Denali National Park, Alaska
Was it the most beautiful? It was spectacular, but no.
Was the weather perfect? Definitely not.
Then why was it one of the best?
Accomplishing a mental feat. Overcoming what the “old me” would have succumbed to.
But I’m getting ahead of myself!
Grab your popcorn and pull up a chair, here’s the tale of Cathedral Mountain!
We began our adventure at the Wilderness Access Center. My dad and I had a bus scheduled to drive us out to one of the stops on the bus tours: Toklat River. There are multiple rides you can purchase, but we didn’t want to sit for 13 hours for some of the tours, and we heard about great hiking near Toklat. These buses are the only way to venture deeper in the park because the road is closed to cars and other traffic. This is because park officials didn’t want people to fly through the park at a million miles an hour, just for photo ops, and not appreciate the magnitude of wilderness that exists compared to other national parks. It also helps reduce pollution and emissions in the area, so the plants and animals can behave in a more natural, untouched way.
We talked with some guides and they said you could get off the bus whenever and wherever you wanted to hike. There are no marked trails beyond the Visitor’s center, so you need a compass and maps or a GPS if you plan to do anything far from the main road.
I was excited and nervous at the same time. Excited to be away from telephone wires, cars, phones, and the hubbub that surrounds us on a daily basis…but nervous to be left alone in the wild.
The bus ride was fun! The majority of people on it were there for the tour, so we stuck out like sore thumbs with our homemade hiking sticks (we found branches by the railroad in the park and my dad used a knife to make them smooth) and our hiking gear haha! Some kid in front of us played on his gameboy the whole time and missed out on seeing moose and some beautiful, mist-covered scenery. It was disappointing to think how a lot of kids nowadays are so consumed by technology that they have lost touch with nature 😦
After a rest stop at Mile 29, we talked to our bus driver about where the best place to get off for Cathedral mountain would be. She told us how she’d tried a few days prior to hike the same area but was forced to abort mission because of a huge grizzly in their midst. My heart spluttered a bit at that comment haha
The rain started coming down harder as the bus slowed to a stop and the driver told us this was where it’d be best to get off. (This was around mile marker 31 or 32)
We stepped off, waved at our fellow passengers who thought we were psycho for hiking in the cold rain, and watched as the bus disappeared into the hills.
So there we were.
Plopped in middle of nowhere with no communication to the outside world.
Amidst the most quiet of silences I’ve ever experienced.
Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop.
The only sound I could hear was my own breathing, the babbles of the Igloo Creek, beeps from my dad finding our coordinates on the GPS, and the rain sploshing on the hood of my poncho.
I felt scared. I felt alone. I felt exhilarated.
As someone who likes set rules and order, I was definitely thrown out of my comfort zone. I even contemplated quitting and just getting back on a bus. My brain said, “Come on Alex, it’s raining, it’s freezing, you’re gonna get killed by a bear our here, so just quit.”
I grabbed my walking stick and started trudging up the river bed with more fire and determination than a lioness.
Sure, my breathing was more shallow, I was looking all around for wild animals every two seconds, and I was singing hilarious made up songs about moose poop at the top of my lungs to fend of bears. But I was doing it.
One thing that got me out of my funk of fear was seeing a HUGE snow drift frozen over the rushing water. To think, snow this deep in June?! I tilted my head back, let the raindrops fall on my tongue and just took a deep breath. I knew this was an adventure of a lifetime and I wasn’t going to let fear, weather, or my own mind get in the way of that.
We spotted a peak we wanted to climb and made our way up the riverbed towards it. We didn’t have crampons or snow gear, so we didn’t attempt the larger, rocky, snow-covered peaks. The hills were STEEP though and covered in spongy, soft tundra terrain. I’d never hiked on something like that before; it definitely made you feel safer than loose gravel or twigs. I loved it!
My dad suggested we side-wind our way up to the top and create our own “switchbacks” but I ignored it and just took the straightaway approach. My dumb poncho kept tripping me, so I ripped that thing off and tied it around my backpack to keep it dry.
About halfway up the hill, something caught my eye on the crest of a neighboring ridge.
It slinked like a rodent or ferret, but it was about the size of a large dog. I knew it wasn’t a bear because it was very agile and swift on the rocky outcropping. It perched on the peak and watched us. I thought at the time that it was a wolverine, but made a mental note to consult a guide book when we got back to the hotel. (Sure enough, based on what I witnessed, it definitely was!) I tried to take a picture of it, but my camera lens couldn’t zoom that far!
We kept heading upward, and I kept my eye on our wild friend. The hill was covered in burrows made by other mountain inhabitants and we saw a lot of Dahl sheep scat.
Eventually, we made it to the top!! It was breathtaking. The scenery was so calm and quiet as the rain temporarily let up. I’ll let the pictures do the talking!
On our way back down, we came across another huge snow drift and stuck our walking sticks in it to test for depth. Holy Toledo, it was at least two feet deep!
We made it back to the riverbed and kept following it farther into the mountains for awhile before turning back.
We wanted to get in some other hikes, so we started heading in the direction of the road to catch a bus. Our driver informed us that we could catch any of the buses by waving them down from the main road.
The entire hike back, I was still singing loudly about moose poop and screaming my name at the top of my lungs It felt so freeing to be able to scream without having someone saying, “use your inside voice” or “don’t shout like that, someone will think you’re hurt!”
A lot of cool rocks littered the river bed, but one thing stuck out….
A BIG BONE!! It was so cool! Even though I kinda got the heebie jeebies that the animal that killed the prey would be mad we touched his stuff.
Eventually, we made it back to the main road right as a bus was going by. We flagged it down and someone in the bus pointed and saw us, and the bus kindly waited. When we got on, we realized the driver was the same lady we’d had coming out!! Coincidentally, the same bus! It was hilarious because all of the passengers who’d seen us go into the wild treated us like the celebrities of the bus! They asked us what we saw, how it was, etc etc. It was pretty funny!
We stayed on for a bit longer, saw another moose, but decided to try another hike near Primrose Ridge.
By that time, we were pretty soaked and the temperature had dropped to the 30’s. Fresh snow began to blanket the higher peaks as we started hiking again. The cold brush hitting our pants mixed with the freezing air was getting SUPER bone-chilling so we called it quits. We started walking the main road and waited to see a bus go by to flag it down.
On the way, we came across some random toilets and a tiny building. Next thing we knew, some lady came out and asked if we had a lighter haha! My dad had some waterproof matches buried in his pack, so she let us come in and warm up in her tiny information building. She told us she was part of an Native-Education program for the park–she grew up on trap lines in Alaska and her family made a living selling furs and hunting animals. Her name was Peggy and it was only her first week on the job! It was so funny and random, but she was really sweet! And it was nice to warm up for a bit before continuing on the road. We also said goodbye to our hiking sticks and left them for future hikers 🙂
We kept walking and singing, seeing buses going the other way, enjoying the scenery and looking for wildlife.
Eventually, we flagged down a bus and hopped on. We were pretty beat and were looking forward to a nice hot shower! The people on that bus had seen wolves, a bear, and some moose, but were shocked we saw a wolverine considering they’re one of the most ferocious animals in the park.
We crashed that night, reveling in our adventure and invigorated by the taste of the wild 🙂
Sorry for the novel of a tale, but it was definitely an action-packed, mind conquering kind of day. One that I will never forget. I hope to return to Alaska to backpack the Stampede Trail to the “Magic Bus” where Chris McCandless passed away (from Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild’), and experience even more wilderness hiking adventures. 🙂