:: Denali Backpacking Trip - June 19 - June 23, 2004 ::

This is the record of my backpacking adventure in Denali National Park.
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:: Wednesday, September 17, 2003 @ 3:30 PM::

I'm waiting on some processes to finish at work, and I'm thinking about backpacking in Denali next summer. But where do I start? I think I'll start at the website for Denali National Park. From my pre research I've found out that this site has some good information. It looks like they do not allow reservations for backpacking in Denali, so I have to be there no earlier than 24 hours ahead of time to reserve my unit. I guess I have to come up with a lot of alternative routes just in case they don't have my first choice.

:: Monday, January 19, 2004 @ 3:30 PM::
I'm starting to do a little more research for the June Trip to Denali. I got our plane tickets before New Year's. As it stands now we are departing San Jose on June 16th and return to San Jose on June 28th. Our plan is to be backpacking in Denali from June 20th through June 22nd. Right now I'm looking at this document to get an idea of the backcountry units and where we would like to go. I think that is a good starting point.

:: Wednesday, March 3, 2004 @ 6:30 PM::
There have been a few developments in my preparation for the Denali Trip. I got a map and the backcountry companion for Denali. I read through the guide and now have a good idea of what areas I would like to backpack in. I also found some new hiking boots at REI. The boots I got are the Solomon Super Mountain Lite boots. They are big and rigid and seem to be up to the task of backpacking in harsh conditions. I need to spend some time breaking them in and shedding some pounds before the trip. There are only about 3 months now until this trip becomes a reality. It is time to get slimmed down.

:: Saturday, June 19, 2004 @ 8:30 AM::
We had originally wanted to get up to Denali right as the visitor center opened (7 AM) today so that we could make all of our backpacking arrangements and also take the bus all the way to Wonder Lake and back. Looking back on it, I'm glad we didn't do that. For one, we didn't get to bed until 2 AM, so if we had tried to make that crazy schedule we would not have gotten any sleep and the ride all the way to Wonder Lake and back makes for a really long day. Instead, we decided to get a decent amount of sleep and at least make sure that we got there before the visitor center closed so that we could get our backcountry unit for tomorrow.

:: Saturday, June 19, 2004 @ 3:30 PM::
We stopped at Denali State Park along the way up to Denali National Park. The weather was great and we could see Mount Denali from Nancy Lake (170 miles away). You really can't get better weather than what we got. But we finally made it to Denali National Park. We took a few photos in front of the sign and then went to the Visitor Center. There were a lot of people there so we had to park a fair distance away and then walk to the visitor center. The temperature must have been somewhere in the 80's and it was hot once we got into the Visitor Center which didn't have air conditioning because it's Alaska. We looked around the Visitor Center for a few minutes before working our way over to the backcountry desk. We looked at the board to see what units were available. Our plan was to stay in the backcountry for two nights, 6/20 and 6/21. After looking over the board and checking out the descriptions and maps we narrowed it down to between units 4,5, and 8. We eventually decided to go with backcountry unit #8. Backcountry Unit #8 is described in the Denali Backcountry Companion as:

"Upstream from the East Fork River Bridge along the Park Road, the East Fork River branches into more than five streams. The first two branches, the largest ones, flow south from small glaciers through glacial valleys. The other branches of the East Fork River flow from narrow finger glaciers called the Polychrome Glaciers. Halfway to their confluence, the streams enter an open tundra plain, locally called the Plains of Muire.

Flora and Terrain:
All the East Fork branches flow along gravel bars. Between the branches on the Plains of Murie the vegetation consists of dry and moist tundra with low and high willow groves scattered throughout. Although willows can get high, this is not true tree cover. The high hills that contain the Polychrome Glaciers and the glacier valleys of the first two branches consist of scree slopes and rock outcrops, poor rock for climbing or traveling. Some ridges are occasionally climbed, though the rock cover makes this dangerous.

Caribou travel throughout the Plains of Murie in the summer, occasionally forming large groups. They may be found even in the glacier valleys of the first two branches. Grizzly bears can be expected anywhere in this area from the upper hills to the plains. Dall sheep inhabit the upper hills, along with marmot and pika. Moose wander and feed in the heavier willow growth.

Rivers and Streams:
Before the East Fork River branches out, it can be very difficult to find a braided section to cross. After that it is much easier.

