June 9, 2012
Denali National Park
Denali was supposed to be the peak of my trip; the epic highlight I had been waiting for. Every time someone asked me where I was going to go in Alaska I would say, ďI donít know, but I know I want to see Denali.Ē
Of course it was the only place I knew of in Alaska. How was I supposed to know what I wanted to see in a foreign land 5000 miles away? I just wanted to ride there. I didnít really think much about the ďthen whatĒ factor. If I planned too much on what to do in Alaska that meant I would have to make it there, which was something Iíll admit I was unsure of.
I knew the only way into the park was an unfortunate bus loaded full of couples, families and vacationers. I could hardly bring myself to get excited about it. I considered riding the bike as far as I could and just hiking around. But from what I was told at the Visitorís Center, there were no trails and lots of bears. They told me NOT to hike alone.
So, there was only one way for me to see the grand landscape of Denali National Park; from the romantic environment of a bus full of tourists. Talk about a shock to my system.
I signed up for the early shuttle leaving the hostel so I could plan on spending the whole day in the park. Although I was less than eager to sit on a bus full of people all day, I was excited to see a small patch of blue sky peeking through the clouds when I left. Who knows, maybe Iíd get to see McKinley on a rare clear day.
As I was waiting for my bus to leave I received a discouraging phone call. It was Gary. He informed me with unseasonable amounts of rain, mud slides south of Kluane Lake had closed the Alaskan Highway from Haines Junction to Destruction Bay. This meant I would not be able to get to my ferry in Haines if the roads werenít clear by my departure on the 14th.
I tried not to panic and asked Gary what to do. We tossed around a few options. I could come back to Anchorage and try to get a ferry from there. I could back track over the Top of the World Highway all the way down to Whitehorse to get to Haines which would take 4-5 days. I could stay on track since I still had 5 days until my departure and hope the roads would be clear by the time I got there.
I felt nauseous with anxiety. I think Gary could sense it and he chuckled while he said, ďItís all part of the adventure.Ē Yup it sure is.
I explained I had just purchased a ticket to go into the park for the day and didnít have access to internet to do any sort of research. He offered to check out ferry information in Anchorage and get back to me with any updates on the road conditions. In the meantime, he suggested I enjoy the day at the park. I was already there.
I sighed, call my Mom, and told her the situation asking if she could help look for solutions as well. I was beginning to feel I should not go into the park and just hitch a ride back to the hostel since the shuttle picking me up wasnít going to be there until late afternoon. I didnít think at this point Iíd even be able to enjoy being there.
My Mom encouraged me to take advantage of one of the few days I had without rain and to explore the park. So I settled for a day of sightseeing.
I had a roundtrip ticket to ride the bus to the Eielson Visitor Center in the middle of the park. It was a three to four hour ride to get there. Oh boy.
The rules were, you could get off the bus anytime to hike around (so long as you had bear spray) and catch the next one that passed. Buses tended to frequent every thirty minutes or so. This made me feel a little safer about getting on a crowded bus of strangers. If I started to have a panic attack, I could bail.
The road coming into the park was windy and cut along the edge of the mountains with steep drop offs and overhanging cliffs. I would not want to be one of those bus drivers. Watching them maneuver around blind turns and passing buses on sharp narrow curves was enough to make me wish I was on my bike again. I could see straight down from my window hardly able to see the shoulder of the road. I tried not to imagine the bus rolling all the way down the hill to the bottom of the basin.
I cannot describe the beauty of this place powerfully enough. No words could serve it justice. All I can illustrate is what I saw. The snowy mountains peaked as far as I could see and we followed them along the edge of a deep valley of fingering rivers through arctic tundra.
I couldnít help but feel an immense loneliness overwhelm me. The people on the bus were annoying me. The noisy giggling couples and families made me want to puke. They just made me more depressed. I couldnít get excited about being in the most breathtakingly beautiful place on earth. I felt guilty and angry for not enjoying it.
I tried to distract my emotions staring out the window. I didnít talk to a soul. I just wanted to be left alone and see some wildlife. The bus driver said he was surprised we hadnít seen any yet; just my luck. I was on the bus for three hours before we finally saw a fox cross the road ahead of us.
My anxiety was about to make me vomit by the time we finally made it to the Eielson Visitor Center. I couldnít get off the bus fast enough. I wandered around and saw there was no view of Mt. McKinley as it was socked-in from the base. I did however find the Alpine trail heading up the mountain. It was only a mile up to the ridge and I think the only trail in the park. I ran for solitude.
It was a strenuous 1000ft climb. The mountain was fogged over half way up and I walked through the clouds. I felt my anxiety start to ease as I began to sweat and breathe hard. I found peace in the privacy of the wilderness.
I wondered why it was I felt so comforted when alone and yet so lonely when surround by the rest of the world.
After rebalancing my thoughts and emotions, I made my way back down the mountain to face another four hours on the bus.
I saw a lot more wildlife on the ride home. If you ever go to Denali, ride on the left side of the bus going in and the right side of the bus coming out. This way you are on the window side facing the valley and mountains, not a rock wall.
I saw a herd of caribou sleeping together curled on the tundra. Their antlers were surprisingly large. They seemed so cozy and comfortable together careless of the flocks of buses streaming by.
I saw some grizzly bears from very far away. They were scouting around the river beds looking for fish (or people) Iím sure. I couldnít believe how blonde they were. I always imagined them being browner.
I also saw some Dall sheep; the rock climbers of the park. Itís amazing how they can get around on such steep grades. If you look hard enough you can see them at higher elevations. The mountains are often speckled with little white moving dots not to be mistaken for snow.
We stopped at Toklat River for a pit stop. There were bathrooms and a little gift ship I went into. I bought probably 40 post cards hoping to have enough to send everyone back home. I was officially a tourist.
The herd of people gathered back on the bus and we continued on. I saw several other native wildlife species; moose, snow hare, ground squirrel, and several birds or prey.
After the bus was stopping every ten minutes to let people take pictures, I was beginning to get to the end of my rope. Iím glad I had the window, but I was getting ready to punch the next person that leaned right over me with their camera in my face. I was more concerned with making it to the shuttle back to my hostel at 6:00.
The bus made it back to the park entrance at 6:15. I was thoroughly depressed and in a rotten mood. I ran to the shuttle parking area hoping they were waiting for me or late. I missed it. The next one wasnít until 9:30. I wanted to cry and I did.
I walked along a few paths around the Visitor Center and decided to head towards the main road to hitch a ride back to the hostel. I had hitched a lot before, when I hiked the Appalachian Trail years ago. I wasnít too keen on doing it alone, but I didnít care.
When I got down to the road I saw a couple that I recognized from the hostel. They were hitching and it immediately put a smile on my face. I walked down to them and asked if I could hitch with them, I was going to the hostel too. They didnít mind at all so the three of us walked together down the road with our thumbs out.
They were a nice married couple from Australia taking a year off together to travel. They asked if I was the one on the motorcycle and when I told them yes it sparked a hue of friendly conversation and connection.
We walked for quite a ways before a car finally stopped. It was a girl in a pick-up with a dog in the bed. She said she couldnít take us all the way to the hostel but sheíd go as far as she could. We scrunched into the back and enjoyed a quick lift.
Phase two of our hitching experience took even longer than the first. I was surprised how many people passed unwilling to pick up a few people, two of which were women. I donít think we looked threatening, however the majority of the people passing were probably tourists anyway. I had had enough of them for one day, especially being one myself.
We finally got a ride just a couple miles from the hostel. We probably walked as much from the park as we got a lift. I was in a better mood already having just experienced a non-tourist adventure and anxious to check my email with any updates on the road.
I had a message waiting from Gary. The road to Haines was now open by one lane. Thank God. I enjoyed my relief at the pub with hostel peeps and felt satisfied and comforted interacting them.
Plan tomorrow: Denali Highway (134 miles of gravel) to Valdez
A forced smile at the "view" of Mt. McKinley