Life goals. Such weighty words. To many they conjure up images of unfulfilled dreams, after all, who actually accomplishes something they have categorized as a life goal? Perhaps that is because this realm is usually reserved for such fancy as retiring to Norway to become an accomplished Hardingfele player. Climb the highest peak in North America, now there is something tangible and relatively easy to accomplish. Especially if you modify the goal to climb a mountain right next to the highest peak in North America, and then to climb a mountain in the general geographic region as the highest peak in North America, and then to hike in the rain within 50 miles of the highest peak in North America. Life goals are easy.
So how do you start when you are setting off to accomplish such a monument to your life?
First, be sure to book the last flight that will get you to Alaska in time (this of course is to allow your wife to tidy up some loose ends before being abandoned by a thoughtless husband).
Now leave for the airport late. This has a way of adding some excitement to the trip that may otherwise be missing. There is just something about not being able to get to where you need to be, and if you don’t get there all will be lost that gets things really adventurous. Donavan and I used to get all sorts of behind schedule, misguided, etc. that really allowed for some great mountain stories. After many years we got pretty good at planning our trips, so when we got home conversations went something like this:
“How was your week long backpacking trip in the most awesome mountains in the Tri State area?”
“We did exactly what we planned to do.”
No gathering people around me and saying “So there I was…” or “Against all odds…” or even “Honest to gosh it was a ghost (or Rocky Mountain Tortoise or Rameumptom)!” So I try to add some "late" excitement in many areas in my life such as church, work, waking up, etc.
If you have properly left late, then you will also have the oil light turn on in your car enroute to the airport. This is the real decision point. You have already cancelled the cheap offsite parking so you can park at the ridiculously priced onsite airport parking, how much are you willing to wager the car will make it to the airport? I always bet on the car. After one trip we watched water poured in Donavan’s radiator spill out the oil pan. Another time I drove a Plymouth Breeze through a creek with water over the hood to get to the trailhead (sorry dad, but it saved us like 50’ of walking). Besides, if you bet it all, and you do get to the airport then your car will be stuck in the airport parking lot where you will not be able to fix it until you drive it yet again to get out. This is a life goal after all, so now is not the time to be stingy.
So now that you are at the airport you are ready for 24 hours of travelling. Of course after that you are still not there. You now have to hike for a week trying to get there, but you never do. You think you are there, but then the next day you realize you’re not, so you keep going. Eventually you end up back on the airplane and it is just one big 7500-mile loop and you realize that there is home with your family. So that's the whole trip summarized, with a moral and all. I will still digress into mind numbing detail, as my therapist says that is best.
Obviously this is a picture of my plane flying next to Donavan’s plane on our way into Anchorage, or least I sometimes lay in bed at night thinking it is true.
We landed at almost the exact same time, so it was easy to meet up at the airport. After gathering our packs we had six hours to get supplies and be in downtown Anchorage to catch our bus to Denali National Park at 7:00am. We took a taxi to a Denny’s across from a 24-hour grocery store, and stocked up our stomachs and food bags. They were nice enough to let us use the pharmacy area to break down and pack our food.
Another taxi ride got us to the bus stop, where we only had to wait for one hour on the street.
Once on the bus we had the opportunity to practice more upright sleeping. A mere six hours later we were there!
This brings me to my first Alaska Fast Fact.
Alaska Fast Fact #1: Alaska is BIG.
It was very overcast and raining, so we only saw the scenery right by the road, but it was nice. It reminded me of driving through Yellowstone or the Island Park area, except it never stopped. For six hours. Occasionally, there would be a lake with some boat planes, rundown trucks and houses made out of scrap sheet metal.
But mostly trees.
Once we arrived at Denali National Park, we had to take the proper steps to get a permit and into the park. At the Backcountry Information Center you find a small room with several very large maps on the walls inside and out. These maps show Denali National Park and the boundaries of the 87 different units that divide the park. Most units allow only six people to stay in them at any one time. All you have to do is figure out which of the units you would like to stay in, based on absolutely no knowledge of any of the units, check and see if it is available, and make your reservation. This actually is not so hard. Only about 40 of the units are adjacent to the road, so that limits your options for starting points, and then if you show up in the middle of the afternoon, you really only have left about a dozen available units to choose from. All the same, the incredible size of the park makes even this task overwhelming, so we thought we could rely on the rangers to help us pick the best place for us. Picking a unit is very crucial, as there are no trails in Denali. You get the real Alaska experience, and the terrain of the unit you pick will greatly affect what that Alaska experience will be.
Once we obtained the attention of a ranger we briefly described our intentions to hike for a week (apparently much longer than most) and climb a mountain or two. She started to discuss options, when I noticed on the map that the elevation of the areas she was referring to were pretty low, like lower than any place I have set foot in the west. This reaffirmed to me AFF #1, and that the tallest point in North America and areas of such low elevation can be in the same national park. Denali is the second largest national park, you know. So I thought I should clarify our "climb a mountain or two" idea.
“We were hoping to climb a mountain over 15,000'.” This was the obvious thing to do in Alaska, because it’s BIG, right? The highest I had climbed previously was when I cruised up Uncompahgre Peak at 14,309’.
I was twelve times more freaked out than I look in that picture. This is when Donavan and I famously outran a thunderstorm to the top of the highest mountain for 400 miles, only to find an even larger storm on the other side. You can note the wet, greasy hair standing up on end, that’s my favorite part. That story has been officially labeled a “harrowing tale.” So you can see why we would want to climb an even higher mountain now.
“Ummm, (smirk) those will require mountaineering gear, and probably two weeks to allow for clear weather.”
Alaska Fast Fact #2: Denali is not high (with a handful of exceptions).
With a little further research it turns out I can count on one hand the mountains in Denali that are higher than Uncompahgre Peak. This is why you can see Mt. McKinley from such great distances; it sticks out of the landscape like a pubescent pimple.
OK, so no climbing tall mountains, but two weeks for weather to clear?
Alaska Fast Fact #3: July and August is the rainy season.
They don’t put that in the brochure. I suppose that is opposed to the snowy season you find the rest of the year.
Some other things that need to be done before getting a permit include a safety brief and watching a video. The safety brief just emphasizes what you see in the video, but gives a little more detail on wolves. The video, as you have heard, teaches us how to fight of bears.
They cover the basics like sleeper holds, full nelsons, and a little mixed martial arts. With Donavan’s wrestling background I figured I didn’t need to pay much attention.
They actually teach a little more on the prevention side, with some good role-playing scenarios. Of note they teach to call out when traveling through thicker brush where a bear may not otherwise hear or see or smell you coming. In the video they show hikers yelling out “Hey Bear! Heeyy Bear! Hey Bear! Hey Bear! Heeyy Bear! Hey Bear! Hey Bear! Hey Bear!” I’m sure they only showed them doing that for no more than thirty seconds total, but it felt more like two minutes, which felt like five hours. I promised myself that I would never utter that phrase for the rest of my life.
They also had a humor section in which they talked about crossing rivers. Glacial rivers. It was full of fun tips on walking through raging water thigh high, with great videos of people grinning and laughing while everything they are wearing and packing gets soaked in 33° water. The deadpan narrator nailed punch lines like “bring extra shoes and socks, or just deal with wet feet” or “you may want to put some of your belongings in plastic bags.” Once again I made a little promise to myself about something I would never do.
Safety items aside, we still needed to pick our unit, and options were slim for something accommodate a weeklong excursion. We finally settled on unit 5 – Upper Sanctuary River. There was nobody signed up for this unit for the entire time we would be there. No red flags there. After four days we would pass over into unit 6 – Upper Teklanika River. Unit 5 would offer us over 62000 acres of wilderness to ourselves, and 57000 acres in unit 6. That should be enough.
This is the picture from the brochure for unit 5. Looks nice, right? We checked out Bear Resistant Containers and bought our maps, being sure to delineate our unit boundaries so we don’t end up in the wrong unit. These maps were vital to our hike, and the sole source of direction for us. We never pulled out the compass or GPS that we brought, just sat and stared at the map.
Finally having and knowing our plan, we set out to get some last minute supplies (plastic bags anyone?) and get our backpacks ready for hiking. This was not too eventful and just included getting lost on the way to the mercantile, spilling melted cheese all over my hiking clothes (Heeyy Bear!), running to the curb to catch the camper bus into the park, noticing Donavan’s pack is soaked, mad frenzy to unpack his pack, diagnosing the leaky Camelbak, being grateful the bus driver needed a bathroom break, even more thankful for a recently acquired plastic bag to contain the leak, and repacking and loading onto the bus. Pretty normal stuff.
This bus brings up something interesting about Denali National Park; you can only barely drive into the park. If you want to see the park you need to get on a bus and ride down the one road that goes through the park. Now if there is only one road in the park and only one bus company that drives on that road, you can imagine the racket they have going on.
Fortunately, the camper bus is cheaper than the other buses. This is because on the camper bus you have long haired drivers named Gary who don’t give history spiels or say things like “Alaska stole my heart.” He just said “Stay behind the yellow line, and otherwise do whatever you want.” I think he really meant whatever you wanted.
Now having to buy a ticket and get on a bus to get around on our hikes is not quite our usual style.
(Beartooth Pass, MT)
(Cooke City, MT)
(San Juan Mtns, CO)
(Yellowstone NP, MT)
Hey, it’s still hiking! But we were specifically told that we had to buy a ticket and would not be picked up if we tried to hitchhike into the park.
The bus ride was actually pretty nice. When we started the driver got the units everyone was going to, and then double-checked them with his list of which units are which. He glanced back at us a few times and then said, “You guys going to 5, do you like willows?” He then made parting motions with his arms, like he was pushing aside a very thick, heavy curtain.
“I guess so, do we have a choice?”
“No. Where do you want to be dropped off?”
Ummm, “The west side of the river?”
“I guess that makes sense.”
With still surprisingly few red flags going off, we enjoyed the scenery and got a feel for the land. There was a group of hippies sleeping behind us; apparently the voyage of this joy pod through space was not very exciting for them, but we were riveted. Immediately after the Sanctuary River (the west side), the bus stopped with very dense forest on either side. Gary yelled back to the hippies to wake them up. This was their stop, and at this point I was hoping our stop looked a little more welcoming, I supposed at some location further west of the river.
Hippie free, we continued on for another two hundred yards and then stopped again. This time the trees were a little taller in the incredibly dense forest. Oh much better!
Away the bus goes. Now we get to put boot to soft, fleshy earth and let ‘er rip.
And we are genuinely excited. We are finally doing it! We are hiking Alaska like we always dreamed: no trail, light rain, leaky packs, starting at 5:30pm. Perfect.
Once underway we had only two goals, get ½ mile and out of site from the road, as these were the park rules. Anything beyond that was gravy. We figured on maybe two hours of hiking, leaving us enough time to set up camp, eat, and get to bed before it got dark.
We actually got clear of the trees rather quickly to find a very nice level swamp to hike through. And by level I mean very uneven, soft ground that appears level. You know those new shoes that work your glutes by making it seem like you are walking on sand? You should try hiking with 50 lbs through a swamp and see how your glutes feel.
So we went back to the trees. And then back to the swamp. And then the trees. And back. The Hardingfele is sounding like a pretty good goal right now.
We have bushwhacked enough to know that you never find perfect ground, so make sure you keep going the right direction while you try to find it, because you’re always going to look for that perfect stretch. With this in mind it did not take us too long to accomplish our goals, but readily apparent was the fact that swamp was not a place to set up a camp. So we set out to finding a reasonable camping spot. We finally found one about two hours and 1 ½ miles in. That’s right, 1 ½ miles in two hours. This coming from guys who used to outpace mule trains, who could average 5 miles an hour over a day, and even clocked a 7 mile hour once. This "make your own trail" stuff puts us in a different ball game and, as I recorded in my hiking journal, “sounds exciting but is really a big slap in the face of reality.”
Our camp ended up being a mostly dried up side creek from the main river. One of the things Alaska is famous for is the mosquitoes. Having literally been pushed to the brink of insanity by mosquitoes before, we came prepared.
Truth be told, they really were not much worse than what I have experienced in the Yellowstone area. Of course, that is still really bad and we were very happy to have the head nets. It did make eating a little tricky however.
Ah, food! Now that is what backpacking is really about (or at least it is when you get old and can afford good food, and the food is about as exciting a story as the rest of the trip because you plan things so gosh darn well). Tonight we enjoyed some General Tso’s chicken with white rice and cookies for desert. Wash it down with some hot chocolate and we are in business.
What we were also really trying to do was eat as much as possible to make room in our bear cans. Everything food or scented had to go in. It was a tight fit without our toiletries, so we needed to make some space. Speaking of space we also had to abide by the triangle of life, or some other equally cheesy triangle. Our tent, our eating area, and our overnight food storage had to all be 100 yards apart.
Don’t you just love the sounds at the very end? You may have to turn up the volume to catch the fateful end of one mosquito.
So we finally reached the end of the first day, which was actually 36 hours from the time I left my house to taking that video. I bet it felt that long reading it. One of the things we noted in that video is that it was still quite light at the end of the day, but trust me, we slept well.