The low clouds rolled in again, creating
a cold, dreamy landscape of grays and whites as the visibility
plummeted to a few hundred feet. The three Dall sheep rams we
were approaching vanished into this white-on-white environment
and as Steve Berkowitz and I trudged upslope I wondered if the
rams would still be visible when the clouds lifted, if indeed
they ever would. Other banks of low threatening clouds hung along
the ridge tops or rolled eastward, while ahead, uphill, the steepest
part of our hike still remained.
An hour or so earlier our North Face Lodge tour bus had stopped when Mary spotted the three tiny white dots far across the valley near Stony Hill. I had hoped our Photo Tour would have an opportunity to photograph sheep, and had planned on leading a steep hike in to the high country where I'd seen Dalls on previous occasions if people were interested, and if the opportunity and weather worked in our favor. Now, on our third full day in the Park, we had that opportunity, or so it seemed, with three sheep that I thought were rams lying on a rocky ridge that looked accessible and within reach.
I mentioned this to Mary, who looked at me as though I were nuts. They're low, I said, but she disagreed. Well, they're within sight, I countered, and I asked if anyone was interested in trying. Steve raised his hand.
Walking across the tundra was easy, although the journey continually led uphill as we tried to find a route that was reasonably gradual and direct. Eye-balling a route from a bus two or three miles away is one thing, but up close, in the high country, a hidden cliff or precipice could have stopped our progress quickly and required a new route and, even worse, perhaps the need to descend and give up some very hard-earned elevation. Luckily, that didn't happen, and aside from the fog and low clouds and, most aptly, the lung-busting journey uphill, our progress went unimpeded.
It took an hour and a half to reach the sheep, with a stop to photograph an arctic ground squirrel, which gave us a much needed rest and a sense of accomplishment - at least we'd have shot something on the hike. As we grew nearer we confirmed that the sheep were rams, two with good horns and one young ram, now feeding along the rocks and tussocks of vegetation amidst the scree and moving slowly in our direction of travel. It's important to approach sheep from below, as it is thought that sheep will panic, perhaps mindful of wolves, if approached from above. Below, or from the side, sheep are rarely concerned, and when we finally got to their elevation we found this to be true. The sheep moved closer, feeding along the edge of a ravine that formed a physical and psychological barrier between us.
Just as we started our approach, Mary radioed us on our walkie-talkie to check our progress. She and the rest of the group had remained on the bus and had continued onward to look for bears or the pack of wolves that this year had denned quite close to the park highway road. With the volume raised to its highest level so that I could hear the radio if it were inside my jacket, her voice blasted into the still fog-shrouded landscape. Despite my worries, the sheep ignored the noise and continued feeding. "We're about to approach," I whispered back, and set a rendezvous time for a few hours later. Mary wished us luck and continued eastward; not finding any bears or wolves, but shooting a stormy tundra landscape of color and clouds that ended up as one of the most powerful images she made on the trip.
We moved closer to the sheep, although because of the ravine we were still far from the 25 yard minimal distance the Park has set for approaching wildlife. Periodically the clouds that cloaked the slopes in a gray mist lifted and the sheep stood out starkly against the saturated colors of grays and tundra browns, and once the sun appeared as a silver orb through the breaking clouds. Because of the distance and climb we took only our long lenses, but from our high vantage, looking down in an aerial-like view of the low clouds and rolling tundra, I regretted not having a short zoom as the scene was haunting, and nags at me even now as I write this.
We spent nearly an hour with the sheep before heading back down, timing ourselves to arrive at the bus at the prearranged time. The bus was late, and while we waited four bears appeared on a hillside about two-thirds of a mile to the west. Mary radioed seconds later, and within minutes the bus appeared and we headed toward the bears which, by the time we arrived, were feeding within a few yards of the road. The bears, a mother and three nearly full-grown cubs, proceeded downhill, eventually crossing the tundra within a short distance of the exact route Steve and I had traversed as we descended from the ridge. Had they been only an hour earlier our return hike across the tundra would have been very interesting.
Minutes later, after the bears loped out of sight, we spotted a herd of thirty or forty more Dall sheep closer and lower than the ones we had worked, but we reconciled ourselves in the fact that such a large herd would be comprised of ewes and lambs. We didn't have enough time to attempt another approach regardless; nor would my knees have taken another journey across the tundra that day.
