This post is part of a series on the Traveling the Denali Park Road – to read the series from the beginning, click here.
The next section of the park road takes us down to the Toklat River rest stop for a brief restroom stop. Then it’s up into sub-alpine tundra again through a narrow mountain pass (Caribou Creek) past an active gray wolf den. Will we see wolves? For many years through the 1980’s and 1990’s groups heading into Denali saw very little wolf activity. In the late 1990’s that all began to change. In a lifecycle change first articulated by Adolph Murie, wolf populations began to show greater strength in controlling and dominating caribou populations. Certain wolf packs regularly used the park road much like a hunting trail, just as Murie described, one pack denning at the base of a hill in Caribou Creek next to the road. In the last 2 years we have had the amazing good fortune to see mother wolf, called the alpha female, bring her pups out for alittle play time along the banks of the creek! Keep in mind that some people spend there whole lives in Alaska and never see 1 wolf in the wild.
It was a memorable day in the spring of 2008 when mother wolf took her pups for a training operation. 7 wolf pups were taken ¼ mile up Caribou Creek and then mother left and quickly went back to the den. After a couple quick howls, the pups began the “long” march home. Of course it wasn’t so much a march as a meander. This type of training is done to begin the establishment of hierarchy, a pecking order within the pack. The leader soon became evident to us watching from above on the road, steadily making way back to the den, stopping periodically to look back for siblings. After about 15 minutes all arrived safely. In a complex social structure the pups make up the central core of the pack. They need to be trained by summers end to hunt with the adults and the beginning of the training, the games they play as pups, includes follow the leader. This section of the road quickly became very popular. In fact too popular. We now tread lightly on this section. Wolves are very sensitive to human actions. We have to respect that.