October 19, 2016

For the strength of the pack is the wolf…

Filed under: Aurora,Interesting Things,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 1:13 pm

… and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

On October 7th, my friend Joyce and I took a drive to Denali Park in the late afternoon. Our plan was to get to the park early enough to drive to mile 30 and then stay for what we hoped would be a beautiful sunset – especially if Mt. Denali was visible. Then, if the forecast looked good for clear skies and aurora activity, we’d hang around down in that area and wait for the sky to light up.

I did this night drive with my friend Amanda a couple of years ago. On that night, the aurora came out to dance, and the sky was crystal clear. The stars were so dense and plentiful we could not identify the Big Dipper. It was very scary in an “I am so inconsequential in this vast universe!” sort of way. It is a very long and tiring day – more than 12 hours in the car. But the opportunity to view and photograph the northern lights in the park makes it a little easier to stay awake.  As does strong coffee, conversation with a fun friend, and…

… encounters with wolves!!!

Joyce and I arrived at the park around 6pm.  We could see the grand Denali on the horizon throughout our drive, and we knew the odds were good to see the mountain from within the park too. But where would the best vantage point be for sunset? We drove slowly and decided on a scenic overlook 20 miles into the park. The color change was gradual, but soon the mountain was bathed in a soft orange hue. Opposite the setting sun, the moon was climbing higher into the sky. And behind us, the mountains were soft pink in the early dusk. Near silence enveloped us; the only sound being the wind in the willow bushes. It was quite peaceful.

We knew we had about 30 minutes before headlights would be a necessity and it became too dark for viewing or photographing wildlife. We decided to continue all the way to the end – mile 30 – since it was only another 10 miles in.  By the time we got there, walked out to the overlook to look for wildlife (bears), and used the facilities, it was dark enough for headlights.  It is a totally different experience to drive the park road in the dark, and we were happy for moonlight, clear skies, and rapidly appearing stars.

These photos were taken in the park… a lovely sunset:

Denali Park Sunset over Mt Denali Denali Park Sunset Denali Park Moonrise
Denali Park Sunset Pink Denali Park Road at Sunset

As the sun sets, the sky turns a warm yellow above Mt Denali in the distance:

Denali Sunset over the mountain

We drove the park road back to the entrance, where there was a cellphone signal, so we could check the aurora forecast and weather report. Everything looked good for clear skies, but the aurora forecast was mediocre. We didn’t mind if the aurora was low or not very bright. With a clear sky we knew the stars would make for some incredible night shots. Any aurora appearance would thrill us.

We drove back into the park to the Mountain Vista area (mp 12). (If the park road is accessible to this rest area, they usually keep at least one vaulted toilet open, which is convenient in the off season.) This part of the park road has some open areas around the drainage ditches and washes, where the trees are minimal and the mountains are visible on the horizon. The elevation is high enough to get some good night sky photos, with little foreground interference. And if the mountain is out, you can capture it even after dark with a long shutter (you can see the mountain in the first couple of photos below)

The aurora appeared and we set up our cameras. The Milky Way was amazing and the stars blanketed the sky by the billions. Being out in the open was cold though, and we were both glad we brought our snow pants. I kept hearing noises in the bushes, but Joyce insisted it was the sound of the water running in the nearby drainage ditch. My imagination does tend to run away with me…

I suggested we drive a few miles deeper, to see what the aurora looked like over the Savage River valley. It was too low – behind the mountains, but there was a little bit of green at the end of the valley. The light reflecting on the river was pretty. The wind was even stronger there, where it funneled down the valley. We didn’t stay long.

Denali Park Aurora Denali Park Aurora Denali Park Aurora
Milky Way, Moon behind mountains, and Mt Denali Moon behind mountains and Mt Denali, Denali Park Road Denali Park Aurora


We drove back toward the entrance, driving very slowly to scope out different vantage points to set up our cameras. We were only a couple of miles down the road when I saw several sets of eyes glowing in the dark. They were just off the side of the road, and about 50 yards ahead of us. I had my high beams on because it was so dark, and as we neared the area where I saw the eyes glowing, we saw more glowing!

“What is that?!”, I wondered aloud. “Lynx? Fox? Coyote?!!” Joyce and I strained our eyes to see if we could make out any shapes in the dark bushes.

