The Wilds of Denali

6.22.2008

It’s the end of June and I’m wearing jeans, a sweater, and a pseudo-down vest, and have a windbreaker strapped to my backpack. My family- my mom, dad, and sister- have all foregone the illusion of warmth and have their jackets on already. Mom’s even wearing a hat. And we haven’t stepped off the bus yet.

Bluebells in bloom against the odds.

The four of us are part of a tour group in Denali National Park and Preserve, catching gulping eyefuls of a 6.2 million acre wilderness that most people only get to see in photographs. All around us are the scrubby trees of the boreal forest and the wide plains of the tundra, ringed by the Alaskan Range, with the sky cupping everything overhead. Especially when we get off the bus, standing in the

Our caribou guide.

intermittent sunlight and blinking tears away in the strong wind, it is difficult to feel the line between our bodies and the landscape. It feels touchable, tangible, like we’re safely contained by the mountains and the sky, even when we grasp that it would take us days to walk to the mountains on the other side of the tundra. It’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit in June; in two or three months the first snows will come and the road we’re on will be accessible only by sled dog or snowshoe. Many animals will hibernate to survive, and the park’s rangers will rely on dried foods and supplies in the ranger cabins to do the same. It’s difficult to imagine this area turning into a death trap, but that’s one of its claims to fame. Even for the wildlife, this is a dangerous life: according to our guide, the entire population of caribou, wolves, sheep, moose, and bears in Denali is smaller than the population of moose in Yosemite.

Our guide brings us back on the bus and rumbles the engine to life. He has many things to show us, things that are even more intoxicating than the first few miles of the Denali road. A mere fifteen minutes later, he pulls the bus over and starts whispering over the microphone. “Everyone, look to your nine-o-clock side. Be very very quiet!” Eagerly, we turn to the left and press up against the windows, wondering what he’s spotted. There, not more than fifty yards from the bus, a lone male caribou is grazing in a gravelly riverbed, apparently undisturbed by the approach of our bus. He nonchalantly nibbles at a shrub, surreptitiously showing off his summer antlers, and the guide explains that most of the herd has migrated north for the warm season. What we’re looking at is very rare and very very special.

The Savage River, called a "braided" river because of the way the shallow waters flow.

As our journey continues, and we learn about the difficulty of surviving the long, brutal winters this close to the Arctic Circle, we start appreciating the tiny ways in which life continues to thrive. There are bluebells growing in abundance around one of the ranger cabins, and forget-me-nots thriving in the grassy scrub alongside the road. The taiga- the boreal forest- has produced thousands upon thousands of needles on its coniferous trees, and the grasses of the tundra are ripe with seeds. A few plants have even grown small green leaves in honour of the season, though those will soon be

The view from Primrose Point, where words are not enough.

devoured by the hungry snowshoe hares inhabiting the taiga and tundra; the hares are so numerous that Mom almost steps on one by accident.

The bus pulls up at the end of the vehicle road in Denali and we climb off into the most punishing wind we’ve experienced yet. Our eyes stream and we angle our bodies as best we can to see the man waiting for us there. He tells us he is Athabaskan, and starts giving us an Athabaskan account of life in the Denali region- especially the challenges of balancing traditional lifestyles with majority American demands. The impact of park laws on their ability to subsistence hunt, the impact of tourism on the same, and their voice in the politics of Denali. He finishes speaking and we mill around in the dirt drive, peering closely at the flowers and gazing at the sky, where a thunderstorm is brewing over the Polychromatic Mountains to the north. I’m again captivated by that feeling of abundance and containment, the enormous geography safely cupped by the sky, when I hear the man who has been speaking to us come up behind me. In a voice loud enough to carry to the rest of the group, he tells me a story about a man and his son walking along the tundra in this area. They come to a lookout point like the one we’re at, where they can see for miles upon miles, and the son begins exclaiming. How magnificent are the mountains! How impressive is the expanse of the tundra! How brilliant is the sky! The father lets him speak for a moment, and then hushes him. He looks at his son, and turning back to the landscape, he says, “Your words are not enough.”

I know exactly what he means.

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