Glaciers and Mountaineering:
As in most of the Alaska Range in the eastern part of the park, not much mountaineering is done here. The exception is Mount Pendleton, more than 7000 ft (2130 m) high. Although small compared to others in the park it can be dangerous. Access to the standard climbing route is up the first branch glacier (also known the Pendleton Glacier). Crevasses are a real hazard on this glacier, and the climb should only be attempted by experienced individuals. The Polychrome Glaciers are steep and covered with rock over much of their surface. Because of the slopes, loose rock, and crevasses, climbing can be dangerous.

Access from Park Road:
Mile 43 to Mile 50

Topographic Maps:
Healy C-6, Healy B-6"

We talked to the person working at the backcountry desk and started on the paperwork. After we finished the paperwork we were required to watch a 30 minute video about bear safety, river crossing safety, and other issues in regards to having a safe backcountry experience in Denali National Park. After we watched the video we got our camper bus ticket and left to go find dinner and a place to sleep for the night.

:: Saturday, June 19, 2004 @ 6:30 PM::
We looked around for a while to find a place to eat. One complaint that I have about the developed area outside the park is that the development seems to be very disorganized and most of the tourist shops are really cheesy. There are also very few good places to eat. We ended up eating at a place that seemed to have the most variety on their menu. I ended up getting the beer battered halibut with fries and Timber got a tuna sandwich. I was wondering why she got a tuna sandwich, but she said that nothing else on the menu appeared to be very appealing. The guy that took our order wasn't very friendly. It seemed like he was already sick of tourists and it was only June. I'd like to give him a little bit of advice. That advice is to smile once in a while and don't make wise ass comments to customers because they will blast you in their blogs. I forget the name of the place but I think they said Salmon Bake in their sign. But the food wasn't very good, so if you want to eat just outside the park I recommend either Subway or Lynx Creek Pizza instead. We drove around to try to find the Denali Hostel because I went to high school with the girl that runs it and I wanted to say hi. But we couldn't find it and we had to find a place soon otherwise we weren't going to find a place to sleep for the night and we had to get up early to catch the camper bus. As a result we went toward Healy and got the last room at the Denali Park Hotel. We got a hotel room because I wanted to enjoy sleeping in a bed and getting a shower one last time before heading into the backcountry. The room was clean and did the job, so they get thumbs up from me. Once we got into the room we started packing our backpacks and getting our gear ready for the next day. After that we hit the sack. We had to be at the bus stop for the camper bus at 6:30 in the morning.

:: Sunday, June 20, 2004 @ 7:00 AM::
We got up around 6 AM and hightailed it to the park entrance so that we could catch the camper bus. We had to park in the overflow parking area and we weren't sure how far we would have to walk to get to park headquarters and we were running out of time. Luckily we found a bus stop near where we parked and the camper bus picked us up there. We threw our backpacks in the back of the bus, showed our tickets to the bus driver, and took our seats. The bus left the visitor center promptly at 7 AM.

:: Sunday, June 20, 2004 @ 9:00 AM::
Well we finally made it to backcountry unit #8. It was just past the critical wildlife closure area (closed due to high concentration of Grizzly Bears) and just over the East Fork River, and just before the Polychrome Visitor Center as you head West, deeper into the park. On the way here I spotted a wolf, which promptly ran away once the bus driver was able to back up the bus for us to get a better look. I was bummed that I didn't get a photo of the wolf because I didn't think we were going to see any more wolves on this trip. Back to being dropped off. We were the first ones to be dropped off. The interesting thing about backpacking in Denali is that you can get off the bus wherever you want and hike wherever you want because there are no trails. The only stipulation if you are backpacking is that you have to pitch your tent and sleep in the backcountry unit that you are assigned to. So I got off the bus and went around to the back so Timber could hand me our packs. After we got both packs and all of our gear off the bus Timber got off the bus and joined me on the outside of the bus near the rear. I wondered for a split second if we really had to go through with this. An instant later it was too late to turn back because the bus was already starting to get back on the road and drive deeper into the park. We were on our own. I have a feeling that Timber had the same thought that I had just a few seconds before. I started thinking that now we were all alone in the middle of bear country, glacial streams with no bridges, extreme and unpredictable weather, mosquitoes, and a host of things that could lead to my obituary in the San Jose Mercury News. It was exciting. We put on our packs and headed down the embankment to the gravel bar.

