Alaska: Wolverine Creek (Unit 13) to Eielson Summit and Exit (Unit 13) Denali National Park- Day 7

Wolverine Creek (Unit 13) to Eielson Summit and Exit (Unit 13)

Mileage- 9.2 miles

Elevation Gain- 3750 feet

Elevation Loss- 2700 feet

Day 7 Denali 2

Day 7 Denali

Day seven backpacking in Denali National Park was one of the most unbelievable and memorable experiences in all of my backpacking experience. We spent the previous night at Wolverine Creek with the plan of summiting Mt. Eielson and then camping near the Thoroughfare River with a short exit to the Eielson Visitor Center on the morning of day eight.  As it turned out, we ended up exiting the evening of day seven… but more on that later.

We knew that day seven would be a marathon of a day… so we started off early.  As soon as we popped our heads out of our tents we could see that it was going to be the best day of the week.  Prior to this day we had not had a clear view of Mt. McKinley.  Either the clouds covered it or we were not within view, but this day would be remarkably different.

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We followed Crystal Creek and headed toward Castle Rock.  Had it been overcast that day, Castle Rock would have looked ominous as we headed toward it.  Nonetheless, our plan was to hook just left of Castle Rock and pass over a saddle where we would empty the heavy contents of our packs (bear canisters, tents, sleeping bags and pads) and then summit Mt. Eielson.  Of course we would have to backtrack just a bit when coming down Eielson to pick up our gear, but it was significantly less effort doing that than climbing Eielson with full packs.

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As I have mentioned in previous posts, backpacking in Denali is challenging because there are not any trails in the backcountry.  I suppose there could be some recommended routes in certain units, but the trail-less nature of Denali evokes a wild and primal instinct- You are free to roam.  And while that creates more of a challenge going from point A to point B… it is completely worth it.  Ascending Eielson evoked that sense for sure.  After dropping the heavy gear and standing face to face with Eielson, we studied the contours and textures, the obstacles, and the grades… and then we went for it.

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One of the greatest and most unexpected surprises appeared to our left as we climbed with heavy breath.  The first time Mt. McKinley caught my eye was when I stopped to catch my breath.  When I caught sight of the great Denali… everything stopped.  It was glorious, even from 35-miles away.  The blue skies and the Cirrus clouds painted a backdrop that I will never forget.  We could not get to the top of Eielson quick enough.  We knew our best view would be at the very top, but the grade was becoming increasingly steep and the softball to volleyball sized rocks were becoming increasingly unstable.  With each step we had to be certain that the rocks were stable.  Our trekking poles were invaluable, except for Josh who accidentally left his poles with the heavy gear.

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At the top of Eielson we separated along the ridge line and spent close to an hour alone, in solitude. Obviously we wanted some time to ourselves to simply take in and appreciate views which others could only imagine. But more than that, we spent time giving thanks to God for such profound beauty and freedom in the world and in our lives, thanks for the gracious and loving family members who support us and let us use our vacation time for wild and mind-blowing trips, and thanks for the physical ability and outdoor knowledge we have that enables us to go into the wild. When we came back together we took some pictures and then each one of us took turns standing on Eielson’s peak yelling to the top of our lungs “ALASKA!” That was the exclamation mark on one epic and memorable Alaskan adventure.

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As we descended along the ridge line we could see storm clouds brewing. On our last day Alaska would not allow for an easy exit… and that certainly became our running joke for the last four hours that day. It was a rough descent down the mountain and it seemed as if we would never reach the river bed. It began to rain so we dropped the packs and rain geared up. It stopped raining so we dropped our gear and took off the rain coats because they were getting too hot. We got ever closer to the river bed and decided to stop for our last blueberry break. We dropped the packs again and devoured pounds of blueberries. Once we hit the river bed it was going to be a long haul to our final destination… and around each bend… there were more bends and more bends. We finally climbed a twenty foot hill to the west of us to get on top of the land mass we were trying to circumvent. Once on top we hit a straight line and probably cut out a mile’s worth of river bed hiking. We descended and finally approached the Thoroughfare River. It was our last crossing and we sized it up. Again Alaska was laughing. Although we all had dry boots and wished to finish with dry boots… there was no way to cross without going at least knee deep. Like three banshees we ran through the Thoroughfare like runners crossing the finish line.

