17 08 2010

This isn’t a typical “relaxing” vacation – but we’re still OK with a slower pace. So, this morning, we didn’t get up until 10:45. Kristin and I sat in our Crazy Creeks and enjoyed the view – it’s overcast today, but the temperature is still fairly decent and the foggy mist in the air has it’s own unique feel.

Relaxing - crazy creek style

Our campsite

We eventually make our way to the bear canisters and then position ourselves to make some food. We decide that we are going to have dinner for breakfast at lunch. We need the calories, and since we slept through breakfast it seems like a practical solution. Just as we’re cleaning up, we start to feel more drops of rain. The group consensus is to hang out in our tents for a bit, hoping the weather will pass.

Chef Dan

I alternate between napping, reading, and journaling for the next few hours. By three, the rain has yet to throw in the towel, and we hear Dan and Kristin talking next to us. Dan dons his rain gear and spots a caribou in the process. He then makes his way to our tent with his map in hand, showing us where he thinks we are and the route he is suggesting we follow. We agree, reluctant though we are to exchange the warmth of our sleeping bags for the cold and rain.

The view from inside the tent...not really wanting to leave just yet

Packing up takes awhile, and taking down a tent in the rain proves to be as unappealing as it sounds. I find, however, that I can get the entire tent packed up and put away while leaving the rain fly over me as a cover – a feat I am still proud of.

The next several hours are a blur of rain and cold and perpetual wet. We eventually come to a riverbed and decide to walk along it as long as we are able. At first I’m disappointed. With all of the gorgeous terrain surrounding us – a flat, rocky riverbed is the last thing I’d imagined for today. But I can’t help but feel grateful. I’m cold and soaked, and the rain does not appear to be letting up. The hills around us are protecting us from the worst of the wind, and the rocky surface, while slippery, is easier to navigate than any of the alternatives.

Our riverbed...

Cool in its own way

We finally stop for water. We haven’t been drinking as much as we should, but, when all of your mental energy is focused on putting one foot in front of the other, little things like hydration tend to slip your mind. I dip our Nalgene’s into the frigid water and Dan positions his filter. My gloves are soaked through at this point, and I’m starting to lose feeling in my hands. They are swollen and don’t really work as well as I would like them to, but I don’t think too much of it as we pause and take in the still-breathtaking views around us.

Ah yes, drinking is a good idea

Dan climbs up the hill at one point while Margo, Kristin, and I take our chances with the rocky cliff jutting out into the river. I think it looks like fun, so I grab on and climb sideways across the rocky wall. Margo comes next, and I have to coach her through it as she clings for dear life, trying to avoid slipping into the icy water. Kristin, always the practical one, opts to simply walk through the shallow water around the wall.

From his spot above us, Dan spots some white blobs in the distance – he calls out, announcing the approach of what he assumes are sheep. As we wind around the bends in the river, it becomes clear that they are, in fact, people. It’s kind of hard to believe that in the six million possible acres of the park we actually run into another group, but we stop and briefly chat. Their tennis shoes and cotton garb make me feel infinitely more prepared by comparison. And as they talk I’m even more thankful for the riverbed and our current position. They had been dropped off about an hour earlier – meaning we aren’t far from the road. No one has verbalized it yet, but an unstated agreement has materialized among us – it gains strength with each step we take: if it doesn’t stop raining, we’re leaving the park early.

But we’re not to our unit yet, so we continue up and down the muddy banks of the river, picking the rocky areas whenever we can. Margo almost loses her shoe in the mud at one point as we climb a steep hill, but this potential tragedy is avoided.

We know there is a lake in our unit, not far from the road and when the riverbed opens up, we are all convinced we’ve found the seasonally dried-out remnants of it. We climb a final ridge, hoping to get a better gauge of our position. Dan thinks he sees the road, and all doubt is erased as we see a bus go rolling by in the distance. The relief I feel is literally overwhelming.

We aren’t supposed to camp within sight of the road, so we walk around the hill trying to find a spot shielded from sight. But that’s not really very safe, and the brush is still pretty dense. The wind and rain are picking up. It’s 9:30, and with the cloud cover are opportunity to set up camp with natural light is dwindling. So in the end we decide to camp in the lakebed – we’re done caring if a few bus passengers see us as they drive by.

Rain gear

Nice pants!

I’m literally shivering at this point and suggest we set up our tents one at a time – the wind is so strong I figure it will take a person on each corner to get them up well. It’s ten by the time we’re done, and I make my way across the rocks to the bear canister. My hands still aren’t working, and my whole body is shaking from the cold as I fumble with the lock – fighting to secure a power bar I don’t really even want to eat. My attitude has been pretty good up until this point, but when I climb in my sleeping bag only to realize I have to go back to the bear canister because we have some scented things still in our tent – I’m finally frustrated.

Eventually, I crawl into my sleeping bag for good – too exhausted to care if parts of our bags are sticking out in the rain. I pull the drawstring around my mummy bag tight and literally only my eyes are showing.

Throughout the night I wake up as I toss and turn on the rocky ground, and each time I do I can feel the frigid air on my face. I’m not sure if I’m excited for morning or dreading it – knowing I’ll have to once again abandon my warm cocoon.


8.16.10 Part Three – The Hike

16 08 2010

I’m not sure there could have been a more perfect backdrop for starting our hike as we walked away from the road and into the tundra: blue sky, sunshine, puffy white clouds, and rolling hills stretch themselves out into mountains in every direction.


Heading out


That's legit!

Going down

One of our first noteworthy discoveries in the backcountry is the wild blueberries. We had heard they were in season, and the rangers encouraged us to eat as many as we could find. We have every intention of doing just that.


Wild blueberries...divine!


Not more than five minutes pass, and we notice a wolf on a ridgeline off in the distance. It looked like little more than a spec on the horizon, and after a brief pause the delirious joy of wild blueberries eclipses any potential anxiety from the wolf. Margo, Dan, and I return to our blissful blueberry ignorance, but a few minutes later Kristin calls our attention to the hill in front of us with a slight edge lodged in her voice. I glance up and watch as the spec of a wolf (which now appears significantly larger) bounds over the hill and heads in our direction. At this point there is no denying the rush of adrenaline pulsing through me. What did the video say? An aggressive dog – treat a wolf like an aggressive dog. But what about the rangers’ warnings? My mind replays the events of the morning. Bits and pieces of conversation fight to align themselves into a coherent story: a wolf rendezvous point…mating season and abnormally aggressive behavior…hikers are responsible for noting the closed sections of the park on their maps and avoiding them.

We stand and stare, paralyzed by some combination of fear, excitement, and awe. We start slowly backing away, but, apparently, we are not enticing enough to merit the wolf’s attention. It passes by, a mere 15 feet in front of us, with only the slightest uninterested glance in our direction. I’m still aware of my heart pounding in my chest, but the smile on my face continues to climb. They say if you’re close enough to alter or disturb an animal’s course, you’re too close. So far we’re doing OK.


Our new friend


We continue our trek toward unit 39. We walk across the tundra, scale embankments, and climb down steep cliffs (this is one of my favorite parts). It feels good to be in constant motion after our long bus ride.


Climb on!





We frequently stop to assess our position, and it’s not long before we decide we need to attempt our first river crossing. One of the rangers said if you resign yourself to the fact that your feet are going to be wet in the backcountry – your overall experience will be drastically improved. I seriously detest the feeling of wet feet, though, so I’m determined to prove her wrong.


After crossing once or twice


The river and I were struggling to get along

And, after our first river encounter, I’m feeling confident (read: I’m getting cocky) in my ability to do just that. It was a crazy sensation to step into the river and feel the rush of the current and the cold of the water passing over my feet without ever actually feeling wet. The blend of my e-vent boots, wool socks, and gaiters is working beautifully.

I quickly realize that my initial elation had more to do with the narrow, shallow area of the river we chose to ford, though. Each section gets a little wider and a little deeper, and as we continue to crisscross back and forth across the powerful glacial stream my dry feet turn in to a sloshing mess.

At certain points of our hike we find ourselves surrounded by brush taller than us. Tall, dense brush is one of the terrains you are supposed to avoid, since it’s easy to surprise a bear in these areas. So, we serenade our progress with random shouts and calls (your voice is supposed to be your biggest ally in keeping bears away, but at this point I’d be lying to say I don’t, at least for a moment, question our decision to return our cans of bear spray instead of bringing them along). A group favorite is to yell, “heeeeeeeeeeeeeey bears!”

We’ve been hiking for about four hours – taking full advantage of the impossibly long Alaskan summer days. We are searching for the point where the river we have been crossing meets up with another arm. Finally, we find it and know we are close to our unit. But eventually the fatigue starts to catch up with us, and we look off into the distance at the plateau we are hoping will serve as our campsite. It seems to be getting closer, but we’ve been saying that for the past hour.


We came across this near the end of the day, so I obvioulsy had to lay down and pretend like it was growing out of my head...


Our final push across the river is by far the most intense. The section is wide and deep, and the water is faster than we’ve experienced so far today. We discuss the danger, walk up and down the bank for ten minutes or so looking for alternatives, but finally decide we are all too tired to fathom backtracking to cross at a safer place. So, we go for it – making it across without too much trouble. In fact, it’s the most empowering things I’ve done so far today.

As we climb the final embankment and search for a spot to set up, it’s finally starting to get a little darker. As we start to unpack our tents, the rain returns so we hurry to get everything in place. By the time we are done, it’s raining a little harder and is completely dark. Dan heads to the bear canister to get something to eat, but the rest of us opt for bed – forgoing dinner tonight. My sleeping bag has rarely felt so welcoming!

8.16.10 Part Two – The Bus Ride

16 08 2010

We estimate that we have about a three hour ride before our drop-off point. Just as I start to settle in, though, we have our first real wildlife encounter. Three moose saunter by my side of the bus. And, just like that, one of my first Alaskan goals gets checked off the list.





Dall sheep


From that point on, everyone has their eyes glued to the windows – ready to alert Scott, our bus driver, at any possible signs of wildlife. And so over the next three hours we see and assortment of caribou, herds of dall sheep, and wolves at various distances from the bus. Each time Scott stops and lets us take pictures as he explains more about whatever it is we are gaping at. His years of experience have afforded him a vast knowledge of the park and everything therein.


Doesn't he look friendly?


Seeing these animals in their natural habitats is surreal. The first wolf we see is so close I feel like I can reach out the window and pet it. During our debriefing this morning the ranger explained that they go to great lengths to protect the animals here – to ensure that they are not disturbed and are allowed as much freedom and safety as possible. They hardly seem to notice the bus as we wind our way deeper into the park.

At one point we stop to watch two golden eagles. Scott comments that it’s fascinating to watch them because it’s obvious they’re playing just for fun. They aren’t hunting, they aren’t migrating – they’re simply soaring and tumbling and chasing each other because they can. They’re enjoying themselves as they test the limits of the wind. It’s mesmerizing to watch them stretch their wings and float on the invisible power of the air.

We finally pull forward and continue. It’s not long before Scott stops again and waves to another bus driver going the opposite way. The drivers have a system. They have signals to indicate when there is an animal in the vicinity – they can quickly and silently let each other know what is nearby and where, exactly, it can be spotted. Scott tells us that the other driver has seen a bear with her cubs. It takes awhile, but I finally spot them running through the brush by a small pond far below us. Even through the zoom of my camera, they look more like little teddy bears than grizzlies – so I don’t think much of it.

The bus slowly empties as we drop campers off along the way. The sun is out, and the rain and clouds that defined the landscape this morning are gone. We confirm with Scott which side of the upcoming river we want to get dropped off on. We have about thirty minutes left when we approach a group of buses. Right outside the window, less than thirty feet away, a bear climbs an embankment. It finally hits me that the comfort of the bus is fleeting.



A little too close for my personal comfort


We creep another mile closer. And then another. Scott slows down again. This time it’s another mother grizzly with her cubs. They’re walking away from the road, but they’re infinitely closer than the last trio. I look at Kristin and laugh – it’s the only response that seems fitting in the moment. What did we get ourselves into? In a matter of minutes there won’t be a bus between us and the countless bears that roam the six million acres of Denali.


Mamma and her cubs


Thankfully, I don’t have much time to dwell on the reality that awaits me. Scott calls our attention to the view of Denali in front of us. In his 18 years of driving through the park, he says the view of the mountain is unlike any he’s ever seen. It’s a unique sight, he assures us. Knowing that people come here and never get the slightest glimpse of the tallest peak in North America, I turn my full attention to the giant lightly robed in clouds. This is our backdrop as we finally get off the bus. I set my pack on the ground and stare in awe at the wilderness around me.






Watching the bus pull away


8.16.10 – Part One

16 08 2010

Sleeping on a therma rest rarely results in a bright-eyed kind of morning, but today was particularly rough. The remnants of last night’s rain linger in the air, and the ramifications from our campsite choice resound through every inch of my body. I mean, I knew we weren’t choosing the Alaskan wilderness, but I was obviously blinded by some combination of idealism and exhaustion last night. Our logic: there won’t be many cars at night so it won’t be too loud, plus it’s only about a mile from the park entrance so we’ll be first in line in the morning. Our reality: a night sleeping on cement next to a highway of unending semis.

We pack up the tents and climb back into Sally for the quick trip up the road. Our first order of business is to watch the bear video. I did all the reading I could before I left – so I wasn’t sure the video would prove to be too informative, but my eyes are still locked on the screen, taking in any additional information that might come in handy once we’re on our own in the backcountry.

If you see a bear: don’t run, act big, make noise. If a bear charges: drop, cover your head, pray. Check. The rest of the video covers other safety tips about river crossings and stresses the importance of the leave no trace principles.

Next, we stand outside and wait for the ranger’s station to open. We are, indeed, first in line – a small victory as we fend off yawns from a fairly sleepless night. The guy behind us in line is from Detroit. He’s going out alone – it’s his second trip to Denali but his first solo venture. Dan excitedly talks to him for awhile about various backpacking-ish things. I go buy more candy.

Once the station opens we get our permits, and we’re all pumped about the units we got. We plan for three nights – one in 39, one in 33 and one in 34.

Dan getting our maps ready

The next camper bus doesn’t leave until two, so once we buy our tickets and arrange our bear canisters we have a few hours to kill. Margo found some Alaskan beer and a new friend to chat with, Dan decides to go for a walk, and Kristin and I opt to nap in the car.

When we wake up, KP and I wander over to the restaurant and indulge in a final meal before the bus arrives. Vegetarian chili seems like the perfect remedy for the cool air. This, I will soon discover, is a very poor decision when about to embark on a three-day venture far from civilization and anything resembling a bathroom. But I digress…

As we walk to meet the bus, our first minor tragedy strikes – the Hamilton’s trekking poles are nowhere to be found. Momentarily distraught, they rally as we load the old green school bus – four trekking poles lighter but absolutely stoked about what lies ahead.

Our ticket into the Denali wilderness

About to get on

Day 1

15 08 2010

I love my backpack. It’s blue. I like blue. Also, it’s big, but not too big. I love cramming it full, adjusting the straps, and slinging it on my back knowing that it contains everything I need for whatever journey lies before me: shelter, water, peanut butter – life’s basic necessitates.

When I put it on, it feels like an extension of me. Even when my neck and back start to ache from the weight, its presence is comforting – kind of like a non-stop hug from behind.

I keep reminding myself of this as Margo and I stand in line at O’Hare – contending with an early-morning mob of people equally eager to get through check-in and security.  I drag my backpack behind me like a pile of rocks, suddenly jealous of anyone (everyone?) else who has wheels on their bag. But once we navigate the longest airport line I’ve yet to encounter, we make a final Starbucks run and hop on our plane.

