I cannot write about Denali National Park without a touch of sadness. First-timers love the place. Old-timers like myself hold indelible memories of far richer experiences. In the not-so-distant past, the 90-mile dirt road through the park was a guaranteed roadside attraction. Driving your own vehicle through a diorama of North American large mammals with no hassles was America's answer to the Serengeti. Today, that same road has become just another over-managed civilized intrusion into receding wildness.
In another sense, Denali is no less the icon of American wilderness. At the turns of the last three centuries our forefathers took for granted a wilder wildness than outdoor photographers find themselves in at the turn of the 21st. When you reach your destination, you haven't arrived yet, for wildness is not rooted in a place or a photograph but in the state of mind of an-ever-less-common experience.
September 21, 1998. Three cars, two shuttle buses and two ranger vehicles are stopped on the paved road near the Savage River watching two caribou more than five football fields out in the willows. I can't help but recall a dozen caribou in the grass beside the same road in 1974, when it was unpaved and empty, except for our family station wagon. Back then, we located animals by first seeing them rather than coming across a cluster of vehicles and looking where other people were looking. Once, my ten-year-old daughter spotted a lynx in broad daylight on a day when we also saw wolves, a wolverine, and grizzlies.
In 1998, I arrive after the summer season when park road permits awarded by lottery are no longer required. A half-day of driving does not result in any wildlife sighting close enough to take my camera out of its bag. As I head out of the park making mental plans to go elsewhere, I decide to follow a ritual that field zoologists have taught me: sit down and glass the landscape to see if it's really empty. At a turn-out I set up my 500-mm lens with an attachment to create a 50-power scope. Minutes later, a couple from Los Angeles in an Avis car stop and ask "What do you see? We haven't spotted an animal all day."
"Take a look through my scope at what's on that hill," I reply. The man gets out, peers through the lens focused about two miles away, and beckons to his wife. A group of 24 white Dall rams are browsing fall foliage before the first snows. Clearly captivated by wild living things, the couple decide to stay in the park awhile longer though they aren't photographers.
As they take turns peering through the lens, I put on a dark jacket and ready a small pack to stalk the animals. Forty minutes later, I begin shooting portraits from 50 feet with my 500-mm lens. As the animals accept me, I move back without appearing to have had any effect on them. Changing to my 80-200mm ƒ2.8 zoom, I move in and spend two more hours in the midst of the herd by their choice more than mine. As I sit beneath a rock out of the biting fall wind, the animals approach me as close as six feet on their way toward new foliage.
During these hours, dozens of vehicles cruise the road far below, but not one person ventures more than a car length away. I wonder if their visitor experience is as empty and unfulfilled as mine before I spotted the sheep. For me, Denali's wildness has been transformed through personal effort and a little luck.
Returning before sunrise, when it is too dark for wildlife photography but optimal for catching the distant eyes of animals in my high beams, I spot a bull moose camouflaged in tall willows and spruce. I turn my vehicle sideways and watch it in the headlights. A few miles farther into the park, I see what appears from a distance to be a stray dog. Up close, the lanky frame and seven-minute-mile lope clearly identify a magnificent adult wolf. For long minutes I follow in tandem, until the wolf suddenly drops off the edge of the road and arcs lazy S turns through the willows like an Olympic skier on a slalom course.
Even though I never have a chance to use the Nikon F5 equipped with infrared auto-focus and flash that is readied for action on the seat beside me, the wolf sighting makes my day. The animal seems too skittish to pull along side, and I feel no need to verify my experience on film for anyone else. Having a tiny four-legged blur that I could point to and say, "There's the wolf!" never enters my mind. Yet in a more personal way, the sight of the wolf does validate my experience. My photographs of the Dall rams seem enriched because they represent an experience that includes other close animal sightings.
Those who judge photographs only on technical merits may discount that my later experience could have any effect whatsoever on my earlier photography. After all, the images of the Dall sheep were unchanged and made before. Case closed. But that's not all there is to nature photography. We respond to an image on a flat piece of paper only when it triggers something from our life experience. To identify a wolf we need to hold something of wolfness in our mind, even if it is an image from a children's book.
If the couple from Los Angeles visit my gallery next year, are they more or less likely to buy a print of the group of Dall rams after having seen them on their own visit to Denali? Perception is inextricably tied to experience in the real world, as well as to what we see in the secondary imagery of photography.
What's disturbing is that ever fewer Denali visitors are having the kind of wild experience that is so fresh in my mind. Their strongest memories are not of close encounters with wildlife, but of frustrations over the inequitable management of park visitation. While travel brochures promise the wild Denali experience of old, I have yet to read a recent article by any veteran Alaskan travel writer that extols the wild experience without mentioning serious problems. I timed my visit to hit the brief post-season, late September window when vehicles are allowed to drive thirty miles without restrictions.
An Alaskan newspaper recently published an editorial about "winning" the annual lottery for a coveted permit to drive the park road for one day in August. The staff writer and 399 other people drove the 90-mile, mostly dirt, dead-end road, but both backcountry camping and overnight camping in roadside campgrounds deep in the park were prohibited. Why? Because 400 more "winners" would be coming the following day. Traffic might become congested if some vehicles spent the night. The columnist joined a mad and dusty evening dash to drive out of the park.
I doubt that few, if any, of the 1600 people who won the lottery for the four days' of personal road travel had as satisfying a visit as mine, when the peak-season restrictions were lifted a few weeks later. Had I not consciously forced myself to stop and scope the landscape before leaving the park, I, too, might have returned home to write mainly about Denali's road and ranger hassles. Instead, the experience emphasizes once again that the wildness I seek to represent in photographs and hold in heartfelt memories is less a place than a state of mind.