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We finally reached our destination for the night, which was only one mile from Eielson Visitor Center. As we dropped our packs and began to shape up the area the rain began to fall again and we just looked at each other. We were each thinking the same thing- we are only one mile from a bus out of the park, a cozy bed, and a warm meal at a restaurant! We were outta there. Sure we would have liked to brag about 8 days in the Alaskan wilderness, but 7 sounded just fine. The rainy and muddy hike up to the visitor’s center was a cruel joke and one last way Alaska would put the screws on us. This was NOT a leisure trail. It was near vertical and four inches of mud to step through on the horizontals. The weeds were head high and so we bush whacked. By the time we reached the top we were informed by a ranger that they had just spotted a grizzly in the immediate area in which we were hiking. Of course. We waited 15 minutes for a green bus to pick us up. I am sure the people we sat near did not appreciate our looks or smells.

Would I recommend someone backpack in Denali National Park for a week? Absolutely. But only if you have your head straight. While this was the most labor intensive backpacking I have ever done, it was more of a mental challenge than anything. Despite how difficult it was, it was one of the most beautiful and rewarding accomplishments in my life.

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

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Alaska: Muldrow Glacier (Unit 19) to Wolverine Creek (Unit 18) Denali National Park- Day 6

Muldrow Glacier (Unit 19) to Wolverine Creek (Unit 13)

Mileage- 5.1 miles

Elevation Gain- ~500 feet

Elevation Loss- ~500 feet

Day 6 Denali

Day 6 Denali 2On our sixth day in Denali National Park we left Unit 19, crossed the Muldrow Glacier to Green Point (for the second day in a row), and then hiked into Unit 13 to Wolverine Creek just south of Mt. Eielson.

I have to be honest and say that my two favorite days in Denali were days six and seven.  Of course I will write about day seven in the next post, but day six was something else.  We woke up to a few clouds, blue skies, and a warm, radiant sun.  We welcomed it, for sure.  The previous day we were completely soaked and spent much of the evening in our tents.  On this morning we were able to set out all of our wet gear to dry.  We knew that we only had about a five-mile hike so we were cool with getting a later start.  And, despite getting off track the previous day crossing the Muldrow Glacier… we were much more confident  crossing the glacier with a direct route to Green Point this day.

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This biggest issue with crossing the glacier is when you drop down and lose your line of sight to the end destination. As we planned our crossing, we made mental notes of identifiable landmarks within the glacier that would keep us lined up. I suppose a simple compass would do the same thing, but we are guys right? And who wants to ask for directions when we can find it on our own! ūüôā This approach worked just fine. We stayed lined up as we kept our eyes fixed on our intermediary landmarks. Of course the biggest problem with crossing glaciers is the unpredictability of obstacles. Heading toward Green Point we hardly had any real obstacles except for walking around pools of water and going down steep embankments. All of the elevation we encountered on this day was due to the glacier. My guess is that we were under 500 total feet elevation but it may have been just above that. Either way it was easy elevation.

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Once we got to Green Point we followed Glacier Creek north until we saw the base of Eielson to the north.  We travelled eastward and just south of Eielson, which we would be summiting the next morning.  McKinley had been elusive for our first six days either because we were out of range or because the clouds covered her.  The park claims that only 30% of all visitors to the park get a chance to see McKinley.  Our best chance would be on top of Eielson.

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We followed fresh water of Wolverine Creek through a rock-bed carve out between mountains where we would be camping for the night.  Despite the fact that we wanted to be done for the day so we could pump and eat, we pressed on so that our hike to the saddle on the southeast side of Eielson would be shorter the next morning.  We would be dropping our gear on the other side of the saddle the next morning so that we could ascend Eielson without much weight on our backs.  Finding a spot to camp along Wolverine Creek was not easy because of the rocks and uneven terrain.  We pressed on until we found a spot that could handle our two tents.

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We pumped, ate, and settled down for a much needed night’s rest to prepare for the 11-mile marathon hike up Mt. Eielson and then out to the Eielson Visitors Center. Our most epic day awaited us.

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

Alaska: Green Point (Unit 18) Over Muldrow Glacier (Unit 19) Denali National Park- Day 5

Green Point (Unit 18) Over Muldrow Glacier to Unit 19

Mileage- 3.9 miles

Elevation Gain- ~500 feet

Elevation Loss- ~500 feet

Day 5 Denali

Day 5 Denali 2

Crossing the non-technical Muldrow Glacier on our fifth day in Denali National Park was one of the toughest days of our seven.  We had been told at the Backcountry Office that the hike was a relatively easy hike that would take about three hours to cross.  There was a somewhat visible land bridge that connects Unit 18 to Unit 19 via the Muldrow Glacier.  When looking down on the Glacier it looks like a river of pulverized black volcanic rock.  In many respects, it does not look like your textbook glacier.  But it is glorious nonetheless.  But before crossing the glacier we needed to locate fresh water to pump.  Everything we had seen in our camping area was silty glacial melt and un-pumpable.  Fortunately we located a stream from snow melt that ran within a couple hundred yards of our camp.

