2011 Alaska (2/3): Denali & more

Places Alaska. Denali Highway, Denali National Park and beyond
Time & length September 2011, 19 days
Partners solo trip
After a short road trip on the Denali Highway I went on quite a long hike in Denali. From Eielson I crossed the Alaska Range at Anderson Pass, went eastwards for a few days, then crossed the range again and rafted down the Teklanika River. This trip ended with a visit to the “Magic Bus”.

Shortly after returning from the Talkeetna Mountains I wanted to continue hiking in Denali, Alaska’s most famous National Park and maybe the greatest place I have ever seen so far. The Indian Summer had already reached the entire state, everything was colored in red and yellow and with its quite stable weather this is the perfect time for some enjoyable hiking in Alaska.

To get there I did a little road trip together with my friends Becky and Bev, from Palmer we drove east to Paxson and then towards the park on the beautiful Denali Highway. I had already bought food for 21 days, all stuffed in my backpack. The route I wanted to take in Denali was the same I had wanted to do with my friend Christian a year earlier, now I was really looking forward to carry out our plan. But let me start with some pictures taken from the road before reaching my starting point.

Having arrived at the park I instantly went to the backcountry office in order to get my permit for the route I had in my head. The booking worked out fine, I just hated the chunky and heavy “Bear Resistant Food Containers” – but these are required in the park in order to prevent bears from getting the hiker’s food so I took one with me.
Early in the next morning I took one of the “Camper Busses” in order to get to my starting point close to Eielson. There were some other people in the bus as well, mostly day hikers but also some who were going to stay in the park for a couple of days. The driver who put my heavy pack into the back was the only one who noticed that I was going to stay there for a bit longer.
Along the way we quickly stopped at Sanctuary Campground. There I jumped out of the bus and put some food and my rafting gear into the food locker: this was my resupply, 12 days later I would be there again and pick up my stuff before continuing my trip with some rafting down the Teklanika River. So this depot allowed me to carry food for just 12 days (plus spare) in the beginning instead of carrying food for the entire trip.
On our way to Eielson I saw the first Grizzlies that year, they were just digging for ground squirrels not far from the park road. Seeing a bear from the road isn’t quite as exciting as an encounter in the backcountry but still, I took a few pictures.

My starting point was “Grassy Pass”, close to Eielson Visitor Center. I walked away from the road down to the huge riverbed of the McKinley River which was easy to cross due to the low water levels in September. Just behind a few hills I set my first camp in the park. Not much later I saw some grizzlies running on a ridgeline, actually pretty close to my tent: a mother and two cubs. This is going to be an interesting journey, I thought…

On the next morning I followed Glacier Creek upstream alongside the huge moraine of Muldrow Glacier. I was highly concentrated on the stony terrain when I noticed two little grizzly bears running down a slope towards me. When they saw me they stopped – that was just about 15 meters away. Quickly my eyes started searching for the mother: she stood on a small hill 40 meters away from me and intently observed the scene. Fortunately the cubs didn’t come any closer, that would have made the mother attack me eventually.
So I raised my arms in order to appear a bit bigger, started talking to the bears in a calm voice and slowly moved backwards until I found a little heap of stones which I used to stand higher than the bears. I thought that would be quite a safe position and took out my camera. That was about 30 or 40 meters away from the grizzlies.

The closer I got to the main ridge, the more the weather changed. Two hours later I found myself fighting against strong squalls and heavy rain. The wind really made it hard for me to keep moving but I wanted to reach a certain place to make camp. When I got there I was totally soaked. The much bigger problem now was to find a good spot which was at least a little bit protected from the wind. My first choice wasn’t the best: when I tried to put in the last stakes a bad down draught swept away my tent and all the stakes came off in less than a second. Now my inner tent was wet as well. Carelessly I stuffed everything back in my pack and searched for a better spot. Thirty minutes later I tried it again, this time it worked out. With a lot of stones I secured each stake and then went into my tent after dusk. That was hard work and I was not sure if the tent would hold up.

The night was terrible. Due to the strong winds I couldn’t sleep, many times I was holding my tent pole fearing it could break. But it didn’t.
At 7 o’clock in the morning the weather was still bad. I waited until 9 and it didn’t change. So I made the decision to stay there for a day because I knew that the next section would take me a full day: I needed to climb up Anderson pass and follow the West Fork Glacier Moraine all the way down to its end. Not only was there probably no place to camp on the way, I also needed good visibility if I wanted to navigate through the difficult terrain of the moraine. That’s why I needed to stay and wait for a better day. In the afternoon the weather got better and I had the chance to take a few pictures under an almost clear sky. Some bears said hello, this time they came pretty close but didn’t really pay attention to me – they probably just followed their own trails.