:: Sunday, June 20, 2004 @ 12:00 PM::
On the way down the gravel bar I slipped and fell on my butt, but I quickly recovered and made it down the embankment without any injuries. Timber came down more smoothly than me. Once down the embankment we started heading south on the west side of the East Fork River along the gravel bar. We seemed to be making pretty good time. After a few minutes of hiking we were starting to see signs of animals. I first saw moose tracks and pointed them out to Timber and then we saw a big pile of crap that had to belong to a Grizzly Bear. Timber was so impressed by it she had to have her picture taken with it. I suggested she pick it up and get it in her hands because that would make a better picture. :-) When we were first starting out it seemed like all the big rocks we saw off in the distance were bears. Luckily I had brought my binoculars and would stop every once in a while to look out for animals. After while we were getting closer to the main braid in the East Fork when a Ptarmigan jumped out of the bushes in front of us. I showed Timber and told her a little bit about how it is brown in the summer and white in the winter. I went on to tell her that they fly fast and are pretty hard to shoot out of the air. This is a typically Alaskan point of view I guess. :-) But I told her that since this Ptarmigan didn't immediately take to the air it must be nesting, so we decided to give it a wide berth and continue on our way.

:: Sunday, June 20, 2004 @ 2:00 PM::
We finally came to our first river crossing. We were both anxious to get it out of the way because we had heard horror stories about people that had fallen in the river and had their trips ruined. But we had taken precautions. First, we put all of our gear in garbage bags and tied them shut before putting them in our backpacks so that not everything would get soaked if we did spend a short time in the water. Also, we brought our trekking poles. I also had seal skinz (the brand, not really seal skin) socks and my Tevas while Timber had her adventure racing shoes to change into. We took a few minutes to change our shoes and get everything ready and then we looked over the river and crossed where it was shallowest and easiest. All in all it wasn't that bad, but the water sure was cold. While we were working our way up the gravel bars and doing stream crossings we saw some Sea Gulls flying around. I thought it was rather odd to see them in Denali but otherwise didn't pay them much attention. That was a big mistake. One Sea Gull started flying closer and closer to us until it started to dive bomb us. I wanted to throw rocks at it but buses that were passing periodically could conceivably see us with binoculars and I didn't want to get in trouble with the rangers for hitting Sea Gulls with rocks. We ended up waving our poles around when the Sea Gull got to close. We tried to figure out where it's nest was and steer clear of it. That was not an enjoyable experience. After a few stream crossings and being harassed by the Sea Gulls we decided to try to get off of the gravel bars and up onto the tundra. That was a big mistake. First, Timber almost freaked out when we did that because the visibility on the tundra isn't nearly as good as on the gravel bars so we won't be able to see the bears from as far off. Second, travel on the tundra and through the bushes is a lot slower. We were working our way uphill when Timber looked behind us and then yelled over for me to take a look. It was a male Caribou heading right for us. She asked me if they would stomp on people like Moose did and I told her that I had never heard of any cases of that happening before. All the while the Caribou was trotting right toward us apparently unaware of our presence. I decided not to take any chanced and not freak out Timber any further so I made some noise and the Caribou immediately veered off and ran around a hill and out of sight. After a bit more bushwhacking we decided to head back to the gravel bar and up toward the Polychrome Glaciers.

:: Sunday, June 20, 2004 @ 8:00 PM::
Timber was starting to get frustrated because we had gone a long way but were still within view of the road. We knew that it would be impossible for people to see us from the road (even with binoculars), but we didn't want to violate any of the regulations so we kept going. We talked about different routes that we could take to our camping spot and when we could stop. After a bit more bushwhacking on the tundra and walking through bogs we finally got to a relatively flat spot that was out of view from the road and had a decent amount of wind to keep the mosquitoes at bay. In fact, the wind was blowing down from the glacier so hard that we had to take extra precautions when putting the tent up and I started to wonder if the tent would hold up against the wind. It did. Our next task was to unpack our packs, get all of our food into the bear canister and stash it somewhere, and then get cleaned up and go to sleep. We weren't really interested in eating dinner. While in Denali you have to keep all of your food, garbage, and person hygiene items that have scent in your bear canister. And you have to keep your bear canister at least 100 yards down wind from your tent. That way if a bear does follow the scent of your food to the bear canister it doesn't have to go through your camp to get it. You also have to user the bathroom at least 100 yards from your tent and bear canister. Same goes with where you cook. So overall it makes a big triangle. We were both pretty tired to we did everything that needed to be done and hit the sack fairly early.

:: Monday, June 21, 2004 @ 6:00 AM::
When we had gone to sleep the night before the wind was just howling. It was kind of weird to wake up and only hear the buzzing of mosquitoes. Obviously the sun was up but there was a weird stillness to our surroundings. I half expected there to be a group of Caribou gathered outside our tent to welcome us to Denali. I woke Timber up and told her to look outside the tent because she might be surprised. She gave me a weird look and then unzipped the window on our tent. There was nothing there, but it felt like there had been something there not too long ago. I went back to sleep knowing that I wouldn't have to carry gear very far today but that I would have bigger things to do instead.

