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In Deep Denali

By Amy E. Nevala
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 4, 1999; Page E01

   


It is hard to resist a mountain called the Great One. That's what the Native Americans called Denali, North America's highest peak. It is what many in Alaska still call it, rejecting the modern name Mount McKinley, after 25th president William McKinley.

And while McKinley got the mountain, the name Denali now belongs to the park. Except there lies the problem. There is no Great One of anything in Denali National Park and Preserve. It is a sea of wolves, wildflowers and glaciers, an animal-cracker box bursting with 37 species of mammals and 157 bird varieties surrounded by 450 types of plants.

Denali National Park covers 6 million acres, slightly larger than Massachusetts. Wildlife enthusiasts call it the Serengeti of the North, and as with many national parks, its popularity grows each year. In 1922, the year Denali was created, only 22 people came to visit. Last year, more than a quarter of a million hikers and campers left tracks.

Most arrive in the summer, after the icy teeth of winter release their grip on Alaska. My younger brother, Dave, and I, breaking from jobs and graduate studies, traveled five hours north from Anchorage in May.

For six days we camped, cooked and hiked a thin sliver of the massive park, shouldering rain jackets and a bear-resistant container that included Dave's beloved Spam, canned meat that I could not persuade him to leave behind.

Denali became our playground. Dave and I spent an afternoon high on a bluff watching a family of grizzlies explore a riverbank. We crossed dozens of braided water channels that froze our legs into Gore-Tex Popsicles. After pitching camp, we took ridge walks, balancing along mountain peaks shaped like Swiss chalets.

The spring breeze recharged us. We sunned on rocks tossed by glaciers like marbles thousands of years ago. We lay with our heads pillowed on our arms, studying delicate bearberry, forget-me-nots and rosemary, their petals just beginning to transform the chocolate brown tundra into a carpet of purple, white and yellow flowers.

The park's first superintendent, Harry Karstens, in 1916 compared Denali to a "mighty-mouthed hollow, plumb full of hush to the brim." The hush, or solitude, stems from Denali's quota system, unique to a handful of national parks. Park managers have divided Denali into 43 back-country units, limiting the number of campers in each unit for a truer wilderness experience.

And Denali is wilderness. Unless bunking in one of a few interior hotels, back-country hikers are entirely on their own for food, water and shelter during their visits. After we arrived at the visitors center, rangers and educational programs helped ensure that we were prepared. We joined several other back-country hikers watching 15-minute video simulations of river fording, minimum-impact camping and animal encounters. (The rule of thumb: Run from moose, and if yelling doesn't work, stand your ground for bears.)

Feeling confident of our survival skills, Dave and I studied the quota board, working with the park staff to choose our back-country unit. We decided to cover about 20 miles--four or five miles a day--along the East Fork of the Toklat River, near Polychrome Pass, about 40 miles along the park's only roadway. We would hike through the lower, soggy tundra; the taiga, Russian for "land of little sticks"; and the high, treeless alpine tundra. These three zones make up the park.

It was late afternoon when we tied the free back-country hiking permits to our packs and bought last-minute provisions at the McKinley Mercantile. Eager to start, we kissed hot showers and flush toilets goodbye and rode the park's shuttle bus toward Polychrome Pass.

The Denali shuttle is the most popular way to see the park. Many swear that the 11-hour ride to Wonder Lake at the end of the 91-mile road is the best way to spot wildlife. Sure enough, a mile down the road we saw our first moose. Two miles later someone yelled, "Hey, caribou!" At each sighting, our young driver would patiently pull over so passengers could take photos.

During one stop overlooking a wide river track near Sable Pass, known for grizzly bears who wander in to munch the berry patches, I asked our driver about Denali's carnivores. To my surprise, it wasn't the caramel-colored grizzly bears that he mentioned. It was the wolves.

"Just yesterday, I sat in this same spot, pulled over like this so people could watch some young moose," he said. "Three wolves came down from those hills and killed them." The tourists, he said, were horrified.

"People forget this is a wild place," he gently reminded us.

Human fatalities due to wildlife encounters in the park are extremely rare, so I wasn't worried when 30 minutes later my brother, consulting the topographic map, piped up to the bus driver, "Excuse me, we'd like to get off here."

Stepping off the road onto the tundra, we didn't look back as the bus sputtered away. A few thousand miles of wilderness spilled before us. "It's like walking on soggy cornflakes," I said, stepping around sea-green lichens and yellow wildflowers. "Yeah, and walking on them is about as much fun as eating them," Dave said, his boots sinking to his laces.

I carefully studied the terrain under our feet. From afar, the tundra looks like a short-shag rug, a uniform stretch of shrubs and plants. Closer inspection reveals a complex microcosm of life. In the moist valleys where we walked our first day, the tundra grows thick with willow and birch. As the tundra grades into higher, drier regions, plants grow ankle-high and colors explode as flowers begin to process the spring sunlight.

