Alaska – Paradise on steroids!
Flying to Alaska from Fort Lauderdale on our preferred carrier, Delta, took a full 15 hours, connecting through Minneapolis and then Seattle. The Seattle flight took off at 10:30 p.m. in pitch black skies, but to my surprise, around an hour later I began to see a radiant dawn on the horizon. Wow! When we landed in Anchorage at 1:00 a.m. it was twilight, with sunset listed as 11:35 p.m. and sunrise occurring at 4:23 a.m. I had traveled through multiple time zones and was now four hours behind Eastern Daylight Time, so clearly I was in a very different land. But nothing prepared me for the shock of the stunning snowcapped mountain ranges right outside the airport doors. Wow!! I speedily learned that not only time is altered in Alaska, but the sheer scale of the earth and the distances from one place to another make it appears to be a land in an altered state of reality.
Our destination was Camp Denali/North Face Lodge, deep within the backcountry of Denali National Park. I didn’t know much about the arrangements, since a kind benefactor who is a fellow birding enthusiast had gifted us with this part of the trip. “Be in Anchorage by noon on Sunday,” he’d said, “and our group will leave together for the six hour drive up to the park.”
To my dismay I got a message from Frank who was traveling on US Air, letting me know that his flight from Ft. Lauderdale had left late and so he missed his connection in Phoenix. Since the airline had only one flight per day to Anchorage, he’d have to stay in a hotel and catch up with us the following day. The obvious problem this presented was that I’d taken his luggage as I get two free checked bags on Delta, which left him in Phoenix in 105 degree heat, wearing the woolen clothes intended for Alaska. But this was nothing compared with the challenge of getting him up to the park entrance in time to catch our Camp Denali bus at 1 p.m. Monday. I called Camp Denali for advice and got the owner, Simon Hamm, who suggested that I make a reservation for Frank on the Park Connection, which runs from Anchorage to the park entrance and gets there just in time. Whew!
Grizzly bears, caribou and fox
When we connected on Monday, we were so happy to see each other, and now having just completed a six-hour drive, Frank had to get on another bus for the five-hour drive deep into the park. We had been warned earlier that there was only one narrow road into the park, traveling on the edge of sheer cliffs which fell hundreds of feet to the ‘braided’ river bed, and that we shouldn’t sit on the left side of the bus if we were at all afraid of heights. Of course I chose that side – I wanted to see every precipitous twist and turn, and I was not disappointed. From the airport to the camp, we were enfolded in the 600-mile spine of the Alaska mountain range, a sight that has to be experienced to be understood.
The bus driver/naturalist briefed us as soon as we got underway, and told us we’d be likely to see a lot of wildlife. She cautioned us to keep our voices down when we were near wildlife, so as not to disturb them or to make them get accustomed to the sound of human voices. When you’re hiking in the trail-less Arctic, you’re encouraged to make sounds so that the animals will hear you and flee from you. Within minutes of getting into the park, we’d spotted a moose with her calf, and once they moved on, we came upon a grizzly bear snoozing on a grassy hill. As we watched, it lumbered up, dug up some plants and grubs and munched on them, then walked down the hillside and came down right in front of our bus, without paying it any attention at all! It was amazing to see this large wild predator ambling along on the road ahead of us, without a care in the world. Around a couple more corners we came upon a gorgeous red fox trotting down the road, staying close to the mountain, almost as if he knew there’d be traffic. He passed right by our bus, again without any sign that he realized our intrusion. A couple more bends and here comes a male grizzly walking down the middle of the road, as if he knew he owned it and everyone else would have to make way for him. By the time we got to Camp Denali we had seen herds of Dall sheep, caribou, a lynx disappearing in the bushes, ptarmigan, a Northern Harrier hawk and a gazillion other birds and small rodents. Wow! Alaska! Mountains and wildlife on steroids!
Will the ‘Great One’ come out?
When we arrived at Camp Denali, the staff had gathered to greet us and to take our bags to our cabins spread innocuously across the hillside. The central feature of the park and the focus of the entire area is Mount Denali, directly across from Camp Denali. We had been told that only 30-percent of people who visit the area actually get to see the mountain, as it is often shrouded in clouds. People talk about whether or not the mountain will “come out” and there was some consternation as to whether it would come out at all while we were there. I wasn’t the least bit worried. . . I knew it would come out sometime in the five days we’d be there.
We made it an early night as it had been such a long travel day. Next morning I left Frank in bed and went up to the central lodge to get breakfast and to find out the day’s itinerary. The staff had prepared a sumptuous meal which defied my imagination – I couldn’t imagine how they could get such fresh fruit and vegetables and prepare such a varied menu when they were so very far away from any supply points. As it turns out, they have a greenhouse where they grow vegetables for a few short months of the year, and they get produce from local farmers – although I didn’t see any place I’d call a “local” farm.
The wonderful staff introduced themselves and the guests introduced ourselves, and then they told us the various activities for the day, including hikes that were ‘strenuous’ or ‘moderate’ and a ‘foray’ with the noted birder and author, Scott Weidensaul. I chose to stay in with Frank and just enjoy being there, and when I told that to a couple of 40’ish women who asked what I’d be doing, their eyes got round and they blurted, “We can do that?”, “yes, really!” I responded. “Being free means doing anything you want or nothing at all.” The rest of the week, they kept thanking me for giving them “permission” to just relax and enjoy themselves.
That evening after another amazing meal, I went to a birding talk Scott was giving at 8:30. It was as bright as noon outside. He’d just wrapped up at 9:30 and was quipping, “I’m glad the mountain didn’t come out and steal my show,” when someone looked out the window and said, “Wow! The mountain is out right now!”
Of course we all fled outside and – take a 10 minute pause here because that’s how long it must have been before I started breathing again – at the sight of the largest, most massive, most glorious, crystal-shining massif rising 2000-stories into the air!! At 20,000-plus feet, the mountain has no peer on the North American continent. I could totally understand why the Native American tribes, the Tanana and the Tainana, named it in ways translated variously as “the Great One” or “the Big One.” It’s the One alright.
‘I don’t need your protection’
The next five days sped by in a flurry of activity, exploration, discovery and new friendships being made. On my last full day at the camp, I chose to stay in my cabin and commune with the mountain, which was “out.” I had seen it out in so many different scenarios – when I went out to the “house outback” in the middle of the night and it was bathed in a pink alpine glow; or when I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and it was unmasked in its full glory. Some things cannot be conveyed by mere words. So this last day, I lay in bed and watched the mountain, napping, then waking up and watching it some more. In the stillness and the solace it conveyed to me, “You know what? I really don’t need you to protect me. All I need from you and the other humans is that you appreciate the force that created me, that created you and all life, and pay obeisance to it.” I will carry that thought with me for the rest of my life.
So later, when a white colleague told me that “low income people” don’t vote and illustrated her point by claiming that she and fellow environmental leaders are among the “most affluent and privileged people in the country,” I smiled. How much of that vaunted wealth, comes from generations of extraction and exploitation of our country’s natural resources? I wonder what the “Great One” might think of that.
And yes, gloriously, we saw dozens of African Americans in Anchorage and in the park. Several of them told us they’d come on a cruise to Alaska and made it a point to get off and visit Denali National Park!