Alaskan Cruisetour Photo Gallery

Day 9 (May 25, 1999) - Wild Things

Willow Ptarmigan (Male) Willow Ptarmigan (Female)
The official state bird of Alaska, the Willow Ptarmigan. The bird on the left is male, the bird on the right (barely visible) is female. The males retain the white coloration later in to the spring than do the females, so the female almost disappears in the underbrush.

We had time for a quick lunch upon arriving at the Princess Denali Lodge, then it was time to board a bus (little more than a school bus painted an ugly shade of gray) for a wilderness search in Denali. A limited number of passenger cars are permitted in the park, but most people must board one of these busses to get more than a few miles into the park. The busses are by no means comfortable nor are they a particularly good platform for photography, but they do the job.

As it should be, you are permitted off the bus only at designated rest stops. Since none of our rest stops were near any wildlife, all of our viewing and photography attempts had to be made from the cramped interior of the bus - this often involved contortions to see over the heads of people on the other side of the bus.

Our tour guide, John Allen, is a biologist by training, but his long career as a tour guide in various national parks seems to suit him very well. You can tell that he enjoys doing what he does, and his enthusiasm and knowledge made for a very enjoyable trip.


The goal of a Denali wilderness search, according to John, is to score a "grand slam" - sighting of each of the four main animals that inhabit the park: moose, caribou, dall sheep, and, of course, the grizzly. On our tour, we were fortunate to see all four, as well as a number of willow ptarmigans, both male and female, in their spring plumage.

Caribou were easily the most plentiful wildlife we saw. While only a few were close enough for my camera, they seemed to be nearly everywhere we looked, clearly visible and identifiable with the naked eye.

Dall sheep were also in abundance, but visible only as moving white specks high in the mountains - in most cases, binoculars were required to pick them out. We did get a moderately close view of some, including several frolicking newborns, late in the tour, but again binoculars were needed to get a decent view.

Scenery at our turn-around point

We only spotted one moose - she was at fairly close range. In binoculars, she appeared to be heavily pregnant. John was somewhat doubtful though, as most moose had already given birth. He was reluctant, though, to rule the possibility out.

Our first spotting of a grizzly was on the trip in - a mother and her yearling cub were seen high on a mountaintop. Binoculars were needed to see them as anything more than two moving spots, but once you had them in your sights, you could see the cub running and jumping and generally having a good time. At one point, the cub apparently got on the nerves of his mother, as she charged him and chased him off a bit. The two were almost blond in color. We stayed watching them for about 10 minutes until they disappeared over the ridge line.

Our next sighting of grizzlies was close to the same location on the way out of the park. These bears were considerably closer - clearly visible to the naked eye at least - but binoculars were still helpful. This was another mother with a cub, but this cub was quite large and was probably a two-year cub about ready to leave his mom. These two were very light in color - almost white. We were able to watch these bears for maybe 5 minutes before they disappeared into a ravine.

In some ways, it might seem from this description that our trip in the park was disappointing. It was not - the key is to control your expectations. Wildlife doesn't normally seek out tourists looking for the ideal photo-op, and the wildlife at Denali is no exception. But closeup encounters with wildlife is not essential to an enjoyable experience of Denali - it may not even be desirable. Sit back and enjoy the scenery, keep an eye peeled for that glimpse of movement that reveals the presence of wildlife, and maybe, just maybe, you will have the experience of a lifetime. Even if you don't have that experience, you won't be disappointed. Or, better yet, make arrangements to go camping or hiking at Denali, but do be careful out there. Bring a strong telephoto lens.

About 15 miles inside the park, on our way out.

...of Denali National Park (scenery only).

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Copyright © 1999, Pete Hanson