Encountering Denali Wolves:
I’ve never particularly felt threatened by animals. Aside from a brief shark encounter whilst scuba diving and being knocked over by a bulldog at age seven (more of a comical scene than a scary one according to passers by), nothing too terrifying has ever occurred. In fact its the animals which seem to find me offensive if anything. At age thirteen my pet gerbil jumped in it’s cage so high it broke it’s back and died instantly. My gerbil literally committed suicide. I had a suicidal gerbil. One morning when I was fifteen, I awoke to discover all twelve of our koi carp had vanished from the garden pond. People theorize the valuable and hefty fish were stolen, but a part of me still believes they disliked their time with me so much they packed up their pondweed and flapped off to a neighbor’s pond. In short, animals have never particularly been a safety concern until I found myself staring at one in particular last summer.
Late July last year Steph and I arrived at the entrance to Denali National Park in Alaska’s interior. It had taken almost a month to drive from Chicago to Alaska’s most northerly road border, then a week to make it down to the park entrance. The roads to Alaska become ever more desolate and rickety the farther north you get. In northern Canada the government seem to have all but given up on allowing anyone driving less than a 4×4 from making it past Dawson Creek. Obviously we were driving a chevy cruise but it’s not my fault I rent small cars on these road trips instead of Jeeps, they’re are double the price! I’m from Yorkshire, England, I’m genetically cheap.
We spent days driving without seeing people or towns, with the odd bear or two popping out from the conifer trees which would flow to the horizon in all directions. Now and then a moose or elk would make an appearance, and we spent our evenings either camping in empty government sites (clearings of trees really) or simply pulling off the road and throwing up the tent.
On a couple of occasions we would hear large animals, possibly black bears, roaming outside. One night in particular had me a little nervous when an animal scraped it’s claws (Steph is convinced it was a tail) along the tent by our heads. All that aside, most nights were incident free and the drive had been a genuinely amazing experience. By the time we arrived at Denali we were very comfortable in our outdoor gear, happy taking midnight walks in the dark to relieve bladders and unaffected by noises in the night. We felt ready for our backcountry experience in Denali.
Denali is huge, at over six million acres it’s larger than a good few states. Sitting so far north the tree line is at 700m, which means that it’s ecology is dominated by open tundra. The centerpiece of the park is the stunning Mt Denali (formerly Mt McKinley) which is North America’s highest peak, and the world’s largest mountain.
Being mostly wild, and essentially undisturbed by man, the park is home to a vast population of mammals, both friendly and fearsome. Bears, moose, wolves, elk and many others roam the park’s mountains and valleys. It’s a photography dream.
When you arrive at Denali, you’re permitted by conservation minded park rangers to drive yourself 16 miles in, after this, the only way is with a campsite reservation or a wilderness permit, which lets you wander off into the backcountry and a place on the park bus. We had our permits in order, and had a night booked ahead of time to prepare. Once the gear and tent were safely at the site, we headed to the ranger office to sort out our permits, purchase some topographical maps and get oriented.
I wanted to know where the wildlife was. At the time I thought to myself I might only visit Denali once, make the most of it. (Something which, now having experienced it I doubt to be true).
‘Which areas of the park are best for spotting wildlife?’ I politely asked one of the rangers. For reasons unknown I always feel somewhat intimidated by park rangers in wilderness centers. I envisage them spending their weekends getting into Indiana Jones-like adventures, perhaps going head to head with a bear, like in the pivotal scene from The Revenant, or deftly coming to the rescue of hapless city folk always in the nick of time, then carrying them to safety with no water or rest or concern for themselves.
In any case, the chiseled ranger fingered a particular area of the park known for grizzly bear sightings, a local wolf pack, elk and moose. The wolf territory would be many miles north of our area so not an issue, and besides, even when in wolf territory, it’s rare to actually ever see one. The chance of a grizzly up close (but not too close) excited me though, plus I’d never seen moose truly in the wild, and I wanted to find some.
We were guided into a small room with a television set from 1994 and an old VHS about wildlife precautions, setting up appropriate camps and how to avoid disasters. It stated that if one found oneself in potential grizzly territory, or you had mistakenly wandered into bushes or shrubbery, it’s a sage idea to utter low pitch, loud noises of a calming variety, to ensure bears are aware of your location. Two things struck me as instantly erroneous, one was the assumption that I knew what form of verbal uttering a car sized bear may find gratifying, the second being the idea that I would voluntarily promote my whereabouts. Surely to a Denali bear this must be the equivalent to a jolly sounding ice-cream van entering a neighborhood on a hot summer afternoon.
I sought clarification from my resident bear wrangler.
‘What sort of low noises?’ I asked.
‘Calming sounds, but deep.’ he replied. ‘I often repeat ‘Heeey bear!’ he demonstrated.
