AK 2010, Days 29-31: Living Three Lives [Finally Catching Up]

I intend for this post to be enjoyed as a long essay draft or to be read in fits and starts (hence the convenient sections). My first five days in Denali felt like living three lives at once: the tourist, the observer, and the writer (saved the best for last). In order to capture my experiences, this is an extraordinarily long blog post in the name of reflection and catching up. It’s been cathartic, so here goes…
Upon arriving, I roamed amongst the tourists (mostly retirees or Europeans) in Denali National Park & Preserve. I went on Ranger-led hikes. I read trail displays and Park publications. I took pictures, asked questions. I sat on the porch across from the Princess Lodge and oohed-and-ahhed at the fall colors. I did, as they say, “the point and shoot.”
But even on the most quintessential Denali experience—the Shuttle Bus—I still felt a bit like an imposter. I knew I’d rather be out hiking those mountains than eyeing them from a heated bus. At the same time, there’s only one way into the park if you’re not backpacking and I wasn’t about to miss out. I arrived before 7am one windy, wet morning and caught the $40 ride to Eilson and back. The Park Road is something like 89 miles and this would cover 66 of it. On a clear day, tourists like to keep going all the way to the end in order to see the famed Wonder Lake and Mt. McKinley view. On a rainy day, with a calculated 29% chance of seeing the mountain in the month of September as it is (one of the higher odds, believe it or not), there’s just no need to keep riding.
[Shuttle Bus in Denali]
The general modus operandi of these bus rides is that we’re all in it together. Everyone is supposed to “scan, shout, then point” when they see wildlife. Packed somewhere between a large Russian family and a Japanese tour group, I took my seat and diligently scanned the tundra for 8 continuous hours. Others did the same (discounting the seniors, who by the return trip were lulled into a symphony of soft snores from the hum and heat of the bus). We saw 2 moose—not such a big deal to me anymore—and the bus stopped, tourists slamming toward the moose-side of the bus with a series of flashes and camera noises erupting from the windows.
If you’re Alaskan, seeing a moose might best be compared to being from the lower-48 and seeing a robin. In other words: no biggie. It’s somewhat of an odd experience to watch everyone go ga-ga over them, though I still think they’re awesome and curious creatures (and if we’re talking bull moose, well then, I’d stop and take a look for sure). After getting acquainted with the moose at our Fairbanks pond every single day, I just didn’t have it in me to elbow my way through the tour bus crowd in Denali and stick my camera out the window for the photo opp. (I once had a 45-minute stand-off with a moose on my solo-backpacking trip. I was 17. I had flown from Oregon to New Hampshire and was determined to go alone. I saw not a single sign of wildlife the entire week of my solo, until, on the last day, I met my first moose just ½ mile from the road. Unforgettable.)
[Braided river at Teklanika along the Parks Road. Note the fresh “termination dust” that had fallen overnight and continued throughout the bus ride. “Termination dust” is the Alaskan phrase for the first snow signifying the end of fall, which lasts about 3 weeks here, and the beginning of winter, which lasts about 5 months.]
But my Shuttle Bus moment to “scan, shout, then point” did happen around Divide Mountain. I know because I was following along with my topo map, scouting for potential ridgelines and valleys I’d like to backpack. We had just come down Polychrome Pass (never mind that you couldn’t see the glacier or the top of the peak because of horrible weather conditions). We were rounding the bend into the Toklat River Valley and, by my estimate, were probably somewhere around 3,000 feet elevation. That’s when I saw a silver-blue flash leaping across the orange tundra. I knew instantly.
[The zoom lens on my camera is broken. If I zoom past 3x, the camera automatically shuts off. I’m lucky to be getting the photos that I’ve posted on the blog so far, let alone this one. Still…I wish it had turned out better.]
A wolf. Six million acres of National Park & Preserve and only 60 wolves in the entire thing. I know one Denali resident who went 15 years without seeing a wolf. But there it was, darting with ease through the dwarf birch and willow plants. I’d done my scanning. Now I was supposed to shout and then point. Already, I resented the influx and scurry that would come once I announced the sighting. But still, we were in it together. I pressed my nose to the glass and watched the wolf in silence for a few private moments, then I heard myself saying softly: “Stop. Stop. Wolf. There’s a wolf at 7 ‘0 clock.”
“VOLF! VOLF!” Bless the burly Russian man for standing and shouting for me. My shout had barely come out as a whisper.
“TIGER!” This came from the back of the bus—a teenager from Japan who had been sleeping, then woken suddenly when the Russian shouted. “TIGER!” he said again. Bless him for recalling the wrong vocabulary word, really, but I felt compelled to correct him.
“WOLF!” I shouted for real this time. Then, “There’s another one.” The bus screeched to a halt then tilted under the weight of everyone cramming into the seats on the wolf-side. I sat back down while people poured above and to the side of me. I peered out the lower portion of the bus window and watched as a total of four wolves came from the same direction, then followed the alpha over a knoll and out of sight.
The rest of the ride was fairly abysmal. The windows fogged and mud/snow splashed so much that our views were obscured. We stopped every 90 minutes to squeegie them clean but within ten minutes they’d be covered again. By the time we reached our destination at Eislon where I had hoped to do another Ranger-led hike, the snow was blowing sideways. McKinley was in the clouds, and I could just barely make out the moraine of the Muldrow Glacier. For the final two hours of the ride, there wasn’t much more than 100-feet of visibility.
