Mountain High: the Allure of the Country's Grandest Peak
One of the world’s first eco-lodges, Alaska's Camp Denali is an ideal jumping-off place for exploring America’s greatest wilderness, with wolves, bears, and caribou, all in the shadow of our most magnificent mountain.
Wolves. Wild, legendary Alaskan wolves. Four of them, just a couple of hundred yards downslope near Caribou Creek. No, five. Six! Eleven, eventually, when we see them all. The entire Grant Creek Wolf Pack is gathered here, at rest, noses in the wind. Sniffing for caribou, perhaps, or more likely Dall sheep, hiding down near the creek as they attempt to cross between higher ridges. Indeed, all 20 of us, including our driver, a trained naturalist, at first thought the alpha female was a sheep carcass, so light is her coat. But in the binoculars we see instead a wolf, blonde from nose to tail tip, soaking up the September sunshine. We have entered a land of high drama in Denali National Park.
From the park entrance we have crossed the Savage River, where the pavement ends and private vehicles are turned back by park regulations. Within the hour we climb out of the boreal forest onto the tundra. Huge open valleys spread before us, winding miles back up into the high and rugged Alaska Range, gray and snow-laden. Today is the first of September, autumn colors at their peak and the landscape aglow, a thick rolling carpet of carotene red accented here and there by the yellow, gold, and umber of paper birch, aspen, and willow.
Along our way we have spotted golden eagles, Dall sheep, and a pair of grizzlies foraging by the road. (“Oh, my God,” a woman sitting near me whispered, “they’re right there!”) Several bands of caribou wander about as well. But caribou and bears are not so elusive as wolves, and our encounter with these wild canids delivers the surest proof that we have entered the wild heart of Denali.
Satisfied by our wolf sighting, we climb back into the little Camp Denali bus and return to our rolling seminar, led by our guide, knowledgeable, it seems, in all facets of Alaskan lore and natural history. Our destination lies hours away, some 90 miles into the center of six-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve, a protected area larger than Massachusetts. This epic wilderness includes the tallest and most massive mountain in North America. Once called Mount McKinley (20,320 feet), it is better known locally by its Athabascan name, Denali: the “High One,” or simply “The Mountain.” Back in there near the dead end of the park road, on a bench overlooking Moose Creek and with a full view of The Mountain, we will find our shelter in the cozy cabins of Camp Denali, our base of operations for the next several days.
The term ecotourism had not yet been coined when Camp Denali was conceived more than a half-century ago, but this tiny lodge may well be the nation’s—if not the world’s—first ecotourism establishment. As many who have visited it will attest, it may also be the finest. Founded in 1952—which is to say, homesteaded, in the true Alaskan sense—Camp Denali was and remains a cluster of cabins in the open boreal forest where friends and visitors have an opportunity to venture forth and actually experience the countryside. While most park sightseers are ushered into buses to “see” the park in a day or two, Camp Denali guests stay in this tiny backcountry community for three, four, or seven nights—long enough to shed their frenetic schedules, touch the land, and discover again the intimate relationship between wild nature and human nature in a most inspiring, extraordinary landscape.
We arrive at camp in the gathering twilight, weary from the relentless grandeur. Denali itself is obscured by clouds, but a smiling staff welcomes us out into the brisk mountain air and assigns us to our accommodations. I walk downhill from the lodge past Nugget Pond and find mine, “Little Maude” (named after a local, historic gold mine), nestled in a copse of spruce. Inside, a handmade quilt covers the bed and a volume of Robert Service sits on the nightstand. Service, a Yukon Gold Rush poet from a century ago, was among the first to notice that many a prospector who failed to find gold in the area fell in love with the land instead. “Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting,” he wrote from the wild North. “It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder / It’s the forests where silence has lease / It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder / It’s the stillness that thrills me with peace.”
Here, in that stillness, we will sleep tonight.
In the morning Denali continues to hide behind the weather. After breakfast in the dining hall the staff encourages us to get busy exploring the countryside with the camp guides. I opt to join a handful of companions for a moderate hike up Cloudberry Ridge, a shrubby knoll that provides a front seat to the High One. Along our way, just a few hundred yards downslope from camp on the bank of Moose Creek, we visit the migration station, a bird-banding lab supported until recently by the lodge (it is now closed). Here we meet a handful of young biologists who monitor 12 mist nets scattered through several creekside habitats and gently disentangle any ambushed wayfarers to take immediate measurements and attach a numbered leg band. Only one dark-eyed junco, now sporting a new bracelet, has volunteered this morning, but more than 10,000 birds have been banded here over nine years by researchers doing surveillance on avian flu in the wild bird population.