:: Monday, June 21, 2004 @ 10:00 AM::
We finally got up and started to move around. The mosquitoes were really itching to get at us so we had to make sure that we lathered on the sun block (due to the great weather) and the bug repellent. After we left the tent we had to walk over to the bear canister, get the food, stove, toiletries (have to go in the bear canister too), and garbage bag and take all that along with the cooking pan over to where we were going to cook. While we were in Anchorage we went to REI and stocked up on backpacking food. Since this is basically a once in a lifetime trip I decided to swing for the fences and get stuff that is better than your normal, run of the mill cup-o-noodle. We got stuff like Spinach & Cheese Omlette, Santa Fe Chicken, Chicken Fajitas, and Blueberry Pancakes. On this fine morning we decided to have our Blueberry Pancakes. The only problem was that I didn't read the directions in the store, otherwise I wouldn't have gotten the Blueberry Pancakes. They were nothing more than pancake mix with dried blueberries mixed in. So you still have to cook them like regular pancakes which I wasn't happy about because that is a fuel killer. On top of that it takes longer than instant oatmeal and other backpacking foods. We also didn't have any syrup. So we spent a good amount of time cooking and then eating our pancakes. They weren't bad, but I'm never going to buy them for a backpacking trip again.

:: Monday, June 21, 2004 @ 12:00 PM::
After finishing with breakfast and cleaning everything up it was time to do some day hiking. The benefit of our strategy to set up a base camp was that we didn't have to carry all of our gear around on the second day. It was nice to leisurely work our way up the hill near our campsite and sit on top of it and look around for bears. We looked far and wide but we didn't see any bears. But we did see what we believed to be a small group of Caribou hiding out near a small pond on the tundra.

:: Monday, June 21, 2004 @ 2:00 PM::
After having been sufficiently lazy laying on the hill looking for bears and looking around at the clouds Timber decided to walk over to a higher point on the hill to get a better look at one of the Polychrome Glaciers. I took my time but eventually I followed her. Once we were at the height of the hill I set up my tri pod and proceeded to take a number of photos of us in front of the glacier. After we had taken plenty of photos she walked down the hill toward the glacier a ways until we had a spectacular view of it and we were as close as safely possible while still being on the hill. At exactly 1:24 PM (the height of the day), I proposed to her. I think she was surprised, and she asked me for more time to decide. I ended up giving her two weeks to make her decision.

:: Monday, June 21, 2004 @ 5:00 PM::
After spending some time on the hill checking out the glacier we wandered back to camp. Once we were back we decided that we needed to get more water for dinner so we walked down to the stream that was running from the glacier that we had just been checking out. I thought the filtered water was going to have a bad after taste like the other water we had been getting lately but I was surprised to find that it tasted great.

:: Monday, June 21, 2004 @ 9:00 PM::
We made it back to camp after filling up all of our water bottles and cooked dinner. Dinner tonight was Santa Fe Chicken which turned out to be pretty good as far as freeze dried backpacking meals go. I would definitely have it again. After dinner it took a while to put everything back in the bear canister and then get cleaned up and ready for bed. When we were walking back to the tent we came across an Arctic Ground Squirrel that wasn't afraid of us at all. It had been digging a hole and putting the upper half of it's body in the hole to try to get something. After about a minute or so of doing this, the Arctic Ground Squirrel popped out of the hole and looked at us while it was chewing rapidly. We determined by this time that it was getting bugs and eating them. We were within 5 feet of it the whole time and I got some pretty good photos. After a few minutes of watching it dig and eat we decided to move on, so we slowly walked back to the tent without disturbing it. We didn't do much else before turning in for the night.

:: Tuesday, June 22, 2004 @ 10:00 AM::
We had planned on getting up at 5 or 6 AM so that we could make a mad dash for the park road so that we could get out to Wonder Lake and back to the Park Entrance in order to make it to Fairbanks by a decent time today. We failed. We woke up later than expected but did a pretty good job of getting packed up and moving in a short period of time. We made for the gravel bar again on the way back because that's how we would make the best time, and we also had the best visibility there. On the way back to the road while we were still fairly close to where we camped we saw a female Caribou lying down on the gravel bar. We were a good distance away from it so we didn't cause it to get up and run away. I took a photo of it (that didn't turn out very well) and we kept moving. I think we were kind of lazy on the way back to the road in that we didn't want to change our shoes to do stream crossings very often, so we took more risks with our hiking boots than we should have. Not long after one stream crossing we were walking along the gravel bar when I looked up and saw a wolf. I stopped and told Timber about it and she took a good look at it too. It stopped for a moment to look at us and then it continued on it's way. It crossed the stream and went laterally across the gravel bar. It headed east toward the wildlife closure area, and on the way there it ran into the Sea Gulls that were nesting. It stopped to sniff something and they started to dive bomb it. After a few dive bombs it ran away from the Sea Gulls and out of view. Timber noticed that it was wearing a collar and I noticed that it had it's tail between it's legs the whole time. I thought it was ironic that we had seen a female Caribou lying down on the gravel bar not long before we crossed paths with the Wolf. I was a great illustration at just how random things can be. But we made it back to the road safely after a steep climb back up the embankment that I had fallen on when I was going down it into our back country unit.

