Denali in Autumn 2018 Trip Report

By Gary Alt on Oct 09, 2018

We left North Face Lodge by bus right after breakfast and headed east with the hope of getting a glimpse of The Mountain and spotting some wildlife within shooting range of the road.  In the first hour, as we drove by the north end of Wonder Lake and past Reflection Pond, we realized that our dream shots of Denali reflecting in placid water would likely have to wait for at least another day as the mountain scene was hidden in a solid bank of low-hanging clouds.   
 
Farther east we had a close encounter with a few impressive bull caribou on the south side of the road but they quickly scampered into the willows, leaving the whole group of “trigger happy” photographers with the anxiety of almost getting the shot, but not quite.     
 
About half an hour later we hit the jackpot!  Anne Skalmoski, our designated “wildlife spotter” of the group, blurted out, “Moose on the left!”  As I twisted around to look out of the left side of the bus the scene sparked a flashback to when I was about six years old in a crowd of other kids at an Easter egg hunt with a search image of just a plain dyed hard-boiled chicken egg when, to my amazement and pleasure, I spotted a very large chocolate rabbit.  Moose in DenaliRight in the open tundra, less than fifty yards away, were two enormous adult bull moose with antlers at least four feet wide bedded about forty feet apart!  Augmenting this memorable Denali fall scene were the yellow leaves of willows, orange leaves of dwarf birches, reddish-purple leaves of blueberry, with an overcast sky providing a nice even light on the scene.
 
It wasn’t so much what I saw that excited me, it was what I thought we were about to see.  In most deer species during the summer, testosterone levels remain low while antlers are growing and males segregate from females and tend to travel with other similar age males with very little conflict.   As fall approaches, testosterone levels quickly rise, which causes the antlers to die, the exterior velvet is rubbed off, and aggressive behavior increases.  As the rut approaches, males begin to fight for mating privileges more often and more violently until dominance and breeding rights are determined.
 
There are five species of deer that live in North America: (1) white-tailed deer, (2) mule/black-tail deer, (3) elk, (4) caribou and (5) moose.  I have seen these antler sparring fights many times between adult male whitetails, mule/blacktails, elk and caribou—but I had never seen it in moose.  The fact that these two bulls were bedded so close together, one with fully polished antlers and the other with almost all of its velvet stripped, gave me confidence that this scene had great photographic potential.  If we would just exercise some patience and wait, we might see a contest between two massive bull moose—an experience of a lifetime.   We talked about this briefly and decided, as a group, to park the bus and wait to see what might develop. 
 
Denali National Park in full autumn color

Turned out, it didn’t take much patience.  I was able to document the chronology and timing of events based on the photo series and time recorded in the metadata for each of my photos.  After waiting only nineteen minutes, the bull on the right stood up, stretched and began to masturbate—something that male cervids (members of the deer family) often do just prior to engaging in battle.  Over the next eight minutes the standing bull slowly but deliberately walked over to the bedded bull.  The bedded bull then stood up when they were within about ten feet of each other.  For the next two minutes the two bulls stood parallel to each other, then gradually oriented until they stood head to head only a few feet apart.  Then, very slowly and carefully, the two bulls paired their antlers together and began to test each other slightly.  As time went on the sparring became more physical, pushing and twisting with their antlers to take the other bull off balance. 
 
Over a period of 55 minutes we watched these two magnificent bulls demonstrate a variety of behaviors, including two sparring sessions, the first lasting eleven minutes, the second lasting four minutes, with a ten-minute intermission separating them.  This moose sparring contest, though not nearly as violent as it will become over the next month or so as the rut draws near, was absolutely spectacular to watch and photograph.  
 
There are 41 different species of deer currently living in the world; moose are the largest of all the deer.  There are eight subspecies of moose recognized in the world, and the Alaska moose (Alces alces gigas) is the largest and heaviest deer in the world, up to six feet at the shoulders and weighing up to 1,600 pounds!
 
Deer are unique in that they are the only animals that grow antlers and maintain this dead bone on their body for months each year until it falls off only to have a new set of antlers grow the following year.  So, why do deer have antlers?  What is their purpose or function?  Mother bear and cub in Denali National ParkSome scientists speculate that it is a secondary sexual characteristic that allows females to appraise the “fitness” of individual males by the size and shape of their antlers.  Healthier males tend to grow larger and more symmetric antlers.  Another scientific hypothesis is that the purpose of antlers is to test strength in sparring battles where the victors of those battles win breeding rights.  One scientist, a physicist, went so far as to determine the amount of pressure applied to the antlers in battle and tested the breaking strength of antlers in a laboratory.  He found that antlers were about 67 times stronger than they needed to be to just display them, but only about 2.7 times stronger than they needed to be to test strength.  He suggested that this was strong evidence that the primary purpose of antlers was to test strength rather than just for display because it made no sense that nature would needlessly waste so much energy to produce antlers 67 times stronger than they needed to be.  All of this, and much more, went through my mind during the hour we spent photographing these Denali monarchs of the deer world.
 
I have led eleven tours to Denali National Park since the mid-1980s and no two have ever been the same.  All of the tours were very pleasurable.  Each time I return to Denali I think of the famous quote in the movie Forest Gump, that “…life was like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”  Sometimes grizzly bears provide the highlights, sometimes caribou.  Once it was Dall sheep, once it was wolves.  Sometimes it’s spectacular fall colors or especially beautiful views of Denali, the highest mountain in North America.  But this time it was sharing an hour, up close, in the life of two sparring adult Alaska bull moose.  Though the highlights change from trip to trip, the deep satisfaction of viewing and photographing spectacular wildlife and breathtaking scenery in an American wilderness always leaves you yearning to return.  I will be returning to Denali to lead another photographic trip for Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris next fall, August 31 to September 7, 2019, and I can’t wait!  Hope you can join me.

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