|Denali National Park & Preserve|
The first day into DNPP, our hopes were high for wildlife sightings. Half the people you hear from are boasting of amazing views, close encounters (on the bus) with wildlife, and perfect photo opportunities of both. Then the other half of the stories tell you to not get your hopes up, because the wildlife is truly wild, and the weather can change quickly, effecting it all. But, ever the optimists we are, we entered that first day (7/21/12) on the shuttle bus with eyes peeled.
|Photo credit: Katie Boye|
Within MINUTES, and I'm not exaggerating, we were treated with our first of The Big 5, a gray wolf (Canis lupus). The following are the only two pictures I was able to get...
Visitors to DNPP are only allowed to drive their personal on-road vehicles into the park for the first 15 miles of the park road. There is only one road in and out, so it's nice to not have the congestion of hundreds of visitors clogging the road after that 15 mile mark. Many people assume that most of the sightings will be seen further out in the park, especially once you hit 2,000 feet above sea level or so. This is where the treeline ends, and the tundra begins, making for wide open landscapes. For the majority of our wildlife sightings, that's where they were.
THIS sighting however, was seen within the first 10 miles of the park, under treeline, and at about 7:45am. First thing in the morning, on our first day in the park- DNPP delivered.
The wolf was on the left side of the road as we came around a corner, and a passenger yelled out "STOP!" as per our driver's direction. We slowed to a stop, and the wolf disappeared to the left up into the brush. We could still see him/her moving through the alders, pacing the bus, and then he/she decided to cross the road, RIGHT in front of us!
Luckily, Katie and I were in the second row of seats back, so we had a great view. My pictures were taken in haste, not allowing the camera to focus very well, so they aren't the best...but they're better than nothing!
After walking, yes walking, across the road, it disappeared down the bank on the other side. Allowing us probably a good minute and a half viewing.
There are 70 wolves within the limits of DNPP, broken up into about 9 packs. DNPP contains over 6 million acres, so you do the math. We were VERY lucky to have seen this gray wolf. Were there more out of sight?
|Photo credit: Katie Boye|
I've been reassured by people who know what they're talking about that this IS a wolf. I was being skeptical and thinking maybe a coyote at first. But, this Canid fits the wolf bill. Below I've pulled a comparison graphic to illustrate some of the physical characteristics between the two species. I'm reassured by the above wolves large feet, long legs, and rounded ears. Also, take my word for it, it had a thick muzzle, rather than that dainty snout of the coyote.
|Photo credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife|
My last thoughts about this wolf concern it's weight. Although we saw this guy or gal mid-July, Alaska's autumn is just around the corner. The fall flowers are starting to bloom, and the days are getting shorter. The dark now comes at 10:30 at night! This still seems late by "lower 48" standards, but I was really enjoying the long days actually...it's weird to see darkness come.
I'm thinking that this wolf doesn't have long before winter hits. Last summer, a professor of mine visited DNPP in August and was SNOWED OUT. He and his wife couldn't enter the park due to all of the snow on the ground. The road is dirt/gravel, and are NOT plowed during the off-season. And those shuttle buses made me a little nervous on dry and clear roads, I can only imagine what it would be like on slick, snowy roads.
I hope despite it's thin frame, this wolf can compete with others throughout the long winter season and make it out on the other side alive. Perhaps this is a young male? Off on his own, thin, lanky...perhaps looking for a pack and territory to call his own? I will never know.