:: Tuesday, June 22, 2004 @ 12:00 PM::
We were relieved that the backpacking portion of our trip was over. We didn't have to use our bear mace and the proposal went off without a hitch. We waited by the side of the park road as different buses passed us going west and deeper into the park. We had to wait for a bus to come by that had room for us and our gear. Finally a bus did come and we got on it and were on our way deeper into the park. I think some of the people were looking at us kind of weird as we got onto the bus. And I have to admit that it felt good to think that they might have been intimidated by us. I hadn't shaved in four or five days, and while I don't think I smelled bad I think they were considering how hearty we were to be able to backpack in such a wild place. But in the end I didn't really care what the strangers thought. Not long after we had gotten onto the bus we saw our first bear. It was a big, fat, blond, Grizzly walking on the side of a hill with one cub. It had to be only a mile or two from where we got onto the bus. After that we saw some birds, Caribou, and more views of Mount Denali before we got to the Eielson Visitor Center.

:: Tuesday, June 22, 2004 @ 4:00 PM::
We made it to the Eielson Visitor Center, but that was the end of the line for our bus. As a result we had to get off the bus and go over to the bus coordinator to find out how we could get out to Wonder Lake. The bus coordinator was a nice guy that seemed to have a slight hippie streak to him. But he was friendly and told us that we needed to put our names on the list and then he would check with each of the bus drivers to see if they had room to take us to Wonder Lake with them. While we were waiting we walked over to the viewing deck and checked out of view of Mount Eielson, Mount Denali, and Muldrow Glacier. Then we checked out the gift shop and the educational area. After a while the bus coordinator found us and asked us if we wouldn't mind leaving our packs at the Visitor Center because the bus that he would put us on didn't have room for our packs. We agree and jumped on the bus for Wonder Lake.

:: Tuesday, June 22, 2004 @ 8:00 PM::
We made it to Wonder Lake, and along the way Mount Denali kept getting clouded over and then it would clear a little bit. On the way to the lake we saw a mother Moose and a calf. In different guide books that I've read they say that if you are going to camp at the campground for Wonder Lake you'd better bring a mosquito net. We saw why when we got off the bus. Wonder Lake is about 30 miles away from Mount Denali. Mount Denali was huge from that close. After nearly getting eaten alive by the mosquitoes we got back on the bus and went back to the Eielson Visitor Center. Then we had to wait for a bus with room to come along and we jumped on and headed back to the park entrance. We saw another bear on the way back and some more Caribou along with a few Dall sheep. Now it is time to get a bite to eat and head to Fairbanks.

:: The Aftermath::
The Denali backpacking trip was a long time in coming. Preparation really started toward the end of 2003, and I'm glad I spent the time doing the research and getting all the information that I needed. It was also very important to me that everything go smoothly because that's where I proposed to Timber. It took her two weeks, but she eventually said yes. :-) The uncertainty in which backcountry unit you'll get (due to no advanced reservations) can cause heart burn for some people, but I got the impression that it allows you to be more creative and talk to the rangers more before having to make your decision. All the rangers that I interacted with in Denali were extremely knowledgeable and friendly, and that made the trip all the more better. For people that are planning on going backpacking in Denali I think you should take your time to adequately prepare. You'll need to bring gear for bad weather and I would recommend taking bear mace although I didn't have top use it. Definitely get extra batteries for your camera and decide on a good strategy and gear for crossing the streams. Other than that make sure you have all of the essentials, a map, compass, and mosquito repellant. And give yourself as much time in the backcountry as possible. I would totally do this trip again, but I doubt I'll get a chance to do it again for a long time because there are so many other backpacking trips that I want to do. But at least I can go back to back country unit #8 with Timber 30 years from now and it will be the same. Stay tuned for our backpacking trip in 2034.