Denali National Park, Alaska – An Ancient Magic.

Time becomes meaningless here. There is an unfathomable energy, an ancient force of magic that stirs, and it is so very real. If a mountain range can be alive, if an entire ecosystem can speak, this is the place to listen. There are traces of wildlife everywhere. Feathers, hides, bone, fallen antlers and animal footprints of abundance dot the varied landscape. The animals are here, yet you cannot always see them. They do see and sense you. With every part of their being they sense your intrusion, as you stumble around foreign in every sense.

The birds chirp merrily, at all hours. Those winged spirits are the sign of a warm season, passing too quickly. Their joyful song resounds across a sunlight bedecked night. Green of every imaginable shade paints all surfaces, impeded only by dots of snow and steep mountain peaks. Mosquitos lazily buzz, but not much, with the frost that creeps along the ground on a mid-June night.

Words are not enough. Language, and humanity at its attempted descriptive words cannot reach here. Photos are but a speck of the whole. This place is everything. It is life. I am entranced, smitten with the ancient spells. I want more of it; it has lured me and will forever pull at my heart. I believe this place was given extra care by God; his hand graced this place with a little extra divinity. That we were able to share this place with our children, that we were able to give them this gift, was powerful stuff.

How could we ever forget flying into Alaska at midnight? Oh, those colors and that sky, pink pastels as the sun lay barely hidden. The hazy light swirled with a whisper and gently colored everything in not quite day, and not quite night shades. The clouds coming into Alaska were thick, life like and brooding. That sky was alive, both ominous and entrancing.

Itinerary:

We started our trip flying into Fairbanks, taking the hotel shuttle. A short night of rest, and we were off the next morning via hotel shuttle to meet something I’ve dreamed since I was a child, the Alaska Railroad! The thrill of that trip, the gentle sway of the rail car as it pulled away and was enveloped into the wilderness, will never be forgotten. This train is a destination, an experience of its own. The history of Alaska is entwined in its establishment. The road from Anchorage to Fairbanks was only completed in 1971, and road travel is still difficult if not outright unavailable in most of Alaska.

Arriving in Denali National Park feels like entering another dimension. Stepping out of the train, we waited for our backpacks to be unloaded in the bright noon sunshine. The pine trees cascaded their shadows, and other visitors disappeared quickly onto tour buses. We repacked for the walk to the back country office, where we would obtain our backpacking permit.

After getting our permit and camper bus ticket, we boarded the back country bus and entered wilderness like never before. We were dropped off, along the Denali Park Road, at our back country unit. It was early evening when we exited the bus, and it was surreal when our driver pulled away leaving a faint cloud of dust. There was not another living soul within sight or sound. Every sense heightened as we were now truly alone in a vast wilderness.

The glacial till river that marked the entrance to our unit flowed quickly beneath a bridge. Without trails to follow in this place, we attempted to follow the river. It was running quickly, carrying the melt of winter still full to its banks. It was slow going through the adjacent willows, and there were moose tracks everywhere! I was terrified we would crash into one in the thick brush and was relieved when we pushed out onto open terrain. Odd holes along the riverbank caught my eye. I remembered them as some sign of bear but couldn’t remember the exact details. We later learned bears dig along the riverbanks, harvesting and eating Eskimo Potatoes. They are an important source of alpine food for many different animals, but bears leave tell-tale divots in the pebble strewn banks when harvesting.

We were exhausted from our travels the day before and didn’t make it far that evening. We set up our brightly colored tents and placed our bear vaults and eating location in the form of the golden triangle, each 100 yards away. This is a safety measure required in the back country to keep both you and the bears safe, so they don’t associate human smells and food with humans. We tucked in for the night after a quick meal.

That first night was restless, I can’t lie. After going to the bathroom repeatedly, I realized no matter how late, it was still light enough for me to see everything! It was such an odd sensation; we would never need a flashlight! Uniquely, the birds here chirp all night. Their tunes were enough to lure me into a gentle sleep.

We needed to avoid a closure area along the river, and so took to the ridge line the remainder of our trip. We were continually drawn to the incredible vastness, the unique terrain of glacial remnants, and the mountain range views. The next two days went swiftly. We wanted to explore more, to adventure more. I wanted to cross the glacial ridge lines above tree line in the distance. As much as I love being outside though, I was on edge. I felt like we were trespassing in a place we didn’t fully understand. A two-night stay was enough here for our first time in this back country. The constant state of alert was taxing, as it should be. The freshly placed bear paw print, found in the mud near where we had camped the first night, assured me it was time to leave.

