Sunday, July 31, 2011

Denali National Park

Bus on park road
There are no long-distance trails in Denali NP. There are no long-distance trails in whole Alaska! If you want to go for a hike, it will be crosscountry. Denali NP is relatively expensive: I had to pay for the shuttle to get there and back (80$ one way), entrance fee into the NP (10$ for a hiker), and the shuttle bus inside the park (31$). At least backcountry camping permits were free. Despite the high costs I decided to go to Denali because it made logistics so much easier: All of Alaska is grizzly bear country and for overnight camping you have to secure your food. In Denali you get a bear canisters for the length of your stay for free. In Denali you can cache food in all the campgrounds along the park road - thus reducing your pack weight tremendously. Plus you can use the shuttle bus inside the park to go back and forth as much as you like - you still only pay once for a ticket.

Braided river
I had heard all sorts of bad stories about the tyranny of the backcountry rangers and their quota system. Whole of Denali is divided into several backcountry units and only a limited amount of hikers are permitted into each unit per day. Although the permit itself is free, you have to get into that quota, watch a bear safety video and have a personal safety talk with a ranger. To my big surprise getting the backcountry permit I wanted was not a problem at all. Hardly any quota was full and I could chose whatever I wanted. But then I made a big mistake: I had only 25 minutes left before the departure of my bus, but the bear safety video is 30 minutes! I asked whether I could skip the last 5 minutes of the video.... big mistake! The ranger nearly freaked out, took the remote control away from me and insisted on watching the whole damn thing, even watching the door to the video room so that I could not escape early. I could not believe that... luckily the ranger relented after another tantrum and let me go running after my bus, that was already about to leave the bus stop - I made it in the very last second. So much for the ranger tyranny....

I had permits for 3 different hikes in Denali, but I want to focus on the longest one - a five day hike- to give you an impression what hiking in Alaska is like. As I have mentioned before there are no long trails in Denali. If you don't want to constantly bushwhack through alpine tundra you have two options: Either you climp up over tree and brush line (4,000 ft at Denali) and walk along the ridges. Or you follow rivers and streams. I opted for the latter, because I was afraid that the exposed ridgeline option could turn pretty nasty in bad weather.

Toklat River valley
The bus takes over 5 hours to get from the park entrance all the way along the park road (81 miles) to the end at Wonder Lake. My first hike started about in the middle at Toklat River - a huge wide glaciated river bed that I followed north for 2 days. This section of the hike was actually pretty easy for Denali standards. Although the river bed itself is almost 1 km wide, the stream itself is very small and braided in summer. It is not a big problem to walk on gravel bars, although you still have to cross the various streams occassionally - which have a strong current and can be up to waist high. Still, finding a suitable flat spot is not too difficult, albeit a bit time consuming. You have great visibility along the barren river bed - meaning you could see bears and other wildlife early enough to avoid it. But I did not see any bears in that section and only the occasional foot print. Weather was fantastic and the views great - I really enjoyed myself.

Clearwater Creek
The trouble started when I had to turn southward again this time following another drainage: Clearwater Creek. Clearwater Creek did indeed have very clear, but also very swift and deep water- and unfortunately was single channel, too. It was impossible to cross it in the beginning.Unfortunately it was surrounded by almost inpenetrable thick brush and sometimes even high cliffs. As it was impossible to walk in the swift water I had to fight my way through the brush always expecting to rip my clothes or backpack apart. Of course there were thousands of mosquitoes that made my life miserable. Things got especially bad when the river took a turn and on my side high cliffs turned up that I had to climb up and down. Going was incredibly slow as I had to move on arctic tundra which means layers and layers of thick moss interspersed with holes and thick brush. I was constantly afraid of stepping into one of these holes and spraining my ankle. To make things even worse I had to keep singing and speaking in order to make myself known to the bears - despite the fact that I was already huffing and puffing from the strenous walking.

After 10 hours of straight hiking (well, you can't really call it hiking - bushwhacking would be more appropriate) I had managed to advance less than 10 km and was totally exhausted. I was shaking from exhaustion. Eventually I had been able to cross the river, but these crossing were always iffy. As a rule of thumb you can cross very swift water as long as it is only knee deep. Usually you can still cross water levels that are a bit higher, but it takes a lot of effort and concentration. Clearwater Creek by now was up to mid-thigh, and although the crossing was now manageable - there were too many of them. I had to cross almost every 300 meters and the effort just drained my energy. I slept fitfully and had nightmares of not being able to get out of this mess. If the terrain did not improve, I would not be able to make it out to the park road before my food ran out.

Stony Creek
Luckily, the next day things improved tremendously. Clearwater Creek split into 2 different creeks and my side channel called Stony Creek started to braid almost immediately. River crossings got easier all the time and I made great progress. The weather stayed nice, too and my mood improved considerably - until I saw the huge amount of bear prints on the ground. There had been the occasional bear print before, but now they were all over the place. And for sure, it did not take another hour before I ran into my first grizzly bear in Denali. Just about 200 meters in front of me frolicking in the brush was a huge grizzly that had luckily not noticed me because the wind came from the other direction. I retreated immediately and pondered my options. The grizzly was feeding on berries along the river bank. I could not get around it on the right side, because there was the river with a steep high bank on the other side. But I did not dare to go around it on the left side either because it was all thick brush (possibly hiding bear cubs) and if the bear noticed me while I was on its left side it might panic because I was cutting off its escape route. I came to the conclusion that I could just wait till the bear moved on itself. Unfortunately, it took its time eating all those delicious berries. I sat there hiding for almost 45 minutes until the bear had disappeared.
Gorge narrowing down

I continued very carefully crossing onto the other side of the creek as soon as possible. Well, the bear had disappeared, but one hour later I stood right in front of a huge moose. Moose are no predators, but still more people die from moose than from bear attacks. And this particular moose seemed to be pretty deaf, because no matter what I yelled at it it would not move. It only ran away when I started moving towards it. I had less than 3 km to the park road but my problems were not over yet. I had to go through a narrow gorge first and a huge rockslide had gone down there a couple of years before. Instead of walking through tundra I had to rockclimb now. I thought I would never make it out to the road - but eventually I did!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Those Bears sound pretty scary.