Denali is an interesting National Park because first of all it is HUGE (the size of Massachusetts), and it has practically no trails (roughly 30 miles of trails mostly around the visitor’s center and other campgrounds). So, if you want to go backpacking you have to, and are encouraged to walk off trail. To most of us who are from the lower 48, this is not what we’re used to. We’re used to being told to stick to trails, mostly for leave no trace principles (walk and camp on durable surfaces) to minimize our collective impact. But in a park the size of Massachusetts, with a fraction of the number of annual visitors of most of the smaller parks in the United States, this isn’t much of an issue.
There is one road in the park, and it is 92 miles long and mostly only accessible by bus. You are allowed to drive the first 15 miles in your private vehicle, but after that, only busses are allowed, and the road is narrow and unpaved.
After reading our new friends Justin and Patrice’s blog about their backpacking trip here in Denali (they are also working for Leave No Trace on a similar project, so they are visiting the same National Parks that we are this summer), we decided to show up to the permitting office without a plan. In their blog, Justin and Patrice mentioned that they had come up with several ideas for routes, but once they got to the permitting office, none of the zones they were looking at were available.
So, going back a step- the park is split up into these zones, and the way the permitting system works here is that you pick a zone to camp in, and there are a certain number of permits they give out to each zone per night.
We decided to show up with no plan, and let the availability dictate where we go. That turned out to be a good choice since a surprising number of zones were full, and pretty much all the ones we had our eye on were in fact full.
We looked at one or two zones that were available, and talked to a ranger about possible travel within these zones, and decided on zone 18. We would have to travel through another zone to get to our zone, but it looked feasible.
We had three days off, and for most people the highlight of their trip to Denali is taking one of the park busses down the road and back. So we decided we would take the bus almost to the end of the road and then turn around and get to our designated spot. So we went off and got a bus ticket on the earliest camper bus (6:55am, $40pp).
Back at home we filled our bear canister to brim and then brought sandwiches and extra bars, too for the first day out. John is always complaining that we don’t carry enough food, so we’re trying to get better about that.
In the morning we caught the bus and settled in, knowing we would be on the bus for 5 or 6 hours to get to Wonder Lake, which isn’t even the last stop. Our bus driver was knowledgeable, telling us about wildlife and history. She was also a careful driver, going around turns at a slow pace. I was grateful.
One hour into the drive we realized that we forgot our trekking poles. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but in our case, we use our trekking poles to set up our tent. We otherwise have no other tent poles.
“We can find some sticks..?” I suggested nervously.
We stared out of the bus window watching the unforested expanse of tundra float by, and collectively wondered where on earth we were going to find a pair of sticks.
The bus took a break every 1-1.5 hours, and we could get on and off the bus to go to the restroom and take a few pictures.
The first wildlife we saw was two caribou far up on a hill and I was glad I had bought $10 binoculars off of Amazon in preparation for coming to Alaska.
Soon we saw more caribou a bit closer and before I knew it, we lost track of how many caribou we saw.
Then, down a valley we saw a mama bear and her yearling, and the bus stopped so we could watch them for a while. These grizzlies were big, but not as big as I was expecting. It turns out that grizzlies in interior Alaska are not as big as the coastal ones, which feed off salmon. These ones were only slightly bigger than black bears.
Further along, we saw another single bear foraging for berries.
Then, as with the caribou, we lost track of how many grizzlies we saw.
We passed the Eilson Visitor’s center, which is where we were going to start our backpacking trip, but we wanted to go a little further along the road first.
On the way to Wonder Lake, three grizzlies were walking in the middle of the road in front of us. I could barely believe how much wildlife this park had. It was a mama bear and two cubs, but the cubs were probably a number of years old because they were practically the same size as their mother.
We knew that the weather forecast looked grim. In fact, we knew that it was supposed to rain more in the next day than it had rained the whole time we had been in Alaska so far, but we were not going to let that deter us since this was our one period of three days off in a row. We have one other two day off stretch, otherwise all our days off here are single days off. So we HAD to go backpacking regardless of the weather.
We were pleasantly surprised that it was not raining on the bus drive. We even got nice views before the clouds started rolling in.
Finally, the bus dropped us off at Wonder Lake, and it was already after 1pm. We decided not to stick around at Wonder Lake, since the clouds were descending quickly, and we weren’t going to see Denali (the tallest mountain in North America).
But, the campground there was forested, and I found an area where someone had cut back vegetation from the side of the road and managed to find two sticks that would have to do as trekking poles.
We caught a bus going back in the other direction. This bus was crowded and was being driven by a Latin American gentleman who was a crazy driver. The road is definitely a bit scary in some sections. It gets very steep and there is only one lane with no guard rails. Incoming busses have to yield to outgoing buses.
Our crazy bus driver screeched up to another bus on a cliff and the other bus yielded. Then, we had to pass this other bus on the cliff edge with no room for error. We passed within fractions of an inch- the bus driver stopping and inching forward while everyone on the bus held their breath. As we finally pulled past the other bus, the driver turned on his microphone and said the one and only thing he said the whole ride: “I love my job.”
Everyone breathed out and giggled somewhat hysterically.
We got back to the Eilson Visitor center and headed out. There was a short trail down to the river that we had to walk along to begin our journey.
We reached the valley and started walking along the gravel bar up the river valley. It started to rain. At first it was only a drizzle, but then the drizzle turned into a heavy drizzle.
We put on all our rain gear, and continued onward. The clouds kept coming further and further down into the valley until our visibility was next to nothing. We really couldn’t see landmarks in order to navigate, so we simply kept going along this gravel bar.
We were surprised when a group of 3 or 4 other people were walking towards us, and they told us they had just seen a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs, and decided to reroute in order to avoid them.
At this stage, the road was up above on our right, and we eventually would need to veer left up a stream called Glacier Creek. But before we even got there, we would need to cross the Thorofare River. This river is extremely braided.
So, we decided to cut across a bit early to avoid the bears.
We saw some caribou in the mist, and shouted out “Hey Bear!!” We shouted out over and over again so as not to have a surprise encounter.
We started fording sections of the river, without really knowing where we were at this stage. We were in a huge flat area with poor visibility. we looked at the map every 20 minutes, but it didn’t help much.
In amongst the braids of the river, there was quick sand, and each time my foot started sinking into it, I panicked. At one point I sank in past my knee and shouted out in horror. I was not having fun. We were lost in the middle of a huge river surrounded by willows, mist and rain, and soaking wet, and the temperature was in the mid 40’s. If you’re reading this and have any experience with wilderness medicine, you’re probably thinking “woah, that’s hypothermia weather!” My thoughts exactly.
We considered quitting right then and there, but decided we would persevere. We probably wouldn’t be able to get a bus back at this point any way.
We decided we made the turn too early, and headed back slightly.
(The chilling remains of a grizzly bear)
More quicksand, more river crossings, more rain. But finally, we saw the edge of the glacial deposits from the huge Muldrow Glacier, and we knew that this was our landmark to turn up the Glacier Creek.
We started heading up Glacier Creek. This was finally enjoyable. The going was easy enough (we have plenty of experience following a creek from our time in New Zealand.)
Didn’t eat a thing from the bear canister. The rain and cold made us loose our appetite, and we weren’t about to unpack our backpacks to get food we weren’t hungry for.
We stayed to the right hand side of the creek so that we wouldn’t accidentally take a wrong turn, and we knew at some point we would need to cross it to get to a place to camp.
Eventually, we saw a place we could camp on the other side of the creek and decided to ford in order to get over to it.
We linked arms and crossed at a spot where the creek was widest. Still, it was up to my lower thigh and moving very quickly. Plus the water was completely grey so you really couldn’t see into it at all to tell how deep it was or where any rocks were.
I set up the tent with our sticks, but in order to make sure I didn’t break the sticks in the process, I didn’t tighten the tent much. It flapped in the wind, but that would have to do.
We had to eat any food that didn’t fit in the bear canister and store the canister 100 yards away. We walked down the bank of the creek in order to get this done, and along the way we noticed some bear scat. It looked fairly fresh. Eating just felt like a chore. We ate some bars and some nuts until we could fit everything in the canister and close it. Then we found a rock to stash the canister behind, and wandered back to our tent.
We piled layers of dripping wet clothing in either the vestibules of the tent or the far corner where my sleeping bag wouldn’t be on top of them.
We had thought ahead and brought more clothing than normal so that we would have dry clothing to change into. We did this and climbed into our sleeping bags.
We laid there listening to the rain on the nylon tent, and John said “Next time we have time off, we’ll get beautiful weather.” Then he knocked on the stick holding up our tent.
We kept warm over night, mostly thanks to the fact that we had synthetic sleeping bags. I was so thankful that we didn’t bring our down ones. Still, we slept horribly. The tent flapping in the wind would hit us repeatedly on the head, and in the early hours of the morning, the tent actually collapsed on me as the tent stake holding my side of the tent up ripped out from the ground.
We considered getting up then, as it was already light out, but I felt like I had just pulled an all nighter, and all I could think about was sleep. But, I soon realized that with the tent barely standing, more sleep was probably not going to happen.
We had to take off our warm clothes and put on our soaking wet clothing. It was probably in the high 30’s or low 40’s and I was not looking forward to crossing Glacier Creek first thing.
We packed up and started looking at the stream. It was clear that it was higher than it was the previous day. We got to a spot where I thought the stream was the widest, and let John try to cross first. He got most of the way across before the creek got to its deepest spot, and I saw him struggle to reach the bank of the river, as the water rushed up to his crotch and the rocks slid beneath his feet. He looked at me from across the stream and shook his head signaling that that was NOT a good spot to cross.
We walked down the creek checking the depth over and over again, and each time, it was too deep.
I kept walking down, and turned around to see John trying again, and to my horror I saw him fall in, and grab on to some rocks to get back up again. He was OK, but my adrenaline was starting to pump fiercely now. Maybe the water was still rising? Maybe I was stuck on this side of the creek, and John was stuck on the other side. We couldn’t even really communicate over the sound of the gushing water. I pointed upstream hoping to suggest that we try looking for a spot upstream instead of down. He nodded and we headed back.
There was nothing, and at some point my path was obstructed by a huge cliff on my side of the creek. John continued up his side of the creek in case I could climb over this hill to the other side and find a spot. I waited. Fifteen minutes later, he came back and shook his head. We would need to go further downstream instead. We went downstream further than we had before, and the creek did widen slightly to a point where John managed to cross back over. He got back to my side of the stream and I ran up to him to hug him. He told me his legs were really cold. It was good to be able to talk. We were both very nervous, wondering if we were stuck here, or what.
We continued down stream, as that seemed to be our only option besides setting up the tent again. Finally we found another spot worth trying, and we got in together. I held on to John’s arm, and John led the way, knowing that if it got too deep, we’d turn around together. It got up to John’s thigh, which was my waist, and I was no longer able to keep my footing. “It’s OK, I’ve got you!” He shouted as he dragged me to shore. There was no way I could have crossed that stream alone.
We celebrated, and I let out a few whimpers as my legs and feet were completely numb. My legs hurt, and my feet felt like giant blocks of ice. I couldn’t tell where they started or ended, and I stumbled over rocks trying to keep moving to warm up.
I knew we still had the Thorofare to cross, and that was huge.
As we walked along the creek, our legs warmed up, and we continuously shouted “Hey Bear.” While trying to keep an eye on our surroundings.
“Shit, there’s a bear” John said.
“Where? How close?” I couldn’t see it.
It was about 100 yards away, and once John pointed it out, I could see it’s blond body against the willows. Luckily I t hadn’t spotted us yet, but still we were too close.
We kept moving swiftly, but not silently so we wouldn’t have a surprise encounter. The bear was uphill from us and we were caught between the bear and the creek. We couldn’t give it any more space. Finally we moved past it without incident. Luckily it was happily chomping on berries.
We made it to the confluence of Glacier Creek and the Thorofare, and we started crossing the braids of the river.
There was so much more water this time around, it felt like we had infinite braids of this river to cross, and sometimes they were huge.
It was hard to tell how deep anything was, because again, it was all murky.
Each time we crossed several sections, we had to jump around to regain feeling in our feet.
