Summer sojourn in the Alaska high country
Story and photos by Kim Fenske
Denali National Park is the home of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet, named Denali or “The Great One” by the native Athabaskans. A thousand people each year attempt to reach the summit of this dominant promontory of southcentral Alaska. Most climbers fly by ski plane to a base camp at 7,200 feet on the face of the peak. Roughly half of the climbers who spend two to three weeks attempting to reach the summit are able to achieve the goal. Since 1932, Denali has killed 120 climbers, primarily due to falls and avalanches. The annual search and rescue costs for the mountain are nearly $500,000.
During five days of backpacking around Denali National Park, I was exploring terrain beside the road that penetrates 92 miles of the park from the eastern entrance. On the first evening, I enjoyed all of the developed comforts of Riley Creek Campground. The Riley Creek Mercantile offers showers, laundry, electronic re-charging outlets, and wireless internet. After paying for a walk-in campsite, I enjoyed the evening in camp by dining on angel food pancakes, blueberry pie filling, and a pound of fresh cherries with a glass of wine. Then, the daily rain began to fall as I retreated into my tent for the evening.
Next morning, I hastily packed and caught the Camp Bus bound for Wonder Lake Campground, 82 miles from the park entrance. The morning sky cleared as I bounced along on the six-hour ride through the taiga and tundra toward Wonder Lake.
At forty miles, the bus broke free of the forest at the vast open tundra of Sable Pass. This high terrain is so heavily-populated with grizzly bears that travel restrictions prohibit hiking. Caribou graze on tundra turf bordered with scattered clumps of willow shrubs. The road descends from Polychrome Pass to the Toklat River, fifty-three miles from the park entrance. The Toklat is a wide, sediment-saturated river of chalky glacial mud bordered by dense willow cover. A few weeks after my visit, a hiker was killed and cached by a territorial boar a couple of miles north of the Toklat River crossing, the first fatal bear attack in the history of Denali National Park.
Ten miles farther into the park, the road ascended to 3,900 feet and provided a clear view of Mount McKinley, dominating the horizon thirty-six miles across the valley. By noon, the bus reached the Eielson Visitor Center, as Mount McKinley slipped behind a shroud of clouds.
In early afternoon, I established my base camp at Wonder Lake and enjoyed a long day hike through stunted forest and willow thickets. I stumbled into a family of willow ptarmigan, the Alaska state bird, before returning to my camp. A dense cloud bank rolled into the valley and a few mosquitoes hovered around my tent before the evening showers began. I ended the night listening to a park ranger discuss climate change and the impact on receding glaciers and changes in the wildlife habitat of Alaska.
Next day, I rode the departing camp bus back to the central park and hiked for the day on high tundra. I observed a dozen sows grazing with cubs across wide expanses of grass and stunted willow clusters. Then, I returned to camp and relaxed in the dry comfort of my tent while a gentle rain tapped on my tarp through the night.