Saturday, September 4, 2010

Spying the "Big Five"

September 4. In Denali wildlife tourism terms, the "Big Five" does not refer to Philadelphia's great group of college basketball teams that I love to watch, but to five species of megafauna that every tourist hopes to see: moose, grizzly bear, caribou, Dall sheep, and gray wolf. Almost every tour will see some of these five species. On our tour, about 8 hours long and 60 miles into Denali National Park along the only road in the park, we were fortunate enough to see all five.

Our tour bus driver was Bill, and he was excellent. He kept the bus going around some hair-raising curves, relied on us to spot wildlife and yell "Stop!" if we saw - or thought we saw - something, and gave great commentary and information during the entire day. The tour was the Denali Tundra Wilderness tour, was well worth the money, and ended up being my favorite experience of the entire trip, edging out the Kenai Fjords wildlife cruise.

We decided to sit on the left hand side of the bus. It was a coin flip which side would have better wildlife viewing, and we chose well! Minutes into the park, we spotted a cow moose. It was on the right hand side, and far enough away that I could not get a good picture, but we had seen the group of moose last night, so that was okay. We crossed the Savage River 15 miles in, and then the wildlife spotting began in earnist.

The second of the "Big Five" was a group of three bull caribou in a magnificent setting. They were on our side of the bus, and we watched them for a long time as they ate and polished their antlers on small trees. Our new Nike camera with a good zoom lens was really proving its value:

As we drove past mountainous areas, we kept our eyes peeled for Dall sheep, which are white like mountain goats, but are a species of bighorn sheep. Suddenly, I and another guy on my side of the bus both thought we saw specks of white and the driver backed up. There, nestled in a steep mountain pass, were three Dall sheep. Do you see them? Let me zoom in a bit. There!

We watched the sheep for a long time, then continued our drive. People on the right hand side started shouting "Stop! Stop! Stop!" In the distance, flecks of white moved rapidly along a sheer cliff. It turned out to be two Dall sheep being pursued by at least three wolves, and was dramatic enough that I will post separately about this later. But now, we had seen four of the "Big Five!"

In a picturesque valley where Adolph Murie, the great wildlife biologist, lived in this cabin while he studied Dall sheep, wolves, and other wildlife, we spotted the last of the "Big Five:" this mother grizzly and her two yearling cubs:
Everyone was thrilled, and we watched them for a long time as they ambled along, looking for last meals before their long winter sleep. We continued along, spotting this group of bachelor Dall sheep near the top of a hill. If I had been on foot, I bet I could have gotten pretty close. The wildlife in the park is not hunted, and is fairly tolerant of humans.
We rode through the spectacular Polychrome Cliffs area, reached an amazing viewpoint of Denali, and turned around. On the way back, we got a great view of this lone male grizzly fairly close to the bus. He could not have cared less about us.

It was sobering to think that if you backpacked here, you would be right out among all of these animals. Despite a lot of wildlife and many hikers and backpackers, no one has been killed by a grizz in this park, though.

What an amazing day seeing wildlife and scenary (which I will post separately about)! As a bonus, late in the day, we went back into the park in our car, trying to see wildlife along the road. We saw numerous moose - none close enough for great photos, but we could see them well with binoculars. On the way out, in a light rain and just outside the park, a Canada lynx ran right across the road in front of the car! We only got to see him for about two seconds before he vanished, but it was one more incredible memory of this day, one in which we saw all of the "Big Five!"

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