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We really didn’t follow good logic on our first pass of the Muldrow Glacier.  Of course we would get another chance the next days as we passed back over, but for this day we made some errors crossing.  Not that any of the errors were really bad, because they weren’t, it is just that we took a longer route than what was necessary.  I guess the upside is that we got a more scenic route, but even with as much experience as we have in the backcountry I am still surprised that we make silly mistakes.  The issue was that, despite having a pretty good game plan for crossing, once we got down in the glacier it was difficult to see our end destination.  Being that there is no such thing as a straight line in the glacier and being that there were more obstacles than you could shake a stick at… we inevitably got off track and took a less direct route to the other side.

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The difficult terrain was degraded because of the predictable Alaskan rain showers.  I hate to admit it… but out of the seven days in the Denali backcountry… this day pushed me very close to my limit.  I think I missed lunch on this day and the hike was longer and harder than I expected it to be.  Add the rain and a cold day on top of it… and I was a bit cranky.  I really regret letting it get to me.  On the bright side… I ate TWO suppers once we made it to the other side!  I was one happy camper for sure.

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Ok… well… we all ate TWO DINNERS that day!

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The beauty of Unit 19 was that once the clouds passed we could tell that it was going to be a really special place to camp (you will see this in the Day 6 post).  This is the kind of place that really makes you feel like you are out of civilization… just you and nature.  This is the place that makes you feel wild and free among the elements.  You feel so alive.  If you are reading this post and sitting on the fence about whether you should go outside and explore… make up your mind with a “yes” and do it.  You have one life.  Live it.

On Day 6 we will be crossing the Muldrow Glacier (more directly this time) and into a canyon area just south of Mt. Eielson in Unit 13.

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

Alaska: Grassy Pass to Green Point (Unit 18) Denali National Park- Day 4

Grassy Pass to Green Point (Unit 18)

Mileage- 4.9 miles

Elevation Gain- 0 feet

Elevation Loss- ~300 feet

Day 4 Denali NP 2 Day 4 Denali NP

It was our fourth day and we had just finished our first loop that took us through Stony Creek, Bear Draw, and along the Toklat River to the Toklat Rest Area.  Our day was not finished as we would board a green passenger bus and head west passed Eielson Visitor Center to a place known as Grassy Pass.  This would be the beginning our next 4-day adventure that would take us across the Muldrow Glacier and back, up Mt. Eielson, and then back to the Eielson Visitor Center.

Hiking from Grassy Pass down to the gravel bed was rough.  While there was a “social” trail that we followed, it didn’t seem very social.  It was wildly overgrown and with every step each of our boots were completely submerged in thick mud.  That pretty much sums up each day in Denali.  When you thought that there might be something easy, Alaska always had the last laugh.  There wasn’t anything easy during our week of backpacking.  It was hard and tested each of us mentally- Could we continue to deal with and endure the rain, the cold, the wet feet, the exhausting brush, and every other obstacle thrown our way?  Of course we could.  But it would take some serious mental victories.

Walking across this gravel bar was interesting to say the least.  We spotted some caribou in the distance, as they were grazing and eating.  They hardly noticed us as we were within 60 yards, but then they began to clear out.  Further ahead we saw more caribou (the women and children) also clearing out and heading counter-clockwise and heading in the distance to our left.  As we continued to walk we noticed two male caribou to our two o’clock position probably a quarter mile away.  One of them went clockwise circling around us to our right and then behind us in the distance.  The other caribou stayed directly in front of us… and began aggressively hammering his front hooves as a warning.  There were two problems. The first is that it was rutting season and the males were extra aggressive.  The second was that we needed to go exactly where that caribou was standing.  We were like, “Come on caribou.  Can’t anything be easy here.  Just move along and leave us alone.”  We were forced to swing left a bit to create more distance, but it didn’t seem to matter as the caribou began charging us.  Fortunately the distance between us was still appropriate and it was just warning us… but we picked up a few big rocks that we were ready to chuck if it got any closer.  It finally cleared out in the brush, but it was still in the area we needed to travel.  As we crossed the Thoroughfare River we went through the brush which opened up into a corridor.  Guess who was standing 100 yards away staring at us?  Yup.  He began to charge again… but we started whopping and hollering until he finally cleared out.  We finally saw him in the distance with his bride.  Just protecting his lady.

