4 days in the radiant Colorado sun was about all it took for me to give up on weathering the East Coast winter and pray for spring. Though, living in Boston, I’ll settle for an extra hour of sun and a few days above 30º.
I flew home last Wednesday for a quick recharge in the Rockies and was dying to get a little hiking in. Hanging Lake is an old classic, though the last time I hiked it I think I remember dragging a stuffed animal along. It’s a short but surprisingly vertical hike, so with snow on the ground it took a bit of scrambling to get to the lake. The need to see that crystal-clear water and eat the giant cookie I had stashed in my bag overcame (most) of the concern I had about the questionably unstable cliffside railings.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
En route from Skaftafell we stopped at this gorgeous outlook to eat lunch and stare out across the endless black sand beach. In some parts, if you crane you neck far enough over the sheer cliff, you can spot lovable puffins hanging out below you. Totally worth the risk.Next stop, Skogar. It was our last new campsite on the trip- we would stay two nights in Reykjavik before our flight out, but that was it.
And apparently we really did save the best for last. I was jolted out of my usual bus ride nap when we pulled up in front of another jaw-dropping waterfall- one we would be camping in full view of.
In a spot like that, I didn’t even mind the giant spiders that had taken up residence in both stalls of the bathroom.
We spent two nights there and I never managed to get a photo of those falls. The murderous hike we did the next day might of had something to do with that.
Remember the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010? Yep, that volcano that a hilarious percentage of newscasters couldn’t pronounce. That was our destination and it was do or die (I think I did a bit of both).
The description of the hike alone is exhausting: a 32km (20 mile) hike, past 22 waterfalls, between two glaciers to summit one of the world’s newest mountains: Magni.
We left around 7am on what felt like a mad sprint to the top. Even the onslaught of beautiful waterfalls wasn’t enough to distract me from the insufferable incline- but with the help of a lot of snacks, we made pretty good time.
We followed our path as it disappeared under snowfields and scrambled up sandy ridges. I think I was about ready to face plant into the snow when I heard it was only a mile or so after the next ridge.
That was wrong, of course, but believing that kept me walking until the fiery red of the eruption cone came into view. After the best sandwich I think I’ll ever have (it was soggy and I had eaten the same one every day for a month, but it was pure heaven), we hoofed it down to the flow to get our hands on three year old lava.
With my pockets sufficiently stuffed with Eyjafjallajökull lava chunks (it’s our little secret), I forced myself up the last 5 minutes to the summit of a mountain so fresh it was still steaming. Literally- when you dig a hole and splashed water in, it sizzles.
20 miles is by far the longest I’ve ever hiked in a day, so I was pretty proud of myself when we finally victory jogged (it was more of victory hobble) the last stretch into camp 10 hours later.
It was pretty much smooth sailing from there on out. Except for some minor tent-collapsing issues during a windstorm that night, which was actually more amusing than it was disruptive.
It didn’t really sink in that the trip was ending until I heard over the bus microphone that we had officially driven all the way around Iceland.
Thanks to an awesome itinerary, a great (and very tolerant) professor, and an incredible group of people the trip was an unbelievable success.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain
— Jack Kerouac
Arriving at Höfn marked the third week into our trip, which was surreal. Without the sun going down the trip had almost felt like one long day up to that point. We were in the Southeast and headed in the direction of Reykjavik once again.
We stopped to see Petra’s Mineral Collection on the way, which cheered me up pretty fast. Petra was an Icelandic woman who spent her entire life collecting rocks. Enlisting her friends and children, she would lug massive geodes, chunks of obsidian, anything she found on her adventures back to her house. She left behind a garden and house lined with her collections for eager geology students like us to gawk at- what a way to be remembered.
The last week and a half was pretty action-packed. We kicked things off in Hofn with a open day spent packing lunches (and an alarming amount of peanut butter), walking 6km to the nearest mountains, and finding a waterfall to spend the afternoon hiking over, under, and through.
Our next adventure involved picking up our ice picks and strapping crampons onto our boots (aka lots of sharp, stabby things that no clumsy 19yr old should be allowed near), and marching onto a glacier. We trekked up and over ridges in the ice, making a path across little crevasses and streams as we walked.
Drinking handfuls of water from the icy streams flowing over the glacier and looking out across its immense, jagged surface it was eerie to think that these glaciers might not exist at all in the future. Already there has been undeniable glacial retreat in Iceland due to climate change.