We met a bus on the road, not the camper bus but a park tour bus. Fortunately, it was early enough in the season for there to be a few empty seats to enjoy a tour further into the park. That was a safe place to view a grizzly bear, the caribou, and even the Denali Dall Sheep we were thrilled to see. I think perhaps we brought good luck with us on that bus. That trifecta of viewing is rare! We were even able to see Mount Denali, barely cresting in the distance. With the current road closure at mile 43, this was a special opportunity.

On our return to Denali Park Village, we stayed at the beautiful Riley Creek Campground. We watched as a mother moose and her twins cautiously wandered through, ravenously stripping the green leaves from small trees. We spent time in the visitor center, learning more deeply about the park and obtaining junior ranger badges. We enjoyed an evening park ranger talk in our campground about the brilliance of corvids (crows, jays, magpies, raven). In the village, the safety of civilization hummed around us.

On our last evening, the gentle patter of rain fell on our tent, the first drops of our trip. It was welcoming and soothing: “Safe, safe, you are safe, your family is safe, now keep this place safe in return. Keep the animals that call this place their own, their ways, their life intact,” it whispered. 

It’s difficult to go forward with this blog, to tell you the ins and outs of a perfect vacation here, because this place is so much more than a destination. Your time here shouldn’t feel like an ordinary vacation. The best way I can explain how to enjoy the ideal trip is to do things you know will take your breath away, that will make you put your camera down, your phone down. Do the things that make your children content to witness the wonders. Your time here should lead you to something so damn extraordinary, so precious, your soul is changed. The experiences that pull at your spirit are those you need to seek when you visit.

Extra Tips:

I planned our vacation to Alaska in its entirety without a rental car, our only sure means of transportation being our feet. It was completely doable, because of the available connections and their exacting timeliness. This was both more environmentally friendly and cost conscious.

You can take a bus everywhere you want to go within the Denali Park Village, and even into the park. The bus schedules at Denali allow for exploration of the park with very little un-intended foot travel. If you are physically able though, I would recommend the walking paths. They are incredibly well marked, with routes everywhere within the village.

You need to have back country experience before you backpack overnight in Denali. It is NOT a place for beginners.

Obtaining a back country permit takes concerted advanced planning. We spent hours researching the back country system in Denali. To keep everyone safe, back country permits cannot be issued unless everyone in your party has watched required safety videos, available on the park website. Every hiker may be quizzed by back country rangers on the video contents before issuing your permit. Both our children had to answer questions, and they were well prepared!

The park is divided into units where a limited number of hikers are allowed. Do your research in advance and have some units in mind. The most popular unit is 6, and it was already full. The rangers were not helpful in guiding us to choose a unit we should explore. I’m not sure why, but they were intentional at not giving us any hints as to which units we should see. It was a bit of a ‘yes or no game’ to get them to give us some concrete advice. It really is up to you to pick your destination and route, so plan accordingly.

You are REQUIRED to take a bear vault with you to the back country, where you will place ALL smellable items. There are many approaches to backpacking with supplies. I prefer for every person I am with to be self-contained. It helps our family members be more self-sufficient, organized, and responsible. So, we each had our own bear vault that I purchased in advance and pre-packed. They do have bear vaults at the ranger station for rental.

There are no trails in the Denali back country! Backpacking here is an entirely different experience, intentionally. Ah muskeg. You’ll get to loathe that word quickly if you veer too far off a ridge line or riverbank. Imagine backpacking along mattresses, you get the idea. It’s doable, but incredibly slow and frustrating. The experience is part of the adventure here, especially for your first visit.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  1. Leave No Trace
  2. Big Five: Grizzly, Wolf, Dall Sheep, Caribou, Moose
  3. History
  4. Botany
  5. Sled Dogs
  6. Mountaineering
  7. Dinosaurs
  8. Change

Remember:

Bear spray is a must, even if you are only exploring the more populated Denali Park Village trails. There may be bear spray available for purchase at the park, but they may sell out. Each member of our party had their own container. The bottles were clipped within easy reach the entire time we were in the back country and walking in the park. Most importantly, you MUST take the time to educate yourselves on Alaska bear behavior! One of the required videos on the Denali National Park back country site discusses bear behavior. But there are others that go into more depth. Our favorite is ‘Staying Safe in Bear Country’, provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website. I won’t discuss bear safety further here, as I’m not an expert. Take the time to research this subject, as it pertains to bears in the areas you will be visiting (coastal and brown bears may behave differently). It will give you confidence and make your trip to Denali more comfortable and safer. REMEMBER: DON’T DO ANYTHING THAT COULD HABITUATE THE BEARS INTO ASSOCIATING YOU WITH FOOD. KEEP THEM SAFE AND THAT WILL KEEP YOU SAFE.

