September 26, 2016

Denali Road Lottery 2016 – Moose Love

Filed under: Events,Interesting Things,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 4:00 pm

I was lucky to win a Denali Road Lottery pass this year, and was awarded Monday, Sept 19th as my day to drive in. After receiving confirmation of the win, we booked a campsite at Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance. We decided to spend two nights, so that we could have a leisurely day in the park. I invited my friend Joyce to go along with us on the drive, and she met us at the park Sunday afternoon and also camped for several days in her Winnebago. (You may remember Joyce’s vintage Winnebago from our week-long camping trip to Denali at the end of June)

SUNDAY – A BEAUTIFUL DAY FOR A DRIVE

Steve and I loaded the camper on Saturday, and were ready to go before 10am on Sunday morning. We woke to overcast skies, and a weather report that called for snow flurries in the park, with a possibility of rain. Fortunately, the forecast looked great for Monday’s drive.

Fall colors are long gone in most of Fairbanks and North Pole, but as you head south on the Parks Hwy, there are pockets of brilliant foliage still glowing in the sunshine. And closer to Nenana (60 miles south), it looks like autumn has just arrived with gold and yellow-leafed aspens and birch thick on the hills.

Closer to the park, spruce trees are more plentiful, and the ground cover was already brown. It sprinkled rain, and the clouds were dark and brooding at times. But the reduced light, and the wet roads made for a beautiful view. I love going to the mountains! The photos below were taken along the Parks Hwy between North Pole and Denali National Park.

Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park
Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park Nenana River Bridge, Parks Highway

This is one of the Alaska Railroad trestles along the Parks Hwy, on the way to Denali. I’ve never taken the train from Fairbanks to Denali, but have heard it’s a wonderful ride.
Alaska Train Trestle Bridge, Parks Hwy

AFTERNOON and EVENING DRIVES INTO THE PARK

Me and Steve: We were checked in and set up at Riley Creek Campground a little before 1pm.  We ate a quick lunch, and then took a drive into the park to mile 15. There were still pockets of yellow dotting the hillside, as well as along the road in places. And although most of the willow and birch brush was already brown, now and then there’d be an area where the leaves were more of a burnt umber. Under a grey sky, these brighter patches glowed in the diffused light.

Denali National Park Scenery Denali National Park Scenery Denali National Park Scenery

Within the first 15 miles of the park road, there is a several-mile stretch closed to hikers and other off-road activities. All visitors must stay on the road. This particular area gets quite a bit of activity during the moose rut. More often than not, September is the perfect time to view not only cow moose and calves, but also bulls. If you’re fortunate, you get to see this rutting behavior right before your eyes. Bulls spar for dominance, cows rebuff multiple bulls’ advances, and bulls dig holes and urinate in them to make puddles for wallowing. (The scent of a bull moose’s urine is thought to trigger estrus in cows)

Somewhere around mile 11, a line of cars was pulled off the road and people were using camera lenses and binoculars to zoom in on three moose far up the hill. Two bulls (one was much younger, as evident by the size of his antlers) were quite interested in a cow moose. They followed her for a short distance across the hill. When she stopped to browse the bushes, the large bull chased off the younger one. While he didn’t run away totally, he remained about 100 yards from the pair.

And then the big bull jumped up on the cow and…

I’ve never seen moose mate. I didn’t know whether to feel lucky for the experience, or look away! (As a photographer, and a very interested bystander, of course I couldn’t look away! And… yes, I had to snap a photo too.)

WARNING: The center photo below is of mating moose: 

Moose Pair and Young Bull Moose rut Courting Bull Moose

On the way back to the campground, the colors were even more beautiful in the later afternoon light:

Denali Landscape Denali Landscape Denali Landscape

Me and Joyce: After Joyce arrived and had her campsite set up (she was only a few spots away from us), she and I drove back into the park to mile 15. I excitedly told her about the rutting moose, and being privy to their mating, and I hoped that they were still hanging out in the same area.

But the first moose we came upon were only a few miles inside the park. A pair of cow moose were just off the side of the road. I had to snap this photo of the tourists – especially the people you can’t see, who came out of the car parked on the right of the photo. Those people were standing outside their car (kids too!), photographing these huge animals. Not exactly what I would call a safe distance! (I took this photo from my truck, using a zoom lens) Crazy Tourons!* (*A blending of the words Tourist & Moron, used by some to describe people who think Alaska is Disney and wildlife is there for their entertainment.)

Onlookers are too close to moose!

