Alaska is not what you see; it is what you experience.
Without warning the bus stopped. The driver looked expectantly back at me. Thinking this was yet another wildlife sighting, I made a move to get out my camera. The driver cleared his throat and in that gentle way Alaskans have with those of us from the lower 48, informed me "this is probably the easiest access point for your sector." I looked out at the unending tundra and noted the never-ending tendrils of the stream I'd soon have to cross. A strange paranoia welled up in me.
I didn't want to get off the bus.
This wasn't how I expected to start my first solo hike in Denali National Park. I had come North to lose myself in the middle of endless panoramas, to soak in the long August days, and to rekindle my photographic urges in a place not even the widest angle lens could fully capture. I longed to see some of the park's famous wildlife and maybe even observe the massive whiteness of Denali poke its head above the clouds. But as I grabbed my pack from the seat alongside me and contemplated what lie ahead, I felt small, vulnerable, and foolish.
This strange feeling had been building for several days. The park service tightly regulates the number of hikers in each six-square mile area of Denali, so, like many others, I had to wait at the park entrance for my chosen sectors to open up. During my delay I was subjected to the required "bear video," regaled with stories from rangers about the foolish things hikers sometimes do, and mesmerized by the daily reports of "bear activity" within the park. For some reason, all the stories and all the activity appeared to be concentrated in the area of the park to which I was headed. Was it really wise to make this my first solo foray?
As if for further emphasis, on the long, dusty bus trip into the park, the driver had stopped several times to let us take out our binoculars and watch grizzlies standing over kills, increasing my doubts. It didn't help that most of the other passengers were simply along for a day of sightseeing. These fellow travelers peppered me with questions. Why was I so intent on hiking by myself in the park? What could I possibly see from down in the bush that I couldn't see from the road? Wasn't I scared something might happen to me? When I had planned this trip, I had a glib answer for all those questions. Now, having peered through my field glasses at grizzlies doing everything from picking berries to burying kills and defending them from what appeared to be a small pack of wolves, I wasn't so sure. I was about to go from watching all that activity to being a part of it.
I didn't want to get off the bus, but I did.
Reluctantly, I disembarked, taking plenty of time with each step down the bus's exit stairs. While my feet weren't moving fast, my pulse was racing. The door closed behind me and the big box of people seemed to race off into the distance, leaving me with only a cloud of dust to remember it by.
I stood at the side of the road looking at my pack, not wanting to pick it up. I wondered where the nearest bear was. I killed time by fiddling with my camera's chest pouch; anything to put off the inevitable. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was about to offer myself as an appetizer to wild animals I knew must be hiding behind every rock, behind every bush, or sneaking up behind me.
Park regulations required that I camp at least a mile from, and completely out of sight of, the 80+ mile dirt road that bisects the park. I vowed to go no further than 5200 feet that first day. I'd hide my tent behind a bush if I had to. A mile walk would be a piece of cake, I thought. At my best running pace, I'd be a mere seven minutes from the safety of the road. Wrong! First, I needed to cross dozens of icy fingers of a glacier-fed stream, one of which forced me to take off my pack and wrestle it over my head while fighting the steady push of the relentless current. Besides, I suddenly realized that even if I were to return to the road, it might be hours before another bus came along. One mile ballooned in my mind into what seemed like an infinite distance.
My body resembled a goose bump farm after successfully crossing the steam. I was now cold and scared, not a good combination. I struggled up a stream bank that seemed to have no simple way through its waist-high bush. Rarely was I able to get one foot more than, well, one foot in front of the other. Every bush seemed to be made of some rigid, unyielding wood tougher than a seasoned oak's trunk. Superman would be slower than a speeding bullet moving through this stuff. At least if a bear was going to get me, it would have to work for the pleasure, I thought while pushing yet another reluctant branch out of my way. Three grueling, nerve-wracking hours later, I looked back to the road just in time to see another bus pass by, no more than half a mile away.
I wanted to get on that bus, but couldn't.