We spent our first night in the valley, popping the tent about 300 yards from a creek. Dave prepared pasta with sun-dried tomatoes on the portable camp stove while I filtered several liters of drinking water. Few fish tolerate the glacial silt in Denali's waterways, but those waters contain the waterborne parasite giardia and other stomach-twisting organisms that can wreck a hiker's vacation.

The next morning, like the following three, dawned sunny and brisk. "All these clear days in a row is highly unusual," our bus driver had told us, a reminder of Denali's notoriously fickle weather. We stuffed ourselves with oatmeal and dried cranberries, pushed our rain gear to the bottom of our packs and set off.

We hiked back across Denali's only road, which runs east and west through the park to Wonder Lake. For the next two days, we slept, hiked and cooked along the East Fork of the Toklat River, following its northern flow. Every half-mile, we exchanged our boots for rubber-soled sandals, yelping our way across the freezing river channels.

Denali's rivers braid for several reasons. Ice jams in the spring and fall often block them, detouring water into smaller rivers, or braids. Permafrost near the ground surface encourages the pretzel pattern, since the solid underlying ice and rock stops the channels from deepening.

The channels wind around the mountain bends, spaced about a mile apart. Each twist offered new treasures. Though Dave and I never saw wolves, we found their fresh footprints in the mud, the slender paws the size of teacups. The tracks led to the animal trails striping the mountain slopes on either side of the river. Mounds of snow spotted the slopes, despite the 65-degree days. Caribou sprawled there, cooling from the unseasonably warm sun.

Sometimes the white spots moved. Peering through binoculars, we spied some of the park's 2,500 Dall sheep, the only species of wild white sheep in the world. Usually the sheep were bachelor herds of rams, with their trademark long, curling horns.

Dave and I took special care to alert grizzly bears of our presence, and as a scare tactic hollered "Hey bear, hey bear!" when we walked through high thickets. Blueberries grow here, attracting the grizzlies. Their scat betrayed their presence, but by yelling we avoided chance encounters. By Day 3, Dave and I decided that we needed a lookout that would help us spot bears from a safe distance.

My brother spied a flat spot high on a bluff, perfect for our little tent. Filling our water bottles with filtered river water for dinner and breakfast, we sweated and climbed the rocky slope for a night on a mountain ridge.

At the top, we set camp and began exploring. We walked the peaks, examining the bleached bones of rodents killed by eagles and other birds of prey. Later, Dave sat on a rock, peering at the valley through binoculars, adjusting the lens on two furry objects moving far below along the river bank.

"A bear! And a cub!" he whispered. Female bears are fiercely protective of their young, but we were in a safe, upwind position. I marveled at the mother bear's patience as she plodded after her offspring. Eventually they wandered around a bend and out of our sight. Soon a moose down for a drink added his tracks to the bears', followed by four thirsty caribou.

The quiet of the mountain, the warm evening sun and Denali's tremendous beauty wrapped us like a blanket, infusing my brother and me with a complete sense of peace. "There is much to offer those who understand the language of the great silent places," wrote Karstens of his times in Denali. "Here will be found an indescribable calm. A place just to loaf, healing to the sick mind and body, beyond the reach of present day mental and nervous and moral strain."

Dave and I talked until 11 o'clock that night, enjoying the lingering strains of sunlight. The morning came too soon, and we left our perch reluctantly, agreeing to head to the road and flag a bus the next day. Eager for another view, we scrambled up a second mountain.

But Denali's weather decided to pull a fast one. For the first time in four days, the sky boiled with clouds. As we climbed higher, the vegetation flattened and the wind began to race.

We arrived 30 minutes later on a rocky, exposed bluff with a view of the river. By now, in the evening, the sky was the color of wet concrete. I held tight to my baseball hat and began to voice my concern about unpredictable Alaskan storms. Logic said to me, the jumpy older sister, "Go down! Seek shelter!" Adventure said to my daring brother, "We'll ride out this storm in a front-row seat."

Logic, and the wind, won. Dave had the tent in place when gusts lifted it like a sail, blowing it 100 yards down the mountain. We chased the tent, staked it with rocks, climbed in and listened as the winds howled. An hour later, clear skies returned, without a drop of rain ever falling.

"Does it ever rain in Alaska?" my brother taunted as he zipped into his sleeping bag. He fell asleep before the first drops hit the tent.

The rain pounded nails on our tent all night. On our final morning in the park, I woke to my brother's elbow in my back as he searched for his rain jacket. Grumbling, I packed my warm sleeping bag. We had six miles to hike back to the road, and Dave reminded me that the high, rain-swollen rivers would create new challenges.