The amorous moose were still in the same area where Steve and I saw them a few hours earlier. They weren’t as far up the hill either, which was good. I only saw the two of them initially, and then another bystander pointed out the second bull on the other side of the road, walking off alone. (Photo below)

You can see how much smaller his antlers are than the big bull who won the favor of the cow.  Did you know that when antlers are growing, they grow 1/2 inch every day?! It’s amazing that moose drop their antlers every year, and still grow an even bigger set each year, as they mature.  He may not have won the attention of the cow moose, but he sure is a handsome fellow!
Younger Bull Moose walks off
The big bull and cow moved closer to the road. He’d walk a dozen yards and she’d follow. Or she’d walk away and he’d follow. I read that when moose are mating, they will hang out together for about a week. Then the cow will no longer need him (not in estrus any longer), and he will go on to find another mate. Bulls can have many mates over the course of the rut.

Another behavior we witnessed was the digging of shallow depressions/holes and excessive urination of the bulls. During the rut or mating season (mid-September to late October), bull moose roll in a muddy, urine-scented wallow. Cows will also roll in it. Bulls thrash brush and bark with their antlers, marking their territory.

While Joyce and I didn’t get to see them mate, it was quite interesting to watch their courtship behavior – which included a lot of moose pee, rubbing against one another, and sniffing the air and each other. No doubt about it though – these two were absolutely stunning in their beauty and apparent good health. What beautiful moose babies they will make!

Moose Courtship Moose Courtship and Mountains Bull Moose
Bull Moose wallowing in his urine Park Road Moose Rut Observers The cow moose investigates his puddle
Urinating Bull Moose The cow moose goes under the bull... in the urine stream? Moose Mating Rituals
Moose cow rolls in bull's puddle Big Bull Moose Bull Moose Resting
Cow Moose stays with Bull Bull Moose Cow Moose

He was such a big, handsome bull!

Bull Moose

Bull Moose

Then, as we made our way back to the campground, we watched another impressive bull moose come up from the river bed and cross the road in front of us. How lucky were we?! And it wasn’t even lottery day.
Bull Moose

We returned to the campground, picked up Steve, and drove to Prospector Pizza in Glitter Gulch (the touristy stretch of highway just outside of the park) for dinner. We arrived at the restaurant a little after 6pm, and there was already a line in the lobby, with a 30-minute wait. So we perused their menu while we waited. Or rather we perused what was left of their menu, as most all items had black sharpie marker drawn through them. We learned that it was their last night of the season, and they hoped to sell out of everything.

As this is a pizza joint first and foremost (with many specialty pies, and a large menu of “build your own” ingredients), it was a little disappointing to see that the majority of the pizza menu was not available. In a real twist of fate, they actually had a Vegetarian Pizza available – which made Joyce quite happy. I settled for cheesy bread, after learning their loaded french fries would not include the promised bacon.  With the extremely limited menu, and absence of many ingredients, it would have been nice if they would have offered a discount.  Why should anyone pay full price for an entree that was missing several key ingredients? With that being said – the meal hit the spot, our waiter was as attentive and cordial as he could be under the circumstances (the wait staff was being run ragged!), and we were served much more quickly than anticipated – especially after our long wait to be seated (40 minutes).

Feeling full and fat, we returned to the campground, hung out for a little while in our camper, checked the sky and the aurora forecast, and decided to turn in for the evening. The plan was to be on the park road by 10am. No early rising for us… we wanted to wait for the bulk of the road lottery people to already be in the park.  And, honestly, sleeping past dawn was appealing to all of us. (When you have a road lottery pass, they open the gate at Savage River – mile 15 – at 6am, and you must be back to the gate by midnight. There is usually an influx of vehicles that like to go through as soon as the gate opens. We preferred a leisurely morning.)

MONDAY – ROAD LOTTERY DAY

I was up earlier than planned, and made myself busy percolating the coffee. Because we didn’t have electricity at our site, we couldn’t bring the coffee pot with us. And coffee is a MUST! But since our camper had propane, we were able to have heat and also turn on the oven/range.  I bought a campfire coffeepot several years ago, before going off on a Girls’ Camping Trip. We used it during the camping trip with Joyce this summer – preferring it over her smaller version, since there was two of us. Steve and I usually split a 12-cup pot between us each morning.

We packed our lunches, snacks, and beverages, and I wiped down my lenses and repacked my camera bag. I didn’t expect to use any lens but my 100-400mm, but didn’t want to find myself in a position where I wished for the rest of my gear.  Because there are times when I can be fairly lazy, I have used my 100-400mm exclusively on many trips into the park. When I want to capture an entire scene, I shoot overlapping frames and merge them in Photoshop. (I notate that these images are panos or composites) All photos made that day were through my 100-400mm lens.

Clouds blanketed the sky, but there was blue peeking through. When the sun came out, it was bright enough for sunglasses. The sunlight played on the remaining fall colors and enhanced their colors.