Everyone made it back in one piece and the sun came out just in time for sandwiches and a post-lunch nap in the sun.
After visiting a few more glacial outlets to study moraines and another long hike (we guessed 16km round trip), we broke camp in the rain and headed for Skaftafell.
We stopped on the way to go on a tour of the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon. After pulling on offensively bright life jackets, we watched as the driver expertly navigated huge icebergs while dinghies manically circled the boat to keep the ice chunks away.
The guide pointed out the stunning aqua blue of an iceberg that had recently flipped over before nonchalantly scooping a piece of ice out the water the size of a small child. Shuffling it from hand to hand, he told us that the lagoon we sat on was deeper than double the 74.5m Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik- in fact it’s the deepest lake in Iceland.
He whipped out an ice pick and broke the chunk into bite-sized pieces. Balancing the cutting board on one hand, he held it out in our direction.
“The oldest thing you’ll ever eat.”
After a speedy grocery run, we managed to set up camp in time to hike the thirty minutes to Svartifoss- a waterfall flowing over awesome columnar jointed rock. My cook team was on for dinner, so I headed back to start chopping veggies and carbo-load for our hike the next day. The 15km loop we did from the campsite the next day turned out to be one of my favorite hikes of the trip (although I said that about all of them). No big surprise, as it was listed in the Lonely Planet Iceland book for its gorgeous views.
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
― André Gide
In my defense, getting back to Colorado after a month of exhausting (but great) travel only to turn around and fly half way across the world two days later is not exactly conducive to my productivity.
Thankfully after a few days of poolside lounging here in Borneo the guilt kicked in and I sat down to tackle an impressive stack of memory cards (2,000 pics and counting). And I am still in shock that I actually got to spend a month walking on lava flows, hiking volcanoes, exploring glaciers with my trusty ice pick, and doing other generally awesome things.
“When you’re traveling, you are what you are, right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
-William Least Heat-Moon
Waking up to the cool, ominous presence of a summer storm is one of my favorite feelings in the world, and Borneo does thunderstorms best.
A reprieve from the days of cloudless, sweltering heat spent bouncing between the nearest AC or pool, the brooding thunderheads were a sigh of cool relief.
As well as an excuse for a day of letting myself off the hook from everything- editing and posting my shots from the week excluded! An overcast day indoors is just what I needed to catch up with my recently neglected blog.
This last week, reacquainting myself with the country that I consider my first home has been filled with both old memories and new insights. Before last summer, 13 years and 5 homes in just as many countries stood between me and my childhood here.
Now, with a whole lifetime of experiences to lend a new perspective, Indonesia feels impossibly fresh and familiar- which is why it’s been so interesting to photograph.
So without further ado, check out the shots from my time at home so far, as well as the rest of my Indonesia photography here.
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson
And I realized today why exactly that is; it would be absurd to try and condense the constant flow of ideas and adventures I find into a reasonable list of unrivaled ideas. Literally undoable.
I fill every crevice of my notebooks, Pinterest boards, dashboard stickies, whatever, with unending bookmarks of websites, photographs, destinations, and experiences.
It’s a little ridiculous, and hopelessly unorganizable.
So I gave up. If I can’t narrow down my ambitions, I might as well just create an infinite bucket list. Yes, I’ll never make it through the whole list, but I’ll also never miss out on the adventure of all adventures because it didn’t make the cut! So heres to me starting the never-ending project of my own take on a bucket list.
1. Visit Paro Taktsang (or Tiger’s nest) in Bhutan.
Or visit Bhutan in general, I’m dying to do both. I read something somewhere that name Bhutan “the last authentic place on earth,” and I intend to experience it before thats no longer true.
2. Hike a Volcano.
Turns out this one isn’t too much of a longshot- I’m planning on hiking Mount Rinjani on Lombok with my parents this summer! (Wish me luck, it doesn’t look easy..)
UPDATE: Had the most amazing time crossing this one off the list! Read all about it here.
3. Board the Trans Siberian Railway.
This ones equally thrilling and daunting- even the name gives me chills- but I guess thats the draw of it! This ones going to necessitate a very brave (and possibly russian-speaking) friend to tag along.. Any takers?
And thats all for today. More to come though, I can guarantee it!
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
— Jack Kerouac
Man, is it hard to get anything done during summertime in Alaska. My house is a graveyard of abandoned projects, because who can be productive when there are hours of daylight and miles of trails waiting?