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For the remainder of the day we would follow Glacier Creek.  For pumping purposes, we had to be diligent with locating clean water sources.  While there were many creeks and rivers, they were mostly glacial melt and incredibly silty.  The silt can easily destroy water filters.  Fortunately for us with a little searching we found some clean water streams that came from snow melt on top of the mountains.  More on that with the next post.  The sun was finally beginning to break through the clouds and we found a nice grassy patch to lay out all of our wet gear for a quick dry.  I LOVE THOSE MOMENTS!

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We continued to hike along Glacier Creek for a couple of miles until everything began to open up.  We set up the tents on a large gravel bar in a beautiful spot with Glacier Creek and mountains all around us.  Just a very short hike up a hill to our west, we could see the Muldrow Glacier and the route we would be taking the next day as we crossed it.

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The Muldrow Glacier, while looking like a short, non-technical hike to the other side, is quite deceiving.  On Day 5 it would take us 4.5 hours, as we got off track and did not take the most direct route, and on Day 6 it took us 3 hours.  As we settled down into Unit 18 for the night we knew that traveling to Unit 19 would be a bit challenging.

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

Alaska: Toklat River (Unit 32) to Toklat River Rest Area (Unit 32) Denali National Park- Day 4

Toklat River (Unit 32) to Toklat River Rest Area

Mileage- 3.4 miles

Elevation Gain- 0

Elevation Loss- 0

Denali NP Day 4 Denali Day 4

We started Day 4 camped on the river bed of the Toklat River in Denali National Park.  Our goal for the day was to backpack to the Toklat River Rest Area, where we would catch a green park bus, and travel to this area west of Eielson Visitor Center called Grassy Pass.  We would then backpack to Unit 18, but more on that in the next post.

Our fourth morning started much like it ended the previous day- rainy.  It was overcast with a misting rain.  We knew that the prospects of staying dry the first half of the day were going to be slim.  Our 3.4 mile hike to the Toklat River Rest Area was riddled with an obstacle course of the braided Toklat.  It wasn’t as easy as picking a side and then walking along the dry river bed.  The Toklat braided from far side to far side.  A person was left with two choices- either do a dozen or so river crossing of various depths – or- go back into the dense brush and bushwhack for 3.4 miles.  We were none to eager to get back into the brush so we prepared for a morning of crossings.

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It is easy to underestimate river crossings.  A person could easily approach a crossing with an unhealthy over-confidence and pay the price with a mistake.  If you have been a regular reader of this blog you will know that we are extremely cautious and conservative when it comes to safety.  All it takes is a split second to be careless or unfocused and it could mean serious injury or death.  When it comes to river crossings a group should work together to consider all possible routes.  Obviously going with the most shallow and slow-moving is preferred, but that is not always possible.  For us there were times when a deep, fast-moving stretch would Y and make a crossing a bit easier.  The truth is that it doesn’t take very deep water to get swept off of your feet, especially when it is fast moving.  The best approach to crossing is to face upstream, lean forward, and cross diagonally to the other side using your trekking poles for extra support.

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The rest area was within sight we had one crossing that remained… and as much as we studied and tried to consider other routes… there were no other options.  This crossing was thigh high and fast-moving.  Fiesbeck got in by himself initially to see if it was possible and quickly got out.  The current was so strong that he began to be lifted off of his feet.  He said that he even felt large rocks going passed his legs.  We discussed as a group and decided that we would do a four man conga line.  We lined up, held onto the man in front of us, and went for it with Fiesbeck forging the way.  We made it with no issue whatsoever.  The only drawback is that we didn’t get a picture.

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An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

We arrived at the Toklat River Rest Area just before noon and waited for a westward traveling green bus to take us to our next destination.  We would be backpacking across the Muldrow Glacier and then summiting Mt. Eielson to finish our trip.

