September 8, 2013
It's hard to describe what happened over the past three days. It will take us a while to process it and it will no doubt stay with us for a long, long time. This wasn't an easy journey, but the ends more than made up for the means. We had an 8:30am departure from Talkeetna this morning and a 3 hour ride through the rain to the entrance of Denali Park. At the park entrance we left our modern passenger buses and transferred on to two Denali Park buses. Two glorified school-buses with the same suspension, diesel fumes, and officious driver that you all remember from your childhoods. We settled in and resigned ourselves to the seven hour bus ride that stretched before us…not really knowing what lay ahead.
Most of the ride felt like we were on safari on another planet. The enormous sweep of the landscape, both smoothed and ripped by millions of years of glacial migration is, if nothing else, other-worldly. Covering most of the six million acres is tundra, which for me once invoked an image of brown, soggy, nondescript moss that Musk Ox trundled upon. Who knew that in the Fall all of the plant life that make up tundra, the lichens and mosses and small bushes, explode into a vibrant, rich, surreal patchwork of colour: reds, browns, ochres, purples, pinks, every shade of yellow and green that has yet to be imagined by all the painters to have ever picked up a brush. Surreal, other-worldly, alien, awe-inspiring…words fall flat and photographs even more so. Adding to the surreal vibe was the weather: the rain stopped as we ventured deeper into Denali and the cloud ceiling lifted to about 5000 feet but never broke up, so we were under a glowing greyish dome all day…it was the perfect weather and cloud coverage to really accentuate and intensify the fall colours that stretched for miles above us, below us and on into the distant horizon. An added accent to the landscape was the wildlife that we came upon; caribou, grizzly bears, mountain sheep, moose, ptarmigans, golden eagles. Remarkable…so utterly remarkable that the pain being inflicted upon ones body by the grinding engine, worn out shocks and pothole filled dirt road was completely bearable….it was a very christian ride, with so much pleasure there had to be a bit of pain. The only negative on the day was that the low ceiling blocked out the Alaskan Mountain range and along with it, Mount McKinley. We were told that Mckinley is only visible on four or five days a month during the tourist season…so we didn't feel so bad and its hard to miss something that you have no experience of.
The end of our journey was the Kantishna Road House located at the very end of the dirt road we'd been following all day. This is the sort of eco-tourist lodge you read about in the NY Times Travel Section: exclusive and, no doubt, expensive as hell. It's not a luxurious place, but comfortable and functional, it's allure is its location, right in the middle of six million acres of pristine wilderness.
The lodge offers all sorts of outdoor entertainment as part of its amenities and has several guides on staff to lead treks across the tundra and up onto the surrounding mountain ridges and anywhere else one chooses to explore. The cool thing about Denali is that they encourage hikers to walk anywhere in the park, unlike most National Parks that insist you stay on the trails. In Denali they haven't created any trails, their mission is to leave the park as natural as possible and avoid any unnecessary scarring. So instead of having a path that is tramped down and denuded of any life by the thousands of hikers that would follow it over the years, they allow hikers to scatter across the tundra and make their own way and thereby ensuring that the ground they cross has no traces of them an hour after they pass. Our group of 64 scattered for the day, some just relaxing around the lodge and others taking on the challenge of a day long tundra hike. In our group; Pete and Jared grabbed a couple of mountain bikes and went in search of Griz; Margo and Ed went on a hike to Wonder Lake that, on a clear day, reflects Mount Mckinley; Farns relaxed around the compound and panned for a little gold (with no luck); and Jeff and I grabbed a couple of fly rods and hip waders and waded in to the stream that ran by the foot of the lodges properties. Fish are one thing that are not plentiful in Denali, because most of the rivers are glacial and filled with silt making them uninhabitable to most fish. This stream was crystal clear and home to Arctic Grayling, a trout-like fish with a superhero dorsal fin. I was skunked in my grayling quest, Jeff caught two, and it was an amazing day. Clear blue skies, sparkling water, surrounded by hills covered in the patchwork quilt of the tundra colours, it doesn't get much better. Everyone in the extended group came back from their activities with their eyes sparkling and their heads shaking in wonder at what they had experienced. That night, after dinner, Margo, Jeff and I played an acoustic set made up of requests sent in from our fellow adventurers. It was a fun, relaxed set played for a bunch of people who had all had a very good day.
And then more pain to pay for our pleasure…departure from the lodge was at 6:30am. We needed to track back across those miles of dirt roads in order to catch a train at the entrance of the park to take us back to Anchorage. The prospect of having to endure that bus ride again, despite the views, was daunting. But we lucked out again with the weather and as the sun came up over Denali Park we were treated to Mount Mckinley and the Alaskan Range basking in the alpenglow. The weather was perfectly clear for our entire trip so we got an entirely new view of the park, the clean fresh weather also seemed to inspire the animals and we saw more moose, mountain sheep, birdlife and even a big Grizzly lumbering along the road. After five hours on the bus we unloaded at the Denali Park entrance and climbed on-board the Alaskan Railroad for the eight hour journey to Anchorage. This being a Roots On The Rail production, a rail journey was mandatory and they spared no expense: booking the GoldStar section of the train with complete panorama seating and fully stocked bar car. It was a fitting, relaxing, and (seemingly endless) end to an amazing journey.
We fly home tomorrow (another 14 hour journey) and will try and slide back in to our real life, causing as few ripples as possible. It's always difficult coming back from an experience like this one, you can talk about it and try and describe it, show a few pictures, but ultimately you had to be there to truly understand….that's why they call it an experience. We give great thanks to Charlie and Sarah and Gary and all those at Roots On The Rails that put this adventure together and we give special thanks to all of our fellow adventurers that put up the dough to make this trip happen and had the grace, the perseverance and the sense of humour to make it work. But most of all we thank Alaska, a place that will not disappoint, and all those slightly bent and wonderfully odd Alaskans who are unlike any of their fellow countrymen and help to make this part of the world such an interesting and unique place to visit.