Category Archives: Alaska

Autumn on the Tundra

Denali National Park
Denali National Park

Yes, it really looked that red in the subdued morning light.

Look at me! Aren't I grand?
Look at me! Aren’t I grand?

This is NOT a Reindeer. It is one of the thousands of Caribou in Denali. This one looked at us as if to challenge our presence.

Caribou that are captured and domesticated are then called Reindeer. The University of Alaska in Fairbanks runs the Reindeer Research Program in support of the many Reindeer ranchers on the Seward Peninsula.

WP D7K_6872-Edit-2Once he determined that we weren’t a threat, he turned his attention to this smaller male on the right.

There are over 2000 Caribou in the Park. They favor the open Tundra where they can escape the insects and find lichens to munch. Unlike moose, both male and female caribou grow antlers and shed them each year.

Below is a photo of my wife holding up a large pair of antlers on display at one of the visitor centers.


“The mountains have always been here, and in them, the bears.”

The title is from The Lost Grizzlies by Rick Bass

WP D7K_6892-EditThis shot was taken from 1300 to 1500 yards distant. I could have used a longer glass but wasn’t prepared to even spot anything this far away (I have 71 year old eyes). Fortunately, they were silhouetted nicely on the ridge. This is a mother grizzly and her 3 cubs in their second season.

“Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there”.
– Aldo Leopold (in “A Sand County Almanac”, 1948)

WP D7K_7201-Edit-2

This one was about 200 yards away down in a river bed. You can see the characteristic hump on its back and the sun shining through the lighter hairs which gives the Grizzly its name.


Nikky was much closer. Between 5 and 10 yards!! This wasn’t in Denali; it was one of the hiking trails around Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau a few days before. We were standing on a narrow wooden bridge over a creek with the guide pointing out some spawning salmon below. Nikky came out of the bushes right where the bridge rejoined the path, looked at us as if she wanted to pass, then turned and sauntered up the trail. She frequents this area and is well known. In past seasons she has been accompanied by a couple of cubs. Fortunately, because of the close encounter, she was alone this time. She had been captured at some point and wore a radio collar around her neck.

“When all the dangerous cliffs are fenced off, all the trees that might fall on people are cut down, all of the insects that bite have been poisoned … and all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe. Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness.” 
– R. Yorke Edwards (Canadian environmentalist) 

“It is all mossy and moosey. ” – Henry David Thoreau

Yesterday I promised to show you some of the creatures that inhabit the Tundra at Denali. Today, it’ll be Moose of which there are about 1800 resident in the park. It was the rut, or breeding season when these photos were taken. The bulls can be very aggressive during this time. They’re very fast but fortunately their large antlers (up to seven feet wide) hinder them from turning very sharply. This would be good if there were any large trees to hide behind but as you can see in the photos there is only Taiga growth on the Tundra.

Bull by the side of the road
Bull by the side of the road

We caught this fellow having breakfast along the road at 0700 just a few miles past the visitor center.

Moose inhabiting Denali National Park and Preserve face many natural and human related factors that potentially affect behavior, distribution and population. These factors include weather, predation by wolves and bears, and human development. Moose in the park tend to live in forested areas that are often close to lakes and marshes and other bodies of water. Moose are also excellent swimmers. In the winter they remain in their territory, often in willow marshes, and form “yards”- they create paths in the deep snow as they paw for food. During the summer they graze on grasses, forbs, underwater vegetation, bushes, coniferous needles and deciduous leaves. Moose are very large, fast animals and are aggressive when disturbed.
Adult males are called bulls, adult females are cows and the young are called calves. Moose are not typically found in large herds, they are mainly found as single animals or in small groups. Moose are the largest member of the deer family. Adult males can weigh 900-1400 pounds and females can weigh 700-1100 pounds. They have extremely long legs and stand 5-6 ½ feet at the shoulder. They use their long legs to wade into bodies of water and eat plants off the bottom. Their legs also enable them to paw through deep snow to reach food in winter. Their body is covered with black or very dark brown hair. They have a very large head with a dewlap of skin, called a “bell,” hanging down from the jaw.
Moose breed in late September and early October. Bulls have large antlers that curve upward and back. The antlers are palmate; having a flattened area like the palm of your hand, with the fingers or tines pointing up. The bulls use these antlers to spar during the breeding season or rut. During the rut bulls and can be extremely aggressive and dangerous. The antlers are grown each spring and shed in early winter, after breeding season. The breeding season is one of the few times moose form small groups.
Cows remain pregnant for about 8 months and calving occurs in late May through early June. Calves are born with a reddish brown coat with no spots and their coat darkens with age. Cows often have twins and sometimes triplets. There are approximately 1,800 moose on the north side of the Alaska Range in Denali National Park and Preserve. (source)

Shedding velvet
Shedding velvet

The next day we spotted this fellow struggling to shed the velvet from his antlers. He was alternately munching berries and scraping his antlers on any sturdy stick he could find. He’s got most of it off and you can see the antlers still carry blood from the connecting tissue. A large flap of velvet is still clinging to his left antler and I think it’s this he’s trying to scrape off.

WP D7K_7112-Edit

This is one of two cows the previous fellow was keeping a close eye on as he dealt with his discomfort. We saw many more in our three days there but for being ungainly looking they can disappear among surprisingly small bushes too quickly to get a clear photo.