written september 12th 2012 at the Denali Visitor Center
I’m Excited! Over the past few days I fulfilled several different dreams. For starters I shot my first photos of the Aurora!! I’ve wanted to do this for as long as I’ve had a camera! I saw wolves in Denali and took my first images of Canis Lupus not in captivity. To top it off I also photographed stars above Denali and the Alaska Range!! These were my first real photos of the trip where I had time to step back and be a photographer rather than just a driver or cook and snapshooter on the side. But more than these a greater dream was fulfilled.
Things looked grim on Sunday (sept 9th). We went to the wrong bus stop near the visitor center at 7am. After finally hitching a shuttle bus back to the Wilderness Activity Center we were on standby. It was 8am. Our bus hadn’t left yet. No buses had. The road was closed due to snow. Maybe 9am .. By 9 the word was 10. Our driver told us we’d head out any minute after that. At noon the status went from standby to cancelled.
Denali is all about grandeur! Like most national parks, throngs visit to walk around the visitor center snap some pics of pull outs along the road and rave about it. I’m really proud of my dad. Unlike the vast majority of silverheads visiting he made it into the bush for two separate forays- even had some Alaskan bushwhacking thrown in for good measure. He was impressed by what he saw and unlike the “where’s the restroom?” crowd he walked away from something that will stick with him the rest of his life. I like that a lot!
For this trip I was his guide. I packed his pack, cooked meals, selected his clothing, handled the food, destinations, route-finding and everything in between. But I wouldn’t be here today without him- not just for the obvious reason that he’s my dad. It wasn’t so many years ago I was in 3rd grade. That tiny 8 year old had help with his meals, packing his pack, clothes, the route and everything in between.
That tiny 8 year old had his eyes opened. He grew and bushwhacked around the hills of NE Washington. He discovered the mountains and grew to be a man in that world. My father has done a lot for me but this is the largest gift he gave me. It transformed me and was one of the main shaping forces in who I am today. It taught me who I am and what I’m made of. It’s taken me to places of untold beauty & taught me lessons that flowed through all aspects of life. This trip is about a lot of things, yet here in Denali it is about a simple thank you- a chance to share with him the majesty he taught me to seek.
Even the bus rides into Denali are great! There are lots of wildlife sightings and great folks to chat with. I had met Terry briefly the day our bus was cancelled on that snowy Sunday Sept 9th. I was impressed Monday morning as we rolled out on the bus to Savage River. He hopped on wearing Carhartts coveralls and jacket, summer edition. His hood was all snow. He said it had been a chilly one. Terry is from West Virginia but lives in Alaska now and loves it. On the ride out we also met Ben, a wildlife photographer from South Carolina. He’d been out calling moose and following some around for great shots. They both mentioned how folks will think they’re dumb because of the southern accent. How dumb of those who think that! People of all stripes are found wherever one goes. We saw Bears, Moose, Caribou, and a variety of other creatures on the way in!
We were dropped off at Wonder Lake. This is practically the last stop and certainly the most popular stop. It’s quite beautiful. One is only 20 miles from “the mountain” and it’s only a couple miles back up the road to Reflection Pond where Ansel Adams made his famous shot. Ben said he’s counted over 80 photographers there at sunset!! I shot that spot in 2003 and didn’t have a compelling desire to do so again. Different perspectives draw me off the beaten path. While we didn’t stray exceedingly far from this path we still made it out to a place where we didn’t see other folks. Down on the McKinley River Bar we had great views of the mountains and enjoyed a chilly night there along the river. I was told the next day the weather station at Wonder lake reported a low of 25. The station at McKinley River Bar said 15! For most of the night I was up, shooting photos with all the clothes I’d brought. Landscape photography, especially at night, isn’t an activity to warm oneself with. I may have to soften up at some point and get those chemical heat packs for hands and feet! The night was spectacular though! I had gone to bed at 10:30 after post sunset color and set my alarm for just after 11. However I woke with a start when I realized I had overslept and it was 1am! I popped out of the tent to see the Aurora dancing with greens and a tinge of red! It was spectacular! I shot and shot though the night. Eventually there was too much pre-dawn glow to shoot stars over Denali. I had gone through 3 of my 4 camera batteries! and still had a 2-3 days left in the park!
While one is seldom completely satisfied with a shot since there are always little things one can do better I felt happy with the images I’d created in the cold! It was my first real stab at photography on this trip! For that I was quite happy After shooting the sunrise and morning light we had food and lounged waiting for the ice to break up. During the night the sand I was standing on was frozen solid. The braided river channels around us had frozen about 2-3 feet out from each bank! Ice was breaking up all morning. We had to wade a few of those on the way out so the idea of less ice sounded like a good one. We hiked back out to Wonder Lake and missed the bear others had seen on the trail. I’m glad it was only a few miles to backpack out as I’d carried a ton of camera gear! We spent some time at Wonder Lake then hopped a bus bound for Kantishna to see the end of the road and the private in-holdings grandfathered into the park. As the bus headed back for the park entrance we hopped off near a pond I had spied. My dad wasn’t too keen on the bushwhack down to it (a ways through steep brush in places). I scouted above the road and found a reasonable route to higher ground. We made our way up and up to a spot that also had a big pond. It was breezy though so I didn’t shoot it in the evening. Our perfect day of weather on the first day and good day of weather on the second day was turning into a pretty cloudy evening. There was decent slanty light on the peaks to the east before sunset but then the show was over. I was relieved as I was too tired to shoot well and didn’t have much battery capacity left anyways. I set a better alarm than the night before by drinking a bunch of water. When I awoke to some clouds over the mountains with stars above I considered watching it for improvement. However one stupid act at 1am changed that. Instead of putting both shoes on outside the tent it seemed to make sense to put one on and hop over to the tripod. On one foot I collapsed the legs. As the last one went down so did my balance and support. My finger was pinched in the collapsed section. At first I though it would just be a blood blister but upon inspection in the tent with a headlamp I noticed I’d taken a chunk out of a fingertip! Only a flesh wound Whoops.
The morning had far more clouds. We heard the rumble of the 6:30am wonder lake bus as we were packing up and thought we’d catch the 7:30 bus. We made it down to the road with time to spare but no bus. It was one of those mornings where the night had been clear enough to get cold but clouds covered the canopy as the sun rose preventing warming. We dug our puffies out as we waited. Light pierced the canopy of clouds in spots for some nice highlights to the west and down to the McKinley River Bar & Turtle hill near where we’d slept the previous night. Eventually the bus rolled in an hour and change later then we expected realizing it had gone from Wonder Lake to Kantishna and back. On the ride out I met a number of great folks from Nome, Philly and Seattle. We exchanged stories about Denali and life! One of our new found friends had recently returned from Vladivostok and Siberia! We saw Dall Sheep and Moose and Bears and Wolves!!! on the way out. It was fantastic!
From there it was back in the car for another adventure east along the Denali highway and down into McCarthy & Valdez before a layover in Anchorage. More on that next time. Thanks for reading! I hope you are well and I look forward to hearing from you in the comments of via email or facebook!