After years of dreaming, Jon and I finally bought plane tickets to Alaska. Our original plan was to hike into the Chugach Mountains outside of Anchorage, but a week before our trip we threw that plan out. Instead, we’d hike through the larger, more wild, more remote Denali National Park. Of course, getting from California to the backcountry of the Alaskan interior is a complicated logistical affair. One does not simply walk into the Alaska Range.
It started with a 6:00 a.m. flight from SFO to Seattle. At the Seattle-Tacoma airport we had some coffee and breakfast, then caught a noon flight to Anchorage. As we flew over British Columbia and the Chugach Range, we could see snow-capped peaks with glaciers spilling into fjords below them.
From the airport in Anchorage we took a bus out to the Spenard Hostel. This was a great little place with some interesting people, but it was quite far from downtown Anchorage and any points of interest. We threw our gear into our bunks then took a bus to the local REI to pick up supplies. After this, we took the bus downtown to grab some dinner. If you ask five Alaskans the best place to eat in Anchorage, four of them will tell you Humpy’s, and so we decided to eat there. The place had a big selection of local beers on tap, and it had decent American diner food. We stuffed ourselves with our last civilized meal, then went back to the hostel.
The next morning we took a cab downtown where we hopped on a bus that would take us to Denali. This was possibly the most scenic drive of my life. We spent hours driving around the Alaska Range, and even had a few views of Denali itself. Clouds cover the peak about eighty percent of the time, and only about one in three visitors actually get to see it. We were lucky.
At the park we went to the Wilderness Access Center to pick up our permits. In order to get a permit, we had to watch a half-hour video (required of every backpacker) and listen to a lecture about animal safety and park stewardship. After all this, the rangers helped us choose an itinerary (there are no advance reservations for backcountry permits). From there we bought tickets for the bus through the park road and waited.
The bus didn’t pick us up until 4:00 p.m. We drove along the park road for about an hour before the driver had to pull over. He ducked behind the bushes for a few minutes, then came back out and announced that he was sick and that we’d have to wait for the next bus to pick us up. It was already about 5:00, and we were running out of daylight, but we had no choice but to wait. We climbed up a hillside with some folks we met on the bus and broke into a bottle of whiskey.
After another hour the next bus picked us up. Along the way the driver mentioned to us that he was turning back at the Toklat River rest stop. This was problematic, as our permit was for a zone another hour past the Toklat River. The driver radioed dispatch, and after some deliberation, they sent another bus out to the rest stop just for us. At this point, it was close to 8:00, and even though the days are longer in Alaska, it was still getting late. What’s more, the rain was picking up, and the conditions were making for some miserable hiking.
Our next bus driver, a sweet lady named Sheryl, knew that we wouldn’t make our planned destination with any light left in the sky, so dropped us off at a spot where we could quickly duck out of view of the road (regulations state that backpackers must camp at least a half-mile from and out of view of the road). The rain was coming down the hardest we would see all week, and the wind picked up.
Into this weather we hiked. We climbed over a small ridge into a creek drainage, then back up onto another ridge where we made camp. We picked neither the flattest nor most level spot, but pitched the tent anyway. At this point, most things were soaked aside from our sleeping bags, so we pulled off our rain gear and jumped into them before we could even have dinner. This day was Alaska in a nutshell: long days of travel, unpredictable weather, and amazing scenery. We were in for an adventure.