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Backpacking in Denali

by Amanda Phillips
Backpacking in Denali

When I planned on walking into the Denali wilderness, I never imagined I would sit at the base of a glacier, surrounded by animals straight from a folk tale and fear that I was in way over my head. When you tell someone you are going backpacking in the Denali wilderness–a place with no trails, they imagine two things: you will become lost in an Arctic tundra and you will be consumed by bears. We had walked for 12 miles in a straight line with excellent visibility, getting lost would be difficult. We have been backpacking in bear country for years without incidents, so death by bear felt unlikely. We felt ready.

However, as we sat beside a glacial stream, watching a grizzly mother bear and her two sub adult cubs guard a food cache 100 yards from where we planned to set up our tent, I began to ponder the real possibility of not finding a place to sleep. Back in the comfort of my summery Seattle apartment, a dinner shared with Dall’s sheep sitting high upon a cliff, three grizzly bears and a herd of more than one hundred caribou feels like a dream, too spectacular to be true. But what I remember most from that moment was not complete awe for the natural splendor we were witnessing, but real concern over where one can rest when surrounded by wild animals. Backpacking in Denali meant embracing this uncivilized fear. 

We visited a wildlife refuge the following week and saw many of the same animals, much closer, yet it felt nothing like that moment out on the tundra. Was it because we were visiting them in their habitat? The incredible feeling of seeing something free, where it is supposed to be? Certainly yes, but the feeling of becoming a participant in this ecosystem, rather than a spectator is what calls me again and again to the trail. I felt the silty river push sediment between my toes, moved from place to place to avoid an apex predator, and was mentally exhausted from traveling without a path to show me where to go. To say that it was a trip teeming with metaphors is an understatement. 

Denali. It is a place like no other and I can’t wait to go back.  

 

Man and woman backpacking in Denali National Park

We watched the bus round the corner, leaving us alone on the Denali Highway. The sun was warm on our backs while a persistent wind whipped around us. We looked at each other and shrugged, I guess it is time to do this thing. We shouldered our packs, stepped off the road and started walking.

We were backpacking in Denali National Park. Unlike the areas we frequent in Washington, backpacking in Denali is an entirely different beast. There are no established trails–if you see one that means an animal made it. No established campsites, just a requirement to be out of view of the road. No bridges, privies, infrastructure, few people. Just the Alaskan wilderness and us, carrying our belongings and hopes on our backs.

birds in denali national park
Man backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

We set off down I Scream Gulch, a moderately steep gulch that led down to the river bed. Ptarmigan rushed out from under bushes, clucking like the alpine chicken they are. We aggressively hollered for bears, as the thick brush and alder made it difficult to see very far. Then we made it to the wide river bed stretching nearly a mile across.

Gravel left from retreating glaciers spread wide under the peaks of the Alaska Range. A river thick with glacial sediment braided through the rocks, meeting and separating again and again. We took a seat on the river’s eastern edge and I pulled the hard boiled eggs I had been carrying since the early morning out of my pocket. Strange, yes, but also rather delightful. 

We were following the river to the headwaters, which made navigation easier. With visibility for more than 7 miles, we could see the bend we needed to get to in order to find a spot out of view of the road and acceptable to camp. Opting to walk on the durable surface, we began walking on the riverbed. Every now and again the river would come close to the bank and we would hop onto the alder-strewn floodplain.

backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River