Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pictures of Denali

On Friday, I traveled with my friend Carlene up to Denali National Park. As we packed up her car in Palmer, I realized that I forgot my camera - actually forgot my camera. I debated driving all the way back to Anchorage to retrieve it, but decided two extra hours of travel when we already had a late start was not worth it. I did remember an old digital camera that I keep wedged in my the trunk of my car for camera emergencies. Its lens is heavily scratched, so not only do most pictures end up blotchy, but it has a difficult time focusing. Also, it had no memory card. I stopped and bought one in Wasilla, and headed for my long weekend in Denali.

We arrived, set up camp, and traveled into the park in the evening. It was after 7 p.m., but the sun doesn't set until after 11 and twilight lingers throughout the short night, so our late arrival didn't stop us from going on a hike and an 18-mile bike ride before our 1 a.m. "dinner." In this photo, Carlene is expressing her extreme discomfort with walking down the talus in heavy wind blasts hitting from direction of that road in the background. I said, "In Juneau, it's like this all the time on ridges around town." And while that's true, I didn't tell Carlene that the 50-60 mph gusts were nearing the edge of my own comfort zone.

On Saturday we joined up with Carlene's partner, Pat, and friends Julian and Tom for a ride up the Denali Park Road, which is still closed to vehicles and tour buses. Although I pitched this trip to Carlene before I knew anything about the park road schedule, it turned out this was the last weekend it was still closed, so this is the weekend dozens of mountain bikers chose to hit it. We again got a late start and had the pleasure of greeting a steady stream of fellow mountain bike tourists on their way back to Teklanika.

The weather was OK - cold and windy with temperatures in the 40s and 15-30 mph winds that drove the windchill down to consistently uncomfortable levels. But the sun occasionally came out and we never got rained on, so in the end it was a great day for a ride.

We saw a lot of animals. We tallied 12 grizzly bears over the course of our ride - seven adults and five cubs, including two sets of spring twins. This is unfortunately the best bear photo I got (yes, I was regularly cursing my lack of professional-grade camera, let alone the fact that I had bicycled all the way into Denali with only an emergency camera.) Since you probably can't see them, they're the two brown dots in the bottom center. Still, we had a good set of binoculars to watch the bears, and frankly, I was glad they remained well out of the range of my camera.

Other animals were not quite as camera-shy as the bears.

Eventually our group broke up and three of us climbed two passes, dropped to the Toklat River and began to climb a third before there was a vote of two out of three to turn around (guess which vote was mine.) We ended up with 53 miles total. I really hope to go back this summer and ride the entire park road.

Pat riding up Polychrome Pass.

The views to the south consistently looked like this.

Pat at the top of our second ascent of Sable Pass, under the first direct sunlight of the day. He might be smiling about the sun, but more likely, he's smiling because it's all downhill from here.

Me, though, I'm smiling at the sun.

Sunday morning, I woke up early with the daylight and killed a couple pre-breakfast hours with a ride up to mile 11 of the Park Road and back. Denali is still experiencing the pre-spring season, which is always the ugliest time of the year. But there is something subtly beautiful about the washes of gray and brown - beautiful, if not photogenic.

Sunday afternoon hike up to Primrose Ridge, back to the wind and cold.

Photographs just do not convey wind and cold. I wish they could.

We found a bit of a wind block in the form of a rock outcropping, and sat for 20 minutes looking out over the Stampede Trail and the deeper Interior as I dropped hints that I would really rather start jogging to warm up my numb toes and not sit around pretending it's summer.

The people with jobs had to head back Sunday afternoon. Carlene and I decided to spend one more day traveling with Tom out the Denali Highway, a 135-mile gravel road that traverses the high plains beside the eastern Alaska Range.

It is very "Wyoming" up there.

We set up camp on a bluff above the Susitna River. Tom set up his spotting scope and we watched a herd of caribou on the gravel bars. Later, Carlene spotted a sow grizzly and young cub high up the mountain behind us. For an hour we took turns watching the two bears crawl up steep talus and snow fields. I was enthralled by the bear "mountaineers," and the scope gave us a clear view of the sow turning around to bark orders at her cub. They bedded down for the night on a thin ledge high up the mountain. Tom theorized that the bears were fresh out of their den, and traveled on the mountain to seek protection from potential predators (including humans. It is grizzly season right now. Although humans aren't allowed to shoot sows with cubs.)

I watched the evening light flicker across the valley. It was becoming late. How late? I don't know. You start to lose track of the time up there.

I headed out for a sunset ride on an abandoned mining road up Valdez Creek. The animals along the route were abundant and bold. This porcupine actually charged me. I swear it did. I'm still convinced it would have tackled me if I didn't lunge at it with my bike, and even then, it only retreated a few inches and then turned around to hold its ground. I skirted wide and slowly around it.

I rode until I encountered a cow moose and calf on the road.

The rode back as the sunset cast its rich pink light on the landscape.

Evening sunset. 11:04 p.m.

Where I was standing on the plateau, watching the sunset, a couple of caribou circled a wide loop around me and then stopped halfway around a second loop, only about 150 feet away, and stared at me. Their behavior was intriguing, and downright spooky. I thought, "Are these caribou stalking me?" I got back on my bike and continued down the road. I dropped into a steep ravine and encountered a cow moose standing in the middle of the road. I stopped 200 feet short and yelled loudly, and still she held her ground. There was no way around her. I walked forward another 15 feet. She did not budge. I stood silently and observed little details about her, from an extra-long waddle hanging down from her neck, to a large scar slashed across her shoulder. I wondered if she had a calf nearby. I began to fret about how I might crawl out of the ravine if she did not leave. Finally, she got bored and trotted away. It may seem I had a lot of animal-anoia during this ride, and that's probably true. But I still think those animals of Valdez Creek were especially unafraid and even aggressive.

