Day 1 – It was amazing, vast, hard and totally rewarding. Have you ever heard of the two types of fun? Type one fun is fun in the moment. Type two fun is not fun in the moment, only afterward. With that in mind, the first thing to know is there are no trails in Denali’s backcountry. The second thing to know is that there are no trails. Trail-less wilderness travel is unlike anything I’ve ever done. I used to think I was pretty good with a map, but that was on trails and I only had to decide if I needed to take a right or a left at forks, etc. Thank goodness Rog was a good Boy Scout growing up!
Now, imagine yourself walking though a 100 yard stretch of your favorite hedge that’s taller than you and all you can see is the branches snapping your face and there is a squooshy bog sucking your feet. You hope you are still more or less going the right way which you think (hope) you figured out on your topo map — you know, the one without trails? You also are singing songs to ward off the bears, or just cursing, or calling each other’s names, because you can’t see each other and you’re not to follow each other’s footsteps because the impact can start creating a trail. Well, that was day one, and I swear I asked myself more than 100 times, why am I doing this? Is this fun? Who thought it was such a great idea to not have trails!? I *like* trails.
But when we made it through the vast willow to the braided river, we were so relieved to be out of the willow that we were elated! Type two fun! The river was set within a beautiful backdrop of mountains that we had all to ourselves. That’s the beauty of trail-less wilderness: very few crazy souls get off the park bus and scrabble their own way. The only way to get into the park is by bus and several bus drivers noted that 99% of park visitors never leave the road.
Day 2 – we discovered a whole new kind of terrain: tundra! After picking our way along the river banks, we looked up the hillsides and tried to set a course that avoided willow as much as possible. Nice green “grassy” sections beckoned, and thus was our intro to tundra. There’s wet tundra, dry tundra, thermal karst tundra, and well here’s how most of it is: squidgy spongy rolls of tufty grasses and sedges often with little rivulets of water in little pockets below the tufts that may or may not roll when you step on them. Either way, take a step up and sink six to eight inches. It’s better than a Suzanne Sommers buns of steel workout! Youch!
When we were in the ranger’s office trying to figure out a route, I remembered telling Ranger Alfonso that we wanted to avoid willow, as friends had warned us about this hex on past Denali hiking experiences. He calmly pointed out this tundra section and said it wasn’t willow and we cheered. He had a look on his face that now I know meant, “oh, ye of the lower 48, you have no idea what you are asking for.”
So we toiled our way up tundra over many false summits on our way to our next camp. At one point our buns and legs hurt so much that to keep going we counted footsteps. 100 steps, “good girl, now you can rest.” We finally made it over a big hill, and a mile or so down a river valley to our second river’s edge campsite, nestled below a gorgeous glacial valley. The peaks were snow capped and the evening was clear and sunny. A perfect place to remove my squidgy boots and put on my sandals….but oh, no! In all my drunken-sailor-sponge-walking-with-buns-screaming (or more likely scrabbling through the inevitable willow patches), I had lost a favorite almost new sandal. Insert string of curse words here. It would be an understatement to say I was upset. I went upstream looking for it, hoping it was in the river section and not on the big tundra hump miles away. I gave myself a half hour to look, and finally in defeat, I let out a big fat yell of curses. In that moment as I turned around back toward the river, there watching me was a grizzly (aka brown) bear about 30 yards away across the river from me. It was looking at me, curious it seemed, possibly wondering what the heck I was and why I was disturbing its dinner. l gave a short shriek and then remembered my bear manners, learned from the safety video we had to watch to get a backcoutry permit. I started to talk to it, put up my hands and slowly sidestepped away as best as I could, seeing that I was on a scree slope and needed to get down to the river to really be able to move away. It was a textbook encounter, where I backed away yammering nonsense to the bear and it watched me go. Phew! I made it back to camp fairly shakily, and then made myself a camp shoe out of my foam butt cushion and an ace bandage. I’m sure you can imagine how chic I looked.
Day 3 – River crossings! Many of them across beautiful braided glacial streams, usually ankle deep. Relatively easy going minus the prolonged scouting for the easiest crossing points. Got a lot easier once our feet were drenched and we didn’t care much where we crossed, as long as it wasn’t too swift. A funny thing happened where if we saw a “social trail” we avoided it–it felt like cheating! Camp was along a stream that was lined with lovely yellow and red rocks. Just as we wrapped up dinner, the rain started. Good timing!
Day 4 – The rain never stopped all night and all day. We deemed it a rest day and hung out in the tent reading books all day. Lovely except for funky wet-doggie smellin’ socks hanging inside the tent to dry. Woo-wee!
Day 5 – River bed travel back to the park road. We caught a bus deeper into the park and then hiked up a minor peak that faces the glacial valleys hoping for a rare glimpse of Denali. We pitched our tent on a ridge where we could watch different huge peaks across the valley reveal themselves, including parts of Denali itself. That mountain dwarfs every other mountain around it and creates its own weather. Watching the weather change dramstically in minutes, I understood why so many mountaineers don’t make it all the way to top.
Day 6 – Leisurely morning catching parts of Denali emerge and tower over its neighbors. By this point we could guage pretty well from afar what color of green hillside was willow or tundra. When we were forced to tangle with willow, it was usually only waist-high. Our camp was perched on another ridge with a wide gorgeous view of Denali. We munched on dinner that night while looking across the valley, hoping for a clear view of the mountain. High winds drove us into the tent early.
Day 7 – Final 45 min of hiking down to the park road was uneventful except for the pea soup fog! Thankfully we had looked the night before for our general path down. We followed several stream beds and scree slopes and caught the bus back out. Along the way, we saw a porcupine, several bears (including mama and cubs), a red fox running along the road, and caribou. It was a good ride back to hot showers and laundry.
And now, after a train ride to Fairbanks, we are flying home.
In retrospect, a lot of our time in Alaska was type two fun. When we were kayaking, there were a lot of times when it was not easy paddling in the rain or the waves and long crossings made me uncomfortable. A lot of time was spent trying to keep dry or get dry. In Denali, the hiking was rough going and we had weather, animals and rivers to contend with. Yet at the end of each day there was always a moment of excitement about having made it through, and it made the sweet times that much more delicious. So even though I often asked why so many folks have migrated and stayed in Alaska, when it’s so challenging, I guess my experience outlines an answer. At the end of the day, there’s a feeling that you have *done* something and stretched yourself. And that feels good.