Dispatches from the Far North: Part III
We were awakened on day 2 by the rain's steady percussion on the cabin roof. My spirits sank a bit knowing that today was our only chance to visit Denali National Park, a 1.5-hour drive north from Trapper Creek (sidebar: if that's not a perfect place name for a cabin stay, I don't know what is).
Booking this trip for September we were saving money and crowds by coming in the shoulder season. The flip side to that was the significant risk - more an inevitability - of cold, drenching rains. I secretly worried that an Eeyore-esque cloud would hover over us all week, keeping us soaked and the views nonexistent. I consoled myself with the thought that "hey, at least we had authentic weather!"
We took our time conversing with Kelli at breakfast and didn't depart the cabin until about 10. We had just about every imaginable weather condition on our 90-mile drive, up to and including wet snowflakes. The temperature had started around 40 but got down to 34 at one point. I'm just realizing now that that was the first and only time I'd ever seen snow falling in the summertime.
Getting closer to the National Park, the sun actually broke through the clouds. You've probably heard the phrase "if you don't like the weather here, just wait 5 minutes". It's uttered regularly in New Hampshire (and probably everywhere else too by folks who think their weather's unique) but never had I seen moodier skies than here in south central Alaska. We couldn't resist pulling off the road multiple times to take advantage of sensational lighting.
We arrived at Denali NP around noon, already charged up from the views and the general aura of being at this, one of the isolated crown jewels of the National Park System. Due to COVID the visitor center was closed, but a pair of masked rangers was standing out front by a makeshift information center. Dad and I signed up for the 2:00 ranger-led hike - the very last of Denali's "summer season" - and were told we got the last two slots.
As the park's restaurant was closed, we had just enough time to depart temporarily, obtain a haphazard convenience store-type lunch, and eat it on an elevated front porch. While it was only in the 40s, winds stayed calm and we ate, alone, at what felt like the edge of the earth.
In reality, we weren't even halfway up Alaska. This state was a place of such superlatives - size, latitude, relative isolation - as to stretch the limits of my feeble mind. Everything was monumental in scale, highlighting my own insignificant presence. The location, weirdly enough, kind of had a ski lodge vibe. We ate our pre-made sandwiches and chips as we watched the occasional car or ATV buzz by, in awe of the mountains and the fact that we were even here at all. This was, indeed, the farthest north (63.7 degrees, 20 north of home!) either of us had ever been, by a significant margin.
We hurried back to the park and reported to the visitor center. The guided hike began with the required spiel on wildlife safety. People paid attention. Our ranger, Brian Taylor, was a man of perhaps 35 and originally from Minnesota.
Slight of stature, his unkempt beard was in great contrast to his keen outdoor awareness and razor sharp intellect. He deftly wove humor into his incredibly engaging narrative on the flora, fauna, and history of the park as the group reverently plodded through the pristine woods.
Photo ops, even on this short trail, were outstanding. Yellow foliage here, gently gurgling river there. Would I have liked to be even more isolated in the far reaches of the park? Sure. However, between our timing and dad's considerable concern about bear encounters, we kept things simple.
After the hike we had time to drive a bit farther into the park. Unlike other national parks, however, Denali has but one road, slicing through wilderness to give visitors some access without disturbing the natural environment. Bus tours allow folks to go 80+ miles in (though there had been a major landslide closing the road at mile 42 before our arrival). Private vehicles were only allowed to Savage River, at mile 15.
Try as we might, we unfortunately saw no wildlife larger than the black, white, and blue magpies that swooped across our paths. The scenery though, was magnificent. At times it truly felt like we weren't even on this planet, let alone in the United States. By 5:00 the sun was low enough to give a surreal glow to the whole scene, and we soaked up every view before our departure. The speed limit was 35 anyway, and cars pulling over left and right ensured we took our time on the road back out.
It had been a wonderful day, but dinner was not among its bright spots. There were literally zero open restaurants on the 90-mile return drive, so we munched on a smattering of granola bars and a leftover bag of BBQ chips squirreled away from a previous meal. Despite having such a grand day in Denali National Park, we were in for an even bigger surprise the following morning...