This should be the first day of a ten-day hike across the Denali backcountry in Alaska, but it isn’t going to plan. After flying into Anchorage, my son Gordon and I we took a train to Denali National Park today. It’s August, with high temperatures in the fifties and lows in the forties. Persistent rain and high winds spent the day reminding us of our past flirtations with hypothermia. We’re using the park’s campground for the night. We’ll take a bus deep into the park tomorrow morning. Our new tent is very lightweight but untested until now. We pitch it in the cold rain and settle into our bags. The rain goes on. Condensation forms, inevitably, on the inside of the fly. If this continues all night, we’ll be pretty wet. But hours later, I wake to silence. The steady patter of raindrops has ended.
That seems like good news. Until I realize why it’s not raining.
The tent already has an inch or two of snow on the fly, and the sides are caving in toward Gordon and me. I creep from the tent in my long underwear to knock the snow off, but it’s building up fast. The good news is that, in an Alaskan summer, it’s always a good time to get up. Even in August daybreak comes at 5 am. We pull all our snow-wet gear out of the tent and carry it to the campground’s toilet to dry it out. Returning to the tent, we find it half-collapsed under a second coating of snow. This is a worry. We’ve brought plenty of cold weather clothing, much of it warm in the wet, but our down bags won’t keep us warm for long if we can’t dry them out. And we expected temperatures above freezing for this hike. If it’s going to snow and blow for the next ten days, we will survive but we won’t have much fun.
Planning for the hike has been intense but quick. We only settled on a long hike in Denali a few weeks before we began, and before we knew it, we were deplaning in Anchorage. Walking through the airport, I offer Gordon twenty bucks for every man he can find wearing a tie, as long as he will give me twenty bucks for every man wearing beard longer than a normal tie. He wisely refuses the bet.
Taking the train from Anchorage to Denali Park was a tribute to how intimately the railroad is tied to the park itself. There wouldn’t be one without the other. The idea of a Denali National Park had been germinating since 1907, when Charles Sheldon, a wealthy Yalie and trophy hunter, came to what was then known as Mt. McKinley. He immediately embraced the idea of protecting the Dall sheep that he’d been shooting by creating a national park where hunting would be illegal.
Sheldon was a man of his times. Americans felt guilty at how close they’d come to wiping out the bison, and they’d been converted (or at least the elite had been) to creating national parks that could introduce tourists to the American wilderness as well as American big game. Construction of the rail leg from Anchorage to Fairbanks began in 1915, and as it moved north, the threat to the Dall sheep grew serious. Like the bison killed to feed laborers building the transcontinental railroad, Dall sheep became a favorite for the Alaska rail crews. With the threat ramping up, Sheldon lobbied hard for the park. Congress created Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917 – just in time to give the new railroad’s passengers a destination.
The park’s game management origins, and its remoteness, shaped how it dealt with tourists. Mostly, they were expected to get off the train, have a good time near the station, and be satisfied in the knowledge that the Dall sheep were safe (and mostly out of sight). Access to the interior was difficult. If you weren’t a wilderness traveler, you weren’t going to see much of it, including Mt. McKinley. Even after the park service built one long 90-mile dirt road into the park, it was far from the mountain. Tourists had a less that 50-50 chance of even seeing the mountain behind the Alaska Range peaks that were closer to the road.
All that history makes Denali a far cry from, say, Yellowstone or Yosemite, which have made much deeper compromises with a flood of tourists. There are a few campgrounds along the Denali access road, but access is mostly limited to bus trips out and back.
To further distance itself from its visitors, Denali takes an austere view of the backcountry experience. Most national parks have long wilderness trails that take you far from roads. Denali goes one better.
It has no trails.
The wilderness begins about ten feet from the road. Which means Gordon and I will be bushwhacking our way across the park with none of the help – such as trails and signposts -- that hikers usually expect. We have no idea how that will work, or how far we can expect to go in a day. That leaves most of our planning up in the air. We’ll take the bus to Mile 42 or so, where the road abruptly ends where it was cut in half by a landslide. After that, we will be on our own. The park limits the number of hikers who can be in any part of the backcountry. My best guess from observing the reservation system is that, at the height of the season, there might only be around 200 overnight hikers in the entire park. They are outnumbered 100 to 1 by caribou, moose, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and wolves.
