For the first time in the eleven years I have lived here, I finally drew a permit through the Denali road lottery. I have applied off-and-on over that time, grumbling every year when I learn that I did not draw a permit but hear of others who did and had just applied for their first time. Given the date that we drew, September 19, Michelle and I decided that it would be a nice way to celebrate our wedding anniversary (September 20). One of my goals was to make it out to Wonder Lake and photograph the sunset there; something I had not had the opportunity to do in seven years. I had no idea that I would get out to the lake as quickly as I did, forced away from the wildlife from the unruly crowds on the road.
Staying at the McKinley Chalet Resort in “Glitter Gulch,” because it was the only lodging open and Michelle has a rule about not camping when there is lodging available nearby, we got up early enough to be at the Savage River bridge right at the earliest time we could enter the park – 6:00 a.m. We arrived at the bridge just a few minutes after six, already behind a line of about a half dozen cars. It was well before sunrise, but I had hoped that we could get to Broad Pass by sunrise to capture the light falling on that expansive landscape. As it turned out, by the time we got there, it became apparent that the sun was not going to favor that landscape the way I had envisioned, so we continued on to Polychrome Pass.
Shortly after arriving at rest area at Polychrome Pass, Joe Connolly of Chugach Peaks Photography arrived with some wedding clients to do a one-year anniversary portrait session. The clients had drawn a road lottery permit, so they planned on spending the day at various locations photographing. After having breakfast as we sat and enjoyed the view over Polychrome, we started to head up the road, stopping within a minute to get out and photograph a group of Dall sheep rams that were grazing and resting on rocky ledges and slopes near the road. We were the first to stop, but within a half an hour, a crowd of a dozen vehicles had stopped, facilitating a crowd of people gathering at various points on the road. As more people arrived, the more people tended to disregard the norms of behavior, approaching the wildlife too closely and parking all over the road. Fortunately, a pair of Park Rangers arrived and told people to put more distance between themselves and the sheep, and directing traffic. After a while, we continued on down the road.
The next series of encounters involved a pack of wolves that was scattered throughout one area, with single members of the pack traveling off and on along the road. Rather than stopping and allowing the animal to do whatever it was going to do, cars kept following the wolves, forcing the wolves to keep walking down the road. I got out of the car and tried to get a view of one of the wolves, but the constant moving caravan of over a dozen cars following the wolves made photography impossible. We soon came upon a wolf that was standing right on the edge of the road, right next to a car that was parked in the middle of the road. I got out of the car about two hundred and fifty yards away from where the wolf was, trying to capture a shot of him with my 500mm. I managed to get one decent photo of him standing on the road, with Denali looming in the background. After a while, the wolf headed off the road and proceeded off into the land to the north. It was a difficult shot, as there were about fifteen people outside of their cars and a dozen or so cars in between me and the wolf. I walked the distance up to where Michelle had parked right behind the vehicle that was there sitting next to the wolf. It had been about five minutes since the wolf had left the road, but the occupants of the parked car started yelling at me and Michelle, telling me to get off the road and back in my car or else I would “ruin it for everyone else.” I told him to chill out, that I was well outside of the 100 foot required distance of wildlife when I was over two hundred yards away when the wolf was out in the open. The guy continued to accuse me of all sorts of affronts, acting as if this was his personal wolf and I had no idea what I was doing. I just got back in the car, and Michelle and I drove around the car and continued on our way.
Our next encounter was with a sow and two cubs that were coming down a drainage. The first location where we parked was not a good position, so we moved back down the road to park among a group of vehicles that had parked on the north side of the road. Park rules require that all vehicles park on the same side of the road. Yet, by the time the bears crossed the road to continue following the drainage there were cars on both sides of the road. As vehicles kept arriving, we needed to adjust our location a couple of times to still be able to view the bears. At one point, a Park Ranger approached us and told us that they were going to have everyone park on the south side of the road, rather than the north side. That was fine with me, as the bears had moved to the south side of the road and it would allow us better viewing. But, when we moved to where the Park Ranger had directed us, we were yelled at by a woman who was complaining about us blocking her view – she was parked on the north side of the road. We explained that this was where the ranger had told us to park, and she said that the other ranger had told her to park on the north side of the road. Great. Two different rangers giving conflicting direction on where to park. After I managed to take a few pictures and Michelle was able to finally get a decent view of the sow with her cubs, we decided it was time to get out of there and make our way to Wonder Lake.
