Secrets from the Park Ranger Files: Denali
|Two grey wolves in Alaska (iStockphoto)|
Denali National Park
As a park ranger, Liz Hamilton has seen her share of unbelievable events, many of which are too sad to recount in detail here: stabbings with little kids as witnesses, park visitors she couldn’t keep from dying, drunks who soiled their pants. But a few years ago, while stationed at the Toklat ranger cabin in Alaska’s Denali National Park, she became witness to an amazing—and scary—scene that she won't soon forget.
The Toklat cabin is about a two-hour drive into the park at milepost 53. It was 8:00 in the morning, and Hamilton was chopping a banana at the kitchen counter when she heard a rustling in the bushes outside. Suddenly two wolves were rolling around in her yard, fighting. One was clearly the alpha male, and though he was rather skinny, he was proving to be the better fighter. The other wolf was big and bloody from head to tail, with fur torn off his back leg in a big strip. Another wolf, a smaller one, was sitting nearby just watching.
“The alpha got the big one by the face and had him pinned on his back,” Hamilton says. “Then the little one darted in, bit the big one on his chest and then immediately jumped back.” The two wolves broke apart and, to Hamilton’s horror, the big wolf leapt up onto her porch, with nothing but a thin screen door between them. The wolf was so close that Hamilton could see the fresh hole in his cheek where the alpha had just bit his face. Hamilton’s gun was holstered a few feet behind her. She was armed with only a knife and her banana.
“I knew I would not fare well,” she says. “The big one looked in the screen, panting. His head was massive and for a split second I thought he might break through to escape the alpha.”
To her relief, the wolves turned and fled, growling and barking as they ran up a hill behind the cabin. “They left only smeared blood and fur on my porch and in the grass to convince me I hadn’t imagined it all,” she says. “I’ll never see anything like it again.”
Be that guy (safely)…
For the average visitor, riding the bus into the park is your best bet for spotting wolves. But nature’s most effective predators are known for their elusiveness, so if you have backcountry skills, your chances get a whole lot better. Hamilton says that backpacking to park areas 8, 9, and 10 offers a pretty good chance for spotting wolves, as these areas are relatively open and not covered in dense brush. No guarantees, of course, but if there are wolves, you're much more likely to see them. Several units east of the Eielson Visitor Center are also prime for backpacking and have shorter brush. Hamilton’s also seen a lot of wolves on the road from the East Fork Bridge (mile 43) to Stony Dome (mile 61). The wolves like the road for the same reason we do: Traveling is much easier.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication