Honoring the centennial of Denali National Park
Prior to visiting Denali for the first time on my honeymoon in 2011, I didn’t realize how elusive a mountain can be! My husband Josh and I were fortunate to not only see the mountain and abundant wildlife, but to experience the emotional core of Denali!
Our time in Alaska was so epic that when we returned to Illinois, we decided to make a move. We packed all of our belongings in two vehicles and drove to Fairbanks. Since then, we have traveled throughout this great state and experienced many incredible adventures! Denali, however, remains my favorite place to explore.
I took the 2016 slogan of the National Park Service’s centennial celebration “Find Your Park” to heart; I had “found my park.” To honor the 2017 centennial of Denali National Park, I made it my quest to spend 100 days exploring and capturing, through photography, the incredible experiences of one year in the life of Denali. Although every day in Denali National Park presented its own adventure, there were a few days that stood out.
Day 16 – April 15, 2017
The sun was already low in the sky when my husband and I drove into the park. As we turned a corner and the Teklanika River came into view, I spotted nine grey wolves. We quickly parked and got out to watch them running across the frozen river and listen to them howling. They were a couple hundred yards away but the sound carried through the wilderness. We walked about twenty-five yards off the road to the top of a little bluff to watch them roam. A little while later three wolves made their way closer to us and our excitement grew. The three wolves stopped at a dead caribou we hadn’t noticed earlier, just over one hundred yards away. Two of these wolves were black as night with golden eyes. The other wolf, a striking grey color, trotted off after it grabbed a piece of the caribou’s leg away from the rest of the carcass. The two black wolves stayed and continued feeding. While looking down river, I spotted a very healthy looking grizzly bear headed right toward the wolves. It seemed to take its time at first, but as he got closer, the bear picked up its pace. When the bear zoned in on the kill, the two wolves started backing off. Before we knew it, the bear was on the caribou carcass. The black wolves circled around but ultimately didn’t fight for their meal.
The bear didn’t eat much of the carcass but instead began to bury his find. While the bear was hard at work, the beautiful grey wolf approached the kill site. It went to where it left the leg of the caribou it had ripped off earlier, and fed on it while keeping a wary eye on the bear. Eventually the wolf circled around the kill, inching closer and closer to the bear and caribou carcass. Finally, the bear decided the grey was too close and charged. The wolf ran through the snow. The bear didn’t run too far and quickly went back to burying the carcass. The wolf hung around the area for a little while longer but then eventually headed back to the river. The sun was setting by then and we had to head out of the park. We listened to the continuous howls of the wolves on the river as we walked the few yards back to the RV. To top off the day, I got to see some pristine white willow ptarmigan and a cow moose posing in front of Denali. I didn’t know how any of the 84 remaining days of Denali could top day 16.
Day 65-69 – September 3-7, 2017
Josh and I had planned days 65-69 for months. It was something I had looked forward to all year: five days biking the Denali Park Road from the end, mile 92.5 to mile 0. We had our backcountry camping units all reserved for the first three days of the adventure and a reservation at Sanctuary Campground for the fourth night. We stashed three food caches at different rest stops to lighten our load. We really thought this was going to be the most epic five days of the year. The first 30 or so miles were all uphill, and we quickly determined we were fair-weather bikers. In hindsight, it probably would have helped if we had actually trained for this trip instead of just planning and looking forward to it.
Our journey started with waking up late at Wonder Lake Campground, at mile 85. While I scrambled to put our camping supplies in bags, my husband thought we had time to sit and have a relaxing cup of coffee. We did not. Luckily, other campers helped carry everything and we just made it to the bus that would take us to mile 92.5. Normally we have large backpacks that fit everything but with biking everything has to fit in panniers or be strapped on with bungees and rope. We looked ridiculous. It took over an hour to load everything onto our bikes and then after two pedals, Josh realized his bike rack would not work for his bike. We had to then switch the racks and try again. It took almost half a day to get back to the Wonder Lake Campground.
On a happy note, it was an absolutely gorgeous day with Denali out and reflecting in Wonder Lake. We had brunch watching and listening to the sandhill cranes fly above us. Later I discovered that I’d left a pair of pants at the Wonder Lake Campground. Luckily, my husband biked back again and retrieved them for me. We carried on and on and on until the sun was starting to set and we made it to our designated backcountry unit. We set up camp, ate some dinner, and watched the alpenglow drape over the Alaska Range. With all the hassles of the day behind us, we sat in awe looking at those incredible mountains.