My god…I thought, will the bear expect to shake hands before it dines?
Next up came a short lesson on moose safety. The video nonchalantly pointed out that surprisingly, more people are attacked by moose each year than grizzly and black bears combined. I wasn’t certain whether this fact was included to illustrate the unlikeliness of a bear attack, or to embed the terrifying notion that moose wander the tundra looking to rumble. The advice given to deal with a headstrong, antler wielding assailant was to locate the nearest tree and then stand behind it. My mouth began to fall open as the video ended. Once again I sought clarification from our ranger friend.
‘I’m sorry, I just stand behind a tree?’
‘That’s right, if you get within a hundred yards or so, a bull may charge, if it feels threatened.’
‘I see. I only ask because the park is mostly tundra. I couldn’t help noticing the lack of trees in the guidebook.’ I pointed out.
‘Well that is true. Perhaps a rock or large object.’
The following day we caught the early backpacker bus into the park’s interior. A couple of hours driving would take us to a section of Denali called Polychrome Overlook. It’s a region named because of the spectacular layered rocks which catch the evening rays. It is also inhabited by multiple glaciers, making for unbelievable scenery in every direction.
The process of being dropped off in the park is oddly liberating. After letting the driver know you’re approaching a suitable area, he pulls up, off you hop and the bus heads on leaving you entirely stranded hours away from civilization with only your pack and your wits to help you. We watched the bus roll off into the distance and then looked for our route. One rule of the park is you must camp out of sight of the road, which means at least a half day hike south, following the river, then up into the mountains to find good camp site.
My initial concerns about being surprised by sneaky predators were alleviated as we had unhindered views for miles in all directions. The biggest concern would be crossing the icy glacial rivers which criss crossed our path. I had read a particularly informative book about hiking Denali which stated that many people avoid getting their feet wet for as long as possible, it’s advice was to just jump in, as it’s inevitable. I initially took it to be a challenge to keep my feet entirely dry, however our first river crossing soon ended my quest before it even began.
Our first day was wonderful. We luxuriated in the fresh air, marveled at the enormity of our surroundings and had the sort of deep and meaningful conversations that are so organically created by such shared experiences and seldom come about in our hectic everyday lives. Half way through the day we made our way to higher ground and found a superb place to pitch our tent, with views of the valley and a stunning glacier. Cool air drifted from the icy structure up and over the slopes, but the sun maintained a reasonable temperature, and when we fell asleep that night we were comfortable and cozy.
The view the following morning was mind blowing. Bright, crisp and colorful mountains stretched for miles, icy glaciers carving down their fronts. The air was so clean it made me conscious of it. I stepped out of the tent in just my thermals and spend a minute or two just staring. We had a vague plan that day: head down the mountain’s eastern ridge, cross the rivers in the valley below, then head up the adjacent slopes for what should be a pretty good view at around 7500 ft. Halfway down we came across a beautiful babbling stream to replenish our water supply, it had a view over a huge flat grassland area perhaps 500ft further down. Two moose were grazing, the first I’d seen in Denali, so we got out the stove and made coffee to sip while we observed.
It was around this time that my mind began to flick back to my informative moose safety video. They look peaceful I thought to myself. Both of the large animals had their heads down and were happily munching on fresh grass. A tree I remembered, get behind a tree. I looked around preemptively for a woody friend and found an unsettling expanse of trunkless, useless grass. Almost as if reading my mind, one of the moose, for no reason apparent to me, shot into motion. It was running full speed, thankfully not towards us, rather aiming for the slopes off to our left. It shocked both of us to see just how swiftly the animal cruised uphill, and how much distance it managed to cover in a few seconds. We slowly put down our coffee cups and stood up.
“Is it turning?”
“Yep” Steph replied. “What do we do?”
A rock I remembered, if there are no trees get behind a rock! I searched the area for a sturdy bolder but once again, Denali seemed to prefer us to be exposed.
“It’s turning again.” I pointed out, knowing full well Steph had her eyes wide open.
“Man that’s fast!” I blurted as it continued it’s charge.
It veered to our left, then right at us, then left again, erratic and seemingly purposeless.
Thankfully the charging Moose veered off once more and passed us by, before it’s mate followed in it’s speedy path. Although nothing had actually happened, it had gotten our attention and was to be the first of a few moments to do so that day.
After making our way down the remainder of the slopes, then across the valley floor covered in deep, gushing glacial rivers, we arrived, soggy footed at the base of our next climb. The main issue was a layer of dense bushes, which stretched perhaps a couple of hundred meters up the base of the mountain. With no way around, we would have to pass through it to get to our planned camp.
“Heeeeeey bear!” I began in a loud deep pitch. “Heeeeeey bear!”
