Denali National Park 2016 Trip Report

By Gary Alt on Oct 12, 2016

Denali National Park in autumn has always been a spectacular place for scenic and wildlife photography and our late August–early September 2016 tour was no exception.   Although I’ve been in Denali many times over the past 25 years, it has always surprised me how different each trip can be due to changes in weather, fall colors and distribution, and abundance of wildlife.  As an example, when I led the Denali in Autumn photo safari in 2014, during our 90-mile bus ride from the park entrance to North Face Lodge, we plowed through a major winter storm with snow accumulation in some areas exceeding ten inches.  We had come to photograph the fall colors, but for the first two days of the tour white was the predominant color.  Contrary to what you may be thinking, it was not a disappointment.  We captured amazing photos of a grizzly bear chasing, catching and eating arctic ground squirrels in a winter wonderland and we filmed caribou with prime coats and polished antlers traveling through beautiful winter scenes that, for some trip participants, were used to illustrate Christmas cards!  After the first two days, the snow melted away and we got busy filming the traditional fall colors.  Cloud cover concealed the mountain for much of the tour that year, but we still left with a nice diversity of great wildlife and scenic images. 
Our 2016 tour was different—very different: no snow, no rain, and almost no clouds.  For five days and five nights we had clear skies and the mountain was in view continuously!  Every night, sometime between 11:30 PM and 4:00 AM, we had beautiful displays of the northern lights of varying intensity. This was made possible by a rare combination of an active aurora, clear skies, and a new moon that kept the sky dark enough to really bring out the northern lights.  The biggest problem for photographers was sleep deprivation caused by trying to film wildlife and scenics throughout the day and the aurora borealis throughout the night—you can burn the candle at both ends for only so long!  This long stretch of clear weather was certainly unexpected, especially considering Denali had had an unusually wet and rainy summer.  Bus drivers at North Face Lodge told us that we experienced the best weather they had seen over the past four months—since early May! 
In spite of the amazing clear skies throughout our trip, other weather conditions this year did challenge our photography.  Denali’s wet summer weather resulted in more muted fall colors because of a fungus forming on many of the leaves, causing them to drop off without ever developing rich color.  Another weather event impacting wildlife photography was the unseasonably warm temperatures associated with the bright sun during our tour that likely reduced daytime movements, and thus observations, of some of the larger park mammals, such as moose, caribou and grizzlies.   These are just some of the factors that make each trip to Denali unique.   
There were several memorable highlights during our 2016 trip. For two days in a row, just about five miles east of Eielson Visitor Center, we filmed a large adult female grizzly bear with a beautiful winter coat for more than an hour.  Likely pregnant, and preparing for a long winter of nursing in her den without food, she obsessively and systematically moved from shrub to shrub, like an ursid version of one of those modern robot vacuum cleaners, sucking down soapberries and blueberries by the thousands.   On both days her berry-picking activities brought her within 25 yards of our bus, providing wonderful photographic opportunities.  Apparently all the exercise and unseasonably high temperatures caused her to overheat.  For over ten minutes on several occasions, she flopped down, belly first, in a small stream to cool off.  Based on the condition and robustness of her body, she should meet the demands of motherhood and make it through another long hard winter in the Denali wilderness—and provide more photographic opportunities to film her with cubs next year.
Another photo memory from our Denali trip that particularly sticks out involved a common loon taking off along the edge of a still kettle pond.  Unlike most birds, loons cannot just take off vertically.  In fact, on land they cannot take off at all.  On water a loon looks more like an airplane trying to take off on a runway.  Loons start by running and flapping their wings, leaving a long trail of splashes behind until they gradually reach sufficient speed and lift to rise above the water—which often takes several hundred yards.  While our loon was simply swimming along the surface of the kettle pond most of us wished that we had a longer telephoto.  However, when it began to run along the water surface, leaving a long trail of splashes and flying droplets, it created a wonderful and dramatic opportunity for us to document the great struggle of flight for a heavy bird adapted to dive for prey beneath the water.
In addition to spectacular mountain scenics, northern lights, grizzly bears and our common loon, the trip offered other memorable observations of wildlife behavior and photographic opportunities:
A red fox, of the “cross” color variety, carrying an arctic ground squirrel in its mouth—
which it likely cached for a winter meal when food would be less abundant. 
A seriously distracted large bull caribou within ten yards of our bus blowing forcefully through its nose, probably in reaction to parasitic bot fly larvae lodged in its nasal cavities. 
Willow ptarmigan changing plumage from summer-brown to winter-white. 
A cow moose nursing two calves—while followed by a bull with an interest in fathering the calves of 2017.   
Two gray wolves searching for prey within 100 yards of our bus.
Denali National Park is a very special place for wildlife and scenic photography, especially in the autumn.  Although the park changes from year to year, it always serves up a great diversity of photo opportunities, images and memories.  I’m very much looking forward to returning next fall to lead the Denali National Park in Autumn trip in 2017!