DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA — The big grizzly ambled along the slope to our left, then lay down and dozed. He shone like gold in the sun.
As my wife and I watched through binoculars, he sniffed the wind, got up, and continued grazing before disappearing into the heavy brush.
Then suddenly, his head popped through a clump of high-bush blueberries only 20 feet from our car. Glad that the engine was running, I eased my foot nearer the accelerator, unsure quite what to do.
For several long moments, we and the grizzly looked directly into each other's eyes. We sat motionless. The bear watched us a moment longer. Then pulled his head back into the brush and disappeared again - this time for good.
Later, five wolves, their noses up, emerged from nowhere. We saw two at first. Then a third, loping, gliding between the bushes and rocks, his tongue out. Then two more, moving the way a flock of birds do, acting as one, connected yet each alone, intent on their hunt, all ignoring us. We never saw whether they caught their dinner or not.
We did not care. It was enough to have glimpsed these residents of backcountry Alaska at such close range. It was becoming clear to us that this was their land, not ours. We were the visitors, the animals were the residents.
Our eyes scanned the horizon in ways that bridges, automobiles, and buildings make impossible at home. Long sweeping views lay before us. In the valleys, huge fields of boulders laced by wide creeks held rushing torrents of gray, cold snow melt - and fish. Plateaus of rolling tundra were dotted with caribou. In the distance, the high peaks of Denali tied the land to the sky.
On a clear day, its snowy summit dominates the landscape between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Athabascan Indians originally called the mountain "the great one." When it later became fashionable for white men to name natural landmarks after politicians, Denali became Mt. McKinley. But many Alaskans are again calling the massive 20,320-foot mountain by its native name.
South of the Denali park entrance, we stayed in a trapper's cabin in Talkeetna, the base camp for climbers. The cabin's logs were cut, peeled, and laid up by one man, his family, and friends. Like many buildings in Alaska, it was scant and purposeful.
Camp Denali, near the old gold-mining town of Kantishna at the end of the 95-mile Denali Park road, is also rough-hewn. The idea of bringing tourists closer to nature and offering an alternative to lower-48-style luxury hotels led Alaskans Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter to open the camp in l951.
Now owned by Wally and Jerri Cole, Camp Denali houses guests in private log cabins with spectacular views. It employs naturalists to teach about the climate, landscape, geology, history, and the great Alaskan ecosystem that includes not only grizzlies and wolves but also bald eagles, caribou, moose, beavers, foxes, jaegers - and clouds of world-class mosquitoes.
We left backcountry Alaska with a better appreciation for its inspiring wilderness and those who have fought to preserve it. And we sometimes wonder how the big grizzly who still graces our memory is faring.