Alaska: Stony Creek (Unit 39) to Toklat River (Unit 32) Denali National Park- Day 3

Hike from Unit 39 (Stony Creek) to Unit 32 (Toklat River)

Mileage ‚Äď ~7.5 miles

Elevation Gain- ~500 feet

Elevation Loss- ~500 feet Denali Day 3 NG Denali Day 3 This was our toughest day by far… and we had a feeling that it was going to be.  We knew that the terrain was going to be challenging.  The Unit 39 description on the Denali National Park website states that the route south of Mt. Sheldon to the Toklat River is “gentle but brushy in sections.”  Let’s put an emphasis on “brushy.”  Our immediate challenge, besides the overcast, rainy skies and cool temperatures, was a mix on dense pine trees, tussock tundra, and knee high scrub.  Within eyeshot we could see the saddle over which we would be passing just south of Mt. Sheldon.  The rule when backpacking without trails and only using topographical maps is to know the direction of your end point and then to identify more immediate visual goals that keep you in line with your end point.  By identifying the next goal before proceeding it allows you to stay on track even when you are diverted because of an obstacle.  This was essential for us on this particular day, but even more so on days 5 and 6 when crossing the Muldrow Glacier. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_3418 IMG_3419 After breaking out of the brushy stuff our hike was up a couple of hundred gently sloping feet to the Mt. Sheldon saddle.  Don’t worry… as wet, cold, and ticked as I look in the picture below… it wasn’t long after that moment that I said to the guys, “On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most amazing time of my life… this is an 11!”  Believe me… as difficult as this day was physically… it beats almost anything else you could be doing in your regular, boring life.  Which reminds me, about 90% of backpacking is mental.  Having a negative, pessimistic, and defeated attitude can break even the most physically trained athlete.  That is why I love backpacking so much- It teaches you so much about life and how to endure and press on… even when you are in the most difficult situation. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_3421 Our view once we made it to the saddle was… well… disappointing.  More brush.  And more dense brush.  And more rain.  And more wind.  Just over the saddle was a perfect spot for a snack.  I believe that it was at this point that Patrick noted how there is absolutely no place to escape the wind and rain.  No tall trees.  No caves or overhangs.  Just you and the wind and the rain.  So you may as well decide to laugh and love it. IMG_3423 IMG_3429 IMG_3431 At one point we thought that we hit the jackpot by finding a dry creek bed to follow but it was short-lived. We reentered the brush and soon enough approached a marshy area with a couple of small ponds where we took another break. IMG_3433 IMG_3434 IMG_3438 IMG_3439 IMG_3443 It was at this point that we had to make a decision about our route. We were within eyeshot of Sheldon Creek and wondered if the most efficient route to Toklat would be following the creek. After weighing the options, including the distance to get to the creek and then fighting the dense Alders for a mile, we decided to stay with our current route across the tussock tundra, however we would have to fight the Alders occasionally. For any of you who think I have been exaggerating about the difficult conditions, here is a beautiful video illustration of how it really was.

As we were just above the final tree line before making our final descent down to the Toklat, the clouds began to break up and the sun began to peek through. It made for some sweet shots before tackling the roughest patch of this hike called Bear Draw. The trees and brush were so dense that it was almost too difficult to get through. Occasionally we would find a moose trail and follow it for a while before it trailed off to a dead end… and then it was bushwhacking. It seemed as if we would never make it to the bottom. I was growing increasingly weary, but just as I had a thought of stopping we popped right out onto the gravel bar. I can’t think of many trips in which I felt a greater sense of accomplishment than this particular day. It was long. It was hard. It was wet and cold. I immediately began to strip off all of my clothes, just standing in my underwear trying to dry off. The sun felt great. Well, it felt great for 20 minutes… and then began to rain on us the rest of the evening. IMG_3445 IMG_3449 IMG_3450 IMG_3460 IMG_3463 IMG_3471 IMG_3473 IMG_3474 IMG_3475 IMG_3476 IMG_3477 IMG_3480 IMG_3482

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

In my next post I will talk about Day 4- hiking down the Toklat to the Toklat Rest Area where we would catch the green bus and then beginning our next hike in Units 18, 19, and 13.

Alaska: Unit 39/33 Day Hike (Denali National Park)- Day 2

Day Hike from Unit 39 Campsite up the mountains northeast of Mt. Galen in Unit 33

Mileage ‚Äď 3.5 miles

Elevation Gain- Approximately 1800 feet

Elevation Loss- Approximately 1800 feet

Denali Day 2 NG

Denali Day 2

I was super excited for Day 2 in Denali National Park, as we would do something that we had never previously done on any of our backpacking trip… take a day hike in Units 39 and into Unit 33. In every other instance we had always packed up at the break of dawn and set out for another destination.  On this day we purposefully set up our permit so that we could keep our tents set up for another day in Unit 39 and just day hike without any significant weight on our backs.  Unit 39 is big enough, in and of itself, for several days of backpacking.  Even a day of day hiking would barely scratch the surface.

