… 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:
As the sun sets, the sky turns a warm yellow above Mt Denali in the distance:
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.
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!
Being escorted by wolves in Denali:
*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.
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:
Aurora over my house:
MORE AURORA AT HOME
This collection of aurora photos was taken over the span of several days, from my road, driveway or yard.
View of aurora 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…