A year ago on September 8th, we were jumping into the Arctic Ocean in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
To some, birthdays are just another day on the calendar. They say, “You’re really just one day older”, sometimes using it as an excuse not to celebrate. To me, birthdays are milestones. They are a chance to look back at the year you’ve had and be thankful for the memories and adventures you were able to take. They provide an opportunity to think about where you want to go next. Most importantly, they are for celebrating those we love: who they are and the place they hold in our lives.
It’s fitting that John’s next birthday would be celebrated in Denali, on our last backpacking trip in the park of the season.
Our friend Joe Buccini came up from the San Francisco bay area for a long weekend visit. The buses into the park end this Thursday, so the timing worked perfectly for us to take a third, final backpacking trip in the park.
In Denali National Park, the backcountry is divided up into “units” for reservation. There are no trails in the Denali Wilderness, which means we are always choosing our own hiking routes and campsites. Units can range in size from 20 to more than 80 square miles, and most have a limit of four, sometimes six, people per night. We very rarely see other hikers while we are out there.
The camper bus will drop backpackers off wherever they want to start; there are no bus stops out here. We got off the bus after riding through Igloo Canyon, where I have to press my face up to the bus windows to see the tops of Igloo and Cathedral mountains on either side. At the top is the permanent Sable Pass wildlife closure, which protects pristine grizzly bear habitat from off-trail hiking and backpacking. Even in a protected park of 6 million acres, there are still areas without any human impact.
You can expect to see a lot of different terrain on a trip in Denali, and this weekend was no different. We hopped over streams, whacked our way through willow shrubs, walked on grassy plains with tussocks the size of basketballs, over a lichen and moss-covered alpine tundra ridge, and paralleled a glacial river on the East Fork of the Toklat River.
We walked by beautiful ponds, counted Dall sheep along Cathedral’s ridgeline, and identified animal tracks in the mud, taking numerous breaks and beautiful photos along the way. A couple of hours into our hike, the wind picked up to an insane degree, nearly pushing us over on the squishy tundra. Rain clouds over the Alaska Range drizzled us with the wind. It made it difficult to see through my water-spotted glasses, especially looking at the ridgeline across from us into the sun. We did eventually spot three grizzly bears on that hillside, a mother and two cubs, which pumped our adrenaline enough to keep us vigilant for the rest of the day.
As the light began to fade, we picked a camp spot on the grassy slope so we could have dinner before it was too dark (actual darkness is a novelty to us again after spending more than two months under the midnight sun). It sprinkled enough throughout that our pants were soaked when we got back to our tents. It was cold, but we went to bed with good spirits, happy to be dry inside.
The next morning was a completely different story. We woke up to blue skies and the sun waiting to come over the hill behind us. The grasses and our tents were covered in frost.
After some movement to the bear cans 100 yards away, we warmed up. In the back country here, you cook, eat, and brush your teeth at a cook site at least 100 yards from your tent site. Everything that smells—including chapstick, toothpaste, deoderant—goes into a sealed bear can that is located 100 yards from your tent and your cooksite, forming what the National Park Service calls the “Golden Triangle”. This way, bears should never be associating food or smells with you, your gear, or your tent, and if they follow the smells to the bear cans, they won’t be able to get inside.
We spotted another bear across the valley during breakfast.
We decided we would pack up camp and move to make our exit to the road faster the next day. As John came out of the tent that morning, Joe presented him with a pink feathery tiara to wear throughout the day. We tied balloons to his pack and hoped they’d survive the tall shrubs we would surely encounter at some point.
We hiked a couple miles up a tundra slope until we finally reached the top. The bottom of the hill fell out from underneath us as we realized we were on top of a mountain, looking down a rocky cliff to the glacial valley and river below. More than 200 feet beneath us, a grizzly bear and her cub lounged on the sunny tundra.
We could see Polychrome Pass, the Plains of Murie, and Divide Mountain in the distance. The East Fork of the Toklat stretched to the south on our left up to a glacier in the Alaska Range. The blue skies held strong and in one of our photos a golden eagle soared behind us.
- Dall sheep: 8
- Golden eagles: 4
- Northern harrier: 1
- Grizzly bears: 6
- Willow ptarmigan: too many to count
We set up our new camp by the gravel bar with some willows for protection; we were about 5 miles from the park road. With two free hours before dinner, we filtered water from the nearby stream and packed lightly to walk up the glacial valley, finally taking photos with the East Fork glacier beyond. The dried glacial silt and mud was perfect for looking for tracks, and the coolest one we found belonged to a wolverine. The two bears we had spotted earlier were on the same slope, slowly ambling along as they scavenged for berries. They seemed content where they were.
We had dinner on the river bar while we watched the sun set behind the nearest ridge. I brought cake pops and candles even though the wind was too strong to light them. We sang “Happy Birthday” anyway and ate the demolished chocolate cake straight out of the bag.
The next day, we followed our blue skies on a 5 mile hike back to the park road along the East Fork River. We found even more tracks, scat, bones, and beautiful views.
It’s safe to say that it was one of our favorite backpacking trips in the park. Navigating and living in the wilderness, even for a couple days, builds memories and bonds stronger than anywhere else. All three of us were grateful for the laughter and conversations we shared and the peace we found in the backcountry of Denali. In total, we walked more than 16 miles off trail. The balloons survived for more than 12.
Near the river valley, a wooden cabin still stands by a clear-running creek. Originally built by the Alaska Road Commission during the park road’s construction, it was later used by the park service, including the wolf biologist, Adolph Murie, and his family while he studied animals in the park.
It was a powerful moment to sit in the same spot as he likely often did, looking out across the East Fork and to the mountains beyond. I reflected on the proposals for increased development in Denali National Park and what he would say about them, though deep down I think I already know.
Every fall, when I pack up my belongings and watch Denali disappear behind me, I don’t know if I’ll be back to work next summer. I’ve learned that it only takes a single day for plans to change, so I leave my future open to whatever may come next. But Denali has a magic that I can’t explain. I know I’ll be coming back here for the rest of my life.
3 thoughts on “A Denali Backcountry Birthday”
Simply spectacular! Safe travels ❤️
Beautiful photos and writing!! I really hope you guys are back in Denali someday … if not, I know our paths will cross somewhere, somehow.
Another great story of your epic adventures in Alaska! And as always, the photos are amazing!
I loved the nice touch of balloons and a tiara for John. Since I hadn’t a clue what a willow ptarmigan was, I just had to look it up … and found that it is the state bird of Alaska. Sorry you have to leave Alaska, but there’s not doubt at all that you’ll be back often.