Mt. Galen is located in Unit 33 and is a part of the mountains that we were going to climb.  As with every other day in Denali, there were no trails… so we began formulating our route. As a side note, we knew that climbing close to 2000 feet would give us the opportunity to see what route we would take on the morning of Day 4 passed Mt. Sheldon and through the rough Bear Draw.  But Bear Draw would be equally as rough and demanding as the first 200 feet of our day hike.  Before we could get into an area where we could actually begin “hiking,” we had to go near vertical through some of the most dense brush and trees that we encounter on this trip.  The only way we could scale this mountainside was to dig our feet in and pull ourselves up by grabbing trees.  Fortunately this only last about 30 minutes.  Needless to say, we didn’t get any pictures of that adventure.

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Other than the first two hundred, this was a remarkable hike.  The views, as we were ascending, of the river valley and the mountain ranges were spectacular (you can even see our tents amidst the scrub)… not to mention that we had the perfect August weather- mid 50’s and cool with sun and blue skies.  It is always interesting looking at the terrain from a distance compared to being in that exact terrain.  What I mean by that is from a distance the terrain looks so contoured, pillowy, smooth, and gentle.  It gives you the impression that you can just glide over it without any obstacles or resistance.  And then, once you are in the areas you once viewed as pillowy and gentle, you realize how coarse, rough, hard, and full of resistance and obstacles it actually is.  In many ways, it’s beauty can give one a false sense invincibility- we are the conquerors!  And it welcomes and seduces our naivet√© and allows us to believe that we are in control even but for a moment, and then wakes us to our fragile and humble reality that while she is beautiful… she will never be conquered.

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It seems as if with every step we could see even more of Denali. Soon enough we were at the height at which we could see Mt. Galen and the other adjoining mountains.  The diversity of terrain was spectacular.  Not just the composition, but the colors.

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We took a long lunch break at the top. I am convinced that place was constructed for relaxing. Soon enough the afternoon storm clouds began to approach RAPIDLY and we decided to descend and stay ahead of it. Well, we just weren’t that fast. We decided that since we were going to be wet anyway that we might as well stop for a much needed blueberry break.

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We got back to camp with overcast skies and rain the rest of the evening. We actually turned in early because of the rain, but we also knew that our hardest day was yet to come. We would be passing through Bear Draw and down to the Toklat River.

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

To read about our previous days in Denali National Park click here.

Alaska: Stony Creek (Unit 39) Denali National Park- Day 1

Stony Creek Bridge Park Road (Unit 33) to Unit 39 Stony Creek

Mileage- 7.6 miles

Elevation Gain- minimal

Elevation Loss- minimal

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The day before beginning our seven days in the backcountry of Denali we secured our backcountry permit, picked up our complimentary bear can, and scheduled our transportation to our drop-off point. The park really makes the entire process seamless and painless, but we came in with a game plan as well, and that helped. In terms of the transportation, the easiest way to get to your drop off destination is to get a ticket for one of the green school busses designated for campers. This can be done at the Wilderness Access Center. For my ticket it was about $35, I think. The rate varies based on how far you plan to travel into the park. You can find more information about the shuttle here. Our ticket has us being picked up at 6:50am at Riley Campground. We were able to park our car in a designated area for backpackers next to the shuttle pick-up at Riley. All of this was very easy and I was even able to pick up a cup of Starbucks that morning at the Wilderness Access Center. The shuttle ride was over three hours to the Stony Creek bridge. It wasn’t an official stop for the bus, but the drivers are cool with dropping you off wherever you need to go. We exited, grabbed our packs out of the back of the bus, and began to gear up.

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One of the most unbelievable moments of the trip happened within the first seven minutes.  Three of us headed down a gravel bar, while the other guy took a small detour up a little ridge.  We were still very close to each other but separated by ten feet of thick brush.  We were all heading to the same point- the small ridge and gravel bar eventually would converge.  As we were walking the gravel bar… a grizzly walked out of the brush just to our right.  It stopped 60 feet directly in front of us.  We did everything by the text book.  We stopped, began backing up slowly with our bear spray in hand, and talking gently to the bear.  While Patrick Fosdick and I were preoccupied with our cans of bear spray, Josh Brown somehow was able to snap a low quality photo of it.  Until just the other day, I did not know anyone got a picture of it. 10441139_10152370287352572_8794405871893094599_n

