Published: August 8th 2011August 8th 2011
We arrived in Alaska under a curtain of rain and cold but it didn't "dampen" our spirits or excitement for fulfilling an over 10-year dream for me (Jamey) and Jessica's Honeymoon. Though, admittingly, the 7 hours of sleep shared between us didn't broaden our smiles during the drive. We spent 5 hours driving to Denali with all of the Alaskan beauty hidden behind clouds and fog. We stopped and picked up our Bear spray, bug spray and stove fuel (all of which are not allowed even on check bags on a airplane, total BS). We even perused the gun counter, partly jokingly and partly not, and considered acquiring a louder form of bear protection. This after we found out that we could, in the great state of Alaska, legally acquire a firearm in 20 minutes.
We parked in the tiny Riley Creek Mercantile parking lot and got our camping space and bus tickets, all had been previously reserved and I am so thankful, that made it so much easier. We went to the backcountry office and met yet another informative, patient and helpful Ranger who helped us set up a perfect, interesting itinerary within the park. The final highlight of
our day was an experimental cheapo camping dinner of parmesan couscous with Vienna sausages and string cheese, edible, sort of. However, I can safely say we'll never, ever use Vienna sausages again. With a bright sky above us we suddenly realized that it was almost 10 pm and we were certainly in Alaska!
Our first, and absolutely not our last, experience with wild life was a tenacious and fearless squirrel at the car camping spot who darted up and around us, onto our picnic table and eventually into our trunk, he got nothing for his troubles. The drive into the park is a great experience, an old green beat up camper bus driven by Alan, a driver with over 30 years of Denali experience. We bumped and screeched along the park road along with other campers and hikers under, again, a foggy, cloudy sky that hid most of the park's scenic views. The drive started slow, though there was a momentary faraway view of Mt. McKinley, fleeting yet a great sign nonetheless. We eventually caught sight of a bear munching in the brush along the bus, then another one, a black bear off in the distance at a stream.
Denali National Park
Wolf. Determining the bus speed.
A great view of two grizzlies was enjoyed for a few minutes right around the time a wolf sauntered down the park road unaffected by the bus rolling along around him. Dall Sheep and Caribou were kind enough to present themselves during the drive. We arrived at near the end of the park road at the campground Wonder Lake. The campground sits right in front of McKinley and one of the largest lakes of the area. Wow, no bad campsites, all were situated at the edge of the valley leading up to the Alaskan Range. We enjoyed a view of the lake; a few fresh blueberries picked along the side and had dinner. Then as we contemplated retiring for the evening the great mountain revealed a bit of itself but kept enough cloud cover to prevent a full viewing, absolutely amazing in its' partial disclosure, another of many "wows."
We got up early and made the 6:30 bus with no time to spare, getting to see even more of McKinley but our concern was getting our backcountry trip started. Within a few minutes of the drive we all realized Denali Mountain (Mt. McKinley) was revealing it's full visual presence,
Denali National Park
Eielson Visitor Center
and again, WOW! We pulled over to get a better view; it towered over the 11,000 ft. peaks around it dwarfing them into hills. The bus driver dropped us off at our unit, 34, and the tallest mountain in North America provided our snow glistening backdrop for the start and what would turn out the entire first day's hike.
We expected a challenging off trail backcountry experience but wow, Alaskan tundra and hills are more then challenging; the terrain is slow, wet, clumsy, sharp, steep, unsettling and like nothing else either of us have ever done. A poor choice, arguably, was made to go high up a hill at the start but we had to bushwhack just to get the trip started, through waist to shoulder high scrub. My map reading skills were rusty and definitely thrown off the massive hills and geography of the Denali NP. Misinterpretation of what was a map worthy creek and map worthy ridge certainly skewed what both of us thought was our decided destination of the unit. Eventually, after a tough long slog through the hills with Denali Mountain brightly smiling at our back we arrived at a good area to set up
Denali National Park
Dall Sheep. The little white specks on the mountain are the sheep.
camp. We did avoid a small group of Caribou whose path intersected with ours, pretty sweet.