In a flash, Juneau has gone from an unfamiliar dot on a map to the home I’ve been looking for. It’s like I’ve found a kindred spirit in its moody, endless wildness. Rain or shine (but mostly rain), I’m captivated by even its smallest moments: fog moving through tree tops in the forest behind my house, or the white flash of an eagle’s tail as it swoops a few feet from my office window. For a person who claims to never fully settle in one spot, I’ve got a dirty secret: I want to stay.
As someone who has spent a significant amount of time sleeping on a twin mattress on the floor to avoid buying furniture, I’m not much the type to put roots down. I’m the ready-to-leave-whenever type, with borrowed furniture and plastic bins, suitcases always handy. So I’ve been as bewildered as anyone to discover a strange new sensation of not looking for an escape route since arriving in Juneau. Some combination of having a job I love and finding a place that suits me has me buying furniture and hanging things on walls like there’s no tomorrow (and don’t get me started on the rate my plant collection is growing).
Juneau doesn’t compare to anywhere I’ve lived before. Like a well kept secret, the soggy, rainforest weather keeps most of the world out, aside from the multiple thousands of cruise ship visitors that flood in for the summer. But wait out the rain, and the reward is indescribable. Each day as I drive to work, the incandescent blues of the Mendenhall Glacier with its crown of peaks greets me. Rays of light fall across tree cover islands out dotting the ocean to a backdrop of distant mountain peaks. Where else in the world is it not uncommon for eagles to cut power across town by dropping scrap metal and fish on power lines?
End to end, there are less than 50 miles of road in Juneau. It might seem claustrophobic to some with no opportunities to escape by car. But where the pavement ends is where Juneau is truly is at its best. By bike, on foot, boat, or in a plane- the mountain peaks and snowfields and lakes are out there waiting. You just have to get there.
“Time can be slowed if you live deliberately. If you stop and watch sunsets. If you spend time sitting on porches listening to the woods. If you give in to the reality of the seasons.”
— Thomas Christopher Greene, I’ll Never Be Long Gone
This adventure starts in a 10×20 storage unit in a sketchy Anchorage suburb with a dead car battery. I was at step 3 in a meticulously crafted plan that had an amazing amount of possibilities to go wrong. Fresh off the earliest flight from Juneau, I had less than 36 hours to drive my car north to Tok, down through the Yukon, and back into Alaska to catch an afternoon ferry from Haines to complete the loop in Juneau. Did I mention I had I flight the morning after to New Orleans? I only had myself to blame. The plan was a blatant affront to Murphy’s Law, and while picking up my car and worldly belongings from the storage facility it had spent the winter in, I conceded if there had to be a small disaster, this wasn’t the worst possibility.
A couple hours and some daisy chained jumper cables later, I pulled out onto Alaska Route 1 with some 700 miles stretching out ahead of me. Passing through the familiar backdrop of my life last year gave me an uneasy sense of time travel, so I queued up the perfect road trip playlist and got the hell out of dodge. The river plains of the Knik, the Chugach Mountains, Matanuska Glacier blurred in my rear view window. By my third podcast and last reserves of car snacks, I was pulling into Glennallen for a stop at my favorite unlikely thai food truck. Why there’s a thai food truck in remote interior Alaska, I don’t question.
I pushed on, blowing through the northernmost point of my trip in Tok with a mandatory gas station junk food stop. It was two hours from sundown. Finally, as I cycled through all my downloaded songs for what felt like the 8th time, I flashed my passport at the border and coasted on a sugar high into Canada. As the sun set over white-blanketed hills, I passed two of the biggest moose I’d ever seen knee deep in snow on a frozen lake. Canada, eh?
My concerned parents had appointed themselves my remote copilots, and scrambled to find a place for me to stay as I pulled into Beaver Creek. To call it a town is generous. After a few failed attempts at finding somewhere that was both open and had rooms, I walked into the 1202 Motor Inn Fast Gas. And yes, it was just as classy as it sounds. Winter nights are long and cold in the Yukon, and I woke up several times to watch the faint glow of the aurora beyond the streetlights.
First light in the Yukon greeted me with -26 degree temperatures. I pealed out of town and spent the rest of the morning virtually alone on the road. Just me, the endless canvas of rolling hills and trees as far as the eye could see. It was a Robert Service poem come to life.