The only problem with this situation was that Kevin Fiesbeck was on the other side of the brush to the left… and did not know that a bear was heading his direction.  We were not sure what to do.  We didn’t want to make a ton of noise to startle the bear, but we wanted to alert him.  Also, even if he heard us would he believe that a bear was REALLY heading at him with the first five minutes of the trip?  We joke around so much with each other that there was no way he would believe us.  The other problem was that the lady from whom we bought the bear spray shamed us into buying two cans of spray rather than four.  Well, guess who didn’t have any spray?  By the time we caught up with the pale white Fiesbeck he told us that the grizzly came out of the brush and stood five feet in front of him and just stared at him.  Not sure if he peed his pants, but he got the scare of his life.  Anyway, the lessons were learned even for four guys who has a ton of backcountry experience: 1. Just because you are AT THE BEGINNING of your hike… it doesn’t mean that there isn’t danger right around the corner. 2. Just because you are AT THE BEGINNING of your hike… it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be calling out for bears and making noise. 3. Just because you are AT THE BEGINNING of your hike… it doesn’t mean that you should be careless and not stick together. We didn’t make any more mistakes over the next seven days.

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One of the greater challenges that we faced on this trip was creek and river crossings.  I will get into this more on Day 3, but the creeks and rivers very often braided, which made our hiking more like a game of Frogger.  We were always trying to find the path of least wetness.  You may say, “What’s the big deal with getting wet?  Suck it up.” Two reasons: 1.  For me staying dry is less about comfort than it is protecting myself.  If my boots are soaked and water-logged… then I have to deal with that for the next few days and risk foot related problems that could inhibit my hiking and slow us down.  If my pants are soaked… am I guaranteed sun to dry them out?  Not at all.  And without the ability to start a fire in Denali… clothes stay soaked.  Cool temperatures could potentially lead to hypothermic symptoms or even hypothermia. 2.  Even though most of the crossings were knee or below, the force by which the water was moving could EASILY sweep us down stream and compromise our safety.  On day 3 we dealt with water too deep and too fast moving to cross individually, but more on that later.  Be safe when crossing!

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In terms of terrain from Unit 33 into Unit 39, it may have been the easiest of our seven days.  Granted it is trail-less and you can make your own route, many times your route necessitates rougher terrain.  This day took us along creek beds, shallow creek crossings, spongy tundra, thigh high scrub brush, and Alder bushes.  I suppose it may have been the adrenaline of the first day (because the spongy tundra, thigh high scrub, and Alder bushes would take it’s toll on us on Day 3), but we didn’t have any trouble tackling the terrain on Day 1.  In fact, covering 7.6 miles in the trail-less Denali was somewhat impressive.  I can’t recall exactly how many hours we hiked the first day, but my guess is around four, which would make our speed close to 2mph.  We very, very rarely made it above 1mph the rest of the trip.  This is a testament to the roughness of the terrain and the amount of time it takes to find the least obstructive route.  But, always make time for blueberry breaks no matter where you are!

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The weather in Denali was unpredictable.  It could start the day cloudy and rain, but then later be blue skies with sun.  And believe me… the weather could change quickly.  On this particular day it started off quite cool in the low 50’s with gusty winds but then late in the afternoon the clouds broke and the sun popped out.  The blue skies and sun made for some really sweet picture taking!

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We finished Day 1 setting up camp close to Stony Creek.  The next morning would take us on a day hike across Stony Creek and up 1800-2000 feet to the peak of some unnamed mountains for epic views of the surrounding mountains and valley, including our route through Bear Draw on Day 3.

An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.

Preparing for a Denali NP Backpacking Trip…

Featured picture from Daniel Leifheit via Denali NPS

If you have landed on this post… you are likely very interested in backpacking Denali National Park. ¬†Let me say at the outset that planning a Denali backpacking trip is unlike anything else you have done. ¬†Over the last eight or so years I have backpacked many National Parks, each of them with their own individual and unique process for planning and permitting, as well as their own ¬†distinct rules for the backcountry. ¬†With Denali one may as well throw most of that expertise out the window.

Denali is unlike any other National Park in the United States. ¬†It is the size of Massachusetts. ¬†It’s diversity in terrain, plant-life, and wildlife is second to none. And the trail-less backcountry is as intimidating as it is exciting. So planning for a week-long backcountry backpacking trip can very easily overwhelming.

Before I get into the planning specifics… let me note a few¬†important things that you need to know from the very beginning.

1. You need a backcountry permit to do overnight backcountry camping, whether it is one night or longer. And, the only way to get a permit is to show up in person. That’s right… in person. Unlike other National Parks that allow you to submit permit applications via an online form or by snail mail, Denali only gives out permits to individuals and groups who show up at their Backcountry Office on a first-come-first-serve basis beginning at 9am local time.

