The ranger’s warning about exiting the ravine before reaching the waterfalls was not forgotten. I just acted too late.
Hiking alone down a mountain creek in the Alaska Range, I had been looking ahead for the falls and scanning the steep canyon walls for an escape route. I kept going through and around small waterfalls, wondering if they were what the ranger had in mind. But the canyon walls had made climbing seem an impossibility, standing at a rough 95-degree angle and covered in vegetation and loose rock.
Now, I was staring at a series of waterfalls too steep to descend. I wanted to turn around and find a more forgiving way out of the ravine, but as I retraced my steps in my mind, I realized I couldn’t safely climb up the wet rocks I previously had slid down.
My best bet was to give the canyon wall a shot. Carrying a backpack crammed with rafting and camping gear, I started my ascent. Each hand hold came with uncertainty about whether it would support me or not. After about 100 feet, I couldn’t bear to look down, as a misstep could send me crashing into the creek below, where I had spotted the bones of other animals. I was close to tears when I made it to the top and out of the ravine. I was also thrilled; this was the kind of off-the-grid adventure I had been craving.
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During the two weeks in August I spent in the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve, I experienced risks and rewards only possible on the other side of civilization. I weathered heavy storms, forded swift rivers and crossed steep slopes of loose shale. In turn, I was treated to nature as I had never experienced it, a front-row seat to grizzlies, moose and other magnificent mammals. Glaciers, multicolored tundra and snow-covered mountains – including the highest peak in North America – revealed themselves to me, mysterious and alluring.
Denali and the seven other national parks in Alaska are bigger and wilder than the national parks in the Lower 48, making the state a mecca for backcountry enthusiasts, people who like to backpack in areas without campsites, trails or other conveniences. With the exception of Denali and Kenai Fjords, the national parks of Alaska are in very remote locations; none of them has extensive trails or roads, if any at all. Denali, while still remaining largely wild, is the most accessible of these parks, just a few hours’ drive from the state’s biggest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks. Once in Denali, visitors can take buses that travel along a 92-mile road through the heart of the park.
Once in the backcountry, travelers can go days without seeing another person. Of the roughly 500,000 people visiting Denali each year, less than 1 percent get backcountry permits. Those 4,000 visitors can spread out in a park that is more than 7,000 square miles.
Michael Raffaeli, supervisor of the park’s Backcountry Information Center, said he would like to see more people enjoy Denali’s wilderness areas. “It’s a unique experience,” he said. “I find joy and solace in these places.”
While the trips involve varying degrees of risk, they can also teach important lessons, he said. “The philosophy I have is that you learn good judgment through bad experience,” he said. “The biggest lesson people learn out there is … what you can really handle.”
In the context of Denali and other Alaska national parks, “backcountry” is a slightly misleading term. Almost all of Denali is considered backcountry, as is the case with the other parks.
A free backcountry permit is required if you plan to camp overnight outside one of the park’s six campgrounds. Before getting a permit, visitors have to watch a short video on backcountry safety, including how to respond to animal encounters and cross rivers and other tricky terrain. Generally speaking, hikers should keep a safe distance from animals.
About half of the park has limits on how many people can enter, in an attempt to minimize damage and preserve the wilderness experience in the park’s most popular locations. Only the most popular areas reach their quotas, and those limits can mean visitors have to juggle their plans, as permits only can be reserved in person the day before departure. The rangers are good at matching a hiker’s interests with what’s available.
Because there are no developed trails in the backcountry, routes are typically chosen based on natural paths such as river beds and mountain ridges. My plan was to explore two separate routes and then exit the park for a third trip just outside its boundaries. One route in the park would conclude with a 12-mile rafting trip on the Sanctuary River. On another route, I would circumnavigate a relatively small mountain, Eielson. so I could get a good view of a big one – Denali.
Those plans were rearranged when my tent was upended in a heavy storm, soaking my sleeping bag and other gear. After less than two days in the backcountry, I returned to the park’s entrance to use a drying machine at a general store. The delay led me to cancel my planned trip outside the park, but my optimism remained.
Unrestricted views of wildlife are part of Denali’s draw.
Hiking the gravel bank of a river, I spotted a caribou less than 50 feet in front of me. It was likely a cow, judging by the smaller antlers. She had a muscular build and moved slowly to my right, seemingly oblivious or unconcerned about me. She laid down and looked at me as I took pictures.
Then, for no reason I could discern, she scurried away. As the distance between us grew, she periodically stopped and looked back at me. My guess was that the caribou was sizing me up as a potential predator. The exchange we had, simple as it was, taught me something about the predator-prey dance that defines life for many animals.
The philosophy I have is that you learn good judgment through bad experience. The biggest lesson people learn out there is … what you can really handle.
Michael Raffaeli, supervisor of the Backcountry Information Center at Denali National Park and Preserve
The animals of Denali, in particular Dall sheep, were the reason naturalist and hunter Charles Sheldon lobbied Congress to turn it into a national park 100 years ago, according to a history published by the National Park Service. Hunters were slaughtering the sheep to feed miners in the area, and Sheldon believed the sheep would be lost if the practice continued.
