Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Alaska: All the light and space really put the zap on my head

Denali (or Mount McKinley) at 5:30 a.m. June 20, 2008
from 40 miles away.

A June 2008 trip to Alaska with my wife was intended as a celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary but it ended up being so much more. Uncharacteristically, I had read nothing nor researched anything for our trip. All the details were left to Jennifer with the exception that I wanted to see Mt. McKinley. As a consequence of my ignorance I experienced the whole of our Alaskan adventure with a child-like fashion, beginner's mind. The possibilities were many, the space was vast, I was awestruck and - often - speechless.

They say only about one-third of those who visit the Denali National Park ever see the mountain. The area is so huge and so isolated that it more or less makes its own weather. Clouds frequently obscure the view and I was told it had been wetter than usual this year.

We arrived at our hotel in the early afternoon on June 19 after a 7.5 hour flight from Atlanta into Anchorage the day before. The drive up was beautiful. 7,000 plus foot snow capped mountains framed almost the entire car trip with rich northern forests hugging the road. Upon our arrival, the mountain was obscured by clouds - typical from what I am told.

I was frustrated. Jennifer had cleverly planned our itinerary so we would be in the area to see Denali over the next few days but I knew from the weather forecasts that clouds were supposed to dominate the skies around Denali after June 19. But there was nothing to do except kick back in the lodge, enjoy some Alaskan Amber on draft and wait.

A couple of hours passed. My nature is to obsess so I kept watch while Jennifer and I conversed about the really nice accommodations, the beauty of the drive up from Anchorage that morning, things we were going to do (I was so disconnected from the planning process that I still didn't know exactly what was happening over the course of our 9-night stay).

Suddenly, there was a opening in the wall of clouds shrouding the mountain and I saw the western shoulder of Denali (meaning "the huge one"). It was a moment (like many on this wonderful trip) I am unlikely to forget. The shoulder seemed so far above the mountains in the foreground I had been viewing. Even though I could see nothing but the shoulder of the massive rise I just didn't expect it to be that big.

Later, the shoulder vanished but the clouds cleared from the peak, far above the comparatively tiny foreground summits that were in themselves higher than anything in the continental US east of the Mississippi River. The whole thing seemed to be teasing those gathered on the viewing deck at the lodge, all eyes searching the clouds for traces of the mountain officially christened McKinley.

As the sun headed northwest the clouds became increasingly back-lit complicating the view. Jennifer and I dined in the lodge and I tried to make peace with myself that I was just going to have to settle for this partial view of my primary reason for going to Alaska. The evening quickened though, of course, the sun sets late this time of year. Still, Jennifer and I had yet to acclimate to the four-hour time difference. She was ready for sleep.

In our room I tossed and turned, slightly groggy from the lengthy flight the day before and all those Alaskan Ambers I had consumed. Sleep eluded me though. Finally, after perhaps half-dozing I checked the time. Midnight. A quick look out the closed curtains of our room revealed something I didn't expect. A clear evening sky in twilight. As Jennifer slept I quickly dressed and went out toward the viewing platform. It was cool out. About 45 degrees or so. Still, the mosquitoes were noticeably more prevalent.

As was Denali......silhouetted by the late setting sun. Although Denali's face was dark, the mountain was enshrined with the aura of dusk. For the most part the mountain was freely visible. It was crowned with a wisp of cloud. Comparatively few people were out but those that were chatted happily among themselves as to how lucky we all were. Even without being able to see the face of the mountain I was truly enraptured with the enormity of the horizon's majestic beauty.

A large panoramic view of the Denali area at twilight is available here.

Sleep came more easily upon returning to my room. But, it was brief. I was too keyed up from the "high" of seeing Denali. I awoke again at 5 a.m. and went back out to witness what the jagged face offered in the bright early morning sun. The cap cloud still hid the summit - in contrast to the afternoon before when clouds covered everything put the peak which seemed to hover on its own some 20,300 feet above.

Still, it was an amazing view. Jennifer soon joined me and we basked together in the splendor of a moment of Being after anticipation and frustration and excitement had settled into the realization that we were fortunate, the day was special, the space was vast and open, crisp and free.

A panoramic view of the mountain in the early morning sun is available by clicking here.

By 9 a.m. the mountain vanished behind a renewed wealth of clouds. Gone. We talked to some at the lodge that slept through the whole thing.


We drove up to the Denali National Park entrance that afternoon (June 20). The drive remained spectacular. I felt like I was in one of Tolkien's books or something. I just had not considered what it would be like so my beginner's mind was satiated. There was no room for anxiety or even thought. Everything was Now. It was almost like we'd been on vacation a week already and we had barely begun our stay. To say Jennifer and I were both relaxed and contented with the space of Alaska would be something of an understatement, inadequate.

No sooner had I parked the car at the Visitor's Center and gotten out to retrieve my fleece vest from the back seat than a Moose and her calf came waltzing through the parking lot. It was instantaneous, as if Alaska was sending us a greeting to follow her revelation of Mt. McKinley to us.
We enjoyed lunch and a couple nice Alaskan beers before touring the center, verifying our itinerary for a driving tour of Denali scheduled for tomorrow. The buses follow a solitary 90-mile road into the vast Park. Access is restricted but you are permitted to drive your own vehicle the first 15 miles or so in to a point where the road crosses the small but wildly flowing Savage River. We decided to drive in.

At that point it is possible to enjoy a 3/4 mile hike along the river to a bridge which allows you to cross over and hike the other side of the river back to your vehicle - 1.5 miles total, an easy hike. Tundra plants and wildflowers are in abundance along rocky slopes. Small critters scurry among the broken rocks. We took lots of pics, Jennifer concentrating on the flora. It was nice to put our boots on the true ground and experience something more rugged than what we'd enjoyed at the lodge.

The hike remained pleasant, the sun felt warm, it must have been about 70. A fine summer pre-solstice day. One of the few fellow hikers along the trail took a pic of Jennifer and I at the bridge. We started back alone.

About 1/3 of the way back my eyes caught the sight of a grizzly who had just splashed into the river. "Oh, my God" I blurted over the sound of the flowing river. The bear was about 100 yards ahead of us. I took a few steps closer to get a better angle for pics. Jennifer began to chant variations of "Keith, you're too close" and "You are being too risky" and "I'm going up this slope" as I snapped away.

Of course, it was a good thing that she kept talking. That's what you're supposed to do to let the bear know you're around. They tend to avoid people unless hungry or threatened. The fact that the bear had already crossed to the other side of the river indicated to me that it had probably seen and heard us before we saw it.

I remained still as it approached. I was more exhilarated than afraid. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. The grizzly meandered along the river bank, stopping a couple of times to munch on the modest tundra vegetation. At its closest, the bear was the width of the river from me - about 30 yards or so. The grizzly continued on its way, pausing after it passed to look directly back at me - the only time we made eye contact. After snapping a shot of that I turned my back and walked away - just to make sure the bear knew I posed no threat.

It was a moment that rivaled my morning experience with McKinley. What an incredible day! Alaska had sent a great northern bear to greet us. The mountain, the moose, and the bear. It seemed almost surreal. Jennifer wasn't so pleased about the bear part, but she did find the whole experience memorable since the bear remained docile (or at least disinterested) the entire moment, which lasted only a couple of minutes or so but seemed to linger much longer than that and in some ways resonates still.

The series of grizzly pics are below...

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