And then suddenly – s/he was on the road in front of us! We were both so surprised, we didn’t even think of our cameras. We stared, mesmerized by what we were seeing in front of us. I think we were both worried that this sighting would be a brief one, and we didn’t want to look away.  And then two more wolves came out of the bushes just off the road. Even with three wolves on the road with us, we could see several more running down off the shoulder – in and out of the bushes.

The wolves on the road with us, particularly this beautiful tan/cream wolf (I’m assuming alpha), were rather bold – but never did we feel they were behaving aggressively.  A minute later they disappeared into the bushes – although we could still see their eyes glowing in the dark.

We continued down the road, and a mile or so later, we again saw eyes glowing along the side of the road. I stopped and we watched several wolves ran along the shoulder, until they met up with several more further down the road. This group looked to be about the same size as the first one (at least 5 in the first pack), but they weren’t as curious. We lost sight of them in the bushes.

I turned around and drove back through the area where we saw the first pack, as we passed another photographer (a female) photographing the aurora before we came to the wolves the first time. We wanted to warn her of our encounter only a mile or so from where she was set up.

Imagine our delight and surprise, when four of the wolves (to include the beautiful alpha) came out of the bushes and stood in my headlights, letting us see them again! And then, just like that, they loped off – escorting us along the park road about a hundred yards before they dove off into the bushes. What an honor and a privilege to see these beautiful creatures!
Denali Wolf

Denali Park Wolf Pack Denali Park Wolf Pack Denali Park Wolf Pack
Denali Park Wolf Pack Denali Park Wolf Pack Denali Park Wolf Pack

Denali Wolf Pack

Being escorted by wolves in Denali:
Denali Wolf Pack Escort

This information, about Denali’s wolves, is found in a fabulous publication “Denali Wolf Tracker”, (c) Defenders of Wildlife:

*Denali’s wolves belong to the species known as gray wolves (Canis lupus), although they can be gray, tan, brown, black or white. Their eyes are yellow or greenish-brown.

*Adult wolves stand 26 to 32 inches at the shoulder. The average weight is 87 pounds for an adult female, 100 pounds for an adult male.

*Wolves are carnivores. They eat mainly meat. Their prey consists of caribou, moose, Dall sheep and sometimes beaver, snowshoe hare and ground squirrels.

*Wolves are social creatures. In Denali, packs or family groups have ranged from two to 29 wolves, but usually are made up of five to eight animals. A typical pack includes a breeding pair of adults, three or four pups born in mid-May and possibly a couple of older offspring. Adult pack members work together to hunt and care for the young.

*Wolves communicate through facial expressions and body postures, scent markings and a wide range of vocalizations including barks, whimpers, growls and howls.

*Wolves in Denali may live as long as 12 years, but less than half make it to their third birthdays. Most wolf deaths in the park result from confrontations with neighboring packs. Wolves also die from starvation, disease, accidents, injury and old age. Subsistence hunting and trapping are allowed in some areas of Denali National Park and Preserve. General trapping and sport hunting are allowed on the state lands bordering Denali.

There is quite the controversy here in Alaska regarding the hunting of wolves on land adjacent to Denali, as some packs do leave the park boundaries to hunt. Collared wolves (wolves that are being tracked and researched) have been killed outside the park, reducing the number of wolves that might be spotted by visitors to the park. You can do your own research and come to your own conclusions on the best way to address the issue. Personally, I have never killed an animal, nor do I have the desire to do so, so I’m not knowledgeable about hunting laws and boundaries. I’d prefer all animals live the life they’re meant to.

I remember when wolf sightings in the park were much more frequent. Back in 2008, my sons came to visit and while on a bus trip, a pack of wolves came out of the hills near Savage River and peed on the bus tires! A few years later, Steve and I saw a wolf chase a flock of Dall sheep up the side of a mountain on a road lottery drive. Later that same day, we watched a pack of wolves (8-12) circle a wounded caribou in a dry wash, waiting for the opportunity to finish her off.  Wolves were spotted regularly – even if at a distance. Before this wonderful encounter the other night, I hadn’t seen a wolf in the park in probably 3-4 years. What a rare treat it was!

Leaving the Park

The aurora died down and it was getting late, so we decided to head back to Fairbanks. We stopped along the way as the aurora would occasionally grow in intensity. When we reached Nenana, we drove into town for photos of the aurora over the river and the bridges, etc. We made several more stops along the Parks Hwy, before exhaustion took over and my only focus was getting home safely.

