I don’t think bears search for food in the tree tops much. They would be focused on what’s on the ground or within arms reach. Conifers don’t have much to offer in the way of Fall color and the Aspen and Birch leaves turn yellow and then brown and then fall off, all within a day or two. So if you want to observe the Autumn colors in Denali, look down like the bears.
Around 300 to 350 grizzly bears live in the park on the north side of the Alaska Range. You can see them on open tundra, and along the gravel bars of streams and rivers. About 80% of a Denali grizzly’s diet is roots, berries, bulbs, tubers and fresh vegetation. They have long claws for digging. They also eat ground squirrels, caribou, moose and sheep when they can catch them. Along the coast, their larger cousins eat a lot of salmon but there are none here. Grizzlies hibernate from October to April so September is their last chance to build fat reserves before the long sleep.
It’s hard to believe that these would feed a 600 pound grizzly, let alone fatten him. The name “bearberry” for the plant derives from the edible fruit which is a favorite food of bears. The fruit, also called bearberries, are edible and are sometimes gathered for food. The leaves of the plant are used in herbal medicine.
I’ve a few more photos of Denali that I’ll share later but tomorrow I think I’ll spend a little time on Glacier Bay National Park.
This 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)
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)
If you can only visit one more wilderness area in your lifetime, make sure it’s Denali National Park. In early September, the ground is a riot of reds, yellows and oranges from berry bushes and lichen. Caribou, moose and grizzly bears walk out in front of your camera. Foxes scamper across the trail with a snowshoe hare or Willow Ptarmigan in their mouths. Scan the rocky hills carefully and you’ll see the tiny white dots that are herds of Dall Sheep.
But you may not see Denali (Mt. McKinley). Only 30% of park visitors ever do. At 20,320 feet, even it’s lower slopes are often hidden in the clouds.
There are probably at least 4 bears, 12 moose and a herd of caribou in the above picture. If you don’t believe me, check back over the next few days to see them exposed.
A tip: You can pay $150 for the 112 mile round trip bus tour. But we had most of our wildlife sightings in the first 14 miles and you can cover this in the free shuttle bus to Savage River that leaves the Visitor Center every 2 hours. Take the shuttle out, hike the 2 mile Savage River loop trail and then catch the next bus back.