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FAIRBANKS - "Have you driven the Denali Highway yet?"
I've been asked that question at least a half-dozen times since moving to Fairbanks in May.
But on my checklist of Alaska adventures, the 460-mile loop from Fairbanks had taken a backseat to other far-flung places like Valdez, Haines, Homer and Chitina.
Last weekend, my boyfriend, Josh Kunz, and I decided to go backpacking along Kesugi Ridge in Denali State Park.
Well, the only time we took our backpacks out of the car was to transform the backseat of my Subaru into a bed. It was cold, wet and blustery when we rolled up to Glitter Gulch outside Denali National Park for refreshments around noon on Saturday, draining any motivation to spend the next 24 hours in the backcountry (I've been spoiled by Colorado sunshine for five years and have been called a fair-weather hiker by Alaskans).
Driving the 135-mile unpaved Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxson, fishing and car-camping along the way, seemed like the perfect fallback. The route snakes through bright green foothills streaked in fireweed and backdropped by Alaska Range peaks capped in fresh snow. The landscape is strewn with glaciers, wild rivers and lush tundra sprinkled with caribou, moose, porcupines, beavers, bald eagles, loons and trumpeter swans. With next to no people, cars or businesses, it's the real Alaska experience promised by every visitor's guide.
Fallback was the wrong word.
The Denali Highway passes plenty of creeks with healthy populations of Arctic grayling and dolly varden. We stopped at one - Seattle Creek - and Josh caught a grayling, and we picked a few blueberries.
We spotted most of the wildlife we saw from the car. The first herd of caribou was about 30 strong. They were browsing in the willows until they sensed us, then started zigzagging in different directions before bolting over the ridge. It was my first Alaska caribou sighting.
A little while later, we passed at least 60 more. Another small herd stood silhouetted against a dusky ridgeline and we saw a spate of twosomes - lots of cows with calves - in the road. One bull, with a rack the size of a small tree, looked about to tip over any second. I learned caribou are hard to anticipate; sometimes they head for the hills and sometimes they beeline it down the road.
You run into the Susitna River about halfway to Paxson. The river cuts a wide path through the valley, which is studded with lakes, ponds and streams and framed by mountains. Josh said the landscape reminded him of being in the Brooks Range, where his family has a mining camp. Steady rain beat into the high, silty water as we crossed the slightly concave wooden bridge.
When we got hungry, we started scoping the many dirt pull-offs carved by hunters. We found a spot about 10 miles past the Susitna that perched above the wide, flat river valley and built a campfire in the rain. Since we had no cookables (the grayling was too small) we dined on leftovers from Panorama Pizza outside Cantwell (one of the best pizzas I've had in Alaska).
The rain had broken by the next morning, while my neck had just been seriously tweaked from sleeping in the trunk.
The wildlife tour quickly resumed as we encountered more caribou and a baby porcupine dawdling across the road. After debating whether or not porcupines can shoot their quills, we tried to get a little closer. He hid behind a rock, probably for the best, as I'm sure he wasn't as cuddly as he looked.
The next side road that enticed us led to Maclaren Glacier, 12 miles off the highway. We only made it 100 feet before I decided to spare my car from the crater-sized holes filled with rainwater. The road is friendlier to trucks or ATVs, several of which cruised by.
The Maclaren River Lodge, just past the glacier, was our first reminder of civilization in awhile. The year-round resort offers dog-sled tours and other activities. We came to the harsh realization that summer is almost over when we passed a musher on a four-wheeler training her dogs.
Finally, we made it to Tangle Lakes, 15 miles west of Paxson, which more than lived up to their legend. The headwaters of the Delta River shimmered even in the flat light. Fishermen and others paralyzed by the scenery stayed at the campground and the inn.
After four hours on a bumpy gravel road, the pavement seemed like a racetrack when we hit the Richardson Highway. The sun came out as we headed north to Fairbanks, inspiring a quick hike up Donnelly Dome for panoramic views of the Alaska Range and the Tanana Valley. That was followed by blackberry milkshakes at the Buffalo Center Drive-In in Delta Junction. And the perfect finish? No wet tent or socks to deal with.