But still: FOUR WOLVES in the wild! A true sight to behold, no matter the weather or the circumstance.
[Fall colors and termination dust at Highway Pass, Parks Road, Denali.]
Because of the amazing powers of Google search engines and because this is a small community, I will continue to call this the cabin at Milepost 22x and I will call my friends that own it R & O. Suffice it to say they are part-time Denali residents who live most of the year in [PacNW City]. They are gracious, loving, intelligent, patient, and insanely talented. That’s the short version. The slightly longer version is that R, my writing friend, was the 1st woman in the history of the 82nd Airborne to fly apache attack helicopters and the 9th woman in the history of the US Military to do so. She’s run marathons. She’s climbed Mt. McKinley. She’s written a memoir that I’m certain will be published and now she’s raising and family and getting her MFA in writing. R & O are well known and liked in the Denali community, and during the 5 full days that they shared their vacation with me, not a single evening went by where company didn’t call and good stories weren’t shared.
I’ve lived continuously in small communities since I graduated from college—all of them rural, all of them art or land focused, and most of them involving some form of rugged, primitive, or simple living ethic. Those common factors yield similarities in values, no matter how many thousands of miles apart from each other these communities have been. It has been exciting to find some of those common threads present in life here in Denali—where Denali means the community, not just the Park & Preserve. (To demonstrate, I’ve culled Google Images for the following photos…)
Whereas last year’s trip afforded an education about glaciers, moraines, tarns, salmon, permafrost, endless daylight, tracking grizzlies in the backcountry, the McCarthy Road, and the Alaska Railroad, this year’s has been more of an immersion into “the interior” (Fairbanks area), the boreal forest (approximately 25% of the world’s canopy), and the people who choose to live in both. There are stories about squatting and squatters. Stories about kids in Alaskan public schools studying frostbite and hypothermia in all-school assemblies (as compared to lock down or tornado drills in the lower-48). Stories about what poop does in an outhouse at fifty below zero.
There are stories about summiting (or not summiting) Mt. McKinley. Stories about Foraker Peak. Stories about Mount Deborah. Stories about the different versions of the stories. Stories about three guys on a secured line just a few hundred feet from the top, slipping and tangling themselves at 20,000 feet, belly up on the spine of the mountain.
There are stories about dog mushing—the new handler who needs to be trained, the 5o pounds of food consumed every 3 days by 16 sled dogs (in the off season), or the clientele who can pay $800 per day for guided winter sled-dog trips and the humble thirty-year-old residents who lead said trips. Those guides do everything from serve coffee to digging latrines through the snow to saving lives if somebody screws up. They’re patient and tough and skilled and they are often contracted for the work they do so they don’t earn as much as it sounds.
There’s the infamous “Glitter Gultch”—a one-mile stretch of highway that’s just alongside the Park & Preserve boundary where all tourists, myself included, are bound to find themselves at some point. The fleeces are always “ON SALE NOW” and the magnets are always “BUY 1 GET 1” and the salmon/preserves/sourdough/antlers are always “AUTHENTIC.”
There are stories about McMurdow research station in Antarctica (temporary in-flux population: 1200 people). There seems to be a constant flow of traffic amongst seasonal workers between Alaska and Antarctica. There’s the Alaskan who got to McMurdow and was so fed up that when the cargo plane finally arrived to take her back, she didn’t pack—she just walked out of the compound with the clothes on her back and refused to ever talk about her Antarctica experience again.
There’s the folks who plough your driveway when they know you’re coming back for a visit. The folks who babysit for free just because life gets lonely up here. The folks who no doubt walked/paddled/hitch-hiked/drug-tripped/backpacked here from someplace far away and arrived…all of them, on their own, at various times…stark naked and nearly nutso. Alaska made them sane, if you can believe that. There’s the folks who think Chris McCandless’ “Into the Wild” was more like “Into the Woods” and say that the bus was so close to “civilization” they could spit on it from a table they play poker at.
Stories about the Northern Lights. Stories about no light at all. Stories about falling through the ice, walking on thin ice, making your own ice, the year everyone got iced in, the year the ice melted early. Stories, my friends, that will crack your heart right open.
I am a sponge. The perpetual fly on the wall. The one with the never-ending internal narration—not monologue, mind you, but narration. How can I say it any other way? The world comes to me in sentences and images; little itches of the fantastic. If I could live on words alone, I would do it.
I am here to let the ridgelines blaze trails across my retinas. I am here to soak up the smells, the tastes, the culture, the colors. Like a slowly churning compost, what’s tasted and then quickly left behind will start to heat and decompose in the typewriter-gut-of-my-heart. When the next growing season of new stories comes, I can only hope that each bite people take is fresh yet reminiscent of something deeply, undeniably familiar.
Once again, Rockwell Kent puts it into words with more precision than I could ever hope for. I love knowing that I am not alone in my obsession with the state as a muse, and also that that obsession has both everything and nothing to do with the state itself. The closing quote for this epic post, at the close of this day where I being 2 weeks effectively on my own in various cabins around Denali:
These days are wonderful but they are terrible. It is thrilling now…to reflect that we are absolutely cut off from all mankind, that we cannot, in this raging sea, return to the world nor the world come to us. Barriers must secure your isolation in order that you may experience the full significance of it. The romance of an adventure hangs upon slender threads…Much of the glory of this Alaska is in the knowledge I have that the next bay—which I may never choose to enter—is uninhabited, that beyond these mountains across the water is a vast region that no man has ever trodden, a terrible ice-bound wilderness.

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