Denali's Trailless Wilderness
Surrounded by a mix of tundra-covered and bare-rock hills 4,500 to 6,000 feet high, Dan and I make camp on a grassy bench at 3,000 feet. Even at this altitude there is little brush and no trees and we can easily cross open ground in almost any direction we choose (though a few steep and rocky hill slopes look forbidding). In short, this small valley provides good access to high places. Rather than continuing to backpack through the range, we'll explore our corner of it on a series of day hikes.
Besides being popular with grizzlies, these hills are inhabited by large numbers of Dall sheep. Some stay here year-round; others leave the Outer Range in early summer and migrate south several miles to the Alaska Range's northern foothills. We looked for sheep but didn't see any on our walk in; but late on our first afternoon, we climb a ridge above camp and find a sheep trail. Following it, we soon meet a"bachelor group" of six Dall rams. Three have large horns, sweeping outward in a three-quarter- to a full curl; the others have shorter, spiked horns.
Seated on rocky debris, the white sheep placidly chew their cud as they digest the tundra greens consumed on their afternoon feed. We approach to within 100 feet, then sit down to watch. The rams look our way but show no signs of alarm or discomfort; a couple close their eyes as they resume their chewing. These sheep, like others in the park, are habituated to people; unhunted by humans, they have no reason to fear us. Still, we're careful not to encroach on their space. (Park regulations prohibit visitors from getting closer than 75 feet to sheep, caribou, moose, or wolves; for grizzlies, the margin increases to a quarter-mile.)
The rams are nearing the end of their annual molt: Tufts of coarse winter hair hang from their shorter, cooler summer coats, giving them a scraggly look. A couple rub their fur against the ground to assist the molting process. Another stands and stretches, then walks to a remnant snow patch where it slurps the melting snow. On a bright summer afternoon with plenty of food, no biting insects, and no predators in the area, living is easy.
The ridgeline holds other treats. Sky-blue mountain forget-me-nots, lemon-colored arctic poppies, snow-white mountain avens, and delicate mats of magenta moss campion have somehow taken root among a large pile of rocks to transform an otherwise drab, black-and-brown scree slope into a brightly colored rock garden. So many of these alpine wildflowers are small and fragile looking, yet they are hardy enough to survive in the rocky soil of exposed, wind-buffeted ridges.
Off in the distance, in a world far too severe for either flowers or sheep, Denali reaches into a pale-blue sky, its North and South Peaks shimmering brightly in the afternoon sun as they rise above a low-lying layer of clouds and several waves of dark, snow-streaked ridgelines.
Later, while sitting outside our tent in the shadows of late evening, Dan and I watch four of the rams descend to the creek bottom. This is a surprise. Down here the sheep are more vulnerable to attack by wolves and grizzlies. The rams graze on creek-bed greenery for several minutes, then cross to the opposite slope, where they climb to a dark brown outcropping of bare rock. They seem to be nibbling or licking the rock, which suggests it's a salt lick, where sheep get the minerals to supplement their vegetarian diet. They stay only a few minutes, then move out of sight.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication