I’ve been thinking about what makes an experience special. What makes one moment in your life stand out from another? What will be forever tucked away in your brain when you are old and telling your stories to great-grandchildren? I’m no expert, but I do think that those special moments are wrapped in surprises, sprinkled with danger, and reveal something about the grandeur of life.
That said, Denali is one of those moments for me.
I’ll be honest, the first thing I thought of when I heard that we’d be going to Denali was the store in the mall where I got my NorthFace jacket and winter boots. I had no idea that the REAL Denali was an incredible National Park that boasted hundreds and hundreds of miles of untouched wilderness. Nor did I think of the mountain that sits at the middle of that gorgeous park. (In fact, I had no idea that the mountain Denali was really the old Mt. McKinley. Apparently President McKinley never even saw the mountain that bore his namesake and in 2015, President Obama officially changed the name to the more appropriate Denali.)
Regardless, Denali is where my dad wanted us to journey to and Denali is where we went. Having been to Alaska a few times before, my dad insisted that we experience REAL Alaska and not just stop at mile 6 in the park. As such, he planned for us to hop on a bus to travel through all the way to Kantishna, stopping along the way to admire the landscape and occasional wildlife.
From the bus we saw caribou, beavers, dall sheep, but no bear or moose, which is apparently pretty plentiful in the park. Braided glacial river beds wove through the landscape, punctuated by green and brown mountains. All the while, clouds soared over us, bringing us in and out of rain spots.
After the six-hour bus ride, we arrived to Kantishna which is embedded in the middle of Denali National Park and only accessible by a 92-mile bus ride or a prop plane. The old mining settlement is definitely isolated, but not in a weird cult-like way. There is no radio, no television, no WiFi, and definitely no cell service. It is a place, I half-jokingly said to my brother, where we could ride out the zombie apocalypse – well, until winter at least.
We spent two nights (one full day) in Kantishna, which felt like just the right amount of time. Our cabin was amazingly comfortable in that rustic campy way. There were no frills, but just enough blankets and creature comforts to make for a couple good nights of sleep.
Our one full day to spend in Kantishna was packed. The morning we spent hiking with our amazing guide, Shelly. Hiking with a guide is pretty much required because its pretty easy to get lost in the wilderness if you’re not an expert hiker who knows how to use a compass – which I’m not. I’m also not that comfortable encountering a bear, though to stumble across one on a hike is pretty uncommon. Shelly brought our small group out to Willow Ridge and the trail was so small, that there is no way we could have found it if we were on our own.
At first, we picked our way carefully through the small willows and birches of the tundra, but then Shelly informed us that there are no ticks in Alaska. Neither are there snakes or poison ivy! I saw a change come over my brother, who has hiked the fjords of Norway and had to spend every evening prying ticks off his ankles. All of a sudden, my brother turned into a version of Bear Grylls hopping over the landscape. On second thought, his new gait could be attributed to the tundra floor, which acts like a trampoline. It is spongey, springy and incredibly luxurious. We had the opportunity to walk through the tundra at the end of our hike and I felt like tigger, bouncing through the landscape. My Dad even tried a brief tundra nap.
After the hike, most of our fellow travelers were ready for a nap. This could be because most of the guests of Kantishna Roadhouse when we were there were over the age of 60. My dad, on the other hand, was eager to put a pole in the mountain river next to our cabin and try his hand at lure fishing. He geared up in waders while my brother and I checked out a couple of bikes and rode down to mile 92.5. Aside from some significant hills (i.e. mountains!) we enjoyed peeking into the cabin of Fanny Quigley, one of the first and last gold miners to live in Kantishna year round. We also found our way to the very end of the Denali road. There is literally no where to go after the sign that says, “End of the Road.”
Let’s take a minute and talk about the mountain, Denali. It seems like much of life in Kantishna revolves around the whims of Denali. The mountain, itself, is quite fickle. The rule of thumb is that Denali only peaks behind its clouds once every three days, though this is by no means a hard and fast rule. By some stroke of luck, Denali started to show itself at about mile 88 on our ride into Kantishna. At the time we stopped at Wonder Lake and were able to take some pretty amazing shots. (Another fun fact! Ansel Adam’s famous photograph of Mt. McKinley was taken at Wonder Lake.)
Towards the end of our stay in Kantishna, my father made an executive decision: instead of riding the six-hours back to the park entrance in the bus, he wanted to fly. This was a very brave decision for a 70 year-old man who has never flown in a prop plane before. But, his mind was set on getting another glimpse of the mountain Denali, and there was nothing that my brother or I could do to talk him out of it. I tried not to share my concerns, but I’ve flown in a Cessna before and they are tiny! The entire time leading up to the flight, I had visions of crashing into a glacier without any gear or way to descend. I had a power bar and a couple granola bars, but that wouldn’t last long… At any rate, I tried not to share these fears with my father.
Yesterday morning, after saying goodbye to Kantishna Roadhouse, the three of us made our way to the airfield and were weighed and tucked into our little tin can of a plane. The pilot, Dave, seemed pretty down to earth and was clearly a seasoned bush pilot. After the surprisingly smooth take-off, the three of us spent the next hour in utter awe of the landscape. Dave brought us all the way to the summit of the North side of Denali. We were flying about 2,600 feet, and when we went past, the mountain soared above us. How people have climbed that mountain is beyond me. Dave talked us through the rest of the park’s features like Mather Mountain, Fang Ridge, and the many glacial rivers. The only thing any one of us could utter into our headsets was “Amazing!”
This morning we are safely tucked back into our hotel in Anchorage. We picked up Dad’s fishing buddy and are going to make our way to Kenai to start the fishing part of the trip. As I sit here and reflect on the past couple of days, there were quite a few things that could have gone wrong while we were in the park. The weather, wildlife, isolation – all of those could have posed very real problems for us. But the three of us swallowed our individual trepidations and learned some mighty lessons. Aside from a couple mosquito bites, I will take away a new respect for the grandeur that is Denali. It is spacious, wild, quiet, and will definitely test your limits. But my goodness, did I ever feel alive!