We were on the park road by 10am, as planned. We only had one car ahead of us when we reached the gate. I assumed that the bulk of lottery winners were already in the park.  It turns out there just wasn’t the kind of traffic I’ve experienced in years past.  Quite the contrary; this years drive was so peaceful! So relaxing! The only time we came upon other park-goers was at the rest stops and when wildlife was spotted.

I’m going to share my lottery photos in groups. In this first group, you’ll find the landscape and scenery photos. The way the landscape changed as we went further into the park was amazing and beautiful. When we started out, there was a dusting of snow in the highest elevations of the surrounding mountains (termination dust), and most of the ground cover was already winter brown. As we climbed in elevation, we still found pockets of yellow and burnt umber, but snow also dusted the landscape, allowing only small snippets of brown and green to show through in places.

We only drove into the park as far as Eielson Visitor Center, as Joyce and I both agreed that since we had already been all the way into the park (and have our photo with the end of the road sign), it wasn’t necessary to drive all the way in again. It has been my experience that almost all major wildlife sightings have occurred along the park road before and near Eielson Visitor Center (mp 66).  Best of all, when the mountain is out, you get a beautiful view of her from there.

Scenery/Landscape Photos:

Fall colors in Denali Park Denali Park Kettle Pond in Denali Park
Fall Foliage in Denali Park Denali Park Denali Park
Denali Park Denali Park Denali Park
Denali Park Toklat River, Denali Park Denali Park
Park Road and Mt Denali on left side, Denali Park View from Eielson Visitor Center, Denali Park Denali Park

One of the best things of the day, is that the Mountain was out!!! What a treat to see Mt Denali in all her glory!

Mt Denali, Denali National Park

The American Flag flies at Eielson Visitor Center, with Mt Denali in the background

American Flag flies with Mt Denali in the backdrop, Denali National Park

We saw our first glimpse of wildlife at mile 30 – Teklanika rest stop. Perched in a spruce tree overlooking the parking lot, was a gorgeous Northern Hawk Owl! I do believe this is my first sighting of this type of owl. His eyes were piercing yellow and glowed in the sunlight. He was beautiful against the deep blue sky. Many of us were able to take photographs before he flew to a distant tree, and then finally away.

We also saw a couple of grizzly bears – one much closer than we anticipated. We were driving out of the park, and came upon a traffic jam east of Polychrome. This area also had steep cliffs, with a long drop down to  the river bed, and a steep climb up the side of a mountain. On the mountainside, was a grizzly bear. S/he was close to the road, only a few yards above the vehicles. We slowly moved forward with traffic. Each vehicle lingered a few seconds to snap photos as they passed beneath the bear. And then we were under it. And it started moving down the hill towards us!

Joyce was on that side of the truck, using a zoom lens to photograph the bear. I’m sure he looked VERY close to her from her vantage point. I was able to lean out the passenger side and snap a photo over the top of the truck. I do believe Joyce said it was one of the more frightening experiences she has ever had in her life. (But she captured some great shots!) Here is the one clear photograph I managed to capture as we drove by:

Grizzly Bear, Denali National Park

I saw a fox napping near Polychrome. He was laying against some rocks, and out of sight. I saw several other people with their cameras and quietly walked over to them. That’s when he came into view. He lay still for a few minutes, and then stood up, gave a big yawn, and ran off over the hill.  He was so beautiful!

We saw Dall sheep high in the mountains. For the most part, they were mere “white dots on a hill”. Even a zoom lens couldn’t bring them close enough for clear details.  The arctic ground squirrels scurried along the hillsides, but not in the great numbers I saw this summer. And when we reached the front end of the park, we came upon a bull moose in a dry wash. His attention was on two cows standing just inside the trees ringing the open area.

Northern Hawk Owl Grizzly Bear in the riverbed Red Fox
Red Fox Red Fox Yawning Red Fox
Sheep - tiny white dots - on a mountainside Arctic Ground Squirrel Bull moose meets two cow moose

I am so happy that I won a lottery pass this year, and that Steve was able to go with me. Now that he’s retired, it’s been nice to have him along for some of the local events, activities, and roadtrips. It was fun to have Joyce along for the drive. I know she enjoyed herself, and I have a feeling she’ll apply for the next one.

We hung out at the camper later that evening, watching the aurora forecast, and preparing our cameras just in case. Despite a KP level of 5, the other important conditions weren’t being met. Joyce is much better at interpreting the aurora forecast than I am, and let me know that our chances of seeing the lights was low. With the wind picking up, neither of us was happy about standing in the chilly night air anyway.

DRIVE BACK TO FAIRBANKS

We had to check out by 11am, and pretty much made it on the dot. Joyce left earlier than us, and planned to drive into the park to mile 15 to look for moose and other wildlife. I later found out that she had a problem with her camper and decided to go straight home instead. We were about 30 miles behind her.