The snowstorm has left us with serious forebodings about this trip. Ten days of hypothermia weather with no easy way to bail out sounds like a lousy hike. But it’s practically impossible for people with no car to find a hotel nearby. We finally decide that given a choice between pitching our tent in the backcountry or an RV park, we’ll take the backcountry. Our dithering means that It’s late when we hop a bus to the end of the road, but Alaska’s forgiving daylight hours will give us time to get a few miles into the hike before making camp. The weather, meantime, is softening. In no time, we’re hiking in shirtsleeves, last night’s snow not exactly forgotten but at least tucked away in a corner of our minds.
Perhaps unwisely, as things turned out, we set aside our fears, drop a cache with five days’ food near the end of the road, and launch ourselves into the wilderness.
When we reach the landslide that cuts the road, we decide it’s safest to drop down and trek along the river that parallels the road. The descent is steep, and there’s no path, of course. We just have to guess which patch of rocks and bushes conceals the least steep slope and the fewest hillside bogs. As we’ll discover, bogs are a feature of Denali. Technically, they are mostly tundra, but the amount of standing water we encounter is astonishing, at least until you realize that most of it is just the top layer of permafrost, melted in summer but unable to go anywhere because it’s trapped on a layer of frozen ice and dirt that may be hundreds of feet thick. With no way to trickle into the earth, the water just sits there, killing trees whose roots need oxygen and leaving the field to grass and low shrubs.
Particularly discouraging are the beautiful flat grasslands. They look like putting greens. That’s because the grass is growing straight out of six inches of water and mud that only a fool would walk through twice. That’s tundra in its earliest state. After a few years, the grass consolidates into tufts atop the mud, gradually building the tufts into a dryish hummock. These hummocks become top-heavy islands in the bog; step on them and they’ll tip you over into the water. Or, if you’re lucky, the islands may have knit themselves into a lumpy blanket that shivers and wobbles but doesn’t break through, at least not right away. Still, every step on these grasslands is a potential plunge. You don’t really walk the tundra, you climb it, horizontally, stepping high with each step to get out of the hole you made with your last step.
Even so, tundra makes for better hiking than willow stands. Willow grows in Denali mostly as a bush, from two to ten feet high. Willow tangles look impenetrable, and they often are, but some open out into brief, surprising channels that allow hikers to slip through the worst of the growth. In the end, though, the odds of making good progress in willow are not good. On the other hand, the odds of surprising a grizzly there are disconcertingly high.
We make it to the river. We already know that we’ll be using rivers for a lot of our travel. First, the walking is a little easier. The stones of the riverbed don’t sink under our feet like the tundra. Also, lacking trails and signposts, we have to navigate on our own. One reason two grandsons didn’t join us on the trip was the lack of navigation. I already have a completely undeserved reputation in the family for being willing to trust my sense of direction even in the absence of a trail. This is known as “Grandpa getting us lost,” though I’ve never actually lost anyone, at least not for more than a couple of hours. In fact, once we’re on a river, navigation is no problem at all. If we hike upstream and want to return to where we started, we just head downstream to where we started. Even after crossing into another valley, it’s not hard to figure out where the rivers are going (north, usually, which means they’ll eventually cross the access road).
If navigation is turning out easier than expected, the walking is harder, even along the river. Rocks the size of baseballs twist and roll under foot. The flat river bottom, carved by vast glaciers, means that water never fills the valley wall to wall. Instead it wanders in braids back and forth between the walls. Which means that there’s no sure way to travel without crossing braid after braid. Jumping a lazy trickle is a piece of cake, but we are regularly crossing streams deeper than our boots are high. Soon, we give up keeping our feet dry and just squelch forward until the water in our boots warms up.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but river fording isn’t just a matter of wet feet. Crossing a swift river with water that reaches your knees is risky. Water that reaches your thighs is life threatening. And if it reaches your crotch, you’re probably going to be washed away, hopefully to a gravel bar that allows you to climb out. (Not everyone does; apart from climbers on Denali, most backcountry fatalities are drownings.) Today’s river is well-behaved, though, and wet feet are the only thing we have to worry about. Today, anyway. Denali has a good deal more river drama in store for us.
Meanwhile, we’ve got other worries. This is grizzly country, and even before leaving the road, we spot our first – a big golden bear, almost white, foraging on one of the green islands in the riverbed below. The distance is comforting for a while but grows less so once we hit the river, hiking right by that island.
By then, though, Big Blondie has moved on. Bears are just entering a season of frantic hunger, spending almost 24 hours a day searching for food to build their stores of fat for the winter. With berry season in full swing, the bears move with a kind of purposeful randomness, lunging first one way and then the next to reach the branches with the most berries. Later, we find evidence of just how enthusiastic they are about berries -- a recent bear scat (better known, perhaps, as bear poop). This one looks like a loose chocolate berry mousse, heavy on the berries.
And the bears, which we will see several times from a fairly safe distance, are packing on the pounds. As they climb a berry slope, lunging left and right, their rumps wobble and ripple with stored fat. Talk about junk in the trunk. It would be comical if not for the worry that one of them might work out just how much they could add to their booties by eating, well, us.
We’re carrying a lot of weight, much of it in food, and even easy trail hiking would leave us bushed. All the river-fording and horizontal tundra-climbing hits us hard. We decide to leave the river in search of a place to camp. Dragging up through the tundra and willows is a chore, and pretty soon, almost any flat spot looks good enough. We’re high on a hillside, with no streams, but a bunch of standing water trapped by permafrost is just a few inches beneath our boots. We find a lot of tiny marshy ponds close to an open stretch of tundra. They aren’t exactly a mountain stream, but I’m willing to pump water out of these glorified puddles. When I kneel to do it, though, my knees sink into the tundra, forming a new puddle where my weight rests. Looking around, we discover that our entire campsite consists of tufts and hummocks of grass floating barely above the water line. We can pitch the tent here, but we’re going to have to get in and out as though we were crossing thin ice – not putting too much weight on any one appendage. Lacking alternatives, we creep warily into our tent for the night, half expecting it to sink into the marsh by daybreak. In fact, we soon discover, the tundra is some of the softest sleeping we’ve ever had while hiking. There are no stones to dig into our ribs, no slopes to slide us into a heap at one end of the tent, and the tundra offers a springy support that yields to our back and shoulders the way no sleeping pad ever has. We sleep well.
The next day comes bright and sunny. “Snow? What snow?” Denali seems to be saying.
But it’s not all good. A search by dawn’s light confirms what we feared last night.
We have nothing to eat with.
In our haste to cache half our supplies, we seem to have left behind our spoons. It’s not the end of the world, I argue. We still have cups. We can pour dinner into the cups and then shovel bits of it into our mouths with twigs and bits of bone we find lying around on the tundra. Five days of eating that way will get old, but we won’t starve.
Our meal is enlivened by the appearance of a mammal that really should be sued for misrepresentation. The ermine is, hands down, the cutest wild thing in Denali. It has dark round eyes, upright ears, and a brown and white body that resembles a stretched ground squirrel’s, perhaps two inches high at the shoulders and five inches long, with a perky face. It’s also bold; this one emerged into our campground from the bush, fixed us with a steady, wide-eyed look, and kept creeping nearer to check us out. If we didn’t know that no one was likely to have camped here ever before, we’d have thought it learned to beg treats from the last set of hikers. In fact, it didn’t need our food. It is the most ruthless and ferocious hunter in Denali, routinely killing and consuming rodents, even rabbits, much bigger than itself.
If you are wondering why this tiny weasel was brown on top, when ermine is famous for being a fancy, pure white fur worn mainly by royalty, you’re right. The one we saw we transitioning from summer brown to winter white. That said, it’s tiny. One ermine pelt can’t be more than five inches square. It would take dozens to produce a coat; maybe it’s no wonder even Henry VIII seems to have settled for ermine trim.
The next day is mostly sunny but with a cold wind and scudding clouds. We follow the river along what we think is probably a now-unused section of road past the landslide. Toward the end of day, we’ve hiked our branch of the river to its starting place – predictably a bright green grassland marsh in a saddle between two ridges. We make camp a few hundred yards away, on slightly stonier and much drier ground.
The day after, we decide to explore the new valley as a day trip, without leaving our packs in camp. We stride out, eventually intercepting the unused road, which we barrel along at a good two mph. We eat lunch at the bridge over another monster Alaska river, this time the west fork of the Toklat. There’s been a landslide on the slopes above the river, and a stand of aspen is dangling off the edge of the slide. Many of the trees seem to have no purchase at all on ground, which has slipped out from under their shallow roots. What’s keeping them from falling is an oddity of aspen biology. A grove of aspens isn’t a collection of many trees. It’s a single organism, with tree after tree growing up from the roots of its sisters. The trees in these aspen communes support and nourish each other. And in the case of the landslide, half of the community is desperately sending out new roots to keep its many relatives from falling into the abyss. I suspect this won’t work; in the end the ground will slip away faster than the uphill aspens can dig their roots into nearby soil. And so, in a year or two, the uphill roots will finally give way and the whole grove will slide to the bottom. I like to think, though, that they’ll stick together along the way and land right-side-up at the bottom of the hill, with a fighting chance to reestablish their community down in the flats.
Heading back up to the saddle to retrieve our packs, we get a taste of the risks that come with trail-less hiking. We have a pretty good idea where we left the packs, but when we get there, we don’t see them. That’s bad. Still, we know their general location – near the start of a lazy brook at the top of the valley – so we follow a favorite strategy of mine, the one that drives my grandsons crazy; we just keep walking, a good deal further than we think we should. As we climb ever higher and seem about to run out of valley, the landscape suddenly snaps into focus, matching our expectations and revealing our packs. Lesson learned: You can’t have too many landmarks when you’re navigating off trail.
It’s time to haul our packs onto our backs and head over the saddle, retracing yesterday’s steps until we begin a long bushwhack through tundra and willow tangles. We can’t see more than five yards in the worst of the willow. We sing out pretty regularly, calling on the bears to move off quietly. And it seems to work. At least we don’t run into any grizzlies – or other wildlife for that matter. We finally come down off the plateau to a small, pleasant valley with a clean, fast-moving stream.
We’ve finished setting up the tent and spooning (well, twigging) dinner into our mouths, when Gordon looks up and quietly murmurs, “Don’t look now but we have guests.” Two caribou are picking their way downstream, just 25 yards away. They keep one eye on us. The bigger one is a little wary but not enough to deviate from the path she’s chosen. I am guessing at her gender; male and female caribou both carry a heavy load of antlers. But the smaller of the two seemed to treat the larger one like a mother – always watching for guidance, but reluctant to take it. She stared at us openly as she passed, then stopped and turned back toward us. She looked like an acquaintance who had already said good-bye but just remembered that she wanted to give us one more piece of advice.
I’ve never been a big fan of caribou. They seem too much like a cross between deer and moose – with a moose’s plodding ungainliness but none of its awesome size and shovel-antlers. Seeing these two in motion, though, changes my mind. They walk with a lithe deer-like grace, almost prancing along.
The next day offers more good weather, though every time the sun goes behind a cloud we think again of the snowstorm. Every day since then has been in the fifties, warm enough in the sun, but the wind keeps reminding us that winter is coming – and could arrive this afternoon. It feels like we are living from paycheck to paycheck – fine if nothing bad happens, but sooner or later something bad is bound to happen. Ten minutes is all it would take to turn good hiking weather into a cold, miserable rout. We’re glad we trimmed our hike to match our pace. By tomorrow night, we’ll be within striking distance of our cache – able to pick up five more days of food-- plus spoons! It’s a good thing, too. We’ve run out of breakfast and will be eating lunch instead tomorrow morning.
I’m still going slower than I’d like. Usually, the first couple of days in any long hike will be a painful adjustment as my body relearns what it has to do. This trip it’s taking longer. Maybe I’m getting a little old for this stuff, or maybe it’s the peculiar demands off-trail travel. On tundra and in the willows, you can’t really tell what your feet will do next. Sometimes when you take a step, you unexpectedly find your toes pointing up, or down, and you have to adjust on the fly. There’s no way to get into the swing of walking, because there’s no swing to the walking. Balance adjustments and quick reactions are needed with every second step. The little muscles that make those adjustments are hard to train and easy to tire. That’s my excuse for holding Gordon back, at any rate.
All the rivers we are crossing as we walk east are flowing north out of the Alaska Range In the end, they’ll take a big left turn into the Yukon River and then the Bering Sea. Denali is actually south of the mountains that we can see. It’s a massive brute of a thing, taller from base to peak than Everest, which has the advantage of starting its climb to the clouds at 17,000 feet. And because it’s on the weather side of the Alaska Range, Denali is often socked in. Many tourists spend days in the park and never see it. We’ve been lucky. Still, the Alaska Range itself has been a fine hiking companion, lit up in evening and sometimes in morning with alpenglow – the warm reflected light cast when mountains poke up into sun while the valleys are in darkness. We got a particularly dramatic version of that glow on the morning after the snowstorm that nearly broke our trip left snow over the entire Range.
We haven’t seen moose or wolves on this trip. We catch sight of a few Dall sheep, white dots high on the sides of the mountains. And we find plenty of sign. A wolf print in a river bottom, about the size of a saucer and still sharp-edged; that wolf hadn’t been gone long. Moose prints are even more common, as are the signs of the moose’s desperate plight in heavy snow years, when it’s hard to reach low grasses and willows. At those times, the moose will scrape their lower jaw over aspen bark, chewing the chlorophyll the aspen stores through the winter for its modest nutritional value. Aspen scars tell a tale of tough winters.
Today, we must make our first serious river crossing. We’re used to water pouring over the tops of our boots, but this time the river races up our shins and then to our knees. For the first time, it feels as though the water could knock one of us down. We try a technique that’s new to me, forming a two-person conga line facing upstream. I’m in the lead, leaning on my pole, while Gordon stands behind me, pushing me down into the river bed and up against the current. We sidestep in unison – “left, right; left, right” – until we reach the other side. This works, until it doesn’t. But that’s a story for tomorrow.
Our emergency sat-phone for sending SOS messages is running low on battery. Not because we lack power. One of the successes of the trip is a power bank that we’ve linked to a one-panel solar power system. A day of carrying it on my pack is enough to replenish the power bank for a couple of days. But the cable we need to charge the sat-phone has broken, making it impossible to recharge. With luck, we can borrow a cable, or at least a charge, when we get to our cache where the buses turn around.
We camp for the night in willows near the east fork of the Toklat. It’s a big river. Too big, it turns out. It’s carrying a load of “glacier milk” – tiny bits of rock ground by the glacier from the mountain and dissolved in the stream. Toklat is an Athabaskan Tanana word for “dishwater,” and that’s exactly what it looks like, even after we let it stand for a few hours, hoping it will settle out. Still, we’ve drunk worse on this trip.
Next morning brings a typical Alaska summer moment. I wake at 5 am and realize that I’ve been sweating into all my clothes for six days, and I’m going to have to persuade normal people to stand within five feet of me while I ask them to loan us a cable. So, it seems perfectly normal to crawl out of bed (it’s Alaska! It’s already light!), wash all my clothes in the dishwater river, and hang them in willows that will soon be touched by the sun.
But Denali has other plans. When I return to the tent, Gordon rises from his bag. His face is nearly unrecognizable, the entire right side swollen so badly he can barely see out of one eye. This is serious. He can still see from the other eye, but for how long? We have no idea what caused it; he was fine last night. Could it be a kind of poison ivy, or the Denali version, poison parsnip? Gordon blames a nearby plant; but it just as easily could be an allergic reaction to a bug bite. Gordon’s been bitten by mosquitos on pretty much every continent except Antarctica, but mosquitos aren’t the only insects preying on mammals in Denali. The caribou in particular have it tough. Botflies lay eggs in their nostrils so the larva can stay warm all winter and be coughed out in the spring. Even grosser are the warble flies that lay their eggs on caribou bellies, counting on the larva to burrow their way under and along the caribou’s skin and emerge in the spring from the caribou’s back. If one of those flies mistook Gordon for a caribou, almost any allergic reaction would seem proportionate.
But we don’t know, and we need a new plan; we’ll hike to the cache and grab a bus to park headquarters, where we can find some medical treatment. Gordon’s facial swelling by itself is not the end of the world; some might even call it an improvement. But if the swelling affects his windpipe, he could die from the allergic reaction (as we think my father did after his second dose of penicillin in the fifties).
We pack up and head downstream. The river has been attracting tributaries as we’ve hiked down it. So far, we’ve done a few conga-line sidestep crossings without incident, but we still have one big braid of the river to cross before we can reach our cache and the bus stop. I take the lead again and begin the count: “Left, right; left right.” But this stream isn’t just deeper than the others. Its bottom is filled with much larger rocks than usual. On the third or fourth “right” my foot hits a rock the size of a volleyball. I try to step on it, but it moves, rolling downstream onto Gordon’s leg. In a second, I’m down, floating away as Gordon struggles to stay upright and hold on to me too. It’s a dicey moment, but he holds on long enough for me to get my boots under me and my pole upstream, yelling the whole time. After a very long thirty seconds, we are back in formation. Still wary of the uneven bottom but desperate to get to safer ground, we sidestep raggedly to shore with the current sloshing over our knees and up our thighs. Reaching the other side, we drop our packs, soaked but basically unscathed.
A couple of hours of hiking take us to the cache, where we realize there will be no medical help. Several hours of bus travel get us to a clinic in the nearest townlet. They don’t have any idea what’s causing the problem either, but the swelling isn’t as bad as this morning. They give Gordon a course of steroids and Benadryl, and we find a place to stay for the night, at a rate I wouldn’t pay in New York City.
Just like that, our hike is over.