At night I was wondering where the grizzlies would be now. They went up towards the same pass like me on the next day, and behind the pass is a big glacier. Bears usually don’t walk on glaciers so I expected to see these guys again.
After a frosty night I hiked uphill the next morning. The weather was good so far and right when I took a picture of a little creek I saw the three grizzlies from the night before coming down again. This time I didn’t move and let them pass: that was the closest I have ever been to a bear, less than 10 meters. Surprisingly it didn’t really scare me, maybe because of their sweetness: the two cubs were just so cute.

Just before noon I reached the pass and studied the moraine which I had to follow down. From up there I had a better view over all the channels and necessary detours than once I got down to the glacier.
Walking on a moraine can be pretty hard. It’s muddy, stony, icy and it offers a lot of great opportunities to fall down – in my case it happened with the camera in hands. Fortunately I didn’t break anything.
Late in the day I arrived at the very end of the moraine and pitched my tent – two minutes later it started to rain again. I was so happy and glad to have got there in time…

Now it rained for a few days. Usually I don’t take many pictures in the rain so don’t wonder why there are so many “blue sky” photos.

I followed the West Fork Chulitna River, crossed it, turned north and then east towards Easy Pass. Down the Bull River and over two unnamed passes I got to Cantwell Creek and continued over Foggy Pass to West Fork Windy Creek. There I turned north in order to cross the Alaska Range for a second time. There is not more to say about this section, the pictures will tell you the rest.

There was a funny moment when I walked in the river bed of West Fork Windy Creek. I was focusing on the gravel below my feet, then I heard some noise right in front of me: three grizzlies about 200 meters away, at the same time I saw another grizzly running down a slope towards me and disappearing into the brush a second later. So three bears in front of me and another one to my right, all walking in my direction. I stopped and took my camera out. While continuously looking for the bear to my right I started taking pictures of the ones in front of me. They came about 50 meters close, then smelled me and ran away quickly. My eyes were searching for the other grizzly but he didn’t show up again – instead I saw a big moose standing at the exact same spot where I had seen the lonely bear a minute before. Welcome to Denali, I thought…

The next morning a young moose said hello just after I crawled out of my tent. Later I continued my way uphill towards a pass that I thought could bring me down to the Sanctuary River valley. But after I had scrambled up the snow and finally reached the edge it became obvious that I couldn’t go down on the other side – it was way too steep and icy. So I had to turn around and take a detour: I climbed another ridge and came down at Windy Creek.

Fighting through the brush I got above tree level in the next afternoon and reached another pass which now brought me to the headwaters of Sanctuary River. On the way I saw a grizzly mother feeding her cubs, I had never seen that before – I think this was worth the one day detour. In the light of a beautiful sundown I pitched my tent and went to sleep.

Now I hiked along the Sanctuary River towards the Park Road. Sometimes the brush was very thick but most of the time I found nice game trails thanks to all the moose living there. After another night I picked up my stuff at Sanctuary Campground and met a Park Ranger who invited me for a cup of coffee in his little cabin there. His name was Trouper, he was actually the first human being I had seen since 13 days – talking to him was very enjoyable.

After that I hiked up Mt. Wright which offered me an amazing view over all the mountains and valleys around – definitely one of the highlights on this trek. I took a closer look at the confluence of two rivers in the north since this was where my packraft would come into play. So I pitched my tent in the bed of the Teklanika River to start rafting north early in the next morning.

Rafting down the Teklanika River actually didn’t take me long: this stream runs so fast that I covered the distance of 22 kilometers to the “Stampede Trail” in just 2 ½ hours. And it was so much fun – I love my packraft!
This is where the story of Christopher McCandless (documented by Jon Krakauer’s book and Sean Penn’s film “Into the wild”) comes in: before he died in the “Magic Bus” McCandless tried to go back to civilization, unfortunately he wasn’t able to cross a major river on the way. This river was the Teklanika, the one I had just came down rafting. Technically it wasn’t hard to paddle, just a few rapids and not too many trees were in the way but I can imagine that it’s much more challenging in spring and early summer.

I followed the Stampede Trail east to the “Magic Bus” and stayed in there for two nights. Somehow it was special since this place won fame due to the already mentioned book and movie that tell the story of Christopher McCandless who died here in 1992. But I can’t quite participate with all the homages… and there are a lot of them to read inside the bus.

After a free day I made my way back towards the Highway and spent a last night in my tent at Eightmile Lake. A last view of Denali, a last great sundown and a few last lines in my notebook and I fell asleep. Late in the next day I arrived back in Palmer at my friend’s house, where Becky and Bev were already waiting for me.

There is not much to say about this trip: so far it was the greatest journey I have been on. Looking at nature Denali offers the greatest beauty I have ever seen and with all its wildlife this place is just amazing. There were some challenges on the way, especially thinking of the storm at the start of my trip. But I always felt good and optimistic. Being alone for so long was an experience I would not want to miss. I can’t really explain this but for some reason I was able to enjoy every second of it. Everything was just good just the way it was.

Look here for the last part of my Alaska time in summer 2011.