Saturday, July 09, 2005

 

A Couple of Days at 'Camp'



Later on that morning (06/27) at 6:00 a.m. I woke up, made the bed, then pedaled the hill up to the Camp Denali dinning hall for breakfast and to meet the staff. I ran into Allison on the way, who was already at work. She showed me where I could park my bike and then introduced me to some of the staff before we sat down for breakfast. After filling my plate with food from the buffet table I took a seat beside Simon Hamm, one of Camp Denali's gracious hosts and, along with his wife Jenna and her parents Wally and Jerri Cole, owns and operates Camp Denali and the North Face Lodge. He was very interested in the tour and being a bicycle tourist and adventurer himself understood the value of a comfortable nights sleep and a hot meal and was quick to offer up Camp Denali to enjoy over the remaining couple of days of my stay in the park. An incredible invitation from such a generous familly does not go without thanks so I willingly volunteered my help wherever it could be put to use and spent the next few days (06/27-06/29) working around the camp. There were plenty of projects that were in need of attention--building cabins, bicycle maintence, washing buses--but the tasks were fun and enjoyable and didn't feel like work at all! It was a nice break from the rainy cold and often frustrating ride through the park also. Immediately I felt welcomed and right at home with the work and really had a good time socializing with Simon as well as the camp's employees.

One night after dinner I was offered a special cabin to sleep in for the night. It was about a 3 mile hike up to a ridge line and ended at a great place in which to view the biggest peaks of the Alaska Range including, of course, Denali/Mt. Mckinley. Smoke blowing in from some recent forest fires to the west of the park were starting to hide the mountain sceenery and I definitely wanted to see the mountains before they were completly hazed over so I packed my bag with some over night essentials and set off on a walkabout. I made the hike up 'Eagle's Nest' and followed the rock cairns that lead to the 'Pika Haus' cabin in about 2 hours, stopping along the way to view some golden eagles cruising the ridge and snap a couple of pictures of the terrific scenery. It was a great night and even with the smoky haze the mountain viewing was awesome! The sun looked as red as a rose through the muddled, opague evening sky and created some dazzling light effects as it shown down upon Denali. Knowing that this may very well be the last time I see the mountain for a couple of years I stayed awake long enough to watch it disappear completely behind a shroud of smoke before calling it a night.

The following morning I made the hike back to camp and assisted with some more of the day's chores. After a full day and with a huge, delicious made-from-scratch dinner in my belly I hung out with Allison, Ken, Art, and Luke, among some of the other employees. We finished the day with a swim in nugget pond and stayed up late drinking wine, relating stories and talking about everything from bear and wildlife experiences as well as the different politics that regulate national parks.

It was Wednesday (60/29) when my backcountry pass expired and I had to be at the park headquaters to receive my gun. Originally Simon had arranged for me to make one of the three flights that left Kantishna and out of the park and sent my bike to the Camp Denali office along the Parks Highway to help facilitate the flight. The forest fires, however, obscured visablity and made flying out a bit sketchy so I accepted a ride out of the park with two employees--John and Abbey. After breakfast I said farewell to the staff and thank you to Simon and we set off bound for the park entrance. It was a three hour, enjoyable drive back over the same road that I rode in on. John, Abbey and I talked about politics and different life style choices while listening to 'The White Stripes' and the latest 'Beck' album as we made our way through the park to the office at mile marker 229 along the Parks Highway and about 7 miles south of the park. We got to the office around 2 p.m. and after saying good luck to each other John and Abbey left to start their weekend. I finished re-arranging some gear on the bike before heading back towards the park on the bike to fetch my revolver and turn in the BFRC.

I had such a fun, relaxing time while at 'Camp' and left feeling more at ease than when I arrived. Simon, the Cole familly and the friendly staff coupled with the fantastic food, comfortable accomidations and the stunning views of Mt. Mckinley, as well as fantastic hiking, made the experience at Camp Denali a memory that I will always cherish and reflect upon fondly.



Friday, July 08, 2005

 

A Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow





The weather over the next couple of days and nights (06/25-06/27) was more of the same; wet, cold and somewhat miserable. There were periods of nice sunny weather but rain was the dominant element. Every piece of gear that I had was either damp or saturated completely with water and because of the nasty weather never dried out. Along the remainder of the ride to Wonder Lake and the end of the park I caught some glimpses of the Alsaka Range and Denali/Mt. McKinley but most every site was blotted out by misty clouds and rain. I made it to the Eielson Visitors Center in time to beat a nasty storm. The Center was closed for construction so I hung around underneath the awning outside to stay out of the rain. There was another couple there trying to stay dry; Dean and Michelle, in Alaska on vacation from Michigan, waiting for the bus to Wonder Lake. They were watching a couple of brown bears on a hill side about 6-700 yards away, through binoculars, when I rolled up. The rain eventually quit and Dean and Michelle, tired of waiting for the bus, started off for Wonder Lake while I attended to my drive train before setting off in the same direction to the McKinley River Bar, the backcountry unit that I was assigned to. The ride to the river/lake area was another wet one. It's less than 20 miles from the visitors center at Eielson but the wet and windy weather made it feel much farther away. My hands and feet began to cramp from the combination of the rough riding and being wet for so long. The closer I got to Wonder Lake the stronger the rain got. I thought about the invitation that Allison Campbell extended to me while we were rafting about stopping by at her work place for a visit. I passed the turnoff to Wonder Lake and pedaled towards the landing strip at Kantishna. Along the way I met up three travelers outfitted in rain gear and armed with fishing poles going the same direction. I quickly caught up with them and asked for directions to the lodge. Turns out that all three worked at Camp Denali/North Face Lodge, where Allison worked, and was headed that way. Upon arrival and after a brief search of the camp I connected with Allison. Wet and shivering I followed her up to where the employees' cabins were. We got to her cabin and she immediatly started a fire then set off for the kitchen in search of leftovers from the night's meal. Minutes later she returned with a feast of salmon, rice, homemade bread, as well as a big piece of chocolate cake for dessert. She then informed me that I was welcome to stay in one of the empty cabins for the evening and was invited to join the owners and staff for breakfast in the morning. Such a gracious offer would have been foolish to pass up, so I willingly accepted. I talked with Allison and her two roomates, Catherine and Cathy, while I finished dinner and warmed my bones by the wood stove. I was given a brief tour of camp and the lodge before I was shown where I was to sleep for the evening. It was my first dry night indoors in 4 nights and took no time to fall asleep.



 

Igloo Mountain



The next morning I awoke and found a 4-H youth group staying in the campground. I made coffee and ate a little food while talking and answering questions about the tour with the staff and kids as they packed up their gear to catch one of the park buses.

After the campers and staff left I lingered around the camp ground a while before beginning the long hike up Igloo Mountain. I stored my bike and gear in the bear locker at the camp ground, taking only the necessary items I would need to bag the peak--i.e. rain gear, compass, bivy sack, food, BRFC, etc. Denali, being a trail-less wilderness, demands that your backcountry and orienteering skills are strong and reliable. Because there are no established trails in the park, route-finding can be difficult and confusing, especially if the weather creates a bad situation and compromises your visablity and/or disorientates you. Needless to say that things can get pretty challenging if you are not paying attention to where you are going or what you're doing.

Shortly after starting the hike and after stashing the BRFC it began to rain. It was cold enough that at times the rain turned into hail, forcing me to find some sort of shelter. I walked around the mountain walls and found a small overhang/cave and waited for the storm to ease up a bit before going any further. After a 45 minute wait the storm finally lost most of its strength so I pushed on. It continued to rain steadily for the remainder of the hike up to the summit. The rain drenched the area, making the rock faces slippery and the tundra fields spongy. The clouds coupled with the inclement weather obscured the mountain and made finding my way along the ridge line difficult. It was 6 p.m. and still raining when I reached the top of the northeastern aspect of the mountain. Rain clouds kept most of the mountains and scenery hidden so I hunkered down and waited for a break in the weather to view the landscape before starting down. After yet another long stretch of cold rain the sun finally was able to burn through the clouds. Blue skies appeared amidst the grey vapor wall, revealing montains in every dirrection as well as a spectacular view of the close by Big Creek Valley. I examined every nook and every crag of the valley with binoculars while waiting for the rest of the clouds to dissipate. Minutes later the entire section opened up and exposed more than just magnificent sceenery; a herd of Dall sheep was also hunkered down on the mountain, apparently waiting for a break in the weather as well! I was high enough for them not to notice me but close enough to spy without disturbing them. There were over 40 sheep within the heard, mostly females with young, and they seemed to be enjoying the sunshine too. I watched the herd for hours. The young frolicked in the warmth of the sun, butting heads and chasing each other around the valley, stopping occasionally to feed from their respective mothers, and while the females lay at rest, the rams kept a watchful eye over the herd. Truly an amazing experience!

At 8:30 p.m. more rain clouds began to develop, so I began making my way back down the steep slopes of Igloo Mountain. By 10 o'clock, I recovered the BRFC and decided to hike the rest of the way out, hoping to find a better, drier place to camp for the night. I fetched my tent from the bear locker and looked for a place to bed down for the night. I found a reasonably "dry" spot underneath a grove birch trees and put up the shelter.The rain then increased and within minutes the tent was soaked. Inside the tent, a small puddle pooled up from the water-logged ground underneath, and I lay splashing around in an unwanted bath trying to remain positive and fall asleep. "It's all part of the adventure," I thought. The bivy sack protected and kept me warm and somewhat dry. It was around four in the morning when I last checked the time and was finally able to close my eyes and get some rest.