Valleys turned to mountain passes as I crossed over rivers and barreled past the one of the most wide-open landscapes you can find in North America. I stretched my legs among well-bundled Canadian families in Kluane National Park. I gave a ride to help out a stranded group of skiers whose van was stuck in a ditch. Without a hope for cell service for hours in each direction, they reminded me that the safety of my warm, over-packed car was precarious—just some glass and metal separating me from the wild, wild Yukon. By the time I saw signs of civilization again, I let out a sigh of relief.
The scenery only grew grander as I crossed back into Alaska, and drove the winding highway to its in end in Haines. Along the road, milky glacial rivers dotted with eagles meandered the same direction as I did: to the coast.After rolling into Haines with an hour to spare, I stopped at a cafe for a much-needed burrito then pulled in to position to load my car on the ferry. By some small miracle, my harebrained plan had fallen into place. As I rolled down my window to hand over my ticket, the collector eyed my Colorado license and said something that stuck with me.
“You know, where you’re headed, there are no roads leaving.” The more I think about it, the more I hear it as a promise rather than a warning.
Ferry travel is one of my all time favorite things about Alaska. With my car safely tucked in the cargo hold, I staked out a spot on deck. The wind whipped by, temperatures stubbornly stuck in the mid-thirties, but the sun was out so so were half the passengers. Sprawled on lawn chairs across the top deck, wrapped in sleeping backs and toting bundled babies, books, snacks, the Alaskans were easy to spot. Even when the skies faded to black, I stayed out under the heat lamps and stars, looking for the lights of a city to guide us back from what felt like the edge of the world.
“Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling…let us go”
― Robert W. Service,
It’s been almost a month since I reluctantly packed up my things and left Gustavus the same way I arrived (running late, and with too much stuff). Start to end, I was only headed 50 miles east to a new life Juneau, but by way of an epic road trip through the Yukon, across the waters of Lynn Canal, and with a brief, boozy detour to New Orleans. That’s a story for another time, however, because I’m not quite done reminiscing about my winter in Glacier Bay.
Living with a national park outside your door is surreal. Before I came to Alaska, national parks had been a distant wonder. I had only been to a handful of parks. Each was a whirlwind of rushed activity that ended too soon, like standing at the edge of a vast ocean and never getting to jump in. The thought that you could make a wild place your home and spend your days getting to know it is something that seemed confined to the sun-bleached pages of an Ed Abbey novel.
The trails and restless tides of Bartlett Cove became familiar and comforting in their ever-changing grandeur, and beyond was 3.3 million acres of fjords and glaciers that is still as mysterious to me as it was the day I arrived. Just knowing it was out there, stretching for miles in every direction, was an exhilarating thought. Some days, when the fog descended in a wet, oppressive cold over the trees and I didn’t feel like going out into it, it was enough to pull up the shades, crack the windows, and listen for the cry of eagles or the somber conversations of owls.
I spent my final weeks at the park in a frantic, over-scheduled attempt to fit in what I could. Two friends from Anchorage came for a short visit, and of course received the royal Southeast Alaska treatment: oppressive rain with the occasional tease of sunshine. I spent a day aboard the Glacier Bay research vessel, the Fog Lark, helping out with oceanographic monitoring up bay. We were the only vessel on the water, dodging icebergs as we made our way up the west arm, then the east. So few people get to float through those waters in the winter, and the bewildered gazes of the wildlife we startled was as exhilarating a reminder of where we were as the katabatic winds coming off the glaciers.
In the chaos of leaving, I managed to sneak in one last moment of appreciation for my winter home. I was rushing through last minute chores the night before I left when the very persuasive procrastinator in the back of my mind convinced me that 20 minutes of cleaning was worthy of at least an hour break. It had been raining on and off all day, but I pulled on a raincoat and headed down to the beach anyways. As the road curved towards the shore, I could just make out the highlighter pink glow of clouds through the trees. I half-jogged out to the biggest rock I could find and climbed up to watch.
Alone on the miles and miles of coast with a front-row seat to the best show there is, it struck me as an incredible privilege to sit with the stoic blue herons and the otters bobbing offshore. There are places where the barriers between the wild world and the human world are thin, and if you stay still and quiet enough, melt away altogether.
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver
The past few months of living in Glacier Bay, I’ve taken any opportunity I can to see more of the park. In true Gustavus fashion, the more my roommate Addy and I explored, the more people reached out to offer us gear to borrow and chances to do something new. We’ve been ice skating on a pond near the post office where the town gathers to play hockey on frigid days. We’ve walked in the footprints of wolves, exploring coasts that see more wildlife than people most days. Entrusted with sea kayaks and some sage words of advice on how not to capsize, we listened to the satisfying crack of our paddles through brittle ice as we paddled the waters of the cove.