Aurora over the Denali Park train station Parks Highway Aurora Aurora over Bridge in Nenana
Aurora over a rail car in Nenana Railroad Bridge, Nenana and aurora Parks Highway Pullout, Aurora View

Milky Way meets the Aurora
Milky Way meets the Aurora

The lights were still dancing, as I dropped Joyce at her house. I watched them from my windshield, and even pulled off the road and dimmed my lights to see how bright they were (and if it warranted a stop for photos). I decided to wait until I got home. When I turned onto my road, I turned off my headlights – using the light from the aurora to guide me the final 100 yards. I only took a few photos, before climbing into my warm bed for some much-needed sleep.

Aurora over my road:
Night light

Aurora over my house:
Aurora over my house



This collection of aurora photos was taken over the span of several days, from my road, driveway or yard.

October 13th Aurora October 16th Aurora and Full Moon October 16th Aurora over my road
October 16th Aurora Corona October 16th Aurora October 16th Aurora
October 16th Aurora October 16th Aurora October 16th Aurora
October 16th Aurora October 16th Aurora October 16th Aurora
October 16th Aurora October 16th Aurora October 16th Aurora

View of aurora from front porch:

Aurora View from Front Porch


I received back one of the prototypes I ordered from another printing company. There are many things I like about the calendar, and a few minor things I feel so-so about, but all-in-all this could be a good solution. I hope to have more detailed information and a formal announcement within a week.

Until next time…


  1. Wonderful pictures!!!!. I especially love the wolf pictures. It is great that you got an escort from them. The Aurora pictures are great too,wish I could be there to see them. Great news about the calendar too. I was very disappointed when you last posted that there might not be one. I will keep looking for information on ordering one. Again LOVE the pictures.


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Thank you Keith! It was such an amazing experience, and I know several of my friends and colleagues have visited the park since then, hoping for a glimpse, but no luck. I’m a little happy about that, as it makes me feel even more special. 🙂

    I have just announced my calendar on social media and will be making an update here very shortly. Thank you so much for your continued interest!

    Take care,


    Comment by Keith — October 19, 2016 @ 2:52 pm

  2. I shared this link with a friend yesterday. She especially loved your star images. But, I had to tell her the significance of this wolf sighting. I don’t think people fully understand what a rare gift it was that you saw these beautiful animals. I’m still in awe of this story. Being in the right place at the right moment … with your camera!

    Just … WOW!!!


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    I am still so giddy about this encounter. I found a publication online about the Denali wolves. There were two researches listed. I believe they track and keep count of the population in the park. The last time the count was updated was at the end of 2015. I sent my photos and an account of the encounter to their email. It may be of no importance, or it may be of great importance. *shrugs* The fact that there were so many was so encouraging. It makes me wonder how many may have been youngsters (those that didn’t come out on the road). What a night!


    Comment by Susan Arthur — October 20, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

  3. Wow! How exciting to see the wolves. Your aurora and star photos are awesome as always. I’m glad that the 2 of you got to do one more trip into the park.


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    I’m so glad we were able to drive into the park to mile 30 too. It’s probably our last trip down there until spring, unless we have a really good aurora forecast and they keep the road open past the park headquarters. I love the park, and I love that we live so close to it.

    The wolves were absolutely amazing! What a wonderful experience!


    Comment by Kat — October 21, 2016 @ 4:52 am

  4. *sigh* My thoughts on the Aurora tend to take a backseat during the summer, but once autumn awakes and I regularly check your blog, my yearning returns. You do such a terrific job with capturing these!
    We do get some pretty decent starry nights over here too, but light pollution is still such that we can’t really make out the Milky Way. In Autumn, the Big Dipper is visible right out my bedroom window, though.
    Ooh, wolves! I love these animals, even though a lot of people are against them, especially farmers. It’s only been a decade or so that a pack has re-established in my neck of the woods of Lower Saxony. I’ve never seen them, but I’ve seen their prints…


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Nina and thank you for stopping by and commenting. The aurora is so amazing! It is so hard for me to go to bed once the darkness comes back, as I always feel like I’m missing something. Unfortunately, I usually am. 🙂

    Starry nights can be so beautiful on one hand, but when I’m in a really dark place (like Denali park), they are almost scary- for lack of a better word. I suppose it’s because there are so many that show up, and the sky seems so low you can touch it. It almost seems heavy. I always feel so small.

