The weather wasn’t any better the next day so I rode the shuttle bus for a couple hours into the park. There are basically 2 types of buses: camper buses and tourist buses. On a camper bus, you’ve got campers – mostly hippies, adventurous backpackers and experienced outdoors people. The tourist bus takes everyone else. The tourist buses also make photo-op stops for just about every creature people can possibly spot, so they stop often. Actually there’s a third type of bus that services the “Kantishna Experience” – with a name like that you just know it’s a cash grab. Most of the Kantishna-ers ride the bus in, stay overnight at a cabin for $500 each, and then head back out the next day. Yep, cash grab! Anyway, I rode through the mountainous central area of the park, noting which areas seemed the most appealing before I switched buses and headed back in the other direction.
You can stop a tourist bus anyplace you want to get off and when you do, you get very bewildered looks. “Where is he going? What about the bears? I don’t see a trail here. Why would you walk when there is a bus?” But that’s all left behind as the bus rumbles off into the distance leaving just you and the land. Denali has no trails, so traveling across the tundra and into the mountains is limited only to your abilities and your map-and-compass skills.
For day 1 I picked a loop through the mountains in Unit 11 – up one drainage, over a pass, and back down another. It was easy navigating despite the fact that the higher elevations were shrouded in clouds and covered in snow. On the map it looks quite short, just a few inches, but each inch is 5 km so the distance adds up fast. The road quickly faded from view, giving me a sense that I was further back than I actually was. I followed the gravel bar of a creek which provided fairly easy walking up into the valley, while sleet blew against my back. My eyes surveyed the beauty of the sharp hills and verdant ridges, while also watching for Grizzlies. I actually really enjoyed the conditions – had it been sunny and warm, it just wouldn’t have been the Alaska I was looking for.
After a couple hours going in, I headed up a steep valley, with the wind and snow intensifying as I got higher and higher. Fortunately, visibility was decent and when I reached the pass an hour later, I felt confident enough to scramble through the snow up to the adjacent peak. Reaching the top, the wind blew hard, probably 50 kph, and it sure as hell didn’t feel like August anymore. I didn’t stay long before descending. The weather improved later in the day and I got some nice pics before sauntering down the next valley back toward the road. It was a great introduction to Denali.
The bus that took me back to camp in the evening had an infestation of Texans – they had all come in on the same cruise ship. A small group of hunters carefully surveyed the hills with camo binoculars for any sign of game and when they spotted something they’d call out the coordinates to the driver. “11-o-clawk, abawt 30 degreeeees up thaaat hillsaaad, maybe 500 yards aufff, I kin see some sheep” and they’d all crowd around the windows discussing what kind of rifle they’d kill that shit with back home. Most people were mildly amused by them, but I’d be happy to strap some antlers to their heads and send em back to their Texan hunting grounds. Why do you think you don’t have game like this in Texas ya dumb fucks? Sorry but those guys piss me off!
One thing I’ve learned from past backpacking trips is not to underestimate the importance of good food and good sleep. I ate pretty well in Denali – Teriyaki Beef, Chicken Paella, Fettucini Alfredo, and Eggs Florentine for breakfast. Not bad. Granted, its dehydrated camp food that tastes roughly like leftovers but still, it goes down well when you’re hungry. I got a good nights sleep and hoped for better weather the next day.