The 400 mile drive from the Kenai up to Denali is slow going — it took us more than 8 hours — but for the most part, Alaska’s grandeur makes it seem all too short.
I’m fairly sure that when we finally arrived, around 10pm, one of us said something like, “Aah, we’re here,” in that tone of voice you might use when a dear loved one gives you socks for Christmas.
After a late dinner of barbecued fresh-caught salmon (!), we sat around the fire for a while, inhaling Alaska (this is something I suspect not enough people do consciously: simply sit and inhale the state in silence).
We have had some bright nights on this trip so far, but Denali takes the prize. At 1AM I was sitting outside reading a book in ample twilight. Then, and I’m not sure what I expected — this was Alaska after all — the temperature dropped. And dropped. I cocooned myself into my sleeping bag, kissed the solitary tiny frozen piece of Meg’s nose I could still see peeking through hers, and got some much-needed sleep after the long drive north.
Over the course of the next few days, we took ourselves on a few short hikes around where we were staying, and visited the well-worth-a-visit visitor centre at Riley Creek.
This short walk took us down to Horseshoe Lake, where we were on the lookout for beavers — we didn’t see any in action, but we did see their handiwork. I should clarify quickly: I was on the lookout for beavers. Meg was, as ever, on the lookout for bears — not, of course, because she wanted to see one, but rather because she so desperately didn’t want to see one.
Everywhere we went, the forest would ring out with the sounds of nature: birds and squirrels chirping, the soft crackling of undergrowth being trampled under our feet, the rumble and gush of round pebbles being pushed downstream by small rivers — and the voice of Meg, calling out “hey Bear! We’re coming bear! Please don’t be startled by us bear!”. Over, and over, and over again. (For those unfamiliar with bear behaviour, this is actually the encouraged way of walking through the wilderness — the human voice is the greatest bear deterrent there is — so for all we know Meg saved our lives over and over again.) The point of the story is that “hey bear” has become something of a walking litany for us, and one that always brings back happy memories of our time in the wilds of Alaska. At the time of writing, Alaska is long behind us, but to this day when walking around almost anywhere, I’m certain to hear a soft, sweet “hey bear!” coming from behind me.
If the human voice is the greatest deterrent, and Meg certainly gave out plenty of that, she was also perennially armed with a slightly more aggressive second-best deterrent too — always at the ready.
We booked ourselves onto a ranger-led Discovery Hike — a tramp through the Alaskan backcountry with a guide. We hiked most of the way up Igloo Mountain, forging our own pathways up hillsides and across streams (the Discovery Hikes purposely do not follow any pre-established trails). While the hike afforded spectacular views of the Cascade mountains, and a fair bit of exercise too, neither of these turned out to be the highlight of the walk.
All around us, at almost every turn, were scrubby patches of various kinds of wild berries, blueberries included. The weeks during which they are ripe for harvesting are few — we caught it just at the right time — and a twofold set of Alaskan kindnesses was bestowed upon us: it is perfectly legal to harvest personal-use quantities of berries in Denali National Park, and there are no poisonous berries found north of the Alaska Range in Denali, so they were all fair game. We picked. Whenever we felt a little hungry on the hike, we picked and ate. They were delicious in a way that “organic blueberries” doesn’t begin to describe.
Meg took some back with us in a zip-lock bag, which after a long day in a squishy bag ended up as a sort of lumpy compote, difficult to eat one-by-one, but perfect as an accoutrement to an otherwise boring bowl of cereal the next morning.
(Indulge me for a moment with all these food pictures; our parents are worried about how we’re eating on this trip.)
Hey-bearing our way down the mountain and we’re-here-bearing our way back to the Park Road, we flagged down the park bus (the only way to explore Denali’s interior — private vehicles are not allowed this deep into the Park) and rode it as far as the Eielson Visitor Centre with a couple of New York friends we’d made on the Discovery Hike.
From Eielson, in the distance, on a good day you can see the ghostly eponymous mountain, Denali itself, rising from the valley floor up to a giddy height. Here, we were (apparently) among the 30% of lucky visitors who get to see Denali (aka Mt McKinley) in the distance, but not among the super-lucky 30% of the 30% who get to see the whole thing. It was mostly clouded over, but a great sight nonetheless.
They’re not the most comfortable buses in the world, the Denali buses, but they get the job done, and again the scenery was so mind-blowing we barely noticed the discomfort at all. From the safety of the vehicle, over the course of our drive, our bus encountered no fewer than 11 grizzly bears — shattering the driver’s previous one-day record of 10 by an entire bear, so it must have been a good day,
An oddity, then, which anyone who has been to Alaska will find strange: during our time in this majestic state, I saw a total of 14 bears in 11 different sightings…and not a single moose! I guess, since Alaska was closing off so much of the bucket list, I had to leave something undone — something to drag me back there again. ‘See a moose in Alaska’ remains unchecked. Hopefully that will be remedied very soon.
For now, however, it was time to pack up, say goodbye to Alaska, and re-enter the Lower 48. It was time to