By Joseph Robertia
Like many Alaska adventures, my trip to Denali began with a friend of a friend.
This person, while lucky enough to be drawn as a winner of the park’s “road lottery,” was at the same time unfortunate in having an illness befall a family member. Not able to go north, he gave his permit into the park and preserve to a buddy of mine, who then invited my wife and I, knowing we have a love for wildlands and wildlife.
The park opened to lottery winners at 6 a.m. We were there at 6:01 a.m. Once we had checked in, we started the drive on the park road. In less than two minutes we had our first wildlife encounter. While still dark out, we came upon a large, long-legged lynx sashaying down the road. Like others I had seen on Skilak Lake Loop Road back on the Kenai Peninsula, this normally elusive cat had grown so accustomed to seeing vehicles, it barely batted an eye at us.
A few miles farther in we saw an icon of the north — a bull moose with a full rack, each palm of which was the size of a compact car’s side door. The sun was still below the horizon, but there was already enough light in the sky to see he was just a few paces behind a cow that seemed half his size. Even in the faint light we could hear the big male grunting in the ungulate equivalent of foreplay. We didn’t want to interrupt their nuptials so we pressed on.
Mile after mile we spotted several species of wildlife. In Polychrome Pass we saw the ever-present Dall sheep clinging to the rugged vertical slopes. Not far from the Toklat River we witnessed a grizzly sow and her two cubs crossing the road in front of us. With coats thick and luxurious, and bodies fat and round, they looked ready for their long winter slumber.
While every wildlife encounter is unique, my wife and I have seen plenty of big bruins and nimble sheep while hiking on the peninsula, so for us the pinnacle of our road lottery experience came when we saw wild wolves — the king of all canines.
We had been to the park before and had seen wolves at a distance. We have also seen them while mushing on the peninsula, but they were always quick to disappear once spotted. The wolves encountered on our road lottery trip presented an entirely different wildlife experience.
Our first glimpse came as we came up on one trotting down the road in front of us. It was a large, healthy-looking animal with a mix of rusty red and dark brown color to its coat. It came to a stop and we turned off the car to watch what it would do next, which ended up being a blessing since we could clearly hear it call to its pack mates.
“Aaaaaaaooooouuuuuuuu,” howled the wild wolf. In the distance behind us, we heard another howl back, followed by another to our right. Before long
another dark gray wolf popped out of the thick brush and crossed the road behind us, which served as an impetus for the one in front to also move away.
A few miles up the road we figured out what all the wolf speak was about when a large, nearly white-coated male with a distended belly popped out of the brush and began running alongside the road next to our vehicles. Dangling from his jaws was a hindquarter of a Dall sheep. The pack had apparently been hunting, and this wolf in front of us was either taking some back to feed pups, or was saving meat for later.
The sight of a wild wolf caused nothing short of a swarm of cars and trucks. Despite regulations requiring vehicles to pull over and turn off their engines to watch wildlife so as not to disturb it, these excited visitors began to pace the animal.
Several times it tried to cross the road, but someone would speed up to get a good photograph and spook it back. With each failed attempt the wolf picked up its pace and was clearly becoming stressed, until finally it had enough, turned tail and went off into the brush.
The scene soured my overall experience a bit, but it really shouldn’t have shocked me after living in Alaska for as long as I have. Year after year I see people attempt to snag salmon from their spawning beds in order to take home a picture of them holding up a huge fish. In my Kasilof neighborhood I see scores of hunters looking for moose from the road during hunting season. Even though such an “outdoor” experience consists of nothing more than a stalk of a few paces from their truck, the camera is the first thing to come out after the gun is put away to record the spoils of their supposed hunting prowess.
While I love to get a crisp, clear, close-up photograph of a wild animal, I have never lost sight of the idea that the purpose of the photograph is to remember a moment in time. Seeing the wolf and capturing an image of whatever I could from its brief passing was enough for me. Chasing it down to the point of negatively affecting its natural behavior would not be a memory I’d want captured, in my head or in a photo.
I cherish the photos I got during the road lottery, but I take pleasure in them because they remind me of the experience I had that day. It’s too bad, for the wolf most of all, that winning the road lottery and getting such a spectacular glimpse of this rare creature was not enough for the people harassing it.
Joseph Robertia lives in Kasilof and writes for the Redoubt Reporter. He and his wife, Colleen, run Rogues Gallery Kennel and mush rescued sled dogs. Visit them online at http://rogueskennel.com.