As it turned out, on our last full day in the park we found another group of Dall rams, a few hundred feet above Eielson Visitor Center, but again it was too late in the day to attempt an approach. These were huge rams with great curls, but now the loose rocks and steep slopes were covered with the first good snow of the season, and hiking across those ridges would have been extremely treacherous.
The snowline had dropped by several hundred feet in the last two days, and by about one thousand feet on this, our last day. During the six full days we'd spent at North Face Lodge the tundra had peaked in autumnal color and for several days the dwarf birches and blueberry bushes, bearberry and bunchberry, and a myriad of other tundra plants had glowed in orange and red and yellow. On our last day, as we drove out of the Park, the changes in the landscape were particularly striking - much of the vibrant colors were now a rusty brown, and the landscape had the gloomy air of late fall.
Our sheep experience was the trip's highlight for both Steve and I, but our six days in Denali had many, and this was undoubtedly the most productive trip I've ever done to the park. In fact, Mary and I came to Denali with the very real intention that this would be our last visit to the park for a very long time. In a previous Question of the Month I have compared Denali with another mountain park, Torres del Paine in Chile, and the comparison was not favorable. Denali is a hard park to shoot, but as I rediscovered, it is still an exciting and extremely productive park to film.
Denali is a hard park to shoot because to really, really do it right, one has to be willing to walk and to put out some effort to obtain the best shots. Unlike most National Parks, you cannot drive into Denali unless you are awarded an extremely difficult to receive professional photography permit. Five of these are issued a day, good for one or several days depending, and the requirements to obtain a permit are stringent. Alternatively, one can board the park buses that traverse the park, which will drop you off where ever, but not adjacent to any animal that is close to the road. So, by the time you walk back to where the animal was, it may be gone. Photographers leaving the bus may also find it difficult to secure a seat in a later bus - if the bus seats are full, you must wait for another. Supposedly, the park buses won't maroon you in the park, but a good friend of mine was, in fact, marooned and spent much of the night walking until he arrived at a ranger station to obtain a ride back to his camper. The ranger wasn't especially pleased to be awakened at 1AM, but my friend wasn't too pleased at being abandoned at 8 or 9PM either!
Our second encounter with caribou at the Y was especially productive, at least for Warren McGill and me. While doing macro I noticed some caribou on a distant hillside about one-half mile away. Another CD/NFL bus was parked nearby and I could see some tourists or photographers outside of the bus watching the caribou. I grabbed a radio and told Mary I'd call if the shooting was worthwhile, but by the time I hiked down the road the caribou had retreated uphill and were continuing in that direction. Still, one tourist remained near the caribou, a good sign that the animals were not too disturbed, so I eye-balled a route that avoided the chest-high thickets of wet willows and circled around, hoping to get a bit closer. As I moved uphill Warren joined me, deciding to give the caribou a go as well.
We trudged uphill through spongy tundra for another quarter-mile or so until we reached a spot roughly parallel with the caribou. At that point the two bulls we had been following disappeared over a rise, but seconds later they reappeared, grazing in our direction. For the next few minutes the two bulls walked closer and closer, requiring us to flip to a vertical format to fit the entire animal in when a bull faced us, before they angled off and moved higher. Several other sets of antlers appeared on the horizon and within seconds a group of fifteen or so cows popped over the ridge. They spotted the bulls and ran downhill to join them, then proceeded at a gallop to run past us and toward where we had left the group. Unfortunately, they didn't stop until they reached another high point nearly a mile away.
Those two encounters, one with the Dall sheep and one with the bull caribou, were really the only times we were required to hike any distance to photograph big game. Other caribou, as well as grizzly bear, fox, and ptarmigan, were shot right from the bus, and smaller hikes, less than a few hundred yards from the road, brought us into great range of willow ptarmigan, beaver, and moose, including the best of this species that we've ever shot.
On a dreay, dark morning, two big-shoveled bull moose stood on a ridge line about one hundred yards off the road. Alternately, rain squalls, fog, and rainless gaps passed by, providing several different looks as the moose ambled across the red-carpeted tundra. When they dropped over the ridge we followed, and over the next hour or so, until the moose finally bedded down, we did some great work. On our return in late afternoon and without my gear I hiked back out to check whether or not the moose were still in the area, although I was doubtful that theywould have stayed settled all day in a cool rain. Surprisingly, though, they were, and those photographers who did not hike out in the morning for the moose now did so, and were rewarded with one view in particular - overlooking the moose lying in the orange-red low dwarf birches - that was truly spectacular.
