a lifetime and not witness a scene like this—a pack of wolves feeding on a caribou kill on the edge of a rushing river. From the crest of a tundra bluff, I watched the gray alpha male tug at a hindquarter as others waited their turns.

Then a female grizzly with two cubs arrived and drove the pack off. As she and one cub fed, the other hammed it up, standing on hind legs, rolling his eyes, gnawing on an antler. I sat transfixed behind my camera tripod, glued to the eyepiece, squeezing off shot after shot.

It was easy to imagine that I sat alone somewhere up some far arctic valley, hundreds of miles from the nearest road. But to my right and left, crowds gathered—several busloads of people jammed against he windows, plus a half dozen professional photographers and the 10 members of the wilderness writing workshop from our van.

Relatively speaking, we all were in the heart of wilderness: Denali National Park—the centerpiece of Alaska’s sprawling federal parklands—along with its adjoining preserve, totaling more than six million acres. But unlike most national parks and other designated wild lands in Alaska, Denali’s interior is linked by direct road access, 92 miles deep into the park. Only the first 15 miles, ending at the Savage River, are open to general traffic by private vehicles. Though of course you can apply for backcountry permits or use the buses as transportation for day hikes, the vast majority of Denali visitors—425,000 plus per year—glimpse the park from bus windows and never set foot off the narrow road corridor.

Like most Alaskans who’ve lived in the remote bush, I never gave Denali much thought as a destination. Wild as I had it, why bother spending time near one of the Great Land’s chokepoints for human traffic? I got my answer playing tour guide when my parents came to visit 25 years ago. While they planned to visit my home country in the upper Kobuk, of course they wanted to see the marquee, more accessible Alaska attractions as well. So one July morning, we hopped on a shuttle bus at the park entrance and rattled down the park road on a 130-mile loop, to the Eielson Visitor Center and back.

“Sing out if you see something,” the driver told us. Ten miles in, we passed a cow moose browsing on a willowy slope, and later on, spied a couple of bull caribou. Here and there at the edge of the road, ground squirrels scurried and ptarmigan pecked. A lone grizzly foraged on a far hillside; farther on, we spied bands of sheep scurrying up cliffs. Never mind that the Denali massif was shrouded in clouds, or that on the return loop we saw no big animals, though we did add on a fox and a hoary marmot to our list. The mountain- framed tundra valleys we traveled sprawled away, huge, wild and gorgeous. And, as I reminded my parents, we could have traveled three days in the Brooks Range and seen less.

Several years later, I passed through Denali with my wife, Sherrie. The first day we rode the bus together, and the country, drizzly and gray, seemed empty. But that can happen anywhere. The next day, Sherrie rode the bus without me and saw all kinds of stuff, including a pair of grizzly cubs roughhousing a few feet away.

My next time, I started off with a solo hike, beginning from the Savage River parking lot and ending up with a band of big Dall sheep rams, 1,500 feet above the valley floor. The next day, I stumbled upon that wolf encounter—still one of my all-time personal highlights. I capped off a stellar Denali visit with my buddy Tom Walker and a great photo shoot with a rutting bull moose and his harem.

No accident that Denali National Park rules as one of the great wildlife meccas of Alaska and the world.