Where to Eat:

Dining within the park is limited. You should plan to bring all meal essentials. There is cafeteria style eating near the visitor center at the Morino Grill. There are some basic snacks available for purchase at the bus station and at the Riley Creek Campground Mercantile.

When to Go:

We enjoyed our visit in June, but I think it would be spectacular in the fall or winter as well. I think I would avoid spring/early spring. The walking paths would probably be muddy/and or icy. Travel would probably be difficult.

Where to Stay:

If you are able, I highly recommend tent camping within Denali National Park. The accommodations at Riley Creek Campground were very nice with showers and clean restrooms. There are RV spots within that campground as well. There are numerous hotels and lodges near the entrance to the park. Lodging within the park boundaries is available by private concessionaires only, and while the park road is closed, only reachable by aircraft.

Posted on August 4, 2022             

Visited June 2022

Lake Clark National Park – Bear Paradise Found

Posted on: June 21, 2022               

Alaska

Visited: June 2022

Oh, Lake Clark with your kaleidoscope of braided streams and colors to last a lifetime. You hold something ancient and fragile. You are born of fire and ice with volcanoes that rise into the world above. Glacial ice melts and flows into turquoise hues beyond imagination, reaching the sea. The bears know that you will provide. They flock in numbers to your clam rich shores to eat their fill and dance upon the shallow, sparkling tidal flats. The ice melts leaving green jeweled mountain slopes crowned by specter mist. Only the fortunate get to glimpse what you contain, for though you are so much, you are difficult to see.

We embarked on this journey at an airport hanger at Merrill Field in Anchorage. We were guided to the aircraft by our incredible pilot, and found to our delight a small and agile, striped, blue as the sky, 5-seat airplane. Truthfully, while a common taxi in Alaska, at first it looked to us like a small toy. Thrillingly, it was all we needed to take the nearly 100-mile journey to Lake Clark National Park. This remote destination is reached by plane or boat only.

We whooshed into the sky and our tummies did somersaults to see Anchorage disappear below us and the expansive Cook Inlet appear. The tidal forces that shape this inlet are so incredibly strong and dramatic, surfers can enjoy up to 10 foot bore waves as water drains from Turnagain Arm. From the air, the tides create an hourly-changing landscape of pure beauty.

Flying over fish camp structures (utilized by Native Alaskans and others) beluga whales (once harvested from fishing platforms made of tree stumps) rise to the surface in the shallow waters. Their white bodies, rising temporarily, are easily spotted in the glacial silted sea. We fly over verdant green and see the Alaska Range (600 miles in length) jagged and newly rising in the distance, with snow capped icing. We glimpse passageways to the north and see glaciers stripe against the mountains. Then, we begin to spot the brown bears, roaming in the grass along the shores with their little round bodies obvious and moving in the landscape below.

Geomorphology is the study of physical structures on the earth’s surface, and I cannot think of a more concentrated place to see so many features in one place. U-shaped glacial valleys, braided streams, tidal flats, oxbow lakes, alluvial fans, and moraines all roll through my mind like candy.

The scene changes to cliffs, waterfalls, and mist as we turn up Tuxedni Bay, and fly along a glacier. I don’t have words for this. It is mystic and too much for pictures or description, it can only be seen to truly understand. We see lliamna Volcano barely crest through the clouds, still active. We know our presence here is only granted by powers far stronger than anything we obtain. We seek permission to be here.

The beach suddenly comes into view, dotted with small aircraft. This is where we will be landing, not a runway but a gently sloping beach. It’s a thrill, and our pilot gently sets the craft down, and the crunch of the pebbles under the large tires cuts the noise of the engine. We coast to our parking area, and eagerly exit the plane. We feel the ground again.

There are two viewing areas here, small passageways through the forest that leads to a broad sedge prairie. It is set against steep mountain slopes. As soon as you pass through the trees and look around, bears in number come into view. Their roly-poly bodies move surprisingly quickly through the green, gorging on the highly nutritious sedges until the tides roll out far enough to go clamming.

