“The Athabaskan people have lived in the shadow of the great mountain for ten thousand years and know it by many names. To the people of the Lower Tanana, it is Deenaadheet or Deennadhee. The Dena’ina call it Dghelay Ka’a; the Koyukon Deenaali. Each tribe’s name, though unique, translates to roughly the same meaning: the Big One, the High One, the Great One.”
–from Denali’s Howl, by Andy Hall
It’s hard to come up with the words to describe our backpacking trip to Denali National Park. In 1907-1908, Charles Sheldon, a hunter, naturalist, altruist, and political financier visited Denali. He was so impressed by the natural resources in the area, he lobbied to have it set aside as a natural preserve. In 1917, President Wilson established Mt. McKinley Park as a 2 million acre preserve.
“This forest ought to be withdrawn
from disposal and preserved for the use of those
who shall come after us to explore the highest
and most royal of American mountains.”
–James Wickersham, 1902
(a district judge for Alaska, who was insane enough to make the first recorded attempt at climbing Denali in 1903)
Though the mountain had been named “Denali” for generations before that, it was coined “Mt. McKinley” in 1896 by a gold prospector, William Dickey, who was a proponent of the then-presidential candidate William McKinley (who was an advocate of the gold standard)(money makes the world go ’round). With President McKinley’s assassination occurring between then and when the park was established, “sentiment favoring commemoration of his memory” encouraged federal officials to use his name as the official name of the National Park when they established it in 1917.
From Wikipedia: Denali-Mount McKinley Naming Dispute
Backpacking in Denali
In order to camp in Denali, as in many national parks, you have to get a free permit from the rangers. The park is split into 87 “units” of land, where often only 2-4 people may camp per night. We got lucky, and the units we were hoping to go to were available when we showed up: 12, 13, and 18. The rangers give you a blank map with no unit boundaries, and they have you highlight the unit boundaries of where you’re going. It’s a mini crash course in map reading. Fortunately for Anne, Alex is a natural at map reading and backcountry navigation, partnered with a GPS that our coworker Dan generously lent to us.
In addition to mapping assistance, the rangers provided us with 2 bear canisters to store our food and toiletries in. We then listened to a short speech about bear safety and watched a video about proper backcountry practices and wildlife precautions. Turns out, you don’t want to get too close to one of them things.
Day 1: July 27, 2017
After staying in a rental cabin just outside the park (with a bed and a hot shower), we woke up early and got on the 7am Denali Park Road bus, which took us on a 4 hour ride from the Park Headquarters to the Eielson Visitor Center. On the bus ride alone, we must have seen somewhere between 6-8 bears, a few caribou, and multiple ptarmigan. The driver made plenty of informative commentary en route, especially about what to do if you get attacked by a grizzly bear: “You gotta just let ’em beat you up for a while. They’re gonna beat you up and then eventually they’ll get bored if you play dead. Then you need to change your underwear and get yourself outta there.”
From the Eielson Visitor Center, we hiked south about 7 hours, down to unit 18, where we set up camp. On this first day, we did many shallow but cold river crossings, and we viewed caribou, many ground squirrels, and 3 bears. At one point, a caribou started running straight toward us, only to stop suddenly about 20 feet away from us, stare for a few seconds, then trot away.
Day 2: July 28, 2017
We were super excited to use our tent site as a base camp this day, and headed out without our 40lb packs. We headed west throughout unit 18, viewing Muldoon Glacier, hiking on its moraine, and exploring various creeks. We were in the process of fighting over the same book, Denali’s Howl, by Andy Hall. It tells the story of the deadliest climbing accident known to Denali, when 12 young mountaineers ascended the big mountain in 1967, and 7 of them never came home. It’s a page turner. In it, the author describes how no one attempted to summit Denali until Western people showed up. Apparently the natives didn’t understand why you’d go up there, when there’s clearly no food to be found there, and it’s cold, uncomfortable, and dangerous. Anne feels precisely the same way.
Toward the end of our hike this day, Anne went to photograph Alex with a big, beautiful valley behind him. She then noticed a couple bears in the photo. A sow and her cub were playfully descending the valley, the cub batting at his mom’s face, and both of them rolling and somersaulting down the hillside. We sat there for a while taking photos… until they got kind of almost remotely close to that 300 yard mark, and then we booked it, walking in reverse away from the adorable but very terrifying duo. Back to camp, for a hot freeze-dried bag of food and a good night’s sleep.