A grizzly bear will not be happy if you pop up on it unexpectedly, they will however move away from you if they hear you coming. Making deep soothing but loud noises keeps them calm whilst letting them know you’re in the area. Bears generally don’t want to waste energy on conflicts, they are perfectly happy berry picking. All that aside, it feels very counterintuitive to make loud sounds when you’re trying to actively avoid a large predator.
When we cleared the bushes, we looked back down on the valley floor and felt relieved to have made it through territory we were warned not to go into. We looked up towards the mountain top where we were aiming to camp, an hour, maybe hour and a half further up.
“Is that a caribou?” asked Steph. I looked up to locate it and latched onto what looked like a horse at first.
“Looks like it, I don’t see antlers though.”
“It has to be a caribou.” She repeated. I sensed an air of uncertainty in her voice.
“Well I don’t know, maybe a moose?” I offered.
Standing side on, the hefty animal had clearly been observing us for some time, and was at this point continuing it’s analysis. I imagine the results of which would be similar to that of any other animal to witness us; there’s no threat here, these animals appear vulnerable, debilitated and confused.
The animal suddenly turned and galloped up the slope, covering maybe a hundred feet in seconds, reminiscent of the moose from the morning.
“Okay maybe it is a moose.” I said hoping, though I felt like I might know it’s real identity.
Then it came. A howl like I’ve never heard. Deep, smooth, loud and lasting for a good six or seven seconds. It was spine tingling and halted us in our tracks.
“Oh my god, what do we do?” Steph asked.
“Just keep walking! Don’t stop.”
“Should we go back?”
“No, just keep going and veer right.” I said, trying to sound calm but feeling like perhaps this scenario would have made for a relevant section on our training VHS.
Then came the rest of them. Howls cried out from along the ridge above us. I estimated about eight to ten animals, all replying to the watchdog.
Just keep moving.
I had been made aware of the resident wolf pack, but they were not meant to be this far south. Evidently they had moved, perhaps expanding their territory, maybe tracking food. In any case, my idea was to keep climbing, but to veer in a southerly direction away from their known territory, hoping for them to see this and avoid us. Steph on the other hand, had decided that the best course of action was be to drop to the floor and sacrifice herself. Something I believe the rangers tend not to advocate.
Pushing on, we were ever aware of our companions as we made one of the most difficult climbs I’d experienced to date, in order to reach an appropriate camping spot. When we got the tent up we collapsed due to exhaustion and adrenaline. Somehow we got the lamp on, ate a few snacks and drank what was close to being the last of the water. That night a storm came in, the temperature dropped, rain poured and the wind picked up, all three elements were exaggerated due to being at such altitude. In the calm glow of the tent, the threat of the weather and a pack of wolves seemed far away and we managed to slowly let our fatigued bodies fall asleep.
During the night the weather passed and we awoke once more to a beautiful sunrise. All memory of the scary bush, stampeding moose and howling wolves from the previous day had been wiped from memory as if a wonderful spell had been cast. This lasted perhaps a full minute or two.
We decided to head down quickly, we needed to reach the glacial waters below to replenish our drinking supply, having used up more than planned during the previous day’s climb.
Descending a mountain is always refreshingly quicker than ascending one. The very same slope that caused your legs to cramp, throat to dry up and feet to burn like they’ve caught fire will pat you on the back upon it’s descent. After inadvertently stumbling on a stream halfway down, we continued happily to the valley floor. After another stint of one sided bear communication we hopped off the slope onto the flat glacier carved valley floor. Instantly as our feet hit the ground howls erupted from the peaks behind us. The sounds were coming from all across the mountain, though the wolves themselves remained spookily hidden from view. The noise was unlike that which we heard on our first encounter, this was celebratory, they were euphoric. Two things occurred to us in the moments that followed; they were signaling our departure from their territory, and most unnerving; they had been watching us the whole time.
When we finally left the backcountry, we stopped into the Rangers office and I let them know about the change in territory of the wolf pack. They were stunned that we had encountered them and asked a lot of questions. I wonder if they need more Rangers? I thought, no longer feeling quite so intimidated.
Our interaction with the wolf pack was fortunately from a distance, but seeing that initial wolf staring right at us, and observing them run and communicate was a huge privilege. Denali has historically been one of the prime places to see some of the largest wolves in the wild. Populations have generally ranged from 60 to 100 individuals over the last few decades. In recent years a number of highly publicized shootings have occurred, highlighting the responsibility of the National Parks service and its visitors to help the creatures that roam within. This past year the park saw the death of a second wolf from the east fork pack, the first of which was a pregnant female. In response, the park announced the initiation of a buffer zone to prevent trophy hunters killing wolves which often roam along the park boundaries. All this to say that wolves are a rarity and another example of an animal which humans tend to adore, but seldom help. If you want to see a wolf, spending a few days responsibly camping in the wilds of Denali could be a good place to start, just don’t expect to hide behind any trees.