The next day involved more uphill biking. We just kept pedaling up and up. It was almost a miracle when we reached the Eielson Visitor Center. I laid down in the parking lot and wanted to sleep right there. Unfortunately, we still had 68 miles and three days to bike. We did have our first downhill to look forward to though! We ate at Eielson at one of the tables inside the visitor center, then grabbed our cached food and headed on our way. The last hill of the day was up to Stoney Overlook. The sun was again setting on us and the mountain was now almost eaten up by clouds. It was hard finding a spot to camp that was out of sight and a half mile from the road, a requirement for backcountry campers. The bikes had to be stored at least 25 yards off the road. We eventually found a spot and enjoyed our dinner watching the clouds change to a pastel pink. The last bus heading back for the day made a long stop down the park road about a mile or so from where we got off. This was on my mind while I was all cozy in my sleeping bag … what were the people on the bus looking at…?
We slept in on day 3. After packing up the tent we headed closer to the road to gather our bear barrel and bikes. The park service teaches you to have a camp triangle, with your campsite, your food supply, and your eating area forming the three points. We saw a bus stopped as we neared the area where our food was stored. There had been foxes hanging in this area earlier in the summer so I thought that could be why. I was wrong. Right where we had left our bear barrel of food were a sow and two cub grizzly bears. We quickly backed away towards the river bed. We worked our way east towards the road until a ranger pulled up and yelled for us to come to her. She drove us to where the bears were. Looking down we could see our bear barrel and black bag with the JetBoil and cooking supplies. Another ranger was now on the scene but the bears were out of sight. While I filled out a bear encounter form that was older than I was, Josh was escorted down the hill to where our supplies and food were. A few items were out of the small black bag, but nothing was missing or broken. The rangers informed Josh that he had stored our food in a soapberry bush, which is what the bears were eating that time of year. I found it pretty humorous because I had set the items in a different location amongst some rocks and he had moved it to the bush. I giggled a little as the rangers set us free to travel on.
The bears eventually meandered over the road and up into a canyon. We pressed on and made our way to the Toklat rest stop where we ate our cached food. On the way up to Polychrome Pass the weather took a turn for the worse. The rain was sporadic at first with little drops here and there. By the time we got into the pass it was full on sleeting. We were technically in our backcountry unit, not as far as we planned to bike on day 3, but because of the bad weather we called it a day. After stashing the bikes 25 yards off the road we found a semi-flat spot to put our tent. It rained, snowed, and sleeted hard most of the night.
We woke up and were elated to have a brief period without precipitation to take down our tent. There is nothing good about taking down a wet tent when you have to put it back up less than 10 hours later. We started on our way with a little downhill but the wind had picked up. It turned out there was a wind warning, which would have been great if the gusts were a tailwind, but we were not so lucky. With the strong headwind, we had to peddle on the downhills. Going up Sable Pass was a roughly 850-foot elevation gain in four miles with 40-plus mile-per-hour headwinds. To top it off, the sleet returned as we were struggling to press forward up the dirt road. It was a huge moment of triumph when we did make it to the top of Sable Pass. I knew there would be other uphills as we made our way out of the park, but Sable Pass was a huge milestone. We enjoyed the downhill, but were stopped a mile from Igloo Campground. This area was closed to all foot and bike traffic on the road because of some curious bears. We had to set our bikes down and wait for a bus to take us over the closure. This was a relief and a frustration. It was nice to be warm for a few minutes as we were driven through the two-mile closure, but it would mean we didn’t actually bike the entire road. There wasn’t anything we could do about it though. We got off the bus promptly after the closure even though the nice bus driver said he would take us to the Teklanika rest stop and not tell anyone! It was tempting but we got off, loaded up, and continued down the road.
At the Teklanika rest stop we ate our lunch on a bench under a roof! The rain seemed to subside as we left the rest stop and made our way to the Sanctuary Campground. This leg of the trip did not take us as long. I think it was because we had the routine of packing and unpacking our bikes down to a science. We hiked around Sanctuary when we got there. It was a great backpackers’ campsite, as you slept hearing the rushing river beside you. There were snowshoe hares and red squirrels around camp and evidence of larger mammals such as wolves, moose, and bears. We turned in early so we could get a jumpstart the next day and head out of the park!
It was day 5 and we were ready to eat more diverse foods and not have to bike uphill for miles on end. We saw lots of birds in the final stretch including a few northern hawk owls and too many willow ptarmigan to count. It was almost emotional when we hit the pavement. I didn’t want to stop, but just make it to the park road entrance. It rained a little, but the motivation of lunch at 49th State Brewery and my memory foam pillow kept me going. I was pretty proud standing in front of the Denali National Park and Preserve sign at the entrance of Denali. I felt accomplished, but it was something I never wanted to do again. Josh and I determined that we prefer to bike on nice days and mostly downhill.
Check out our upcoming issue, November/December 2018, to read about more of Laura’s 100 Days in Denali!