Posted September 21, 2012 11:24 pm


Roughly 6.2 million acres.
The third largest national park and preserve in the Untied States.
The two bigger are also in Alaska (Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic) as are four more in the top 10 (No. 4 Katmai, No. 6 Glacier Bay, No. 7 Lake Clark and No. 9 Kobuk Valley).
20,320 feet high.
Meaning "The High One" in Koyukon Athabaskan.
Also called Mount McKinley.
And "Holy Cow" and "Wow" and "OMG!"
Interesting to note that it was renamed McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector in honor of presidential nominee William McKinley, and changed back by the State of Alaska in 1975 (the AK Geographic Names Board and Federal Board of Geographic Names each maintain different monikers, sheeeeesh.)
The name of Mount McKinley National Park was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980.
Alaskans and climbers (and weary Juneau reporters) say Denali.
It is one of the Seven Summits.
The tallest mountain on land, base to peak. The highest peak in North America (the third most prominent in the world after Mount Everest and Aconcagua).
So large it creates its own localized weather.
It is said that the mountain is visible just 33 percent of the time and only 10 percent of visitors to the park get to see it.
I have been lucky enough to see it over half of the days I have traveled there.
This trip, the mountain loomed on the horizon for three of my five days.
The mountain is a perk.
I go to Denali National Park and Preserve to hike the backcountry, other mountains, roads, paths and "social trails."
I go to unwind, be humbled, be amazed, to dream, to sit, laugh, cry, run, etc., etc.
One year, the rain pounded down so hard it felt like the ground shook. High on a mountain I stumbled upon eight or so Dall sheep rams with horns curled in large envious ovals (if you were a ram).
I became exhausted trying to photo them and began trotting away. Dall sheep do a funny thing. If you run away they will run after you, perceiving you are fleeing a danger they do not see.
One year, I watched a caribou lope along a low alpine ridge. The single large male, with his head slightly back, seemingly sniffed for the trail of a herd long since gone.
One year, a large racked moose sprinted through the trees with a medium sized grizzly in pursuit. The moose suddenly stopped, as if in the realization that he was much more the dominant species at this particular stage of the brown bear's life, and whirled around and the chase reversed in the other direction.
Once a lynx softly, leisurely, silently strolled past my rocky perch, until up wind became down wind and then every fiber of muscle along his flanks tensed and he disappeared.
One year the ground squirrels just kept following me up and up and up... like porters on some grand scaling.
And these are just a single instance in a moment of a day. So much happens in Denali that there are never enough days to process where you have stepped.
My companion stated that I always make friends at Denali... on the bus, at the ranger stations, along the trails.
I guess I do. To hear others tales and watch their reactions or listen to their suggestions, the perspectives of a species much younger than the land they borrow, is part of the adventure.
This year, I became acutely aware that wildlife meant more than bear, moose, sheep, caribou, ground squirrels and such.
I listened to the history.
Savage River, Primrose Ridge, Sanctuary River, Double Mountain, Cathedral Mountain, Sable Pass and Mountain, Teklanika River, East Fork Toklat River, Polychrome, Toklat River, the Plains of Murie.
The Plains of Murie.
Stretching along through Polychrome Pass, fed by glacial waters from every mountain base it caresses. In summer it is nature’s palate scattered on the floor; in late fall, it becomes beautifully barren in a way that shows its expanse, and what walks in front, beside and behind you.
The Plains of Murie lead to Divide Mountain, which pushes the Toklat River east, or west (not to be confused with the East Fork).
Here Adolph Murie lived and studied wolves.
Here his daughter Gail kissed and played with the family's pet wolf Wags.
Here they have built a ranger cabin that Artists in Residence can use for 10 days.
The cost? Just the forfeit of a piece of work from that stay. Cheap price for an invaluable experience.
This year on the bus ride into the park one day I sat next to "J.J."
J.J. lives in Moose Pass year round. She is a scientist of sorts, a wildlife enthusiast, retired from a position but out each day studying various wolves and imparting wisdom.
In 2010, by a 4-3 vote, the Board of Game removed the closure of wolf trapping and hunting on the east and northeast boundaries of Denali National Park.
This area had the most viewed wild wolves in Alaska, if not the planet.
Last winter a trapper killed the only breeding female of the boundary pack and no pups were produced.
"We lost the alpha male to trapping this winter," J.J. said "Along with the breeding female. The pack has been in disarray since, with no clear leader they have been in chaos and have not been seen here lately. We think they are gone."
Not gone, as in traveling, but gone as in they have perished.
That thought led me to disembark at the Toklat River.
I told J.J. I was going to walk up the West Toklat as far as I could and hopefully see where the glacier spills down onto the semi-dry creek bed.
The West Toklat was where, three weeks ago, a photographer was killed and partially eaten by a grizzly bear(s).
"You know, the East Toklat is prettier," J.J. said. "The West is still closed since the mauling."
She described a waterfall that is in a frozen cascade next to a granite valley cliff and the Plains of Murie welcoming travelers.
I confirmed the opening of the West Toklat with a ranger.
I spoke with an individual involved with viewing the footage shot by the photographer.
Those photos showed a Grizzly bear doing what they do along the creek bed this time of year.
The bear fed on soapberries.
The bear became aware of the photographer, and fed on soapberries.
The bear began to show signs of territory.
The photos and time imprints showed human intrusion.
The bear showed more discomfort and offered more warning.
This continued to a point that enough was enough.
I stopped at a ranger station and told them where I was going and my estimated time away.
"It is a gorgeous day for a hike," they said. "Every day is in the park."
I walked towards Divide Mountain.
I went west.
I traveled on the uneven rock lined riverbed, staying out in the middle, viewable by every insect and critter in the area.
The wind hit my back and left a scent trail miles ahead of where I walked.
The skull of a caribou lay bleached.
A ptarmigan hid in plain sight. Its white socks slowly beginning to creep up into winter wear.
A grizzly walked the bank.
Hours passed.
I realized I would not make the terminus of the glacier. I could see it just up ahead but the trip back would be long and the sun had a head start on leaving me behind.
I was tired.
This was my last day in the acreage.
I wanted to sit down and take a deep breathe.
I inhaled the air that dinosaurs must have found. This is a prehistoric place after all.
On the far bank, seemingly bemused by me, a white wolf plopped down, yawned, and stared at me.
Another darker wolf poked his head up from shrubs. Another scaled an incline, looking back at me after each padded surge.
Two more, and another, and then another.
The Toklat Pack.
I noticed no young wolves, but I am by no means gifted in their scientific studies of wolves, or in my own sight.
A grizzly nibbled roots near them, as if following a salad bar from end to end.
The two descendants of critters long gone from this planet became aware of their space. The bear chose to eat up in one direction and the wolves chose to pad above him and away from my exit path.
When it was obvious to them I was moving away, they sat again and followed me with a gaze.
If Denali had never been discovered until today, the chances are 6.2 million acres would not become a national park and preserve.
Hunters and oil companies would have trekked through long ago.
As it is, former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Frank Rue is currently howling into the wind concerning the need for providing buffer zones around the park to ensure the wolves can persist and prosper.
That they can use the buffer to pass safely into and out of Denali's boundaries.
So when a weary creek-bed wanderer sets his load down, he may look up into the hills and see descendants of Wags and the Toklat River pack.


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