DENALI NATIONAL PARK - UNIT 29
“Eric, be frank with me. Do you think we’ll survive out there?” The employee at the big box outdoor retailer pushed up his glasses and casually mentioned something along the lines of “It’s only a walk in the park. Just a really big park. 6 million acres of wilderness. You guys have a map?”
It was our first stop in Anchorage after double checking our systems and filling in any gaps with rentals. The remaining equipment comprising an avalanche transmitter, probe, and shovel was rented from some guy Calvin found online and arranged to meet in the parking lot at REI. Nothing shady about that at all. We wrapped up after two hours and worked on devouring a pizza from Moose’s Tooth in the parking lot of a nearby Home Depot. I think we felt prepared at the time.
A couple of months earlier, Calvin texted me about a breakup with a girl he’d been seeing for a few years. She had moved across the country for work and the question of long distance dissolved over time for her. Concurrently, his dad was dealing with the end stages of Alzheimer’s and the months were slowly counting down. Calvin wanted one last story to share with him – another adventure. He mentioned Louisiana to me. I suggested Alaska for ten days instead. We did our research and decided to do Denali National Park in the winter. A broken heart to sail a ship in search of a story. We bought our flights for early March.
The ranger at the park entrance was excited to meet us when we arrived to pick up our backcountry permits and choose the units we’d be visiting. We had free range of the park and were issued the ninth permit that year.
“No one else is in the backcountry?”
“Yup! Last permit issued was weeks ago. The park’s all yours.”
We’d soon feel how isolated we were when we passed milepost 15.
6 million acres.
A few hours into our first day and just before dinner, Calvin left me and returned to the car because an essential item was missing from his kit. An eating utensil – a spork. When he returned, he presented the broken pieces inadvertently crushed after having been sat on for the duration of the drive up from Anchorage. The dehydrated meal warming me underneath my jacket then responded to that by leaking all over my clothes. Small hiccups already making a mess of things on day one. We shared my one spork and I smelled like beef stroganoff for the rest of the trip.
The long week proved to be a lesson on systems.
The following day, we learned quite immediately how difficult it is to bushwhack through taiga with a heavy sled in tow and opted to follow a sled dog trail into the interior, cutting over to the Park Road whenever we lost sight of it. We took turns every 30 minutes on the Sisyphean task of dragging the sled over the many miles. Too much fuel, too much food, and too much gear weighing us down. We were over-prepared for the excursion. Oh, and armed with our bulky DSLRs. And my 70-200mm.
Weather proved to be relatively pristine for the trip and the constant image of Mount Denali slowly burned into my mind over the many days it jutted out over the sea of mountains. It’s said that the peak’s obscured nearly 90% of the time and we were lucky to have seen it every day. The outdoors have been an integral part for most of my life but I felt strangely converted by this sight.. a reinvigorated fervor for the mountains. “Wow”, I’d exclaim, my breath crystallizing in the frigid, dry air. The snow, like sand, blowing across my face.
“Are those bear tracks?”
“Could they be bear tracks?”
“No.. Maybe wolves?”
It’s hard to maintain conversations while bundled up in heavy layers with snow crunching underfoot. Words sink into drifts of snow and questions keep being repeated. A few days in, I was probably a bit of a thorn for Calvin, our energy levels spiking or crashing as we traded sled pull duties or dipped into caloric deficits. Even with more than enough food packed for the trip, hunger has a way of disappearing in the single digits. The Thermarest foam pads eventually migrated from our packs to the sled when we were in motion, giving us a soft bench during breaks for whoever was pulling.
We crossed the Teklanika river midway through our trip and set up our camp close to the base of Cathedral Mountain. After setting up our tent and refilling our water bottles through cracks in the frozen river, we slackpacked and climbed a few thousand feet up loose scree for a better look at the Alaskan Range, my nose bleeding from the arid air and Calvin berating me for taking unnecessary risks up the scramble. Our faces burned in the sun while our fingers froze. We matched the mountains to their names on the map and felt insignificant in the immensity of it all. A few hours that night was spent under the northern lights, shivering in our base layers trying to absorb as much of Alaska as we could before we turned back in the morning.
Denali in the distance
Pushing Calvin to a breaking point
Our trek back felt long although we cut time traveling on top of the mighty Teklanika. A week without seeing another human being or taking a shower had us feeling quite haggard and worn, grating on each other’s frayed nerves as we were reduced to the basest of needs. Food. Water. Warmth. Shelter. Repeat. I didn’t write much in my pocket-sized notebook during this time.
A frozen Teklanika River
Large cracks in frozen rivers provided easy access to glacially fed water
My energy dropped into the post-trip fatigue that inevitably follows any lengthy exertion as we sighted the parking lot where our car sat for the past week. We disassembled the sled, tossed our full packs into the trunk of our rental car, and drove over to bid our farewell to the rangers at their station. Muted from fatigue earlier, we then broke out in delirious laughter in anticipation of dinner at Talkeetna Roadhouse and in the discovery of a canister of sour cream Pringles accidentally left in the glovebox.
Ah. What a welcome back to society.
Until the next time. See you later, space cowboy.