Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Big 5: Part 1

Over the weekend of July 21-23, my friend Katie and I visited Denali National Park & Preserve. It was a soul-soothing, spiritual, amazing experience. I've been to several National Parks (Acadia in Maine, Glacier in Montana, Rocky Mountain in Colorado among others), but none have really struck me quite like Denali.

As I mentioned in my previous posting, the National Parks Service Rangers and Staff are amazing. Informative, friendly, and truly have the Park's well-being and visitor safety first in mind.

Many visitors go to Denali with The Big 5 in mind: gray wolf (Canis lupus), moose (Alces alces), caribou (Rangifer tarandus), Dall sheep (Ovis dalli), and the almighty brown bear (Ursus arctos). I'm going to use the term "brown bear" even though they are technically the same as grizzly and Kodiak bears, but in DNPP they refer to them as brown bears.

People come to the park with hopes of getting a glimpse of these animals, from a bus, and getting that awesome "Nat Geo" shot.

I entered the park with hopes of seeing all 5, but also with hopes of seeing a wolverine (Gulo gulo), any of the ground squirrels: hoary marmot (Marmota caligata) or arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), and especially a collared pika (Ochotona collaris). So I had a "Big 10"!

Of the true Big 5, I saw all of them. It was almost too easy, I was so surprised, and maybe we were extremely lucky. Actually, I KNOW we were lucky to see at least one of them

Of the second set of my wish list, I saw the arctic ground squirrels and a red fox. Squirrels fall right after black bear and tie with porcupine for me. I think they're A) adorable, and B) incredibly resourceful and SASSY!

I'm going to keep this entry brief, and follow up in subsequent entries with the story behind each sighting.

First sighting:

A gray wolf.

I'll be honest though, I'm really skeptical about this. When I first saw it, I didn't form an opinion. Everyone was saying wolf, even our bus driver. Then Katie turned to me and asked me for confirmation...and I said:

"Um...I don't know, it looks like a coyote to me. BUT, I have never seen a gray wolf before."

Really profound, right? I went along with wolf, because I didn't want to be the jerk on the bus, ruining everyone's hopes and dreams in this amazing National Park that's known for wolves with saying it's a (common pest to some) coyote.

I later described it to a ranger, and she accurately described back to me a gray wolf, and our recollections matched. Long legged, bushy tail, coloration...etc. I don't know though, I STILL feel like some would call this a 'yote. For my touristy sake, I'll call it a wolf. But I'm interested to hear opinions.

I borrowed this from JVN's blog (Backyard Beasts), and I realize different time of year and state, BUT...that's what a proper gray wolf should look like :)

Photo credit: John Van Niel
Thick, barrel-chested, gorgeous coat, gray/black/white coloring...

BTW, for what it's worth, this animal looked like a coyote to me too:

And this is DEFINITELY a red wolf.

Second sighting:

A caribou!

Third sighting:

Brown bear!

Fourth sighting:

Dall sheep!

A moose! (This is an AWESOME story...stay tuned :) )

And that's The Big 5!

Are you impressed? I was, by how close we got to the animals. Keep in mind I took all of these pictures from the shuttle bus. Yes, I have a 36X zoom...but they also came in close.

And I'll share a few pics of my other favorite mammals that I got to see:

Arctic ground squirrel :) How can you not smile at this little guy?

And finally....

A red fox....dressed in a really interesting outfit. I'm doing a bit of poking around and gently harrassing some Alaskan trappers and officials about color phases of the red fox here. More on this later!

After my last depressing entry, I wanted to share fun, happy stories of animals I got to see in the park. A final picture I'll leave you with is probably the most sought after "thing" at DNPP, and the most rarely seen.

Mount McKinley, or Denali.
20,328 feet: tallest peak in North America

I feel honored to have seen it and actually several times. This mountain will get it's own entry eventually as well. Talk about awe-inspiring.


  1. What a great list, and even better so many ticked off the list!! Love the photos, how would we know you used a telephoto lens unless you said. Love the wolf colours so much, and waiting for the story to continue with great anticipation!!! Cheers, Jean

  2. Look at the large paws on the wolf walking along the road. That helps distinguish it from coyote.


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