A few weeks ago, we had a chance to join a short adventure that had been on my list since I arrived. Although we had kept ourselves busy exploring the coast and the trails near home, the Coloradan in me was dying to get up above sea level. Though surrounded by a a stunning crown of mountain peaks, Gustavus and Bartlett Cove sit on a broad, flat stretch of land that was once a glacial outwash plain. Excursion Ridge, the only quasi-mountain you can reach from town without a plane or boat, had loomed over us tauntingly for weeks. We couldn’t take a government car on the road leading up to it, and even if we could, there was no trail to follow or obvious route through the miles of deep snow and forest. A local wilderness enthusiast was leading the boy and girl scouts up there on the weekends, though he had been getting more interest from adults than kids, and we invited ourselves along.
The morning of the hike was a postcard bluebird day. We met the other adults, and the three teenage girl scouts that had shown up. The boy scouts had all bailed, blaming late night video gaming or better things to do. Or, if you asked Larry, they weren’t too keen to be shown up by the girl scouts again as they had been during the last outing. We were a motley but enthusiastic crew. Larry, a spry and energetic ~60 year old with a bellowing laugh and a well-worn mental map of every twist and turn of the woods we were headed to, three tough-as-nails adventurers disguised as 14 year-olds, and a few hikers who were eager to explore some new territory.
As the girls showed the way ahead of us, we crossed a frozen river and clambered through dense spruce and hemlock groves. We strapped on snowshoes and broke trail across blinding white meadows with sunshine on our backs. It was one of those electrifying days where the farther you go, the more you want to keep going. Snow-capped mountain peaks rose into sight above the tree tops. A pair of wolverine tracks marked the path we followed. There was plenty of silliness and laughter, as you’d expect from our young guides, but also the unmistakable imprints of the impassioned outdoor role model they were following. They pushed each other to conquer fears and go further than they had before, all while squeezing in an impressive rendition of the Mamma Mia soundtrack. Those badass young girls reminded my why I love the outdoors. There’s a pure and simple joy in persevering through hardship towards something bigger than yourself.
After some scrambling up an amazingly steep slope someone had dubbed the Moose-calator, we reached a high clearing. Between the trees, far below, were the waters and islands of Icy Strait in hazy midday light. Haloed by mossy hemlock branches were the Fairweather peaks, the Beardslee Islands, and the entire bay beyond. I took in my first glimpse of the upper reaches of the park quietly. I tried to translate the vista around us into pictures, but gave up quickly. Some things are better experienced than captured.
The snow conditions were not great, so we turned back not far from the top of the ridge. The long hike down passed quickly between friendly chatter and glissading down the steepest snowfields (at alarming speeds). By the time we arrive back to the road, the clouds began to glow faintly pink with the telltale signs of an epic sunset. Without much discussion or thought of the 10-mile day behind us, Addy and I ran to a nearby clearing in the trees. It was just one more in a long series of sunsets I had watched over those mountains, and yes, dinner and comfort and warmth was calling, but it was one I wouldn’t miss.
The show that played out in a dramatic kaleidoscope of color above the trees and the knife-edge peaks was a good one. It confirmed my personal mantra as of late (you never regret a sunset), and more importantly, the winding, seemingly random series of decisions that brought me to Alaska. Some days, it’s easy to question how I arrived where I am, and if I should be doing some thing more or different or better. Not that day.
It was a surprising relief to wake up to gloomy weather this past weekend. On days of endless sun and clear horizons, the pull of the wild world outside is irresistible. Laundry goes unlaundered, dishes unwashed, taxes undone, and the memory cards of pictures stack up. Well, my taxes are still undone (I’m only human), but I’ve had a much needed chance to catch up on the less glamorous aspects of life. When wilderness beckons outside every window, it’s hard to get anything finished.
Really, though, there are worse problems to have.
“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
— Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
Pulling together my thoughts from a tumultuous and challenging year, I had to face it: This was my least traveled year yet. But it was also one of my best. While my parents made their way across the African continent by boat, plane, safari jeep, and camel, my geographic range rarely strayed from Alaska. But what a state to call home. I was warned early on about the ways the Land of the Midnight Sun gets under your skin. You’ll be back, they said. And in the mysterious and frustrating way that “they” always seem to be right, they were. Again and again, my internal compass keeps turning me north.