We camped over the Moose Creek, on blueberries and mossy tundra, setting up the tent in the sunshine and enjoying an arrival of Caribou with the hugest set of antlers either of us had ever seen. The rack on the Caribou looked almost as tall as it was. Jessica affectionately nicknamed it ""Big-Bou." We napped well and woke up to see that Big-Bou was still hanging out down along the creek bed but Denali had yet again cloaked itself in clouds. We both acknowledged how lucky we were to get the view that was now gone. As the afternoon turned into the evening we sat in our chairs and enjoyed the views and some eagles. A near perfect day ended and we both slept well.
Waking early we heard rain pitter patter on the tent as well as the wind howling. After several failed attempts to rile ourselves out of bed knowing the weather, I stepped out of the tent to freezing wind and sleet, which quickly changed to snow. We packed up our sopping tent, in the dense fog with freezing
Denali National Park
Wonder Lake Campground
numb hands. The hike out was easier to navigate because we knew to follow the creek but mislabed boots on Jessica's feet ("Waterproof"...no, not at all) slowed and challenged the exit. Eventually plastic bags were used with new dry socks but we still had to cross some dense scrub with plenty of deep puddles and spongy terrain. The road was found but no buses, we walked a few miles until a bus materialized and took us to the warm and dry Eielson Visitors center for some recovery time before heading back into the Denali Wilderness for another bit of backpacking. Hot Chocolate and oatmeal was enjoyed, with the water heated by stove on the sidewalk in front of the visitor’s center as snow fell. Jessica had the crazy coincidence of meeting two friends from Columbia, MO, at the visitor’s center, really, what a small world.
We got dropped off at the Toklat Ranger Station, gathered some previously stashed food supplies and headed down the Toklat River. The hiking was easy because it was all riverbed but our feet and backs were sore and we knew we had about three miles until the earliest camping spot. We crossed small streams
and tumbled over rocks towards a hill we had been using as a target for a lunch spot. We approached the spot and were within a football field when Jessica, in a very serious voice, said, "Bear!", one word and one syllable but we immediately turned and quickly but calmly hiked the other direction. We gather ourselves and turned to see a grizzly meandering casually in our direction along our intended path. He hadn't seen us so we quickly, but again calmly, hiked further back and warned two day hikers. We talked about our limited options; we had slim creek bed as a path, bordered by high scrub on one side and the Toklat River on the other. We walked back further and Jessica caught sight of a second Grizzly to add to our concerns, still just meandering and but now one, at least, noticed us.
A bit of discussion as we fell further and further back led to the decision to attempt the crossing of Toklat River. We both knew a stream crossing would be inevitable on the day's hike but the Toklat was wider and deeper looking then we'd thought we'd have to deal with. I pulled
up my rain pants, removed the lower legs of my hiking pants and threw on my hiking sneakers saving my boots. Jessica all the while looking out after the bears. The water looked too deep but I tried a practice crossing anyway. Three or four steps in, less then a quarter across, with the water well over my knees I came screaming back to the near shore, my legs were frozen, the water was colder then I could have expected. As I swore and shook my head Jessica noticed the pair of grizzlies had wandered uncomfortably close once again and were continuing our direction, moving faster then before. Jessica waved her arms and did her best to warn the bears of our presence (as directed by Park Safety directions). I fumbled and cursed my zippered pant legs challenging reconnection and then mistied and retied my boots over my still freezing feet. We were frazzled and unnerved, by both the bears and what certainly appeared a difficult water crossing. We back up significantly, probably another 3 quarters of a mile, to discuss and consider another water crossing but eventually concluded that a return the ranger station we'd left from was the
Denali National Park
Hiking up in unit #34
only reasonable choice.
We made it back after almost 4 hours of hiking, 5 - 6 miles (not counting our morning 2 miles) covered without a single real break, no food and a very nerve racking bear encounter. The decision was made to call our backcountry trip in Denali to an early end and get a motel to clean up, dry out and get a good night rest. The bus ride out was pleasant and more importantly dry. We saw another wolf, casually frolicking down the park road causing multiple bus traffic jams, a couple of bears at a distance, sheep, and a very bus tolerant coyote. Then finally, as we came close to the park exit, we witnessed, at very close range a park rumor. Within 20 feet of our bus was a 3 legged, full size grizzly. With a lost front arm, probably to a snare, it was both sad and an amazing sight. We headed up to Healy, got a room at the Totem Inn and ate a pleasant dinner at 49th State Brewery, a phenomenal couple of days in Denali to remise about. Just Phenomenal.
There are more photos below