Late in the afternoon I topped a small hill and the going suddenly became easier. Now my only encumbrance was the tundra, which sank a few inches under every step. I picked up the pace to one I estimated to be at least a half mile an hour. I heard nothing but the wind and my own hard breathing. I saw nothing but mountains and valleys and...holy shit...a bear. He was a ways off, but there he was, right where I had been heading. I started to sing. Loudly. The first thing that came to mind was, for reason's I'll never begin to fathom, the chorus for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. I belted out "Alla Menschen verden Bruder" in my best baritone, but my voice sounded weak as it disappeared in the wind. The bear briefly turned to see where the music was coming from, but then went back to whatever he was doing.
After two ignored choruses, it dawned on me that the bear couldn't care less about me (though I still cared quite a bit about him). I stopped my serenade and angled off in another direction.
At 7 p.m., the sun was still frighteningly high above the horizon. Though famished from my cross-country efforts, I was afraid to cook for fear it might attract the hundreds of bears I imagined to be encircling me. Instead, I munched on a couple of Power Bars and contemplated the day. I was amazed to find that I had come perhaps three miles. My reward was that I could pitch my tent anywhere, since the road was no longer in sight. Fatigue overwhelmed me, and within minutes, I was curled up in my sleeping bag, tossing and turning in fits of sleep.
I dreamed that a bus had come for me, but I couldn't find it.
Gradually, without my noticing, my paranoia dissipated and I let myself become part of the park. The weather gods were smiling on me, and let Denali out of the clouds five days running. I spent hours staring at the mountain's flanks. A small fox accompanied me for one morning's walk. I picked berries from bushes so full that abundance suddenly seemed like an inadequate word. I saw no one else, and heard absolutely nothing but the natural sounds around me. The long days encouraged a lazy pace, and I spent hours counting the seemingly infinite number of small flower species that poked up only inches above the tundra.
When I woke on the last day to a cloudless, soundless vista, my body and mind were fully relaxed. I was finally able to drink in Denali with all my senses. Midmorning, I came upon a moose working his way into the shallows of a small pond. I quietly stood watching him, observing him, not in any hurry to take out my camera. I was now so in tune with Denali's ways that I instinctively knew what the moose's plan for the lunch hour was: he'd snack on the brush along the far shore, work his way across the pond, and end up near a small point on the other side. I took out my camera, slowly worked my way to the point, and settled down in the pond to wait for him.
I have no idea what I was thinking in those moments as I waited for the moose to work his way to me. I was as inert as the reeds I sat in, just another piece of nature's puzzle basking in this brief highlight of summer. As I had guessed, the moose eventually ate his way over to where I was positioned. I picked up my camera and took his picture.
As I sat in the shallows of the pond with my camera pointed at that moose, hundreds of mosquitos buzzed about me taking their blood samples. Sweat pored from my brow from the unrelenting sun, the heat a stark contrast to the cool water I sat in. I realized that I had finally gotten what I'd come for. All around me, nature was in full blossom. And, like me, everything in the park was enjoying this brief burst of summer to the fullest. Yellow and purple flowers looked to the sun in all directions. The sky was bluer than was believable, and there in the distance Denali stood guard on all of this glory. I had never been calmer, happier, more at ease than I was in that moment. Stunning scenery, wildlife that was truly wild, and a complete sense of solitude all, for one fleeting afternoon, came together in a way that I'll not forget.
But somewhere deeper in the park, a bus was headed back out to the entrance, loaded mostly with day-trippers goggling through the glass at the grandeur that surrounded them. A bus that I needed to be on if I was to make my flight connections back to the Lower 48.
I didn't want to get on that bus.
[Obviously a true story, based upon my experiences on my first solo backpacking trip in Denali (in the mid-1990's). I've since returned to the park several times to photograph it, but I've yet to do another solo hike. I will, though. I'll happily get off that bus next time around. Side note: the bus system is a little different now than when I first visited, and there are dedicated "camper" buses that range out to Wonder Lake and back each day.]