Throughout our stay tundra color was at its peak, and while we had been disappointed that we couldn't schedule the week following our visit, another photo group, leaving on the bus we'd take into the park, informed us that we were hitting the peak autumnal color. Had we been 'lucky' and able to book the weeks we had hoped for, we'd have missed the peak by four full days!
By the last full day of our photo tour only beaver remained to be filmed, but again, almost as if our shooting was set to a schedule, we again had luck. We had been told of an active pond fairly close to the road but when we arrived nothing was visible. Nonetheless, we decided to give it a crack, and after negotiating through some swamp-like terrain (I found an easy route on the way back, of course!) we positioned ourselves in view of the large beaver lodge. Within ten minutes beavers appeared at the far end of the large lake, swimming toward the lodge with various sized willow and birch limbs in tow. Considering that beavers only swim with their hind legs they moved surprisingly fast, and after the first few visits, one or two of these huge rodents grew curious and swam close by our group. One circled the cache of limbs they had been storing offshore - under the water, beavers stow limbs in piles and in the mud around the lodge for easy access during the months when their ponds are covered with ice - and swam up to the edge of the lodge. I had hoped to film one standing on the lodge, but we weren't that lucky. Instead, the beaver climbed to the edge of the lodge, almost completely visible above the water line, and proceeded to gnaw on a willow it had carried along.
After that performance we were ready to move off, but instead of leading the group out as I normally do, I decided to take off my 1.4X tele-converter before I hiked back to the bus. Just as I did so Warren or Steve whistled my attention and pointed behind me. The beaver had returned, and swam back to the same feeding location as before. The three of us began shooting, and this time the beaver swam even closer, waddling to the pond's edge to gather mud and grasses that I hoped it'd pull up onto the lodge. It didn't, but instead dove and, I presume, used the mulch to line the inside of the lodge. It didn't reappear and we double-timed back to the rest of our waiting group.
Of course, one of the principle attractions in this park is Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,340 feet. Mary and I have never entered the Park without seeing Denali (Mt. McKinley) on our first day, and although we 'missed' it on the drive in, the skies cleared shortly after we reached the lodge and from that vantage we were treated to a spectacular alpine glow. The mountain stayed visible, more or less, for the next two days before the weather changed, and we didn't see it again until the morning we left, where, under crystal clear skies, the mountain glowed in the early morning light. Since we were on our way out we had less time to shoot than we normally would, but I think everyone got the shots they had envisioned. On this last, frigidly cold, clear morning the lake was warmer than the air and a low fog hung above the water, framing the mountain in shifting smoke, producing what I believe were my favorite shots.
In all, we succeeded on all fronts where success can be expected. We saw wolves on several occasions, and one or two of the Camp Denali/NFL buses had luck with wolves - including one encounter where several played in the river bed relatively close, but we did not. On our only 'Early Out' day, where we left after a very early breakfast, other subjects commanded our attention and we were unable to get to the wolves early enough in the morning to have any luck. And, of course, had we by-passed the other subjects simply to get to the wolf-area quickly, there'd be no guarantee, or even a probability, that the wolves would have been either visible or nearby.
Other than the wolves, we had great shots of the following animals: trumpeter swans, shoveler and pintail ducks, willow ptarmigan, golden eagle, moose, caribou, grizzly bears, beaver, a black phase red fox ( photoed by James Adams), Dall sheep, and arctic ground squirrels. We had shots or good looks at gyrfalcons, northern shrikes, American widgeons, black-billed magpies, and Canada jays. We shot the mountain in both early morning and late evening; did great panorama stitches, and had the tundra at peak color.
We would be remiss if we didn't thank the staff of North Face Lodge and Camp Denali for helping to make this trip a success for without the expert driving, guiding and patience of Bill, Brian, Luc and Ann, without the hospitality of Claudia and Pete and Bronwyn and Matt who made our group feel very, very special, none of this would be possible. They all work hard and it is very much appreciated.
Having a bus comprised solely of our group made orchestrating the shoot easy, as everyone had patience, and everyone showed immense cooperation when we shot from the bus. In all, the group and Mary and I were more than satisfied, and before we left we almost second-guessed ourselves into attempting to schedule another Denali trip for next August. However, we are passing on that until 2007, when we will combine a two-session Denali trip with one or more trips to Katmai for coastal brown bears.
If you are interested in either our 2007 Denali or our 2007 coastal brown bear trips, contact our office to be put on our first-alert list. We hope to be accepting deposits for that shoot as soon as we confirm dates with the Camp Denali/North Face Lodge staff.