We finally got to the widest and deepest section of the river, and although it was impossible to tell how deep the river was, we just picked the widest spot and then went for it together. We moved quickly because we knew our legs would quickly get numb, and we reached a shallow sandbar and took very little time to reassess before heading back down into deeper waters. John shouted out to me where the water was reaching on his body: “knee!” “Thigh!” “I’ve got you!” We got to a fairly deep spot, and John dragged me to the shore as the rocks beneath my feet were dragging me downstream. I grunted fiercely trying to move my legs against the current while at the same time barely realizing that my lower body had practically no feeling left.
As I got to the shore and jumped around a bunch to try to regain any feeling in my legs, we celebrated.
“I’m pretty sure that was it! That was the last hard part!”
We were going to make it, and mostly thanks to the fact that John was 6ft 4 and strong. I wasn’t complaining. I wondered how anyone else managed this route, and guessed that they probably did it in much different circumstances.
We crossed many more small sections of the river – the smaller braids and soon reached the edge of the hill on which the road was and followed the last braid down towards the visitor center.
It took a while, but eventually we could make out the visitors center in the distance. As we walked along the edge of the river we remarked on how most of this seemed to be just gravel bar the day before. Was there even water here? We couldn’t remember, but we certainly didn’t remember this quantity of water.
We found the cairn that marked the beginning of the trail back up to the visitors center and rejoiced.
We just had to climb up this trail – a trail that we knew could not possibly offer any sort of treachery. As we climbed up, I doted upon this trail. I liked trails. There was a sort of comfort that hiking mindlessly along a trail provided. Maybe I’m not tough enough to be an off-trail hiker. Maybe I’m just cut out for on-trail hiking.
Now that we were headed uphill, my body suddenly realized that I was hungry and dehydrated. I promised myself that I would drink and eat once we got to the visitor center. I also fantasized about changing into dry clothing.
I dragged myself into the dry refuge of the visitors center and unloaded my backpack with a sigh. I took my bag of dry clothing and tried to change in the handicapped stall in the women’s bathroom. I immediately made a mess on the immaculately clean bathroom floor. My shoes, socks and pants were all full of sand and pebbles, glacial deposits that were churning through the rivers that we had spent the better part of a day crossing.
Once back in the lobby, John told me we could catch a bus in 10 minutes. I quickly gathered my belongings and we ran over to the bus dispatcher to ask him which bus we were on. He told us to wait by the busses and he’d be right out.
Unfortunately, it was still raining, and still in the low 40’s and now I was wearing dry clothing and not very many layers. I jumped from one foot to the other impatiently as we stood outside waiting for further instruction.
Finally, we were allowed to get on a bus, but not before I was shivering pathetically. The bus was practically full, and we had to sit in different rows. No less than three people offered me clothing, and I stubbornly said no until one older gentleman simply put his jacket on top of me. I was irrational, tired and angry that we were made to wait in the cold out in the rain.
The bus ride back was long and tiring. I was so tired that I think I actually fell asleep as the boring bus driver told long stories about how she moved to Alaska. We did see several more grizzly bears along with several herds of caribou, but I was quite a bit less interested compared to the journey out. All I could think about was a hot shower followed by a hot meal and a warm bed.
Finally after a 4 hour bus ride back, we were dropped off where we parked our car. I cranked up the heat in the car and let John drive us the rest of the way back to Denali Education Center, where we are staying.
I stood in the shower letting the hot water ease the muscles in my neck and shoulder which at this point were all tight and knotted, and was so thankful not to be stuck out in the wilderness another night.
Once back, we tried to think about why this trip went so wrong. We realized that one of the main reasons we wound up in this predicament was because we didn’t make a plan ahead of time based on the weather, mostly because of the permitting system. We simply went on the recommendation of a ranger, who had probably done this route in good weather. The fact that we were somewhat comfortable fording rivers meant that we didn’t turn around on day one when we probably should have. In retrospect, and looking at the map, this was a pretty dumb place to be in the continuous rain that we had.
(If you can tell from this map, we started at the visitors center along the road and camped near green point in the bottom left hand side of the map. We probably went about 6-8 miles each way through what looks like a mess of rivers on the map).