He was right. The gentle, sparkling waters we had danced across were now gray, roaring torrents approaching our waistlines. We slowly picked our way across the channels, thankful for our long legs. At each channel, we judged the depth by throwing rocks into the water. A hollow ka-thump sounded in the deepest pools.

Several soggy miles later, rain still flying, we arrived at the swiftest-moving channel, about the width of an Olympic-size pool. Bridges, of course, are not available in the back country. We debated our options. Another night of camping and Spam, or hot showers and fresh food?

Fording that swollen river was probably not our smartest move, since most deaths in Denali occur from drowning. But visions of pizza and cold beer danced on the opposite bank. "Onward!" Dave said, wading in above his knees. I walked behind him, holding his waist to brace us in a crude A-frame. His larger body broke the force of the water as we walked, using a driftwood pole to probe for hidden holes in the river bed.

Even with the precautions, halfway across I felt my feet lift as the strong current rose above my waist. Feeling my weight shift, Dave concentrated on the far bank to avoid the hypnotic rush of the water surface. We thrashed our way to the shore and hurried to the road, eager to flag a passing bus.

Back at the McKinley Mercantile, Dave and I nearly knelt before a sign advertising "Hot showers, 25 cents." I welcomed chocolate and fresh fruit back into my diet and was glad to spit toothpaste into a sink instead of under a rock. Before we boarded the bus back to Anchorage that evening, we took a final walk, neither of us quite ready to leave.

We knew we could not stay. I had a thesis to write; Dave, job responsibilities. And about 3,500 miles away in Washington, Congress had dubbed wilderness areas like Denali "a place where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Dave and I left, but part of us is still there, not far from the granite shoulders of the Great One.

Amy E. Nevala writes about travel, science and nature from Seattle.

DETAILS: Denali National Park and Preserve

GETTING THERE: Denali National Park and Preserve is in south-central Alaska along Alaska Route 3, the George Parks Highway, about 240 miles north of Anchorage, 125 miles south of Fairbanks and 12 miles south of Healy. Northwest, TWA, Delta and Continental are among the airlines offering connecting service from the Washington area to Anchorage; round-trip fares start at about $650, with restrictions.

Denali is accessible by car or via the Alaska Railroad (1-800-544-0552) from Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seward and Whittier (tickets range $50 to $102 per person one way). During the winter, the Alaska Railroad operates on weekends only and transportation from Seward and Whittier is not available. In summer, a variety of private bus, van services and the railroad operate daily from Anchorage and Fairbanks. Denali Park Resorts (1-800-276-7234) can arrange transportation aboard the Park Connection bus service from Anchorage, starting at $59 round trip.

GETTING AROUND: Denali's sole road, the Denali Park Road, closes in the winter. When the road is clear, it is accessible by private vehicle for 14.8 miles to the Savage River bridge. Private vehicle use on the park road stops prior to Memorial Day weekend to optimize wildlife viewing and to avoid crowding in the park. Bicycles, cross-country skiers, snowshoes and dog sleds are alternatives for getting to the park when the road closes.

Shuttle bus services ($12.50 to $31) run in the spring, summer and fall to destinations farther into the park. Buses depart from the visitors center about every 30 minutes throughout the day. Rangers encourage reservations through the Denali Park Service, 1-800-622-7275 (907-272-7275 from Anchorage or outside the United States).

WHEN TO GO: Most regard Denali as a summer destination (332,000 visited in June, July and August last year), although the park stays open year-round. Fewer than 16,000 people visited in April and May 1998; only 38,000 visited in September and October.

WHAT TO DO: Touring the park road by bus (seasonal), attending ranger-naturalist programs (such as dog sled demonstrations and discovery hikes), mountaineering, day hiking, back-country camping (permit required), skiing and dog mushing (winter only).

FEES: Park entrance fees are $10 per family and $5 per person, good for seven consecutive days. An annual pass is available for $15. Back-country camping permits are free.

CAMPING: Permits are required for back-country camping and are available at Denali's visitors center year-round. Telephone reservations are not accepted; permits are issued at the park only one day in advance.

In addition, there are seven National Park Service campgrounds in the park. Minimal fees are charged and advance reservations are available for most. Details and reservations: 1-800-622-7275 or 907-272-7275.

The Denali Park Hotel is the only hotel within the park boundaries. Many other accommodations are available within a short distance of Denali, though most lodging is open only in summer. Year-round lodging is available in Healy and Cantwell, 29 miles south. The Healy-Denali Chamber of Commerce (907-683-4636) has a complete listing of member businesses in the area.

INFORMATION: Denali National Park and Preserve, P.O. Box 9, Denali Park, Alaska 99755, 907-683-2294, www.nps.gov/dena.

--Amy E. Nevala

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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