Day 3: July 29, 2017
Admittedly, we slept in pretty late this day. Anne was about to get up to open the tent up and go pee, when we both heard “Hello, rangers! Here to check your permit!” It was a leisurely 11am. The rangers got up to our tent, started chatting with Alex, and then one of them said “We got a bear.”Anne was excited to rush out of her sleeping bag with her full bladder and bedhead and greet the rangers as well as the bear. Sure enough, there was a sow and her cub strolling down our valley, right next to our bear canisters, about 100 yards from us. At a very casual pace, they continued down the valley, headed, sort of, straight toward us. One of the rangers said “I heard that if you bang two rocks together it scares them away.” He grabbed two rocks, smacked them together, resulting in this…
She was not scared away; rather, she was probably irritated by human hubris. As the sow and her cub moseyed closer, chewing selectively on the tundra along the way, the 2 rangers, Alex and Anne followed the bear encounter protocol: we held our hiking poles in the air (trying to look big and intimidating) and said “Hey there bear!” over and over. The bears couldn’t have been less interested in us. They slowly passed us, not even looking in our direction, and went over the hillside. They were probably about 30 feet away at one point. The rangers were hardly excited, and noted that in several years of patrolling Denali, they had never used their bear spray. Alex and Anne played it cool, like they had had tons of bear encounters before… No underwear changes were necessary at this juncture, though it probably would have helped from a basic camping hygiene standpoint.
This would not be the last encounter with these two. We packed up our camp, and headed back east then north, starting our journey back to Eielson Visitor Center. We followed the same route we had taken in, keeping our heads on a swivel knowing the sow and her cub could be anywhere. As we rounded another river bend, Alex looked up to the right and sure enough, there they were. But this time there was no fear… Alex grabbed the camera. The sow and her cub were there on the hillside, not looking for food, but playing. The sow was entertaining her cub’s need for interaction. We were told by the rangers that if there is a lone cub it more than likely means that its siblings did not make it through the winter.
We followed the river back out after the sow and cub made their way up the hillside, until Alex decided it would be cool to get on top of the ridge that bordered the river we were following. Anne was skeptical about bushwhacking up a 45-60 degree incline of wet tundra/bush in her Chaco sandals, not knowing what the top would be like or how we’d get down. Anne was considering herself a “realist” at this point, if you know what she means. But Alex’s sense of adventure persisted, and they made it up to a gorgeous elevated meadow, filled with dozens of prancing caribou. What’s more, from there, we could view the shape of the Muldoon Glacier moraine in a completely fuller way, and we saw a couple beautiful blue glacial ponds that were invisible to us down by the river. Though it was a bit cold and windy up there, Anne admitted that Alex had been right, and this was a magical place to witness. We hiked through squishy, lush tundra to a camping spot at the edge of the ridge, looking down on the valley below Eielson Visitor Center, our exit for the following day.
We looked back to the Alaska Range, where we had been hoping the entire trip to see Denali. Due to persistent cloud cover, only 30% of people who visit the park actually set eyes on the big mountain. We had thought we saw her several times throughout the trip, only to discover that it was her neighbors we were seeing. This was our last night, and we were bummed we had not seen her yet…. Do you sense any foreshadowing?
Day 4: July 30, 2017
We set our alarms early and stiffly crawled out of our wet tent at about 6:30am. We were stunned to be greeted by none other than the Big One, the High One, the Great One: she was out!
After taking about a thousand photos, we packed up camp, took 2,000 more photos, and made our descent down the ridge. It was a comfortable tundra hike, followed by about a million little river crossings in the riverbed we had first started our hike on. We made great time, until we followed a misleading little path straight into some seriously terrible bushwhacking. We kept thinking the path would reappear, and suffered through a bunch of the thick bush until we finally gave up and turned around, battling our way right back out of it. If 2 people ever wanted to test their likelihood of murdering one another in a difficult situation, a good way to do it would be to accidentally bushwhack through an unknown patch of unforgiving, face slapping trees. Alex and Anne actually still mostly liked each other afterward, which seemed like a good sign.
About 30 miles later, we made it!
After our 4 hour return bus ride, we finished things up with a shower, a burger, and a beer. Ohhhhhh yeah.