We stopped at the Eielson Visitor Center to use the picnic tables for lunch. I think it is fair to say that it is one of the best views for a picnic lunch in the state, looking out at the moraine of the Muldrow Glacier and the full, unobstructed view of Denali as it rises above the foothills and lower ridges of the Alaska Range.
On the final, flat stretch out to Wonder Lake, we noticed a large group of migrating sandhill cranes flying against the backdrop of Denali. After we stopped and I set up the camera, I noticed that the flock was starting to fly in circles. But soon I noticed that they were not just flying in circles, but, with each circuit, flying higher and higher in altitude. It reminded me of the technique that I know pilots use to gain altitude when they want to remain at the same location, taking large, slow turns while climbing higher and higher. I also noticed that they were merely gliding, not flapping their wings. Michelle and I surmised that they had found an updraft, and that the cranes used the updraft to gain altitude while conserving energy for the long flying ahead. We would encounter another dozen or so groups of cranes, some passing overhead, some using the circling, altitude-climbing technique. In each instance, though they were miles away or thousands of feet overhead, we could hear their distinct call.
We arrived at Wonder Lake several hours before sunset, so we switched into relaxation mode. We picked a nice spot on the tundra with a view of the lake and the mountain, sat down and relaxed. We both read for a while, and then I took a nap while Michelle explored for berries. Off and on throughout the afternoon and evening, we ended up picking two liters of low bush cranberries. Later on, we went on a little hike around Blueberry Hill over to the point where the road passes the northernmost tip of Wonder Lake. As the sun progressed toward evening, we selected our spot on Blueberry Hill where we would have dinner and I would photograph the sunset. There was a man there with his family, taking some pictures, but no other actual photographers in sight. I suspected that they were all back in the heart of the park, fighting the crowds for a good shot at a wolf or a bear. You can photograph wildlife any day of the year in any weather conditions. You cannot get shots like this of the landscape on any day. One of the shots I set up was something I had never seen before – a panoramic shot that covered the expanse of the entire lake and included Denali and its adjacent peaks. The end result – a 41-image panoramic that, in full size, would be an eight-foot print.
For dinner, I set up my MSR whisperlite stove, heated up some water and added it to some Mountain House backcountry dinners and sliced up some fruit we brought along for the day. We enjoyed a bottle of wine – Pinot Noir – and some chocolate to compliment the wine and have for dessert. After the sun started to get low, we headed back down to our car, parked near the Ranger station, so that I could photograph the mountains and their peak alpenglow from Reflection Pond. On the way back, we stopped a couple of times so I could photograph the moon with the landscape.
I think the lesson to learn from my first Denali road lottery experience is that, even when you can drive your car, you should still enjoy the park the way that is always the best way to enjoy it – by getting off the road. We decided that next time, we would not get up so early, and we would find a spot that had active wildlife, park, and then hike away from the road to get away from the people. The experience left me with a solid sense of gratitude for the wisdom of not usually allowing people the opportunity to drive into the park, because they simply lack the situational awareness or consideration to share the park, the road, and the wildlife with others. The explosion of photography as a common hobby in the wake of the digital age has exacerbated this phenomenon, I imagine, as everyone thinks they are a photographer, and everyone HAS to get THAT SHOT so they can put it on their Facebook page, or Tweet it to someone, or whatever. And then you have the pro-wannabes, like the dude parked next to the wolf who was barking orders at me like he owned the place, who add a certain special quality to the experience. It was telling to me that I was the only photographer at Wonder Lake for the evening, and I was happy to be able to share that with Michelle in peace to put a calming, relaxing finish on an otherwise chaotic day.