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North to Alaska: Denali or Bust
My time in the airlines, though it ended unceremoniously, produced some happy memories for me.
One of the best memories was of my summer excursion to the Alaskan interior and a bus ride across Denali National Park, home to North America’s highest peak, the 20,000-foot-high snow empress that was called by its Anglo name of Mt. McKinley in past generations but that now has reverted to its native Athabascan name.
Getting there, even by aid of jumbo jet, involved great triangulation and tribulation, particularly since I went with my three children.
Alaska, “The Last Frontier”, has only five roads that go any great distance, and they are simply numbered Highways 1 through 5. Alaskan Highway 3, converging with Highway 1 40 miles north of Anchorage, is the only auto route to the park, which is 120 miles southwest of the inland city of Fairbanks and about twice that distance, 240 miles, from Anchorage.
For most of the nearly 200-mile stretch of highway between Wasilla and the park headquarters the extent of civilization on either side of the road is about as far as a moose can spit. Outside of a smattering of towns, villages and gas stations it is no more than a shoestring through the wilderness.
Fairbanks was our original destination, but our chance to get there evaporated when a flight to Minneapolis had only one seat left for the four of us who were standbys. This evaporation set the wheels of my imagination rapidly spinning to find an alternative route. Salt Lake City? Seattle? Another Minneapolis with a thirty-minute connection? None of it pleased me.
I had made a non-refundable reservation for an 11-hour bus trip from the Denali Park Headquarters to Wonder Lake, the last tour stop of the lone road traversing the park, coming to within 30 miles of the actual peak. The reservation was for 10 AM on the following morning. As it was now 2PM on the day before, I was a perfect example of the phrase “under the gun”. How would I ever pull THIS off?
The only possibility was a nonstop flight to Anchorage, seven hours of fun, a 4:30 AM wake up time, and a 4-hour rental car race to the park. Impossible, you say? Especially with an 8, 12 and 18 year old tagging along? Of course it was impossible for a sane person. But it wasn’t for me. They would sleep and I would drive.
Five hours into the flight, blessed by a window seat and groping for excitement, I began staring out the window at the procession of endless ranks of craggy snowcapped peaks of British Columbia and Yukon. The extent of the manlessness of that almighty empire of ice, rock, moose, salmon and evergreen trees was quite amazing. It was a thousand miles of total wildness where no one had ever been or perhaps ever would go. And this was BEFORE Alaska.
American civilization has encroached on a rather large valley in and around Anchorage, and the mountains, islands and coastal areas visible from an airplane on approach during the summer might be mistaken for Oregon or Washington.
Anchorage itself is quite ordinary, and we stayed in an average hotel where another guest’s large husky spooked my son in the parking lot. He started complaining and used that as excuse to demand an outing to get food. I looked at the clock in the rental car. Eleven o’clock and it was still broad daylight. I had about three hours of sleep to look forward to, then 4 hours of driving, 11 hours on a bus, and God knows how far after the bus ride to any type of hotel.
Sunday mornings anywhere are characterized by light traffic. In Alaska at five in the morning in the wilderness traffic was nonexistent. I met Highway 1 on the outskirts of Anchorage and followed it along the Knik River for about 45 minutes until the fiord-like grandeur of the Coast Range became visible to the northeast. After the highway forked I passed through the only town of any size along the route, Wasilla, a populous place by Alaskan standards which on that morning amounted to a half dozen strip malls in search of a single customer.
The scenery during the next three hours was often monotonous, conifer trees flanking the road with occasional teasing glimpses of the massive crown of the Alaska Range, highlighted by Denali, at clearings. During one flat stretch the mountain became visible from over 100 miles away, such an overwhelming sight that I at first thought it was a cloud formation.
At the Denali Visitors center parking area I roused my sleepy-eyed brood and herded them into the waiting area. We had a full fifteen minutes before the beginning of our bus tour, scheduled to take 11 hours to go the 85 miles from the park entrance to Wonder Lake and then return the same 85 miles back. I had packed cheese, bread and cookies, not knowing what, if anything, would be available during the tour, 70 miles of which would be on a narrow gravel road.
The weather was sunny and rather hot by local standards, perhaps as high as 75 degrees F, but blessedly clear. Denali is a notoriously elusive sight, often shrouded in fog, clouds and mist for days and weeks at a time, and it seemed very elusive to me during the tour, despite the good weather, for due to the mountainous topography surrounding the road clear views of it were relatively uncommon.
The youngsters and I sat in the back two of the fifteen or so rows of the bus, and listened to the tour guide’s narration. There were frequent wildlife sightings, mountain goats, rams, brown bears, and caribou. My puckish little 13 year-old boy noticed that the antlers on the caribou seemed to sway up and down like soft material, and he delivered the most amusing quip for the other appreciative tourists.
“Look, Daddy. Them things have Styrofoam antlers!”
For the rest of the trip the little smart aleck was the most notable celebrity onboard, and several elderly people from such places as Wichita and Tucson offered him food during stops at rest areas, something which he didn’t consider my cheese and bread to be. After a pair of 80 year-olds donated a juicy burger to his stomach he called my picnic “mountain goat food”.
The bus would stop every 1 ½ to 2 hours at such trading posts as Sanctuary River, Teklanika River, Igloo Creek and Toklat River, generally by grayish streams filled with glacial sediment on pebble-filled beds which my two younger children dug their hands into and hurled rocks into the current. The unpaved portion of the road is entirely on the Arctic tundra, a treeless rocky series of valleys and meadows that thaws for three months of each year, sprouts grasses and wildflowers, then freezes into oblivion at the end of the brief summer.
The snowy empress would appear from time to time above the tundra, particularly after the Eilson Visitor’s center around mile 66. It was consistently visible from this point on, though still over thirty miles distant from the road.
Denali, rising from a plain of 2000 feet to its summit of over 20,000 feet, is said to be the steepest-rising land mountain on earth, with a considerably greater vertical rise than the Himalayas which ascend from an 18,000-foot plateau at their base. In this sense, we were looking at the highest mountain on earth. It seemed surreal: an unapproachable heaven of frozen isolation, the top of the world on the edge of the Arctic. It was even more bizarre in light of the weather which on that day grew to be quite hot.
Over five hours after embarking on the tour we reached the terminus of our route, Wonder Lake Visitors center, offering a clear view of the High One as well as its attendant train of lesser snowcapped summits—the 100-mile long profile of the Alaskan Range. In the humid mid-day sun we hiked down to the lake, which was swarming with mosquitoes, and we sweated and ate our semi-melted cheese and pasty bread.
I was tempted, looking at the earth’s mightiest mountain on the opposite side of the road, to attempt to walk to it. The illusion of closeness and sunshine was almost irresistible. I began wondering if any other mortal, seeing the unreachable heaven from that vantage point, had succumbed to temptation, given up on this life, and tried to do that, never to be seen or heard from again.
If I were granted only two of the cat’s nine lives I think I would have sacrificed one of them to try that. But as I have only one I’ll spend the rest of it imagining what that must be like.
© 2015 James Crawford