The Tall One, and the Tall One’s Wife

How could we top Tombstone?  Leaving the Yukon last week, it was hard to imagine what we might find in Alaska that could rival the spires and scenery we crossed paths with in our previous wilderness adventure.  Crossing over between the Yukon and Alaska via the Top of the World Highway, we made our way into America’s northernmost state with high expectations of what the state might bring.

It was immediately apparent that just like its southern neighbours, Alaska continues the trend and indeed provides scenery that rivals any of which you may find in British Columbia or the Yukon.  Most of its population has quite happily removed itself from present-day life, and can be found scattered across the vast wilderness that makes up Alaska.  Gold prospecting is still a prevalent life for many in those certain regions, and providing for one’s self through hunting and harvesting is not a recently developed habit of the hipster era, it is a way of life.  While the few major hub cities that dot the state’s landscape may showcase residents in suits and ties during the week, these same residents can be caught fishing the seasonal salmon run on their lunch hour just a few blocks down from the office in the heart of downtown.  Essentially, Alaskans mean business.

So where to first?  The last of our known must-sees, Denali National Park boasts wildlife for days and scenery to boot.  At 20,320ft, Denali (or Deenaalee as it is called by local Athabaskans, roughly translating to ‘The Tall One‘) is North America’s highest peak.  To its side lies Deenaalee-Be’ot (The Tall One’s Wife), or Mount Foraker, at 17,402ft.  Knowing this, it only seemed fitting that we spend some time in the company of these two great peaks.

Let me preclude our park trip by saying this; American National Parks are a bit of a culture shock even to a Canadian who has just a few short weeks ago left the buzz of Banff and Jasper National Parks.  The Americans know how to take a natural attraction, and organize and commercialize the hell out of it.  There is nothing more soul-sucking that leaving the remote wilderness and entering a visitor center for a large National Park.  The tour busses, the RV’s, the motorhomes…..the people. (And that’s not to mean the American people, it’s just the sheer number of people in general).  It can leave one a little daunted and skeptical that any type of wilderness experience may occur on the other side of the park boundary when you are gathered with so large a group of seemingly inept individuals completely content with being herded around like cattle.  Have you ever looked into the eyes of someone fresh off the tour bus?  I dare you.  They could give the walkers on the ‘The Walking Dead’ a run for their money.

Now that I’ve had my chance to rant, however, let me tell you that Denali is 100% my top recommendation of parks to hit up in Alaska. (I know it’s the only one we’ve been to so far, but I don’t see it moving far down on the list even after then next few weeks).  The daunting thing about Denali is that for a short time, you do become one of the cattle.  You have to register to camp (last-minute trip planners beware), and private vehicles are not allowed onto the one road leading into the park.  You must make a reservation to get on one of the operated busses that run into the park (either one that includes a ranger, or a simple hiker/camper bus), and if you are camping in the backcountry you must go through a tutorial video, register with the park service and adhere strictly to their bear policy.

Unless you are one of the aforementioned Alaskans that lives out in the bush and has done so for the past 50 years, I can almost guarantee that you will see more wildlife in Denali National Park than you have seen in your entire life. Hands down. At last count, we stopped counting the number of Caribou we had seen (and groaned whenever the bus actually stopped, again, for another one), moose, countless Dall sheep, over a dozen Ptarmigan, and over ten Brown bears (it was hard to tell which ones were repeats from the day before).  This included a Sow and her two little cubs, which were inevitably, the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.

In essence, becoming part of the tourist herd has its perks.  In an effort to keep the park wild, the limitation of vehicle traffic and the control of the travelers to and from the park has allowed Denali’s wild to flourish.  It becomes old news to see another Caribou or Ptarmigan, because they’re everywhere.  And as one bus driver that we had commented, ‘If you don’t see the animal, then it just means you’re not looking hard enough.  Because I can guarantee that there’s a moose, bear, caribou or sheep out there, it’s just a matter of timing and good eyesight.’