    The Big Dipper is always a favorite. It’s the first constellation I look for when I travel. In WI, where my sons live, the dipper is HUGE and rather low in the sky. Here, it is almost nearly overhead. By the same token, I remember how surprised I was when we went to HI on vacation one September, and Orion was directly overhead. Here, it’s so low to the horizon, I can’t always see all the stars due to trees, etc.

    I am a lover of wolves too. I know there is so much controversy about them, particularly in those areas where wolves are coming onto farms and taking livestock, etc. But I do believe that nature knows best. Eventually everything balances out if you just let it be. How exciting that you have a pack near you. I hope that someday you will catch a glimpse of these beautiful animals.

    Take care,


    Comment by Nina — October 22, 2016 @ 7:16 am

  5. Hi just back from the Smokies had a good 2 weeks. Not a lot of bears out this year or close encounters but had a great time. Seen a lot of stars thou so that was cool but not like the ones you get. What a great display of lights and you capture it all so perfict. What great shots of the wolves also. SMILES!!!! I know one of those shots will have to be on the next calenders. They know who the best photo people so I!m sure that is why they came out for you. SMILES!!! I know it was along night but I speak for all your viewers we greatly do apreeate and love all the efert that you put in to all you do. Thank you onse again for all you give us of your time. I know I was able to be there once but many have not and you are that link to them. Put me down for 2 calenders and keep me updated. Thanks again


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Bruce and thank you for your kind words and your comment. Sounds like you had a FANTASTIC time in the Smokies. I bet the color was beautiful, as I’ve seen photos from some of my friends who live in that area. I miss the Blue Ridge Parkway and scenic drives in the fall. I can’t wait to get back in that area (with Steve and camper) sometime – hopefully soon. Steve’s daughter Kayla lives in NC.. that might give us the opportunity to do some exploring when we’re down there visiting with her and the kids.

    The wolves were AMAZING!!! It was such an exciting night and I’m so happy my friend Joyce could go with me, to witness it with me. 🙂

    As for the calendars, you will need to purchase them yourself from a secure website. I just don’t have the time to package and ship, so I’ve found a vendor who will sell my calendars directly.

    Here is the link:


    I will email you with that link too.

    Thanks again,


    Comment by Bruce Rufer — October 28, 2016 @ 6:37 am

  6. Fantastic photos! Always love looking at your photos! You got a lot of photos of the wolves. Love reading the blog! Keep taking photos & writing your wonderful stories!


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Thank you for the lovely comment, Carla. Seeing the wolves was so special! We both feel so lucky. How exciting it was to see so many too!


    Comment by Carla Merrill — October 28, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

  7. Hi Susan, back like I promised. I’m thrilled to have checked back in to enjoy all your wonderful photos. I wish I had a close friend to take the kind of trips you do. Thing is, heating with wood makes it hard to leave for long periods of times. I do get to enjoy the trips through your eyes. Thanks for sharing.


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi John! Nice to see you here, and thank you for your wonderful comment. Good friends are so valuable – especially if you like going out on adventures. My husband doesn’t mind going along, but he’s not a photographer, so he’s less patient with all the waiting around and hanging out. I’m happy to have several lady friends who enjoy going along. I understand about the heating with wood, and not being able to go away. Stay warm this winter, John. Glad to see your recent post too. I don’t get to read often, but you were missed!


    Comment by John — November 5, 2016 @ 8:23 am

  8. Alaska is the best! I love your photos! From one artist to another, I thought you might like this video I came across. It makes me proud of Alaska. Anyway I thought you might like it. Here it is: https://vimeo.com/185419135 Keep up the good work! Go Susan!


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Jeremy and thank your for your kind words. I viewed your video and it is beautiful. I recognized many of the places highlighted in it. It is obvious that you had a wonderful time visiting this great state. Thank you for sharing your video, and for taking the time to stop by and comment. I just updated my blog today with aurora photos – among other things. Take care and Happy Holidays!


    Comment by Jeremy — December 3, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

  9. I am hoping to see these in Norway next winter. I miss them so


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    You are so lucky for the opportunity to visit Norway. My friend Hanneke lives there and I love her images. They aurora in Norway is also special because the ports have open water – so beautiful reflections! Miss you girlfriend! Been thinking about our Polar Bear Jump trips to Seward.


    Comment by Lacey — December 10, 2016 @ 7:48 am

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