Alaska Adventures: Part 1, Denali National Park

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Sometime around mid-April of 2017, when I was particularly broke from spending money on my sister’s wedding and spending as much time outside (and as little time working) as possible in the rapidly improving PNW weather, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to go backpacking in Alaska. After about a month of hesitating, and watching the cheap ticket prices slowly increase (and still, not making any more money) I texted her back: “Alright, I’m committed! Alaska, here we go!”

I bought my ticket so I’d arrive a few days after her, and leave a few days before. It was the most time I could guarantee off work. From there, we set to planning.

See, I love planning. I plan things that don’t even need a plan. You know – like writing on my grocery list which aisles to go to first to make the trip most efficient. Or making lists of things I’ve already done, just so I can check them off. You know the type. Planners. That’s me.

So we planned the whole trip. Meal planning, hiking planning, packing planning… I even made a spreadsheet of my Ideal Packing List, with all the items I wish I had, and had a little column for Passable Option I Already Own. Excessive? Yes. Fun? Definitely.

Our trip looked like this: We’d spend two nights in Denali, in the backcountry. We’d then drive down to the Kenai Peninsula and take three days to through-hike the popular, 38mi Resurrection Pass Trail in the Chugach National Forest. From there, we would have a day to drive to Seward, AK to see the Exit Glacier, then head up to Anchorage for some delicious pizza and beer, and then have most of the next day to bike around Anchorage before I flew out. I kept insisting I was flexible, and that we could take some things day by day, but I’m not the type to go off plan. I was counting on everything going smoothly.

Flash forward to Day One in the Denali backcountry, and we’re hiking through knee-high brush on lumpy, permafrost-affected ground. It’s pouring rain, and we’re hunting for a spot to set up our tent. Thinking that the ground above the braided river would be flat and soft, we’d just hiked up the embankment… only to discover that there was no way to set up a tent in this. Half an hour of walking along the dense plateau had fully soaked our pants, and the temperature was beginning to drop.

“We need to go back down to the river,” I told Celeste. “Before the rain gets worse.”

On cue, Denali started pelting us with hail.

“We need to go back down now,” I insisted. We trudged over to the edge of the embankment, searching for a spot to head down in to the braided river again. On this section of the tundra, the edge of the brush dropped off to the rocky bank some fifteen feet below. Unable to find a better way down, we hiked back to where we’d come thirty minutes earlier.

Hiking in the backcountry in Denali is said to be one of the best ways to truly experience the wilderness. There are very few trails in the actually park, and the only way to explore beyond the 92 mile road is to get off the bus and walk into the park. We’d painstakingly chosen our unit – Unit 12, along a braided river bed to the sunrise canyon. We weren’t planning on getting too much mileage in, as we knew we had a much bigger through-hike starting immediately after we got back, but our hope was to get to the Thorofare River, cross, and head up the gravel bar to the canyon.

We’d arrived in the park around noon from Anchorage, hopped on a 2pm camper bus after our orientation, and spent the four hours out to the Eielson Visitor Center taking photos (and taking naps). I was giddy with excitement – I’d never been backcountry camping before, and having only backpacked on well-maintained trails with lots of company was a stark difference from the “just go walk” layout of Denali. We drove past three grizzly bears chasing a Caribou – a mother and two twins – and that was the first time I’d seen those huge animals up close.

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One of the twins. Photo was, of course, taken from the relative safety of the bus.

When we finally arrived at Eielson, Celeste and I headed in to the Visitor’s Center to see about obtaining a better map. It had started to rain lightly, so we dug out our pack covers and rain coats.

Eielson Visitor's Center
Heading in to Denali – see the storm a-brewing?

By the time we were ready to embark, the skies had opened up and it was thunder storming. The previously bustling area was quickly clearing out, as tour groups and day hikers hurried back to the busses. Celeste and I grinned at each other – we figured a little rain wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying the backcountry of Denali. Two other women were heading in to the park at the same time, and the four of us chatted about where we were planning on camping before heading out in separate directions. The rain hadn’t ceased, but it had let up, so we took that opportunity to start our hike in. It was close to six before we started heading down to Gorge Creek.

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Heading in to Gorge Creek

So anyway, at this point, hours later, we’d hiked an hour out of our way to simply get up on a brushy, uneven tundra, thud around in hard ground for a while, get thoroughly soaked (as if I wasn’t already) and then trek back to the same steep gravel and sand path we took up – a path that was now muddy and receding due to the excessive rain. I hate to say it, but I said it to Celeste then, so I feel like I have to repeat it here – I wasn’t having any fun.

“I’m not having fun,” I yelled back to Celeste.

We practically slid down the side of the plateau, and ran-hopped onto the gravel bank. Nearby, in front of a small bush, was a relatively flat piece of land that was sandy more than rocky, and just large enough for our small two person tent. Huddling under the rain fly, we opened up our packs to get out all the parts and pieces of the tent so we could quickly set it up before it filled with rain.

Too wet to cook, and too hungry to care, we walked the 100 yards away from our tent with all our smelly bear things. We’d planned to cook a bulky meal the first night, and fit everything else in the bear barrel. But since the rain wasn’t having that, we had to find a way to make more room to bear-proof our food. So we grabbed our snacks – all of them – and took anything that was edible without cooking another 100 yards away, and started eating.

We ate one and a half bagels each, a bag of vegan jerky, carrots, cheese, and a whole variety of other things. After consuming at least 20 baby carrots, I bartered with Celeste to trade me for another hunk of cheese. We debated who would eat the final hunk of bagel. We chewed on dampened bread and scarfed down as many calories as we could. When, finally, our pile of food was small enough to fit into the bear barrel, we headed back to the tent to change.

Everything was wet. Our socks. Our underwear. The insides of our shoes. Our pants. Even Celeste’s second layer of clothing had gotten wet. As we finally huddled into our sleeping bags and listened to the sound of the rain hitting the tent, we discussed our options for the next day.

Option 1: We wake up, it’s still raining. We decided we’d hike out, give this one to Denali, and head in to the Resurrection Pass trail a day early.

Option 2: We wake up, it’s beautiful and sunny. We didn’t know.

Of course, when the sun finally rose the next morning, it was beautiful and sunny. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. But with our boots still pretty damp – especially Celeste’s – we figured it would be better to head out of the backcountry and begin our trip down to the Chugach Forest. That morning, we aired out all our damp clothing, cooked a delicious breakfast, and sat by the beautiful Thorofare River in Unit 12 as the sun rose over the mountains. As we dressed for the short hike out, the pull of mountains in the distance kept us lingering a little longer. But the decision had been made: we were going to hike out.

We took the rain and hail as a sign from Denali – no matter how much you plan, sometimes the mountains will get the better of you.

 

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