Dall sheep, known for their distinctive curled horns, often perch on the small ledges of cliffs to evade grizzlies and wolves. Their numbers have ebbed and flowed since the park’s creation in 1917. At one point, before taking steps to address wolf attacks, the National Park Service assigned biologist Adolph Murie to conduct what would become a landmark study not just of Denali’s sheep, but predator-prey relationships in general.
Murie advocated a hands-off approach, finding that “it is the very old, the ailing, and the lambs in their first winter that were most vulnerable,” he wrote in his book, “The Mammals of Denali.” “If the park is large enough to support the sheep and their predators (natural conditions), we have a situation ideal for the future of the sheep.”
If they act appropriately, humans have little to fear from Denali’s animals. Only one person has been killed by an animal since the park’s creation, Raffaeli said. A backpacker from San Diego reportedly was taking pictures of a grizzly when the bear killed him in 2012. Others have been injured by bears and moose, typically when they approach or surprise the animals.
I have backpacked in Alaska three of the past four years and have learned not to worry about grizzlies. Grizzlies are not known to attack people unless they are surprised, particularly if they are with cubs. I keep a can of pepper spray attached to my backpack in case of an attack, and I make noise in areas where I might surprise a bear.
Clouds blocked Denali mountain when I was there in 2012, an experience most visitors have when they come to the park, according to park officials. On my most recent visit, I had been at the park for four rainy days when the skies finally cleared.
I was walking up a grassy hill in the morning when I saw the snow-clad peak of what was then called Mount McKinley. A week later, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed an order changing the name to Denali, “The Great One,” a Native American name many people had already been using.
After I reached the top of the hill and had a clear view of Denali, I was awed by its size. From base to summit, Denali is about 18,000 feet, taller than Mount Everest. Denali is also very wide. Even 25 miles away, the mountain took up much of my view.
Denali remained within my view for almost two hours as I continued up a mountain drainage on a route called the Eielson loop. The views became less dramatic, but no less beautiful, as I walked across tundra in its autumnal colors of red, yellow and orange and slid across slopes of fine, dark rock called scree.
Sheldon pointed to the beauty of Denali’s mountains when he pushed for the area’s preservation. Other than possibly the Grand Canyon, he said, nothing could compare to that “region of the Alaska Range for the grandeur of the scenery and the topographical interest.”
Mountains, dense brush, glacier-fed rivers and other features can be challenging for hikers. But anyone with experience backpacking in the Sierra, for instance, should be able to handle Denali’s backcountry.
In addition to mountain climbing, river crossing seems to have the most potential for injury or death at Denali. I had difficulty crossing the Teklanika River, a cold and fast stream that stood between me and a planned destination. I used proper technique, including facing upstream as I moved slowly, so the water would not sideswipe me off my feet. Still, the waist-deep water consistently challenged my balance.
A couple of days later in another part of the park, a 28-year-old Seattle woman was found dead after she had failed to cross a fast-moving creek, according to a news release from the Park Service. Several days of rain had swollen the creeks and rivers.
A 29-year-old Swiss woman was killed in 2010 trying to cross the Teklanika, downstream from where I crossed. Some observers think she was trying to reach the abandoned school bus where Chris McCandless died. His story was told in the best-selling book and movie “Into the Wild,” making McCandless a source of fascination or scorn, depending on whom you talk to.
McCandless was staying in the bus as part of his ill-fated attempt to live off the land at the edge of Denali. Carrying a shotgun and a small amount of food when he started, he was not able to keep himself fed and appears to have been killed by a poisonous potato plant.
For me, the McCandless story has become a lesson about taking proper precautions in the backcountry. But you can’t plan for everything in the wild. Maps aren’t always accurate. Storms aren’t always predictable.
When the unforeseen occurs, you hope to rise to the challenge, as Raffaelli told me. I felt I did when I climbed out of that ravine. The accomplishment made the colorful moss at the top of the ridge seem like a wondrous shag carpet. The sense of relief lingered the next day and heightened my enjoyment as I rafted the Sanctuary River back to the Denali Park Road.
Still, for all the excitement of the adventure, I felt relief when I saw the bus that would shuttle me out of the park. Soon I would be home.
For more information
- Alaska/Yukon Trails runs a shuttle to Denali from Fairbanks or Anchorage: www.alaskashuttle.com
- The Alaska Railroad is a spectacular way to see anything in Alaska, and runs a line to Denali from Fairbanks or Anchorage: www.alaskarailroad.com
- Backcountry permits for Denali cannot be obtained in advance. Still, it pays to research the backcountry units in advance and know where you’d like to go: www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm. Jon Nierenberg’s book, “Backcountry Companion for Denali National Park,” is also a good resource.
- If you’re interested in the park’s animals, Adolph Murie’s book, “Mammals of Denali,” is authoritative and short.
- Many articles and books have been written about Denali’s natural and social histories. Some of the best are collected in the book “Denali: A Literary Anthology.”