Wild hiking in Denali

Yesterday was the best day in Denali. We boarded the Discovery Bus to mile 64ish and met Ranger Andy. There were 11 of us that had signed up for this moderate-level hike, and we were on one of the park shuttles with driver Paul. Compared to our tour driver Kevin of the Tundra Wilderness Tour, I loved Paul. He was completely to the point, which made him really funny. This isn’t to say that Kevin wasn’t good, because he did share loads of good information, but I simply liked Paul’s personality better. The ride was also a lot more comfortable because we had a regular-sized bus (for 47-52 passengers), but there were only 11 of us. Paul also stops if asked to for an animal spotting, or Mt. Denali photo. The trip was along the same road as the Tundra tour, but I honestly cannot get bored of the scenery at Denali. As hubs aptly said, this single road in Denali is so much better than the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The vast tundra, the mountains, the wild animals, and Mt. Denali is incredible. The fact that we had a full view of Mt. Denali almost made me cry out of pure joy. This is Alaska, and I am lucky enough to soak it all in.

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The hike wasn’t quite as I had expected. Firstly, I wasn’t expecting full sun. I actually laughed because the checklist we had been provided with had everything checked except for sunscreen. We had been told that we probably wouldn’t need it, but good thing I did pack it. It was a hot sun beating down on us when we started the hike. Ranger Andy was a great leader, and it was endearing to watch him drop to his knees to show us all the different mosses, lichen, and wildflowers growing. That kind of passion is infectious. He also is well versed in scat and in fact, he collects caribou scat. He was able to tell you so much about diet and age of scat just by looking at it. Botany and scat aside, Andy is also an experienced wild hiker. Denali is the only US national park that allows wild hiking, which simply means that you are not forced to stay on predefined trails. In fact, there are not many trails in the park. You are encouraged to explore and make your own trails; however, it’s a learned skill because the chances of encountering large wildlife is real and you need to know how to come out alive.

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Wild hiking is about looking at a map and the landscape, and figuring out where you want to go one mile at a time, based on terrain, abilities, and weather. We were taught to not only scan directly in front of you, but to scan far ahead and around you (for bears and other large animals). It’s also important to always look up to scan the skies to ensure that you aren’t caught in a bad storm. Our hike did not take us far from our starting point, but it was fun being able to create our own adventure and hiking on the spongy tundra.

In places, it really did feel like we were walking on deflated basketballs. We had been warned that there could be a river crossing, and there indeed was. Based on my one river crossing experience in Iceland, I had prepared and packed my sandals. I didn’t want to spend the day walking around in wet socks and hiking boots. I was the only one that changed into sandals and boy was that water cold! But as it turned out, my shoes and socks would get wet because by the end of the hike, the rain started falling. The grand view of Mt. Denali that we had at the beginning of the hike had vanished completely.

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One of the ways the park is preserved is by disallowing personal vehicles from being on the park road. Visitors are forced to take park buses, which would be fine if there were more buses. After the hike, we walked the 1 mile up to the Eilson Visitor Centre at mile 65 to catch the shuttle back to our car at the park entrance. The first two buses were full, which meant that we had to wait 1.5 hours to get on a bus. The ride back took 3.5 hours, so although our hike ended at 3:45, we didn’t get to our car until 9:00 pm, and we still had a 2.5 hour drive back to Talkeetna. We arrived at the lovely Denali Overlook Inn at 12:30 am, and we felt so bad. This inn is small, very B&B style, and the owners were already in bed. We had called as soon as we were on the road and left a message, but I still felt awful. Host Tim helped us with our luggage (taking it up to us using a dumb waiter) and he warmly shared some fun stories with us before we kindly told him that we badly needed to crawl into bed. He had upgraded us to the Victoria Room, a room with a truly amazing view of the Denali mountain range. Unfortunately it was all clouded over when we woke up, but I’m sure by early afternoon it would have looked spectacular. Our original plan was to get to the Inn in the early evening to enjoy the views, but we hadn’t counted on the long journey within the park. In the park’s defense, they had very recently been faced with a huge mudslide due to all the rain they have received, and this caused some bus scheduling issues.

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I appreciated the breakfast at the Inn. This is the first place that serves up two batches of bacon – chewy and crispy. Unfortunately we could not stay long at this beautiful place because we had to drive to Anchorage to catch our flight to Vancouver. In the air, I was once again in awe of our planet. I had the chance to see Glacier Bay National Park from the air, and I’m sure that we saw College fjord and Harvard glacier. How many people get to see a glacier by boat and by air? I was captivated.

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Back in Vancouver, I’m ready for shorts and t-shirts weather again. We arrived in the early evening and hubs is clearly not yet adjusted to darkness. In Alaska, the summer sun rises early (4:30 am) and sets late (11 pm), but not here. By 8:30 pm, it’s dark and the streets in Richmond, BC are not well lit. Hubs kept commenting on how dark it was. The other thing I’m readjusting to is TV. We haven’t had television in the last 4-5 days, but you don’t miss it because you’re outside all day. Now that it’s on in our hotel room, I’ve missed it. It’s not that I need to sit and watch TV, but it’s a familiar way of unwinding at the end of a long day, even as I sit here writing out my memories of the last couple of days. So much readjusting after leaving behind magical Alaska. I do feel different after experiencing Alaska. I thought Iceland was amazing, but Alaska is definitely in a class of its own.

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