Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and in general the Pacific coast were a finished chapter for us. Now we were heading further to the interior of Alaska. We were on our way to Denali National Park. I still had a score to settle with this place. For instance, I have never seen Denali itself, which was always veiled in clouds during my first visit. One other goal was to spend way more time in the Park in this attempt. So here we go:
Day 1: Continuous Rain
The alarm went off at 6:00 in the morning, the rain was clattering on our van‘s roof. Uneasily we packed our gear and packs and waited for the bus, which would bring us into the Park. Hopefully, we will not drown right at the very beginning of our trip. A storm was underway rolling over the Park and would still hold on for a day or two. Through this storm, the bus drove about four hours to bring us to the Eielson Visitor Center in the heart of the National Park. Honestly, the definition of a storm here was basically just that there was precipitation. Snow, rain, whatever, at least wind seemed to be pretty much absent. And also the rain was more like a constant drizzle. Great, we could work with that.
Once we arrived at the Visitor Center we stored some supplies there, which we would need for the second part of our backcountry trip. For the first part, we started with supplies for five days and four nights. That long we would leave civilization behind us. So let’s go! Let’s venture into the wilderness of Denali National Park, under the roof of North America!
The first mile we could still hike on a maintained trail, which led from the Visitor Center down to the riverbanks of the Gorge Creek. There we had to do the first river crossing, which meant taking off the boots, getting through the creek and getting the boots on again. Somehow this worked out faster than we thought and we were on the move again.
From my first trip to Denali I still had in mind the cumbersome travel through thick brushed terrain, so this time we anticipated to travel only along riverbanks and through alpine terrain with low, Arctic tundra. Following that plan, we ventured further along the creek until we got to a bigger one that was more challenging to cross. For rivers like that one, we had a second pair of shoes with us which would give us support in the cold glacier meltwaters. So this is how we successfully left this creek behind us as well. We moved along the creek for a bit longer until a potential shortcut over a little ridge came up. However, this way we ended up exactly where we didn’t want to be, in the bushes. After only a few moments we realized that we would not get any further here, so we went back on the gravel and followed the creek further downstream which led to another unavoidable river crossing. Especially I was pretty annoyed by those, as obviously just when we planned to do a big trip into the backcountry, the mantle of my shoelace decided to break, which resulted in a very complicated and time-consuming way to tie my shoes.
Therefore all this on and off of the boots was a rather unpleasant duty. Anyways, this is part of the true Alaskan wilderness. There are no trails or bridges in this untouched environment.
In the end, we finally arrived at the riverbanks of the Glacier Creek, which we would follow all the way up the valley to its headwaters. Along that creek, we even found a broken trail in some places, which we could follow at ease. We had to cross the creek once more that day until we found a suitable spot to set up our camp for the night.
Even though it had almost continuously rained the entire day we were not as soaked as we feared we would be. Still, we were happy to quickly put up our tent for some dry shelter to sleep in.
Once finished, we moved about 100 meters away from our campsite and took the bearproof canisters with us to quickly eat supper. Right after we finished eating we brushed our teeth and stored all scented items and the food back in the bear-barrels, which we then brought another 100 meters away to have them way out of reach and association of our campsite. Then, finally, we could crawl into our warm and dry sleeping bags.
We had an exhausting day behind us and also the upcoming ones would be challenging.
Day 2: Among wild animals
We started our day by sleeping in. At least we thought so, however, when we checked the time it was only about 8 o‘clock. We just went to bed so early that we already got some good rest. It’s been raining almost the entire night and right now it didn’t look any different. So for breakfast, we just ended up disappearing under a tarp that we brought with us.
Luckily the rain ceased after we finished our meal so we could get our tent packed up almost dry. Then we started the journey again. Lift up the backpack and go!
Once again we continued to follow the Glacier Creek upstream which sometimes ran through a rather narrow canyon and then opened up onto wide gravel flats again. Two times we ended up crossing the creek again and figured out that this would not be necessary on our way back. The lunch break we had under the tarp again, as another shower of rain came through. When we were done eating and packed our things again we figured out that we must’ve lost one of the bear sprays during one of the river crossings. Because we still had a second one we decided to look after it just in two days on our way back.
Again the route led us further along the creek until the canyon narrowed down again and we decided to climb up the moraine next to us which lay in between the creek and the great Muldrow Glacier. On top of those, we could travel on some Arctic Tundra, which was not that difficult either. In the meantime, the weather slowly improved until suddenly it drastically changed to the good. For the first time, we could see the vast Muldrow Glacier from above, which ran down all the way from the mighty mountain itself, the Denali. And now there was an eventful hour ahead of us.
First, we spotted a herd of caribou on the broad moraine ahead of us. Then they quickly ran down to the riverbanks as if chased by something.
And then we spotted this ‚something‘. Woah, that’s not a bear, that’s a wolverine. They’re god damn rare to see! Once that fella spotted us as well he backed up and disappeared.
Thrilled by this sighting we traveled further along the moraines until we got over a small knob and spotted the next wild animals. Ahead of us, in the distance, we saw a grizzly mom with her two cubs. Well, that was exciting now! To get to where we aimed to get we now had to adjust our route. This we did by moving back on to the riverbanks where we could make a wide turn around the bear family.
After these events we still saw some more animals, not threatening though. Among them were Dall-Sheep, mountain goats, marmots and tons of ground squirrels.
About an hour after spotting the bears we decided that it was time to find a place for the night. We found a sweet spot on a little hill next to the moraines, from where we could see the glacier and the vast valley around it. And it fulfilled all the criteria of a bear safe site.
Having put up the tent we went into a little depression next to a creek to cook dinner. While we ate there were suddenly two caribou, a mother with her calf, running past our site not even ten meters away from us. Hmm, what the heck did they run away from? Being alert we quickly finished our pasta and just when we cleaned the dishes it happened! Two grizzlies approached our site down from the moraine. As learned in the safety introduction before our trip we quickly packed all food, garbage, and scented items into the bear-barrel and stood up tall, waving with our hands.
Additionally, we calmly spoke to the bears and waved our tarp between us to make us appear bigger. The younger one of those two, probably a yearling, approached us very close and we already had our bear spray at hand when he stood up on his hind legs and sniffed the air. The bigger one, perhaps the mother, stayed at a distance. So the smaller one turned around again and backed up as well. We took this opportunity to finish packing all our stuff and slowly move away. In the meantime, the bears chose another route to get around us. Unfortunately, this one led directly towards our tent. The little one was immediately curious, the mom on the other hand just walked past and didn’t care about the tent at all and so the small one followed after a few moments as well. We figured out that we were most likely just in their way but did not actively attract them. Only a little while later the two of them disappeared behind the hills and our adrenaline levels slowly dropped again. During this exciting event, another shower of rain had slowly moved in and we quickly went back into our tent. There we investigated if we should move our camp but quickly got to the conclusion that there wasn’t a better spot anywhere else and that we were too tired from the strenuous day. We would just rely on the rangers advise that bears don‘t go for tents as long as there’s no food in them and that we would be the safest in there.