Where The Wild Things Are In Alaska

Valerie Winans

© Copyright 2022 by Valerie Winans

Photo property of the author.
Photo property of the author.

My husband and I worked two seasons as campground hosts in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. It was like working in a zoo where all the animals roamed free. Our first encounter was on our very first day at Savage Campground. As campground hosts, we needed to know what the area was all about before we could be much help to visitors. I was nervous - there was no one else in the vicinity. As we walked along, I was talking loud, stepping on anything that would make a noise, and my eyes were constantly on the move looking for danger. My husband shushed me several times and gave up on my being quiet; he moved ahead of me on the trail. Suddenly he stopped and motioned for me to be quiet and come quickly. I hurried along to where he stood at the bend in the trail. What I saw made me freeze where I stood and momentarily stopped the beating of my heart. It was a mother grizzly bear and two cubs, and they were not the required 300 yards away. Although they didn’t seem to notice us, who knew when they would? My campground host training clicked in, and I slowly began to back away. You never, never, run from a bear. If you run, they think you are prey. I continued backing slowly, step by trembling step, until I could no longer see the bears even through the trees. When I could no longer will myself to follow the approved procedure, I turned and started walking briskly toward the trailer. Ok, so that was maybe ten steps, and then it was running as fast as I had run since playing tag in grade school. My heart came back to action as the adrenaline pumped through my system. After I got back to the trailer, I paused to look back. Where is my husband? Are the bears having him for lunch? I’m not going back to look - that’s for sure. After what seemed like a long time but was probably only ten minutes, he arrived back at the trailer. His first question was, “Did you get a picture?” Was he kidding or what? “No! I did not get a picture. I was running for my life.”
Those bears had no interest in us; we did not present a threat to them. They soon moved on in search of roots or something to eat.” I’m just glad we were not their something to eat.

As we lived and worked at the park, we saw a lot of grizzly bears. Most of them were too close for comfort, but I learned that my husband was right - they were not interested in us. They would walk past people and acted as though they couldn’t even see us. Many campers would come to tell us about grizzly bears walking through their campsite without notice of the people there. I think it’s because humans have not fed the Denali Park bears. They do not look to people for food or as food. Many more visitors to the park are injured by moose than by bears.

Moose are giant animals, easily spooked, and have massive hooves. Getting struck by a flying moose hoof can be fatal. Moose see dogs the same as they do a wolf, and wolves eat their weak and young. An amazing number of baby moose are eaten by wolf packs every year. A significant number of moose survive, evident by frequent sightings of them, not only in the wild but near populated areas in and near town.

One day as we were having lunch in our trailer, a moose and her calf walked right up to our trailer. The mother moose looked inside briefly and then turned away with her calf for something to munch on a few feet away. I said, “Mother moose is telling her calf that this is a people zoo. We are the ones confined in a box with windows for animals to view us.” We laughed about that moose encounter, but there was another time when meeting up with a moose was not funny.

Our companion and favorite beagle, Remington, lived with us in our travel trailer in Denali Park and Preserve. In our duty as campground hosts, we walked through the campground several times a day. When I walked, I often took Remington with me. I grew up in the city and didn’t have much experience in the wilderness before working as a host, so I was always just a little bit nervous walking around in the park. As Remington and I neared a bend in the road one day, a moose suddenly appeared right in front of us. I’m not sure who was more startled - the moose or us. The moose stamped one foot and had a crazed look in its eye. It was huge; I don’t think the top of my head would reach the bottom of its shoulder. I visualized being struck by one of those hoofs. My extensive host training once again kicked in. I started talking softly to the moose while backing away. As I backed and pulled on Remington’s leash, he also backed up. I thought if we could get off the trail and into the bush, it would be harder for the moose to chase and trample us. As suddenly as the moose appeared, it darted into the woods away from us. As I breathed a sigh of relief, I thought about how grateful I was Remington had not barked. He did not make a sound. I think he was as scared as I was. If he had barked, the situation would not have turned out well.

When visitors come to Denali, they want to see the mountain called Denali, and they want to see wildlife. They want to see grizzly bears, moose, wolves, mountain sheep, caribou, and lynx. There was a Savage River pack of wolves, and we would occasionally see a wolf, but more often signs of wolves. We warned the campers not to leave anything outside. If they set their boots outside the tent at night, one was likely to be missing when they got up the next day. Same with pieces of clothing - take your socks and sweatshirts inside as well because the wolves were notorious for stealing things.

There were some lynx who frequented our campground, and my husband would often see them on his evening rounds. Sometimes we would also see them during the day. One day an Interpretive Ranger stopped by our campsite to tell us she was doing a program in the Savage Campground Amphitheater, and the subject was lynx. My husband said, “I see lynx here all the time; want me to send one to your lecture?” The ranger laughed and said, “Sure. That would be great.” We always enjoyed the lectures and so when it was time, we walked over to the amphitheater. Just as the ranger started her talk, a lynx entered the theater and casually strolled past the ranger and into the woods. When the lecture was over, she said to my husband, “Thanks for the lynx.” He said, “That’ll be $20.” She laughed and said, “I’m doing a talk on grizzly bears tomorrow at the Riley Creek Campground. Can you get me a grizzly?” My husband said, “That’ll be $50.”

Our beagle, Remington, was our lynx locator. He was a sniffer, but he learned quickly what a lynx smell was. One day on a walk around the campground with him, he stopped and tried to run into the woods. I couldn’t let him do that because dogs must be leashed and not allowed off the roads. He would not take no for an answer. He kept lunging toward the woods. I knelt and looked in the direction he was indicating, and a lynx was lying down and almost invisible in the brush. I picked Remington up and hurried back to the trailer for my camera. Remington was unhappy at being left inside as I rushed back for a picture. Sure enough, when I got back to the spot, the lynx was gone. I walked out to the main park road looking for the lynx, and then back toward our trailer. I was just about to give up when voila - there she was. She posed nicely for me before she got bored and wandered off.

Our days in Denali Park and Preserve were filled with wonder - the mountain is so big - the highest mountain on the North American continent - it makes its own weather system. It is not often visible, and even when it is visible, it looks different each time. Sometimes it is stark white against a bright blue background, and it can appear as soft as a watermark. Animal encounters are always various as well. Hiking in the park, we routinely saw moose, grizzly bears, sheep, lynx, caribou, ground squirrels, and beautiful varieties of birds. We often saw ptarmigan, mocking birds, ravens, grey jays, and woodpeckers. It was a very different life from the one we led on a quiet street in a tourist town in Michigan. Although I was always just a little bit afraid, I worked through my fears for the most fantastic experience of my life.

Valerie Winans is a retired government manager, and a former campground host in Alaska. She remains active after retirement both at her church and in her community. A writer of both fiction and non-fiction, her books are written to inform and entertain readers of all ages. She resides, with her husband in Traverse City, Michigan.

Contact Valerie

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher