Autumn lasts about two weeks in the Alaskan interior; at least, that’s what I’m told. As he has so often, the Patron Saint of Movers turned his benevolent smile my way and landed me here in Denali National Park and Preserve by chance at the apex of brilliant fall color- the pale gold of the willow thickets (moose’s favorite delicacy), the variegated deep reds and magentas of the dwarf birch, the evergreen of the spruce forests, and the unbelievable everycolor technicolor of the myriad species of moss and lichen that carpet the muskeg bogs and open tundra. In a week the leaves and the snow will fall; at least, that’s what I’m told.
From the sprawling entrance complex, with its lines of cars and wifi networks and mercantile shops with 10$ ham sandwiches, Denali looks like every other over-developed national park in the US system. But the similarity ends in the front country, which is only the gateway to a wilderness that for exactly 100 years (happy birthday Denali Park!) has been managed so as to balance visitors’ enjoyment of a wild holy place with preservation of the natural state of that wilderness and the creatures who inhabit it.
My favorite thing about Denali and, I believe, its crucial distinguishing feature among our country’s most popular national parks is this: at mile 14 of the 92 mile park road (the park’s ONLY road), the pavement ends, and private vehicles may go no farther. Access to the backcountry is provided by an excellent system of shuttle buses. Some of the shuttles are designated for ferrying tourists as far into the park as they care to venture, the drivers offering narratives on the park’s natural history and stopping for photo ops when wildlife appears beyond the windows. Other shuttles called camper buses transport hikers with backcountry permits or those bound for the backcountry campgrounds to any point on the road where they wish to jump off and strike out, trails be damned (there are very few trails in Denali), into the bush of one of the world’s most pristine mountain wilderness habitats.
For 3 days I based myself out of a small, 7 site campground miles behind the reach of automobiles, hopping shuttles to whichever area I’d picked out to hike each day on my topographic map. It is a very special and unique kind of thrill to strike out into a vast, trail-less wilderness full of large alpha predators with no trail to follow other than the ridge lines and drainages and contours of the landscape. After setting camp I immediately charged off into the hills of the taiga like a giddy child, aiming for the auburn and gold-colored slopes of what my map identified as Primrose Ridge, and it was here that I learned my first lesson about visual perspective in vast open areas. As I left the park road and bounded up the trail, what had appeared from a distance to be short tundra mosses (I hadn’t yet learned about the varying bio zones in the park) turned out to be dense, shoulder-deep thickets of willow and dwarf birch, which made for a slow, brittle uphill slog with very low visibility. Thick brush with low visibility in grizzly bear country is a problem, as griz are historically not fond of being surprised at close range by hikers. For this reason I’ve adopted the habit of carrying one of my harmonicas to herald my coming when hiking in Alaska. When I play my harmonica for human audiences I try my best to play it well. When I play for bears, I try to play terribly, the more gnarly, sustained note bends the better. To my way of thinking, though I have no evidence beyond the fact that I’ve not yet been mauled, there are few things that would knock a griz out of his day bed in the willows faster than a sadistic Dylan riff, one of the ones that make you hold your ears and scream in your car. Bear bells are stupid, incessant, ineffective, and irritating, but a little music in the blind spots might save you some skin.
If you’ll allow me a weird interspecies metaphor- in Denali, bears are the elephant in the room. It has been my experience that a majority of conversations in Alaska at least touch on the subject of bears; in Denali, that percentage is probably around 90. On a single shuttle bus ride to the jumping off point for one of my hikes, I saw 7 grizzly bears. If you don’t think this sort of prelude colors the sensation of a walk in the wilderness, try it out. Here the grizzly is both the rock star and the boogeyman- everyone wants to see a grizzly bear, but everyone also has firm convictions about exactly where they DON’T want to see a grizzly bear. Judging by its official taxonomy this magnificent beast, king of whatever domain it inhabits, clearly made quite an impression on early naturalists- Ursus (Greek for “bear” + Arctos (Latin for “north”) + Horribilus (duh) = “Horrible Bear of the North.” As I type this up in the Wilderness Access Center, I can hear a group of backcountry permit holders being subjected to a bear safety video in the adjacent room. Here’s a bit of perspective- in the lower 48 United States there are an estimated 1,200 grizzly bears. In Alaska the estimated griz population is around 31,000. Have you gotten my gist? Lots of bears.
Bears galore, but so much more! In the park people talk a lot about the “big 4,” which include bears, moose, caribou, and wolves. One of the great thrills of my life hit me when, walking back to my campsite, I came upon a set of wolf tracks nearly the size of my hand along the park road about 200 yards from my camp. A young couple from San Francisco who were in camp that night had actually seen the animal from the bus, and I spent the rest of my stay at the campsite fervently praying I’d cross paths with it. The freedom to play in a great and rare wilderness is a beautiful treat. I spent days hiking around the high tundra, looking to creep up on a herd of Dall sheep at close range but finding only sheep shit. I went for sunset walks along the Sanctuary River that runs beside the campsite, following moose tracks and moose poop in hopes of running into that beautiful behemoth. I walked the Toklat River drainage, making for a break in the timber to climb into the hills, when something at the water’s edge caught my eye- huge, deep paw prints in the river mud, going my way. The mud was still squishy and wet as can be, its surface not yet dried by two days of constant warm sunshine. This mud had recently been under water, which meant the bear who left these tracks had even more recently passed this way. I decided I wasn’t married to that particular route after all. Willingness to change direction is a sign of mental agility. Ahem.
Other park wildlife includes the Alaska state bird, the snowy ptarmigan; the capering ground squirrel, who selflessly serves the ecosystem by being eaten by nearly every animal in the park; the snowshoe hare who, in the process of turning white for winter, looks like a large gray rabbit wearing white socks; and the wood frog, lone amphibian of Denali, whose special cellular mechanisms allow it to over winter by actually freezing solid, thawing out in the spring very much alive. There squirrels, hawks, golden eagles, and, and…
I find it impossible to live in a tent without the company of good books, and the book I brought with me into the park was _Grizzly Years_ by Doug Peacock (a few of you will know what I mean when I say Peacock, a close friend of Ed Abbey’s, was the inspiration for George Hayduke), a beautifully written true story of how the author, a green beret medic in Vietnam, began to heal himself by studying grizzly bears in the wild when he came home from the war. I had the good fortune, while lying in my tent late at night in Denali National Park, to come upon the passage wherein the author describes predatory grizzly attacks on people in tents. Finishing the book on a clear, cold night, I decided it was time to venture outside and look for the Northern Lights. I coaxed myself through the tent flap into the sub-freezing night by promising me a forbidden swig of tomorrow’s ration of cheap Canadian whiskey. Fetching the bottle from the campsite’s bear-proof locker, I turned my eyes skyward and saw a faint band of numinous, pale green light forming on the northern horizon. Trembling with excitement, I switched off my headlamp and dashed up to the river bridge on the park road for a clearer view. As I watched, awestruck, the display expanded and intensified, luminous ghost-green fingers reaching over the horizon, eerie tendrils extending right through the center of the Big Dipper, emblem of the Alaska state flag, which I had tattooed on my wrist last month on my birthday. Within 15 minutes the Aurora Borealis had waxed and waned, somehow perfectly, magically synchronized with my finishing the book and looking to the sky. As I celebrated with a few more pulls on the whiskey bottle, it thrilled me to imagine the massive wolf standing nearby, just out of sight, watching me watch the northern lights.
I had a magical time here in Denali National Park, one of the great wilderness experiences of my life. If you’re thinking this all sounds a little scary, you’re right! It’s my belief that doing things that scare you can be very good for the soul. I think of it as an expansion of being, knocking at new doors to cross new thresholds. If you’re thinking the whole thing sounds mortifying, unpleasant, and altogether unnecessary, that’s wonderful! Please don’t visit. The fewer people who enter wilderness areas, the less pressure on natural systems and stress on their inhabitants. If this sounds like something that would lift your heart as it has mine, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Go!
It is a very strong and long held opinion of mine that all of America’s national parks should be required to adopt the Denali model of wilderness preservation and access; anyone who has experienced the endless, ant-like processions of cars along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah or Grand Canyon south rim might find at least a little sympathy with my point. Leave your cars in the lots at the park entrance, hop a shuttle, and enjoy the fresh clean air and unharried wildlife. If you can’t bear (hoho!) to be parted from your automobile and wish simply to experience wild beauty as seen through a sheet of glass, please consider staying home, renting a few good nature documentaries, and leaving unspoiled wilderness for those creatures, human and otherwise, for whom it is essential.