Getting ready to board the plane

The six hour flight is more or less uneventful, save Margo being hit on while standing in life for the bathroom. This makes me laugh. A lot. The guy looked like he was 12. He was in the army, being sent to Alaska for who knows how long. I applaud his persistence – knowing he’s about to face an Alaskan winter with lots of other dudes. But his tactics are far from convincing, and he falls far short of smooth.

View from the plane

We know that Anchorage has been experiencing record-breaking amounts of rain this summer, but as we get closer to our destination, the pilot draws our attention to the windows. In the twenty years he’s been flying this route, he says, the view of the mountains and glaciers below is in the top five. One of the best he’s ever seen. I sit glued to the window, my excitement taking on a life of it’s own inside me. Beautiful. It’s all so beautiful. I stop and remind myself how blessed I am. So. Very. Blessed.

Another view from the plane

The Anchorage airport is small, and Margo and I find our way easily. We half-jokingly recount the times we’ve lost our luggage on past trips as the carousel makes round after round in front of us. I’m not nervous, but I do hold my breath a bit – saving a relieved exhale for the minute I spot my backpack, quickly releasing all of the memories of misplaced bags and days spent without a change of clothes.

We make our way to the curb, but our taxi driver is less than thrilled at our approach. He claims he’s been sitting in line for hours, and our trip is too short to matter much to him. He tries to convince us to take the shuttle, but we know this option is cheaper – so we insist.

Our next goal is to pick up our rental car. The log cabin-esqe office of the car rental place is plopped awkwardly in a field of cement, surrounded by a few dozen cars. Pat, the guy behind the desk, likes us instantly. Margo works her charm on him and he extends our return time, free of charge, with a few quick key strokes.


By the time we meet Sally, our silver Grand Prix, we’re hungry and backtrack a block or so to a Pizza Hut we spotted from the taxi. Our second encounter with a true Alaskan native (the taxi driver was a self-proclaimed import to the area), Wayne, the Pizza Hut guy, goes equally well. He’s cheery and helpful and offers us some advice for our stay.

Once our pizza is ready we bust out the map and start our drive (with, well, only a few missed turns). As we head up the highway away from Anchorage, our radio station choices dwindle to three-ish. Which is fine, because even though it’s a gloomy day, the scenery is eerily captivating, and I’m content to watch it pass by outside.

It took us a few hours to get to the lodge where Kristin and Dan are staying. But we see Kristin instantly, and we load their stuff, grab some coffee, check out our first kind of-view of Denali, and get back on the road in about 15 minutes.

Stopping by the entrance of Denali before heading back to find our ghetto campsite

By the time we got to the park, all of the visitor’s centers are closed, but we take a few minutes to get our bearings and figure out where we need to be the next day. Then, the discussion about where to sleep tonight begins. Alaska is a free range state, so we can technically pitch our tent wherever we want, as long as it’s not private property. Anything inside the park is out, and after a quick hike along a river we decide our best bet is a little paved turnaround on the side of the road. We’re sharing the area with a camper and one other tent. We manage to get our tents set up just before the rain starts. A fitting ending to our first day.

Our first campsite


14 08 2010

Whirlwind. That’s the best word I can think of to describe this summer. Staring at my calendar back in May, I knew if I blinked, I ran the risk of September sneaking up on me in an instant. Now, with all kinds of crazy (good crazy, to clarify) behind me, I’ve got two weeks of summer left and one of the sure-to-be highlights yet to come.

Last week I was at camp, Friday was Caitlin’s birthday, and today was Matt’s wedding. By the time I got back to GR, grabbed some last minute things, and Margo picked me up – I was exhausted. But I think I’m as ready as I can be to take on Alaska. It’s kind of hard to believe we’re actually leaving. We spent countless hours sitting at Sparrows, on the Hamilton’s front porch, and on the floor of the library at various points over the past two years as we dreamed up this trip. Now it’s time to go. Chicago tonight, Anchorage tomorrow morning. I’m glad Margo is willing to drive because my eyes are already feeling impossibly heavy.