And Denali has a great little secret for those that manage to weather the entrance gate storm; once you’re on the bus and in the park, you’re free to go wherever you want.  Because the thing about the American’s National Park mentality is this; Parks are public property, and as such they have no reason or authority to tell you when or where you cannot go.  As a Canadian, who grew up with designated trails and the mentality that you must stick to them, this was overwhelmingly exciting beyond belief.  Jump off the bus wherever your heart fancies, and climb whatever peak suits your eye?  No problem.  Hope you’ve got whatever you need to do it, and have fun.

And so off we would get, and away the bus would go….

It truly made me look at parks in a whole new manner.  Because for the first time, we weren’t looking for the trail.  We were just looking for a trail, or sometimes, no trail at all until we, or something else, had made it for us.  We were free to roam like any other creature of the park, wherever we wanted.

And so we did.  For three nights, we camped at Igloo Creek (only 7 tent sites, but they’re almost always open to book with only one day’s notice.), and each day, we either hiked from our camp site or caught a passing bus until we saw a peak that looked appealing and jumped off to go climb it.  If you’re simply doing day hikes while staying at a designated camp site within the park, you don’t need to register as a backcountry traveler or sit through any VHS-era tutorial, and merely need some basic backcountry smarts about being prepared and traveling in bear country.  Having equally terrible singing voices and some good whistles (thanks John!), Byron and I managed to ensure the bears maintained a two valley gap between us and them at all times.

To top the trip off, which was already going to be hard to do, on day three the skies cleared and we saw what only 30% of visitors to the park get to see; Denali itself.

A recent geological survey found that Denali’s current recorded height of 20,320ft measures the mountain 82ft higher than it actually is. Although once corrected it will be moved from 109th to 110th on the list of the world’s tallest peaks, Denali is a beast to be reckoned with.  It simply dwarfs all other mountains which dress its flanks, and stands to challenge those who seek its lofty summit.  In 2015, 1089 climbers had registered to ascend Denali, and only 601 successfully reached the summit.

We left Denali four days after we first stepped across its park boundaries with hearts and minds brimming with gratitude and happiness. The uninhibited manner in which one is free to wander and explore this great park left us both with a great appreciation for everything it can offer you if you choose to seek it.  With Deenaalee and Deenaalee-Be’ot presiding over us as we did, we couldn’t help but feel right at home.

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Ferry leaving Dawson City taking us across the Yukon River and on to Alaska.

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Cairbou along the top of the world highway

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Dall Sheep

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Base camp

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There and Back Again….a Tombstone Story

From Whitehorse we set out in the rain with our packs full and high hopes for better weather.  Although our last night had been spent soaking in the warmth of the Takhini Hotsprings, the rain only dampened our hopes of hiking in better weather as we left the warm waters and headed for Tombstone Territorial Park, located off of the Dempster Highway 100km southeast of Dawson City.

The Dempster Highway is a force to be reckoned with on its own; as Canada’s first all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle, it runs 671km from the Klondike Highway into the Northwest Territories, eventually connecting to Inuvik at the terminal of the Mackenzie River where it meets the Arctic Ocean.  No traveler crosses onto this dirt highway and makes it to the end without the use of several spares, a few quarts of windshield washer fluid, a clear picture next to the Arctic Circle marker at kilometer 409 (or thereabouts), and high hopes of tundra scenery and wildlife.  Although we embarked with only the latter of the four aforementioned items, our faith was in the Delica that she would get us to km 70 in one piece with blessings of dry weather as we embarked on our four day trek into the Yukon alpine tundra.

Called the ‘Ragged Mountain Land’ by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in tribe whose traditional territory the park encompasses, Tombstone Territorial Park is one of spectacular black granite peaks and open alpine wilderness formed thousands of years ago; it leaves you truly in awe of what time and geology can do to the surface of the earth.

The weather held out as we reached our destination and checked in at the only visitor center present the entire length of the highway.  As a way of keeping account of all backcountry travelers, those which are overnighting at any of the three designated camp sites in the park must check in and confirm their entry to the trails, as well they must confirm their possession of bear spray and ‘bear barrels’, canisters which hold the entirety of a hiker’s delectable smelling food, snacks and bathroom goodies so that they may pass unnoticed from the sensitive noses of those larger carnivores one wishes to avoid in the later hours of the evening.  On Saturday morning we headed off to Grizzly Lake, our first stop on our 3 night, 4 day trek into Tombstone.  While the sun kept us company for most of the day, smoke from a nearby forest fire moved into the valley and blocked our view of the lake for most of the hike.  Unfazed, we persisted to the base of Monolith Mountain and Grizzly Lake where our first night’s camp site awaited us.