We watch them from a small, fallen log, roughly-hewn, bench. Bears are everywhere, we count eleven!! We observe one large darker brown bear pursuing a smaller cinnamon colored bear. It chases and stops, chases, and stops. It pretends to eat, and circles around, continuously closing the distance. The cinnamon bear is wary, but after the third pass lets down her guard and it happens. Bees do it…and bears do it! It wasn’t quick either.

After the show, we directed ourselves to the ranger housing. On the way, we witnessed another bear pursuit. A sweet little bear with an extra-long snout, whom we later found out goes affectionately by CJ, was being chased relentlessly by a much larger bear. She outran him, and collapsed adoringly on the beach, exhausted.

This area of the park was currently overseen by the incredible Ranger Abbey! She graciously gave the kids their Junior Ranger Books and Badges. They took their oaths, and she answered all our questions. I think I’ve said it before, but it goes literal saints and then park rangers in my personal hierarchy of remarkable people that walk this earth. They give so much and though paid in countless intangible ways, theirs is a life of service.

On our way back to the plane we witnessed a mother bear and her cubs. They were but tiny little babies staying close to her paws. New life across the tidal flats, they hung closely to their mother as she warily avoided human clusters and dug for clams. The circle complete.

Every park is a spiritual experience, but none have so encouraged me to really consider how I impact the environment and climate change as this. These bears thrive here because the snow melt washes plentiful sediment into the tidal flats where the nutrient laden soil is the perfect place for clams to grown plentiful. It is both a robust, but precarious environment, where even the smallest changes could have dramatic impact on these resident bears. Consume less, enjoy more.

Junior Ranger Badge:

It’s about the bears!

Extra Tips:

Be prepared for inclement weather and mosquitos, which should be a universal for any trip to Alaska. A rain jacket is a must, as well as a good camera.

Don’t bring bear spray with you on any aircraft! It could explode in route and that would be quite bad, maybe even deadly.

Stay close to your pilot/guide during your visit and follow instructions. Their job is to keep you safe throughout your journey to this park, so listen to what they say. If they tell you to group up and stay close together, do this immediately. The bears at this park do not appear disturbed by the presence of humans, but they are very attentive to other bears. Staying close together helps ensure the bears don’t confuse you with another bear.

Don’t have any food items on you while you are walking around the park, unless they are in a bear vault. They produce tantalizing smells, and even a few dropped crumbs could cause the bears to associate humans with food. These bears are not food habituated, and we want to keep it that way.

Bring sturdy walking shoes so that you can walk along the pebble strewn muddy beach to the different viewing locations comfortably. Some wore waiters, but we didn’t find them necessary as our Alaska Air Service crew timed our visit perfectly with the tides, so we did not need to venture out into the muddy flats far to take pictures of the bears.

Remember:

This is the bears’ habitat, not yours. This is where they eat, sleep, mate, and raise their young. Give them plenty of room, even if it appears safe to get closer. Even if your guide encourages you to get closer, that doesn’t always mean it is the correct choice. We watched another tour group walking closer and closer to a mother bear and her cubs, and she was obviously alarmed by them. Watch for other tour groups, and make sure the bears always have a safe exit. Don’t pressure the bears by walking too close. There is current research to see if visitor activities are causing undo stress to these animals. If they respond to you in any way, then you are stressing them. Be wise, and respectful, or the privilege of seeing them in this habitat in the future could be jeopardized.  

Where to Eat:

There are no food service providers in this park, except for private lodges. Our Alaska Air Service tour included an incredibly delicious picnic lunch with sandwiches, pasta salad, and bottled water. We brought our own re-usable water bottles, which we used throughout our trip to reduce plastic waste. If you wish to bring food onto the plane, please ask your pilot for approval first. They may want to contain the food or place it in a bear proof container or location on the plane to avoid bears curious bears bothering an unattended aircraft.

When to Go:

We went in the middle of June, and it was perfect! There were a few minor drizzles, but the landscape was a luxuriant green and the lupines were in full bloom. The bears were enjoying mating season and were very curious and attentive to one another.

Where to Stay:

Accommodations in this park are limited to independent businesses that operate lodges, and one private campground. There is one primitive campground. See the Lake Clark National Park website for additional information.

Back-country camping is allowed, and as of this publishing a permit is not required, though rules posted on the Lake Clark National Park must be followed, including Leave No Trace, Bear Protection, and adhering to closed areas.

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