The next morning, I woke up feeling groggy, wind-dried and admittedly anxious to get home despite the beautiful weather. Carlene and Tom were a bit slow to get going in the morning, and then the spotting scope came back out. I don't really like sitting around during the morning, whether I'm camping or not, so I said, "Well, I'll go for a ride and meet you guys down the road." I thought the ride would last an hour, maybe two, tops. I packed a liter of water and two granola bars (and, yes, I should know better to be a little more prepared when cycling in such a remote region.) I rode four miles down the road where we camped and entered the Denali Highway at mile marker 80, pedaling east into a fierce headwind. I climbed out of the Susitna River Valley and into the high, rolling tundra above treeline. It's been a dry spring and the dusty, windswept plains filled me with eerie memories of the Great Divide Basin. I kept climbing and descending, the temperature kept dropping, and the mile markers kept rolling by. I drank all my water. I ate both my granola bars. I started to become a little concerned. Then a little more concerned. Carlene and Tom are good people, but I didn't actually know them very well. What if they never showed up? I'd have to pedal myself all the way to Paxon, still 50 miles and a big pass away. I at least had my emergency iodine tablets with me; that was a relief. But I really wished I had food, and extra layers. I was already bonking and starting to feel the chill. It was going to be a long uncomfortable trip to Paxon at best. Finally, at mile marker 41, I came to the McMurren Lodge - a little oasis of salvation in the vast tundra. Luckily I had my wallet with me, so I was able to order hot coffee and a huge pitcher of water and lunch as I waited for my friends to show up, a full half hour after I arrived at the lodge and four and a half hours after I left camp. Turns out they spent the early afternoon stopping along the side of the road and setting up the scope to watch animals. When I told them that I hadn't really expected my hour-long relaxing morning ride to turn into 45 miles into a cold headwind, they said, "Oh, we thought it didn't matter because you do this kind of stuff all the time." I wanted to point out that I like to make my own decisions about the "epic" factor of my rides, but I already had food and water in my belly, so it was easier just to laugh it off.

This trip was a fun escape, and in its own way a very long four days. It was strange to come home after a weekend away from cell phone range to several "heart-fluttering" kinds of voice messages - the kind that jolt you out of your own little world and make you wonder if all of it could actually change, and fast. The first involves progression on something that might be a dream job of mine, but that would involve moving away from Alaska. The second involves progression on moving my book project toward a commercial venue, but involves really hunkering down in the next two days and polishing up materials I genuinely thought I would not have to produce for many more weeks. The third I don't really need to talk about on my blog, but yes, it is strange how my own life can move along without me. It makes me wistful to just remain in the simple world that holds cold winds, remote ridges and infinite possibilities - the world of Denali.


  1. Amazing adventures! I'm afraid I'd never want to come back to civilization if I lived in such a beautiful area. Honestly, breathtaking beyond belief!

  2. I visited Alaska back in 1998, and I have fond memories of Denali. I wish I could have spent time on foot and bike there to truly experience the park. It's not the same out the window of a tour bus.

    Good luck as you continue to search for the right job in the right place and for publishing opportunities!

  3. KC sums it up..truly fairytale but I guess pretty challenging landscape...It's always refreshing feeling seeing your photos of those snow-capped mountains.

  4. Great shots with your back up scratched lens camera.

  5. Gorgeous! Even in the ugly pre-spring season it's still a breathtaking view.

  6. How is the Denali Highway? I have a 2 night camping and fishing trip sketched out for this summer and I had assumed that the road would be a mess through June. Is it drivable now? Do the rivers and lakes still have ice?


  7. Great story and photos as always. I'm consistently blown away with the sheer volume of life you manage to cram into each and every day. You make me want to do more.

  8. Wow, I would love to visit there w/ cameras in tow. What a spectacular place to shoot!

  9. What a great way to see the park, I LOVE the area around Polychrome pass, the colors of the earth and the wildlife abound there.

  10. Glad to see you had such a great time in my backyard! I loved reading your article.

  11. How crazy that you are dealing with snow and I'm in Rio at the beach. So funny how different the weather can be! I love your pics. Thanks for sharing. www.trilingualdiva.blogspot.com

  12. I love this blog! It takes me back to my own trips to AK......and makes me want to be a better and more adventurous biker.
    Thank you.

  13. I will be passing through Denali early June on a tour from Fairbanks to San Francisco. My blog is www.bicycle-pacific-nw.blogspot.com and I would love to ask you a few questions about my first trip to Alaska, George

  14. Chris ... the road is bone dry, and most of the ice is nearly gone. I give it another week tops. I think June would be the best time to hit the Denali Highway - before the summer rains sink in and the bugs get really bad. Even mid-May was spectacular if a little too early. Temps are still dropping into the low 20s at night.

  15. Thanks! Looks like the 3rd weekend of June for me.

  16. Great piece. I think that you saw that fox in the same location we saw and photographed four kits and mom last year (in July). There must be a den there that is used year after year, I am guessing. What a great time of year to be there!


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