October 7, 2013, Category: Alaska, Travel

Denali National Park. What more can I say? What more do you need. Denali National Park. Freakin’ Amazing.

Day 12: Denali National Park

Check out the novel: Trudge On, Soul

The icy wilderness of Alaska is the perfect place to lose yourself. But Warren doesn’t want to lose himself. He wants to lose someone else.
The book, Trudge On, Soul, is the result of three long years of late nights, critique groups, and editing. If you haven't read the blog, I'd suggest you stop reading and at least click here to read the preview chapters of the book. The blog and pictures have spoilers and the book is a much better read. Think of the website as a documentary, and the book as an engaging movie. Triumph Motorcycles did an article on my Adventure here. A Photo Album of the trip is available here. Click here if you want to jump to the start of the blog with an index of each day.

The Adventure Continues...

WP_20130826_078Last night I dreamt I was back in High School. Something happened that made me think of Alaska and it jarred a memory…hmmm, I think I’ve been to Alaska. I concentrated and pieces of the trip started to emerge. Then, suddenly, my eyes blew wide open (in the dream). I remembered that I wasn’t in high school. In fact, I was at that moment asleep in my tent in the Denali National Park! I was dreaming! I ran to find my friends, “Dude, this is so awesome. Right now I am camping in Alaska, I’m not even here! I’m asleep in my tent in Denali! And tomorrow when I wake up, I’m going to explore it!” It was a good feeling but I was too excited to wait and I started trying to wake myself up.

After much pinching, shaking, and focusing, I slowly cracked my eyes in a groggy haze. It was like coming out of surgery, the world just didn’t want to let me back in yet. I should have backed down at that point because my fight to drag my eyes open brought me into a dark, frigid tent. The cold must have poked through my subconscious and jarred my dream enough to remind me about Alaska.

I should have stayed in school, because now I was shivering, wide awake, and still had several hours to sleep. I tightened up the hatches and once every zipper and velcro strap was secured, I started to relax again.

I was warm and comfy when my alarm sounded. In a drowsy motion my arm ventured out to grab it but then immediately snapped it up and retreated back inside the sleeping bag. It was COLD! I stayed still in my bag, and quiet, as if the cold enemy outside might go away if it didn’t know I was there. Then Mike sounded the wake-up call and I knew I couldn’t delay. But we had a shuttle to catch so I had to face the cold. I responded to Mike in kind and threw off my sleeping bag, knowing the only way to win this battle was to face the foe head on.

WP_20130827_003Even in a mad rush, I lost too much heat changing and striking camp. In the dim early light, I pulled the icy rods out of my tent, shook off the frost, and started laying it out to pack it up. But my fingers were so stiff and unresponsive I gave up and just stuffed the tent into the sack. Mike tried to put on his jacket but couldn’t because the built in armor (which normally moves like a sponge) had frozen solid into an L. If he could have bent his torso midway at 90 degrees, it would have worked.

1269785_10151921766006209_193399021_oI held my breath and started my bike. I always held my breath when I started my bike because it was still giving me problems, but on this bitter morning I really needed it to come through. It fired up, to my relief, but then I heard Mike cranking on his. And cranking. Gertrude just wouldn’t kick over. He gave me the WTF look, followed by a WGMS (We’re Gonna Miss our Shuttle), and tried again. She fought, he didn’t back off, and with a loud spat she finally fired to life.

Once we were rolling, my heated gear helped restore my sanity. Mike his best to slide into his hunchback coat, but his lower torso was exposed. He survived the 13 mile ride with only minor hypothermia. We rolled into the parking lot and rushed through securing our gear and loading up for our day in Denali.

We were told water was limited and no food was available once you got on the shuttle. I had imagined, and planned for, a snack bar at the various visitors centers. I threw in some extra protein bars, jerky, and filled my water bladder just in time to be one of the last ones to board the shuttle. Whew! We sat in the front near the heater. I don’t know why everyone left the best seat for last. The heater and quick access to the front door were better than the windows for getting pictures.

Denali tips for the Ignorant

DSCN0518If you are planning a trip to Denali, make your reservations in advance (both for camping and for the shuttle). We visited in the slow season and would have had better options had we understood how it worked and booked both nights and the shuttle one day prior (we just booked the first night).

IMG_2483Denali is ideal for backpackers/hikers who want to venture into the back country or for travelers who like to tour in groups. I imagined it too much like the Kruger National Park in South Africa. If you aren’t a hiker/backpacker, your Denali will be from a crowded bus (which isn’t so bad). You’ll stop and walk trails close to the road with everyone else, then get back in the bus 20 minutes later to go to the next stop. Although I still enjoyed Denali, this wasn’t ideal for me. A backpacking trip would have been more my style.

