Mountain High: the Allure of the Country's Grandest Peak
After lunch we fan apart to cross the trackless tundra; where there is no trail, we avoid creating one by traveling single file. Soon we wander across an invisible boundary into federally designated wilderness, which constitutes one-third of the park and preserve and for which all others require a special permit to visit. In 1980 the protected area was expanded to six million acres while the original two million acres were designated as wilderness to sustain the integrity of its populations of wolves, bears, caribou, and bighorn sheep and their ecosystems, the park’s original mission. Because guided hikes within park boundaries were a part of the founders’ business, that right was grandfathered only to Camp Denali (now a private inholding).
Additional camp etiquette: Leave all antlers and wildflowers where you find them; eat a few berries for communion but leave some for the spruce grouse; respect the natural quiet; and don’t get the bears in trouble by surprising, crowding, or enticing them. At the apex of our journey we are rewarded as the clouds evaporate and the mighty Denali shows itself at last, high above us and lording over the train of 7,000-footers at its base, metamorphic rock glowing like polished ivory and surprisingly massive, even from 30 miles away.
During the next few days we continue to wander in the wilds of Denali. One group of intrepid explorers bushwhacks a couple of miles to the lower Muldrow Glacier, a strenuous trek culminating with the cerulean hues of glacial snow, packed solid and carried some 30 miles from the snowfields on Denali itself. Others take the uphill romp and climb the 2,000-foot ridge behind camp to have tea on top with the ptarmigan.
The best-known lake in the park, Wonder Lake, was named not for its reflection of The Mountain but for its mere presence. A Gold Rush miner, surprised when he saw it for the first time, marveled, “I wonder how we missed this before.” Curious about the fate of a pair of loons down there, I offer to lead a canoe expedition to check on them. I have studied loons for 30 years, including the rare yellow-billed loons of Alaska’s Arctic. As a small group of us climbs into the canoes waiting on shore, we hear a wail from down lake. Minutes later we see the pair—dark, satiny heads, shell-white necklaces, chess-board plumage on their backs—moving easily across the lake toward us. They have no chick with them but remain close together as a mated pair. No question they’re the Wonder Lake pair. Why do they have no young? Perhaps they refrained from nesting this year, or maybe their attempt failed. Their traditional site is precariously close to the busy Wonder Lake campground, but there are predators here, too. Perhaps the pair hatched chicks and lost them to an eagle or an owl. I look where I had seen their nest five years earlier but find no sign. Still, the couple seems to be in good spirits. So are we.
On one of our last afternoons several of us hike to an overlook with views of Wonder Lake and the Muldrow Glacier and, as always, the panoramic mountain backdrop. We stumble across the tiny white blossoms of bell heather—a denizen of the high Arctic—drooping above its thick mat of evergreen foliage. Our guide points out the fine-haired pellet of a short-eared owl, coughed up by the entrance to a ground squirrel’s burrow. (We have seen several of these owls this week, tilting low across the meadows on silent wings.) When we hear a cacophony of what sounds similar to a large flock of geese emanating from down below, we glass the lake but cannot spot any flock on the water or the nearby tundra. Finally we look up. Sure enough, high overhead pass several vees of migrating sandhill cranes, lankier than geese, with long legs trailing. They rattle and gargle up there, seeming to argue over their direction despite the arrow-sharp lines of their momentary formations. We watch as the vees begin to waver and then slowly disintegrate while the volume of controversy grows. Cranes turn and swirl in many directions, struggling for consensus, continuity, tradition. They croak and screech more loudly, form several wavering wedges moving eccentrically, only to break apart and boil among themselves again in guttural dissent.
Perhaps it is difficult for them to break their southward momentum and turn eastward here to navigate around the vaulted mountains. Yet somehow they will find their way to their wintering grounds far to the south. On this late afternoon, under a broad Alaskan sky, the cranes pass in front of the huge face of Denali, glowing golden under a lowering sun, and become one of the voices of the autumn landscape. When all that’s left is the wind and the sound of our own breath, we move again, northward across the tundra toward Moose Creek and our supper.
On the final evening of my visit, I sit on the cabin porch with Robert Service for company, gazing through the quiet spruces to the High One, now bathed in the platinum light of an oblate moon. With the darkness, the wilderness itself seems to flow back into camp and right across my porch, touching my face like the chill on the night air. Alluring and exciting at once. This, I’m thinking, is why we come here. Camp Denali was never meant to be a destination. It is simply a place to listen, to rest, to hear the wild calling—a jumping-off point for our reconnection to the primeval wilderness, fresh and sweet as ever, beckoning from just over yonder. My companion felt the same pull from the timeless North 100 years ago: “Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us / Let us journey to a lonely land I know / There’s a whisper on the night-wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us / And the wild is calling, calling . . . let us go.”