Deep inside the glorious Denali National Park, Dan Szczesny and his wife have to run from predators—but probably not the sort they expected.
We’re deep in Denali National Park, at Wonder Lake Campground, 85 miles into the park. It took us half a day on the camper bus to get here. The ride was long, but magnificent.
Our goal was to camp in the shadow of Mt. McKinley. And here, at the farthest point of this campground – they call our spot the honeymoon suite – we wake expecting that tower of rock and ice to be shining like a small moon above our tent.
But McKinley does not show itself. This summer has been dry, and nearby forest fires have turned the air hazy. So hazy, in fact, that deep into this valley, surrounded by dozens of crisscrossing swamps, inlets and ponds, the air is thick with moisture.
Oh, and the raindrops? Mosquitoes. They swarm in thick black swirls above us, pelting the tent. We have never, not even in the most humid days of summer, in the deepest wetlands of New Hampshire, experienced mosquitoes like this. Step out of the tent and they are on you instantly. Bug dope appears to have no effect. They swarm around our head nets, angry, desperate for blood.
Meena and I break down our tent as quickly as we can, but even the few moments my hands are exposed are enough for me to come away with a dozen welts. I look in horror at my wife’s back as she bends over to stuff the tent. There are easily a hundred mosquitoes on her fleece.
We cut our Wonder Lake camping plans short, and resolve to get on the next bus out of here. Our trip into Denali becomes a search for wind. That’s all. Just a breeze, someplace where we can hike to enjoy the views without being devoured.
A ranger tells us of a bluff 20 miles away near the Eielson Visitor Center where the wind blows and the views sing. We passed through it before, on the way to the campground, and are happy to go back.
There is one road in and out of this enormous park, only one. Most of it is dirt, much of it is rough and it’s the only way you can get in here on wheels. And not your own wheels, either. Only the first 15 miles are accessible with your own car. The rest of it requires a camping or resort bus.
In a few hours, we’re at the center, easily the most spectacular visitor center we have ever seen. Carl Ben Eielson was an early-20th-century aviator and bush pilot, and the first guy to fly across the Arctic Ocean. He died in a spectacular and highly publicized attempt to rescue explorer Olaf Swenson in Siberia. Swenson’s ship, the Nanuk, was trapped in ice and Eielson flew out to deliver furs and supplies. But he flew into a storm and a faulty altimeter is to blame for Eielson’s flying straight into the ground with a wide-open throttle. In took about a year to recover his body from the ice.
Now, we set our sights on the bluffs above the center. There’s about two miles of trail to get up there, but we have an extra half day because of our escape from Wonder Lake, and even though McKinley has not revealed itself, the valley around the center is clear and breathtaking.
We move up the trail slowly, our legs sluggish not from elevation but from inaction. This is our first real hike of the trip. There are signs everywhere warning of grizzlies, so our bear bells chime pleasantly as we begin the stiff climb to the top. The bluff is mostly open alpine, but there are a few blind turns around some switchbacks.
We’ve heard stories all week from hikers and locals alike of how bear bells no longer work, how the bears have come to identify tinkling bells not as something to stay away from but rather as something that means food is coming. I ask a ranger about this later and he just shrugs and suggests we talk as we hike as well.
As we climb, the McKinley River Valley opens up under us. To the south, the Muldrow Glacier comes down off the mountain, like an icy tongue sparkling like silver in the undercast. Directly below us, the river breaks into dozens of braids, water coming from all different sources and spilling into the Tuklat River.
Mist rises up from the lower Alaska Range, and with every few feet of elevation we gain, the landscape seems to change, to open wider to reveal layers of mountains and glaciers spreading out in every direction. Many of these mountains are not even named, are simply foothills.
As we climb, the wind picks up speed. It never gets too cold, but we can feel the glacier breeze crawling up our bluff, picking up speed as it does. When it hits us, it feels it’s coming from an air conditioner, which, when you think about it, is what Mt. McKinley is to this place.
We are surrounded by wild flowers, many of which we have not seen before. After an hour or so, we breach the top of the bluff and are amazed to discover not a ridge but a colorful alpine plateau spreading to the north toward the Kantishna and Wyoming hills.
The wind is fierce and sustained. It blows so hard, Meena spreads her arms and leans down toward the ground. The wind holds her up. We stumble across the plateau like children learning to walk, and equally giddy. This is the Denali we’ve come to see. This is the place in our imagination.
There are beat paths here and there. We pick one that appears to head up to a craggy outcropping, sort of a point atop the plateau. We pick our way against the wind, over copper-colored rocks, and as we top out, the lower flanks of Mt. McKinley reveal themselves across the valley, serrated ice shelves shooting straight up into swirling, heavy clouds.
The wind howls in our ears, and we hold on to each other for support and just out of sheer joy. The force of the gusts causes my eyes to water and burns my cheeks, but I could not be any happier here at 5,000 feet.
For a few fleeting, glorious moments, Denali is ours.