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Entire Route So Far – note that tracking became unreliable in BC and the Yukon due to the lack of cell phone towers. I will edit those paths later, but they still give a generally correct idea. On and after July 16, I am using much more accurate GPS tracking.
I awoke Wednesday morning with the intention of puttering around Fairbanks. I made my way down to McDonald’s and ordered a medium black coffee and a large soft drink. Then I settled in for about an hour and just surfed the web and chatted on iMessage. I posted links to some photo albums, and planned out my day. I was going to go to the Museum of the North, then attend a guided tour at the Geophysical Institute at 1 PM, then see some other campus attractions. Finally, there was a free lecture at 7 PM about stocking fish in the remote lakes in the region that sounded interesting. I thought I had my nice leisurely day all sewed up.
The campus of University of Alaska at Fairbanks is beautifully positioned up on a hill with sweeping views. As I got to the top and parked at the museum around 10 AM, I looked out and saw a snow-capped high mountain range shimmering in the distance. Suddenly I realized it was a gorgeous sunny day, and something clicked; it dawned on me that if those mountains were out, Denali might be out too. I eavesdropped on some other people milling around in front of the museum, and gathered that Denali was not visible from that location due to an intervening hill, but I found out in which direction it lay. I opened Google Maps and did some quick calculations: driving to Denali would take some two hours, meaning I would miss the guided tour of the Geophysical Institute, which was only offered once a week, and also the lecture. The museum could be done any time. Doing Denali today would also mean adding over 200 miles to my trip. I wavered for a moment, but then I remembered that my mother visited last month and had terrible weather for Denali, and that the lady from BLM told me that Denali was visible less than 1/3 the time. I was being offered a golden opportunity; I needed to seize it. With regrets for the tour and the lecture, I abruptly canceled my plans and set course for Denali.
I still wasn’t sure if Denali would be visible, but as I crested the aforementioned blocking hill and rounded a curve, there it was, basking in the sun, some 170 miles distant. Both peaks were clearly visible. I stopped at an overlook for a moment to take it all in, and struck up a conversation with an older couple who were also looking at it. They told me they had been there the day before, and taken the bus out, but had seen nothing due to inclement weather. My sense of urgency increased.
I raced down the highway, passing slower buses, trucks, and the assorted slow vehicles that seem to clog the roads up here, and arrived at the park entrance near Healy around noon. I went in to the visitor center for my ticket and only then learned that you can’t drive anywhere close to Denali. After a drive of over 100 miles, I was still another hundred miles from the mountain, and the only way out there was to take a park bus. These buses are no joke; they are a major time commitment. The one that goes to the base of the mountain is a 12-hour round trip, covering nearly 200 miles, and the last one had left hours before at 8:15 AM. However, I could take one to the Eielson Visitor Center about 2/3 of the way out, getting me to within 30 miles of the mountain. As luck would have it, the last of those buses was due to leave in 15 minutes. It would take 8 hours round trip, returning me to the park entrance around 9 PM, at a cost of $40. However, all the computers were down and I would have to pay cash. It just so happened I had $40 in my pocket. Fortune may favor the prepared, but God provides for fools.
Very shortly thereafter, I found myself trundling down the road in an old Blue Bird school bus, headed out towards Denali. The road was gravel, and the windows were down to facilitate air flow and photography, such that by the end of the day every surface (including the inside of my nose) was covered in a fine dust. We stopped often, any time wildlife was spotted, and there was quite a lot. We saw caribou beyond count, to the point that the bus driver refused to stop for them anymore. We saw five grizzly bears, one of them with two cubs. We saw falcons, marmots, and billions of ground squirrels. We even saw a porcupine, but no moose. This was clearly a disappointment to many members of the party, but I didn’t really care, as I’d already seen about 10 of them on the Alaska Highway.
Oh yeah, and we also saw Denali. At several points on the road, we saw its snow capped peaks rising above other, closer mountains. At more than 20,000 feet high, Denali can be seen from a long, long way, although paradoxically it’s easier to see from far away than from close up. And sadly, so it proved when we got out to the end of our trip. A layer of clouds at about 14,000 feet obscured the top of the mountain from our view. The enormous base could be clearly seen, but the top was hidden. I was disappointed, and stood there frustrated, looking at the scene, which was almost devastatingly beautiful even without the top half of Denali showing. The other passengers slowly lost interest and wandered back to the bus. Suddenly, my eyes were attracted by a gleam in the clouds. A small hole had opened in the cloud bank, and the high snowfields at the summit were glistening in the sunlight, along with the clearly visible outline of the peak. I couldn’t see the middle, but I could see the bottom and the top. The vision lasted for maybe a minute, and then it was gone.
Other than Denali, all the other mountains on the trip were clearly and completely visible for the entire bus trip. Our driver mentioned that only perhaps one day a month had better weather and visibility, and that we were exceedingly lucky to be there on that day. I took many photos, although my iPhone camera really wasn’t up to the job. This day needed a telephoto lens, and my photos don’t come close to doing it justice. It really was a beautiful drive, even if it left a very gritty taste in my mouth.
We got back to the park entrance shortly after 9 PM, and I decided to eat some tuna fish, my first food of the day. A gust of wind came up and blew some tuna off my fork and onto me, splattering my jacket with oil that I’m still trying to remove. A fitting end to my Denali adventure: tasty, but just a bit of aggravation and disappointment. The drive back was uneventful, although I was wondering if anyone would have stolen my apparently unoccupied campsite. About halfway back, I happened to glance in my rearview mirror and, perfectly framed in the middle, there was Denali, glowing pink in the long Arctic sunset. I pulled off by a little river and just gazed for a while. Sometimes, we have to be grateful for what we have received, even if it wasn’t everything we wanted.
I doubt I will attempt to go back out to Denali on this trip. Given the time and monetary investment required, and the low odds of doing any better, I think that’s it for me. I have seen the crown of the continent from a distance, and I have made my pilgrimage; that must suffice, at least for now.
I got back to camp around 11:30 PM, which is still broad daylight now. I settled in to bed and noticed that it was rather stifling it the car, so I turned on my fan. Its battery was dead.
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