DSCN0502The buses follow a lone dirt road that winds 90 miles up into the wilderness (depending on how far you take it). We went 66 miles to the Eielson Visitors Center which took about 3 hours each way. The bus stopped every 45 minutes to let us stretch, walk around, admire the scenery, and use restrooms when they were available. The scenery was amazing, rolling hills (which for us were dressed in early fall colors), framed by jagged peaks, and with an amazing view of the northern slopes of Mt. Denali. Mt. Denali you ask? What is this is this Mt. Denali?


I asked the same question when our bus driver kept referring to Mt. McKinley as Denali. It turns out there is quite a dispute regarding the name of the mountain. Alaska wants the mountain to return to its original Native American name, Denali, meaning “the Great One.” Congress, however, has pushed back and chose to retain the name given to it by a gold prospector back in the late 1800’s. The McKinley name was chosen (and is kept) for political reasons. I decided that for me it, it is now Denali.

DSCN0528Our bus driver was a fun feller who told us to make sure we “yell loudly if you see a wildlife. If you want to stop for a wildlife, you have to tell me to stop.” Mike and I liked his lingo and picked it up. For the rest of the trip we talked about seeing a wildlife.

We saw several wildlifes, and the bus stopped for all of them. On the way in we saw three or four grizzly bears all of which, to Mikes delight, were lumbering. In fact, some of them lumbered rather quickly, barreling through the land like high speed tanks. With massive shoulder humps, long ashen hair, and a lethal assortment of teeth and claws, they were everything I imagined in an Alaskan grizzly bear. Burly, rugged, and untamed as they roamed freely on their land. I wondered why they were moving so fast, one in this direction and other in that. How many more are out there, hidden up on the mountain. Were they ready for the winter?


IMG_2493We took plenty of pictures and the bus driver didn’t rush us away from a good sighting (whether it was a wildlife or an open valley surrounded by snow topped mountains). From the bus we stuck cameras out of windows and the door to try and get good shots. I was surprised at how many people were using iPads to take pictures. An iPad or a camera phone? Yeah, that little dot right there hidden by the glare of the sun, that’s a bear! Fortunately I had my 400mm doing my work. We also saw some white dots on the mountain that, apparently, were sheep but not even my 400 was able to prove it.

DSCN0532Although it didn’t get warm, it did warm up and we stayed up at the visitors center long enough to do some light hiking. But a day in and out is not enough for a good hike. Ideally, we would have camped deep in the heart of Denali and far away from outhouses, dirt roads, and shuttles. But our short hike was still nice. We got out into the brush to where we could see no signs of civilization and soaked it up. They have designed the park for people who want this type of an experience. The roads are not paved, the amenities are limited, and the visitor centers are built low and non-obtrusive. They did this on purpose, to keep the rustic rugged look and feel of the early years of the park.

IMG_2607We waited in line to catch a shuttle back, which took a while. On the return, we saw a couple more bears and our first few caribou. They are on more of a time schedule for the return, as I understand it, so we didn’t stop as long to see the wildlifes. I had thought we’d see moose and more caribou so I was a little disappointed, but not by much.

There were a few people along the road during our drive back wanting a ride (you can get on and off the shuttles). Some of them had been waiting quite a while. We filled our few extra seats and told the rest they’d have to keep waiting. The bus driver assured them that busses would run as long as needed to get them home.

DSCN0547We got back at 6:00 and whipped up some sort of fancy freeze dried backpacker meal that was excellent. I can’t tell you what it was, but every dinner was great. A hot meal for a hungry, scruffy guy is always tasty. Mike did some laundry, I charged batteries, and we buckled down because rain was on the way. We’d enjoyed more good weather than expected the past few days and knew it had to end eventually. Tomorrow we were riding our first backroad, the Denali highway. A long, unpaved, sometimes unforgiving road. Other than construction sections of the highway, I’d never taken my Tiger off road. And I was riding heavy. And we’d be riding in a storm. Yeah, I was a bit nervous.

From my journal:

It’s late now, midnight. Mike and I sat around the campfire talking all night, in the rain. Now it’s coming down hard, I’m in my tent, and it sounds relaxing splattering all around me. I’m warm, dry, and my gear is solid so it doesn’t bother me. It has been an amazing three days but now I’m exhausted and a little homesick. It would be nice to be in my own bed. Being cold, setting up and striking camp, riding on heavy bikes, and wearing heavy gear is tiring. And I’m worried it will keep getting colder. And I’m so far from home that the thought of riding and camping all the way back feels daunting. So I don’t think about it all. I can only hold one day at a time.

Tomorrow is our halfway point, timewise. And I’ll find a way to deal with all the wet camping gear in the morning. I’m warm and dry right now and that’s good. And one way or another, we’ll get across the muddy Denali highway.

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