The foliage and scenery was just as beautiful going in the reverse direction. In the first photo, you can see rock climbers just north of the park entrance, working on the landslide area. They have been blasting and chipping away at loose rocks all summer. The third photo is of the Nenana Rail Depot. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was built in 1922.

Workman just north of Denali Park. Taking care of falling rocks, etc. Parks Highway Scenery Nenana Train Depot Museum and Fall Foliage

Beautiful fall foliage:

Parks Highway Colors near Nenana

Parks Highway Colors near Nenana

*****…*****……….*****…..*****…..*****……….*****…*****

A WORD ABOUT MY ANNUAL ALASKA CALENDAR

I have been receiving emails and inquiries in regard to my annual calendar. At this time, I am sad to say, I am not sure that I will be putting a calendar out. Over the last few years, the cost of shipping and handling (shipping supplies, printer ink, paper, postage) has increased regularly. Last year, the USPS not only increased the cost of postage, but also eliminated the online discount when using Click and Ship to print postage.

I looked into a way that I could still offer a calendar, but not be involved with the added expense of shipping and handling. If I can find an acceptable means of doing this, at a reasonable cost to both you me, I will.  I am currently looking at options for an online vendor, where you could order one of my calendars directly. Before I go that route, I will order and inspect the calendar to make sure it meets my standards.  A benefit to ordering this way is that you would also be able to use a credit card. At this time, however, I haven’t had time to put together a calendar. I hope to get to that soon. I will keep you all posted!

Until next time…

10 Comments »

  1. Susan, there are just no words to express my gratitude for this post. As always, your photos are amazing.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Thank you Charlene. I’m happy you enjoyed this blog post and the photos. It was such an amazing trip into the park – especially seeing the moose interacting! That was a first for me, and it was so exciting. The bull and cow were just so beautiful, and looked so healthy and fit. There will be beautiful calves in the spring. 🙂

    [Reply]

    Comment by Charlene Murray — September 27, 2016 @ 4:53 am

  2. Thank you so much for this expansive and wonderful post! To see the moose actually mating must have been Wonderful..the grizzled so close! The BEAUTIFUL Northern Hawk Owl!The Termination dust, and the spectacular scenery! Cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed this! I was there in September in 2009, really enjoyed my foray into Denali, and was able to see moose in the rut too..Brings back wonderful memories!Thank you!

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Thank you Mary Ann! It was so exciting to see the moose in rut! It’s the most activity I’ve seen in the park during the fall season, so I was quite excited to be witness. Today we are having snow flurries (but they won’t stick around, thank goodness – as I’m not ready for winter yet!). I am so happy to live only 2 hours from the park. It’s one of my favorite places. I’m happy you had the opportunity to enjoy Denali too.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Mary Ann Steen — September 27, 2016 @ 9:26 am

  3. What a great trip throu the park. Glad you was able to peek HA HA long enouth at the moose to get some good shots of them. I’ts all apart of nature remember. HA HA. Loved to see the snow in the mountains and yes I know it gets ruff in the winter but I’m glad your up to it. Looking forward to a new year a lights that are coming up so stay warm and looking for the new winter year. Hope something works out with the calendars but understand if it cant. Untill the next time.

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Bruce! It was an awesome drive into the park and WOW – how cool it was to see the mating moose. You don’t get to see that very often. I loved watching the way they interacted with each other. Very very interesting indeed!

    The colors were past peak, but it was a glorious day to be in the park. While we didn’t see as many animals as usual, we did see the magnificent Denali – which always makes a day in the park absolutely perfect.

    I will keep everyone posted about the calendars. I don’t want to stop offering one, but as a small business owner, I don’t know if I can offer one competitively since postage went up. But we’ll see! Thank you for always being interested Bruce. I do appreciate that.

    Take care and have a wonderful trip to the Smokies for the beautiful fall foliage!

    Take care,
    Susan

    [Reply]

    Comment by Bruce Rufer — September 28, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

  4. Gorgeous, Susan, glad you won a pass this year! Of all the wonderful pics I think the owl and the yawning fox are my favorites.

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Thank you very much. It was a fantastic drive into the park, and I’m so happy I won a pass! I love Denali. 🙂 The owl was quite the surprise, as it was my first owl sighting in Denali. The fox was a thrill as well, because I haven’t seen many fox the past couple of years. All in all, a fabulous weekend!

    [Reply]

    Comment by Becky — October 3, 2016 @ 3:52 am

  5. What a pleasure to reed your story and to see all those wonderful and beautiful pictures Susan 🙂

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Thank you very much, Marjo! It was a wonderful trip into the park for the Road Lottery! I hope we win again next year!

    [Reply]

    Comment by Marjo Slingerland-Boks — October 9, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

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