After reluctantly packing away the life I’d built in Anchorage, coming back to Colorado at the end of 2017 was full of the comforts that I miss in Alaska: warm winter sunshine, family and old friends, and reasonably-priced produce. But there’s always another opportunity to chase, and this time I’m headed to a tiny town off the road system in Southeast Alaska.
On paper, it’s not a particularly enticing gig. I’ll be working at the headquarters of Glacier Bay National Park, ten miles from the town Gustavus (with a population of 400), where winters are dark, wet, and isolated. No bars, no well-stocked grocery stores, no bookstores or late night fast food. But there’s something intangible that a list of lacking amenities doesn’t account for. A quality that places like Gustavus lend that can’t quite be captured, like stepping out to watch the northern lights dance across the bay without another soul in sight. The faces that recognize and embrace you in a small town that relies on each other. The camaraderie of a shared spirit that brings people to the quiet corners of the world. An appreciation of the things that make you want to leave behind phone service, reliable WiFi, and the comforts of free 2-day shipping.
Living in Alaska has taught me how stripping away some of life’s little conveniences can bring out what’s most important. I hope 2018 brings more of that.
Girdwood & Fairbanks, AlaskaDenali National Park & Preserve, AlaskaVancouver, British ColumbiaLake Clark National Park & Preserve, AlaskaSeattle, Washington
“I have found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. They didn’t cost me a lot of money either. They just worked on my senses. Did you ever pick very large blueberries after a summer rain Walk through a grove of cottonwoods, open like a park, and see the blue sky beyond the shimmering gold of the leaves? Pull on dry woolen socks after you’ve peeled off the wet ones? Come in out of the subzero and shiver yourself warm in front of a wood fire? The world is full of such things.”
The odds were not in my favor. Out of over 12,000 applicants, only 400 lottery tickets per day are given out during the annual Denali road lottery. And of those, only one of the four days is over the weekend- the others on weekdays, so you’d have to take time off. And then, once you’ve been lucky enough to secure a spot (some people apply for years without success), the issue of weather comes into play. Denali, the mammoth, is so large it creates its own nasty weather system. If you can believe it, the famous mountain that people travel across the world feel small beside is only visible 30 percent of the time.
So you can imagine my utter shock to find myself on the Denali Park Road last month, staring across a bracing fall day at “the High One” in all its unencumbered 20,310 foot glory. The night beforehand, at the Denali Outdoor Center, we had rocked up without reservations to score a campsite by Otto Lake just as the sunset lit the fall foliage around us into a raging inferno of color. We got an early start the next morning. Under boundless blue skies, our car kicked up dust over braided rivers and somber forests to Savage River, Polychrome Pass, and beyond- all blanketed with the intense patchwork of fall tundra hitting its peak. Even the born-and-raised Alaskans in our midst agreed; it was a once in a lifetime chance.
During the summer season, visitors to the park can only drive their cars about 15 miles of the 92 mile road. The rest is only available by bus tour or shuttle, and in the winter the road is closed to vehicles entirely. To have the luxury of driving your own car down that wild road is an experience not easily beat . The sight of brake lights ahead periodically signaled wildlife sightings. We stopped in awe to see our first grizzly bear, a hulking mass of power and ease eating berries with indifference to the click of shutters and car doors. By the end of the day our count was impressive: nine grizzlies, two Dall sheep, a lone caribou, plenty of moose, and some endearingly dim-witted ptarmigans.
It’s a long 92 miles to the end of the road and after all the stops on the way in, we made it out of the park in about half the time. After about eight straight hours of driving (still four hours from Anchorage), we had only one thing on our minds: pizza. (P. I. Z. Z. A). By the third “closed” sign we passed, the prospects weren’t encouraging. It became increasingly obvious as we became increasingly hungry that our one and only option for a pizza dinner (or any dinner) that night was pinned on a greasy Tesoro gas station.
Forty-five minutes and five frozen Digiorno pizzas baked impatiently in the gas station microwave later, things looked a lot brighter. I collapsed into bed that night counting grizzlies instead of sheep and thinking of the millions of acres of wild land in Denali that no road will ever reach. Let’s keep it that way.
“It would be fitting, I think, if among the last man made tracks on earth would be found the huge footprints of the great brown bear.”
– Earl Fleming