2. The entire park is divided into a grid with each part of the grid referred to as a “unit.” There are 84 total units, all varying in size and occupancy limits. As you can imagine, even though each unit varies in size, each unit is quite large. And while the park does not have designated areas within each unit were you have to camp (because you can camp anywhere within the unit), the number of backpackers able to camp in a specific unit is limited, with some units allowing a maximum of two people per night up to twelve people per night. This limitation decreases the amount of foot traffic and impact on the environment. Additionally, these limitations may significantly effect routes and specific areas you may want to pass through or camp within.

3.  Being that the Denali backcountry is trail-less (except for game trails and a handful of man-made trails), one should be comfortable using a compass and topographic map to orient and navigate.  Additionally, the trail-less backcountry will slow you down.  Under normal circumstances and conditions on well-maintained trails (of course depending on elevation changes, fitness, and snack/nature breaks) one may expect to average anywhere from 2-3 mph with a full pack.  In Denali, your expectations of daily mileage and speed should be tempered with the challenges of route finding, bushwhacking, stream/river crossings, etc.  Anticipating 1 mph is a reasonable expectation.  Sure you may move a bit quicker in a gravel bar, but you will be slowed down by the dense brush.  It all averages out.

Units

One of the larger challenges with planning a Denali backpacking trip is planning a route. If you are unfamiliar with the park, the variation in topography, and what is realistic in terms of distance and route from unit to unit, you are not alone. This is where we found ourselves at the beginning of our planning. I spent an enormous amount of time searching the internet to find information about the individual units. In my experience, there just isn’t much information out there discussing the units. The very best resource is Denali’s own National Park website that details in specificity each unit in the park (terrain, passageways to other unit, notable features, etc). This proved to be invaluable. While we are certainly at the mercy of the Backcountry Office in securing our route when we get there, because of demand and availability, we want to have each unit researched and ranked (according to the criteria most important for us) so that when we are given different route scenarios we can refer back to our preferences and priorities. If we are going to spend the time and money to get there… we want to have the possibility of the best backpacking trip as we can.

Gear

The weather in Alaska can be very unpredictable. In fact, it has been known to snow in any of the twelve months. Not only that but Alaska knows how to rain as well. The rainfall in July and August averages over five inches in each month. Packing the appropriate gear can be tricky because you basically have to plan for every contingency (snow/cold, rain, warm).

Denali Backcountry Office provides a bear canister to each person who camps in the backcountry. Forget finding places to tie off your food. Just throw your food in a bear canister and toss it a hundred yards from your camp and you should be safe from bears through the night.

Keep in mind that you can not take bear spray or gas stove canisters on your flight to Alaska. The good news is that you can purchase gas canisters and bear spray at Denali Mountain Works (http://denalimountainworks.com) located at mile 239 Parks Hwy, off Canyon Dr., about 1 mile north of the entrance to Denali National Park. Phone- tel:907-683-1542.

River Crossings

This one may be a bit strange but river crossings have been one of the biggest issues for us. It’s not that we are concerned with how to cross, because our knowledge of how to cross is fine. It is more about having wet boots. We have looked at this from every angle and still are not satisfied with the conclusions. The bottom-line is that we don’t want to have soaked boots for the duration of our hike. But, we also don’t want to change shoes at every crossing like a bunch of pansies. That just doesn’t seem like a good Alaskan approach. The truth is that we know we are going to get wet in Alaska, that isn’t a big deal. Wet boots are abysmal. We still don’t have a satisfactory approach to this but would love to hear your thoughts.

The Green Bus

The main mode of transportation through the park, after the first dozen miles or so, is the Green Bus. These Green Busses take site seers, day hikers, and backpackers alike all 80+ miles of the park. You can stay on the bus the entire round-trip or you can jump off at any point to hike or backpack. All you have to do is catch a subsequent bus when you are ready to continue on.

For backpackers, who do not know their route or the units they will visit throughout their hike, it is difficult to plan in advance or make reservations until the backpacking route is secured. In many ways, a Denali backpacking trip is a lesson in going with the flow. And this is something I am not used to.

I am sure there is so much more that could be said. This has been one of the easiest trips for which we have planned… and one of the hardest. The easy stuff is airlines and rental cars, but the rest of your trip involves flexibility. The best piece of advice I would give is to read and study as much as you can so that you can roll with the punches.

Do you have additional advice based on your planning to backpack Denali? What is it? Leave comments below.

Peace…

Brandon