A large kudos must be given to the staff of the Yukon Parks system; while they limit the number of backpackers that can stay at each of the three designated sites each night (you are allowed to camp anywhere in the park, albeit without the amenities soon to be mentioned), those three sites are equipped with raised tent pads, a reasonably covered cook shelter, bear bin lockers and outhouses.  As Byron and I arrived at Grizzly Lake, we quickly gained appreciation for the cook shelter too; no sooner had we arrived and set up our tent than the nightly thundershower rolled in and gave us a taste of what we would be in for the next three nights.

There is nothing more spectacular than a wicked lightning and thunderstorm; I have always been a lover of wild weather, and watching the lighting blaze and hearing the thunder crack overhead mere seconds later gave me equal chills and excitement as we stood huddled in the cook tent with the rest of the camp occupants, fully well knowing my attitude would probably be less of wonder and glee and more of misery if I had still been on the trail when the evening storm hit us full on.

After our first night at Grizzly Lake we loaded our sore shoulders with our worldly possessions for the next few days and headed off to Talus Lake, the third and farthest lake in the circuit of three in the designated sites.  We headed off in hopes of a site to ourselves after conferring with several other hikers that we were most likely to be the only ones there that evening.  Many kilometers and even more sore feet later, we arrived, and our hopes were confirmed; we were the only ones who had made the full trek that day and we had Talus Lake, and the striking figure of Tombstone Mountain reigning over the landscape in the distance was all to ourselves.

We arrived early enough in the evening to enjoy the last few sips of Tequila we had packed into our little flask and dream of a warm dry night in our little tent.  A quick look at the horizon surrounding our site quickly put these dreams to bed however; the evening thunderstorm was rolling in, and we quickly decided that although our chosen site was the most picturesque of the lot, it was also the highest point in the surrounding landscape. After relocating to a lower point on the lake shore, we ran for the cook shelter to heat up that evening’s dinner, and watched from our little shelter as the tent withstood the squall that dropped into the valley like a bomb, bringing driving winds, lighting and thunder. The domestic quickly falls dwarf to the wild.

That evening’s storm only turned out to be an opening act for what we were in for that night; as if the Chili Peppers had only just been an opening act for KISS, Byron and I awoke to a storm that night that made you feel like you were in the drums of the thunder gods themselves.  Never in my life have I heard such noise; it echoed off of the walls of granite around us and bounced up and down the valley; each call in the distance brought close in the response by the clouds directly overhead.  It paddled back and forth for what seemed like eternity before trailing off down the valley in search of its next warm blooded victim to keep from a good night’s sleep.

The next morning we woke to peaceful skies but a low cloud ceiling, dashing our hopes of doing some scrambles in the surrounding mountains.  Succumbing to the weather, we packed our (soggy) bags and headed back towards Divide Lake, the second lake in the chain of three which we had continued past on day two in order to reach Talus Lake.  The weather broke as we ventured to camp however, allowing us time to dry our things out and head off for an afternoon hike around the lake, where we happily enjoyed scrambling among the rocks for once without the full weight of our packs on our backs.

Day four saw us packing our bags for the final trek out; the night had passed uneventfully with only a few small sprinkles of rain, and now we had to ready our legs and minds for the 19km hike up and over the pass back to Grizzly Lake and then from there back to the car, dropping the 800m of elevation we had worked so hard to gain three days earlier.

Stymied in our search for sights of a critter larger than the curious marmots that frequently crossed our path, seven hours later we retraced our footsteps back through Tombstone to the Delica, which sat just as we left her four days earlier.  Although we sit in the comfort of a hotel room tonight (treat!), that first night back in the Delica couldn’t rival the best night in a five star hotel anywhere in the globe.  There is nothing comparable to your own bed, pillow, and the comfort of a roof over your head, be it Delica roof or an actual house.  And for now, for this journey, after four spectacular days in Tombstone, we’re pretty happy to have our Delica roof back and continue on this journey in the van we call home.

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