August 2013

By Phyllis Dawson
Part 5

August 26 
     We slept in until almost eight and had breakfast in our cabin, and then we drove the small winding gravel road up to the top of Hatcher’s Pass.  We parked near the pass and hiked up through April Bowl.  The trail zigzagged steeply up the mountainside, passing five small kettle lakes along the way.  We continued along the top of the ridge toward the summit of Hatch Peak.  It was another beautiful clear day, and very quiet; we heard little but the sound of the gentle wind and the shrill warning whistles of marmots in the rocks.  

April Bowl

     There was a semicircular stone shelter near the top of the ridge, built as a windbreak.  We sat for a while and enjoyed the views of the mountains in all directions, both near and far.  April Bowl lay below us with its blue-green kettle lakes, and we could see Hatcher’s Pass Road winding like a ribbon down through the valley. On the horizon Mt. McKinley towered above the lesser peaks.  

Cloud shadows move across the valley, seen from the ridge on Hatch Peak.

     We headed down, passing several other hikers who were coming up the trail.  We watched as someone sailed a hang glider, riding the air currents down the valley.  We had seen maybe half a dozen people during the three hour hike, but that seemed crowded after five days of seclusion at Twin Lakes. 

Back in the car, we headed north to Healy, near Denali National Park.  Usually a four hour drive, it ended up taking us longer because we kept pulling off to explore side roads or photograph scenic spots.  From the main highway we started catching glimpses of Mt. McKinley ahead of us.  Also known as Denali, which is Athabaskan for ‘The High One,’ at 20,237 feet this is the tallest peak in North America.  

Mt. McKinley

     Wanting to get a better look, we stopped at Mary Carey’s McKinley View Lodge, a rather unique combination of B&B, restaurant and gift shop.  The proprietor let us go out on to the balcony to take some photos.  A bit further on we stopped at an overlook with an even better view and admired the mighty mountain; it is rare to see it so clearly - it is usually shrouded in clouds.  We walked a quarter of a mile up a gravel trail to a higher lookout and were well rewarded for the effort.  From this loftier perspective we had a fantastic view of Mt. McKinley, standing majestic amid the distant peaks, glowing white in the afternoon sun, with a many-channeled glacial river in the foreground.


     We were nearing the entrance of Denali National Park when suddenly a black shape darted out in front of us.  To our amazement, it was a beaver!  He crossed the road, grabbed a willow branch, and started back across.  When we stopped the car, he dropped the branch and hurried back across the road, his broad flat tail slapping on the pavement, and disappeared down a path to a lake.  Wow, you don’t see that every day!
     We drove past the town of Healy and on to the Ridgetop Cabins, where we were to stay for the next three nights.  This excellent B&B sits high on a ridge at the end of a narrow gravel driveway over a mile long.  It was a much more private and peaceful option than staying in ‘Glitter Gulch,’ as the garish commercial strip near the Denali entrance is known.  Our cabin was surrounded by forest, with a view through the aspen trees out over the valley.
     The owner, Joyce, told us that she had worked for the Park Service for years, maintaining the trails in Denali Park.  She gave us hiking advice, and also cautioned us about bears.  She told us that the previous summer a brown bear had eaten a photographer in Denali.  Some hikers had discovered his remains, along with his camera; the Park Service rangers had uploaded his photos and found close-up shots of a grizzly bear.  Very close up.  They had been able to identify which bear it was from the pictures, and then had shot the bear.  Upon doing a necropsy on it, they had found the remains of the photographer in the bear’s stomach.  A sad cautionary tale highlighting the folly of taking close-up photos of bears while hiking.    

     We drove back to the entrance of Denali National Park.  Encompassing more than six million acres, the park is accessed only by one winding road 90 miles long.  In order to minimize impact to the wildlife and environment, private vehicles are only permitted to drive the first 15 miles of the road, and the rest is accessible only by park shuttle buses.  We drove that first section of the park road, going slowly and looking for wildlife, but to our surprise we saw not one animal.  It was getting dark by the time we stopped for happy hour on a hill overlooking the Savage River, the furthest point accessible to private vehicles.  We had cheese and crackers with wine for dinner; we definitely did not eat as well without George.  It was 11:30 by the time we got back to the cabin, and we were ready for bed.

