The Wild and Raw Beauty of Denali

Alaska's vast national park is a varied landscape of glacier-fed streams, tundra, and dense forests patrolled by hosts of indigenous fauna

Come to Alaska, and a zoo or wildlife park will never seem quite the same.

Human beings have been in the area for thousands of years. But our species remains vastly outnumbered by others that have been here longer and that move more naturally throughout the vast wilderness that makes up much of the state.

"From the road, most visitors see more wildlife in Alaska than they do in a lifetime elsewhere," back country trekker Jim DuFresne has written. "From the trails, such encounters are often the highlight of an entire trip."

Nearly 200 species of mammals and birds are in Denali National Park and Preserve alone. Hundreds of bears. Thousands of caribou. Moose, Dall sheep, wolverines, lynxes, wolves - the "charismatic mega-fauna" as conservationists call them, that draw us to the wild, that at once attract and make wary.

Coming from the lower-48 states, one is astonished to see an abundance of animals considered endangered elsewhere. Salmon as long as your arm fight upstream to spawn, their numbers so thick it's barely an exaggeration to say that one could walk across their backs. Bald eagles hang around towns and pulp mills as well as forests.

It's not the numbers that stay with you however, but the individual animal encounters.

A lone wolf loping along, headed for a rendezvous with pack or prey, stops to lock eyes on the two-legged mammal transfixed at the sight. The black bear, cub at her side, rises on back legs - tall and powerful in her patch of muskeg - to get a better look at the helicopter intruding noisily overhead. Such species-to-species communications, however brief, can leave a profound impression.

Alaska is beautiful, and it can be harsh. It stimulates. It invigorates. It makes us more aware of our surroundings. And its natural inhabitants help put our daily routine into perspective.

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