Driving the first 15 miles in Denali National Park

August 27
     We woke to another clear sunny day – wow, five in a row!  We felt much rested after a good night’s sleep.  At breakfast, Joyce told us about how she and her husband had homesteaded this property, some thirty years ago.  Individuals were given title to property if certain conditions were met.  On a certain day in February, when there was three feet of snow on the ground and it was minus thirty degrees, they had been allowed to walk in and stake off forty acres of land.  They were required to build on it and live there within several years.  Now they were retiring and wanted a smaller place, so the property and the cabins were being offered for sale.  I found the homesteading program fascinating, like something out of the old west – I had no idea it still existed as recently as the 1980s.
      We went back to Denali and drove the first 15 miles of the park road again.  There were a few animals out this morning; some Dall sheep grazed high up, white dots against the mountainside, and a moose browsed on a far ridge.  From a bend in the road we could see Mt. McKinley in the distance.  We stopped on the hill above Savage River, near where we’d had happy hour the night before, and scanned the flats below.  To our delight, there was a lynx walking along beside the riverbed; we could see his signature tufted ears and short tail through the binoculars.  We watched this elusive cat until he was out of sight.  
We parked at the ranger station and hiked the Savage River loop, a pleasant easy hike of about two miles, one of the few maintained trails in the park.  We followed the path along the river, which was not much more than a creek in the dry season but no doubt a raging torrent during spring snowmelt.  We watched as some park workmen, repairing a footbridge, attempted to move a large rock with a winch.  A ground squirrel, perky and cute, played hide and seek among the rocks.

Hiking Savage River.

      We had a reservation to go horseback riding in Healy with a girl named Ivana, so we left the park midday.  Following her rather vague directions and driving up and down the road searching, we finally found her corral and horses (the quality of which did not inspire confidence).  But no Ivana.  We waited for over an hour but she never showed up.  Cross at having wasted several hours of our precious vacation time, we headed back to Denali. 

We decided to hike up Mt. Healy.  We considered starting from Bison’s Gulch as we had on our previous trip to Alaska - on which occasion we had lost the trail and ended up scrambling up the creekbed to the top - but we thought going from the park instead we would have a better maintained path.  Boy was that true!  The first section of the trail was like a road, and workmen were laying tundra sod in erosion ditches along the edges, using powered wheelbarrows with tracks like a tank.  Not exactly the peace and quiet we had hoped for.  We walked up the wide track which climbed steadily through the trees, meeting other hikers often.  There were benches along the way, with people sitting on most of them.  We regretted not going from Bison’s Gulch after all.

Looking down from Mt. Healy.

     But presently the trail narrowed and climbed more steeply, and we trudged on upward through the woods.  As the going became harder, there were fewer other people on the path.  Our legs were really tired, partly from the steep climb, but mainly it was cumulative fatigue from our ambitious hiking over the last five days.  Finally we reached a big rock outcropping, high on the side of the mountain, where we could look out through the trees and down over the valley.  We watched a train on the railroad tracks, far below, winding its way along the river.  We lingered on the ledge a while and then headed back down.

Enchanted evening in Denali.

     The sun was low in the sky by the time we got back to our car.  We once again drove the first 15 miles of the park road, to see what we could find.  It was a remarkable evening, with slanting rays of late sunshine illuminating the mountains in majestic splendor.   
The wildlife was out in force.  There were moose everywhere tonight; we counted a dozen at various spots in the distance, though we wished for some close to the road.  About twenty Dall sheep grazed on a high slope.  We watched a beaver swimming in a lake.  We encountered a flock of willow ptarmigans near Savage River, ten of them, right by the road; they posed for us, showing off their mottled brown and white plumage and their heavily feathered feet.


     There were quite a few people out driving the park road, most of them keen animal watchers or avid photographers.  Often we would see someone out beside their car with binoculars or a telephoto lens, and follow the direction of their gaze to spot a moose or a caribou.  But not everyone was in their element; one man stopped by when we were taking some scenery photos and scanned the low mountains in front of us.  “So, which one is Denali?” he asked.  “You guys are watching, like, wilderness, right?”

     The light was just beginning to fade when we came upon three moose, two huge bulls and a cow, grazing placidly beside the road.  We parked the car on the shoulder among several other vehicles, and got out to watch and photograph the moose.  From where we stood they were less than a hundred feet away, and totally unconcerned by our presence.  

A majestic bull moose.

     More cars came by and stopped, and several park buses arrived on the scene.  Soon there was a veritable traffic jam, known in Denali as a ‘moosejam.’  The three moose meandered along, browsing, and we followed them on foot along the road.  By now there were quite a few people trailing after them, many of them photographers with tripods and huge lenses.  I considered getting out my tripod for better photos in the fading light, but the moose were moving too fast.
     The moose came nearer - now they were right by the road, not fifty feet from us.  The two bulls had huge paddles; it was hard to imagine how they could even raise their heads under the weight of those antlers.  They hesitated at the side of the road before hurrying warily across, eyeing the crowd of photographers, then they made their way down to a pond and waded in.  A park ranger came along and broke up the moosejam, sending everyone back to their cars; we had come about a quarter of a mile from ours. 


    It was 9:30 by the time we left the park, and we were hungry.  We stopped at Glitter Gulch to pick up some Chinese takeout, and took it back to our cabin to eat.  Staying out at the Ridgetop Cabins was great from the standpoint of privacy, but the extra 20 minutes’ drive each way did make the days longer.  It was starting to rain; after five beautiful days it was inevitable.  

~ Continued on next page ~

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