For reasons unknown to me, I regained feeling in my foot somewhere between the Toklat River and Polychrome Pass. It had been cold, rainy, and gray for the last twenty four hours. Ever since an incident in my late teens that involved underage drinking, the police, and a barefooted 1 mile sprint, my feet were quick to go numb. It is an unfortunate reminder of the stupidity of my youth. Had I taken somebody else’s shoes I would not have this issue…..
The rain varied as did the terrain. An hour of showers, 45 minutes of sprinkles, grey skies with no precipitation, blue skies and misty droplets blowing from a storm over a mountain a mile away. Climb for an hour, immediately descend steep straight 3 mile hill, climb again, then slow switchback drops. Miles of valley to the right hugged by the Alaska Range. Denali (Mt. McKinley) in there somewhere, but covered in clouds.
I was struggling to accept how often we needed to stop and preemptively change clothing. The hills and weather made it difficult to moderate our body temperature. You can’t leave your coat on during a 20 mile climb and you can’t leave it off for a 10 mile descent. Internally optimistic I kept telling myself it was just a little sprinkle until I was soaked and decided to put my rain gear on. This is a superfluous endeavor anyhow. You sweat so much from the riding that you eventually get soaked under your wet weather garb.
The original plan had been to take the bus to Wonder Lake, cycle 10 miles to a backcountry campsite in zone 35, push for zone 31 Wednesday night, and get a site we’d reserved at the sanctuary campground 22 miles from the park entry for Thursday, and be out the next morning. Denali is different from any national park I have been to in how it organizes the backcountry. In Zion and other places you get a permit to stay at a small handful of sites organized along trails that you are not supposed to step off of. The sites are in high demand and difficult to get. The trails are usually busier than you would like. It never really feels like you’re alone. In Denali you get a camping permit for a zone. You can camp anywhere within that zone. The park prides itself on offering a true wilderness experience, so for the most part there are no established trails. Trail maintenance consists of finding areas in which people have trampled a trail into the brush and moving small shrubs and rocks to make it look as if nobody had been there. There is a single dirt road that runs through the park and busses to drop you off along it’s nearly 100 miles of hills and bends. In the 1950’s somebody wanted to pave that road, but the park fought it off. You must camp a minimum of half a mile from the road and your tent must be out of site. Edward Abbey would generally approve of Denali.
5 ½ hour bus ride to Wonder Lake near back of park. Eighty six miles total. Fuzzy head from no sleep the night before. Hectic morning of patching air mattress and calling manufacturer to get new pad shipped to Gakona Lodge 250 miles away to pick up when we pass through. Cooking dinner on sidewalk in front of modern outdoor warriors clad in Columbia jackets, merino wool hats, and shiny new Merrel boots. Me; grimy and smelly. Boiling water with gasoline camp stove which makes an impressive PHWOOF sound and satisfying two foot fireball when lit. Battle of wits with a squirrel determined to infiltrate our food container.
Sleep deprivation had taken its toll on me and we decided to crash at Cary and Sheila’s site at Wonder Lake rather than start riding. We had met them on the train to Denali. They had cycled from Florida and are planning on riding into Mexico in December. Before getting a backcountry permit you have to watch a video on bear safety. The general ethos is that you keep all food, waste, and anything else that smells, far away from camp. The few established campgrounds in the park break all the rules in that video. We were camped next to the pavilion where everybody cooks, and the vault for our food was within spitting distance of our tent. Still for some reason these places feel safer than the wilderness.
On Wednesday morning, we met a man named Steve. He had offered us a spot at his site at Teklinika River that night in the event the weather was bad and we didn’t want to search for a backcountry site. 30 miles into the day, after the first rain had passed and we had dried out, we were feeling good and figured we would give it a go. The back country system in Denali is great for hiking, but difficult for biking. Getting your gear half a mile off the road is arduous at best and impossible in many places. The road winds along the edges of mountains and with very few trees you could often need to go more than a mile to be hidden from the site line. With the constant threat of rain, we opted to push an extra 25 miles to meet Steve. At the time this seemed like a good idea, and in the end it was, but after several more hours of aforementioned wind, hills, and rain we rolled in looking like two drown rats. I almost lost it in the last 5 miles. My hands feet and face were numb. I didn’t realize how much energy I burned shivering to stay warm and hadn’t eaten enough to compensate.
“Finish strong.” Cary and Sheila had said that. They had a number of nuggets of wisdom, but this stuck more than anything. End the day on a positive note, and don’t come limping into camp. So with a mile to go, I stopped. I stretched, ate, drank, and took some deep breaths. I was still shivering when we hit camp, but I could formulate a sentence at least.
Steve was happy to see us. He made hot coco, gave us his last shot of whiskey, and scavenged some steak and rice from an RV nearby. I went off to wash my bike and a man stopped to chat.
“Nice bike. I rode Highway 61, as in Bob Dylan, in Minnesota last year. Where you heading.”
We went through the formalities that are now becoming quite standard and before parting ways he asked if I needed anything.
“Not really, although beer and chocolate would be great.”
“You got it. Name’s Gerald. What site are you at? I’ll drop it by after my walk.”
“Number 50, near the blue Honda Element.”
“You got it.”
The funny thing about cycle touring is that people want to help you. It is a rare thing when somebody gets genuine pleasure out of helping a stranger. Gerald invited us to his camper for breakfast the next morning. Steve loaned me a coat and gave me a shirt. He let us keep our gear in the back of his car. There is a part of me that is very appreciative for all of this and happy to accept it all. There is another part of me that knows I don’t really need the help. When you see pictures of touring bikes saddled with 50 pounds of gear it looks like such a simple way of life, but the reality is that it is a rich man’s game. There are some people that are hustling work as they go, but I have yet to meet somebody traveling by bike that couldn’t afford a good meal or a hotel room if they really needed it. I wonder if people that truly need the help get as much charity as on their best day as we did in Denali.
We only had to ride 7 miles to Sanctuary River on Thursday. After breakfast with Gerald we dried our things and started the mostly downhill ride in the sun. The sanctuary campground is everything an established site should be and nothing more. Shag carpet of moss covering forest floor and heavy flow river white noise in background. Silty sandbar beaches on the edge perfect for baby bear cub fishing and swimming lessons. Pine trees; tall, straight, narrow. Little yellow wildflowers and waxy leafed groundcovers. Sunlight reflects off the river and illuminates the underside of onshore foliage. Calm song of the river with periodic accents of breeze swirling through my ear or a car in the distance. Strong but infrequent gusts bring a chill. Staring at the river and seeing the chaos of every ripple within an overall orderly migration of water and sediment.
Before being dropped at Wonder Lake, a ranger got on the bus hopped on and gave a talk. Before stepping off she said, “At the end of your stay, ask yourself ‘What does wilderness mean to me?’” I have been thinking about that on and off. I don’t think it is fair to answer yet. It is a question that I have never asked myself before and after several hundred miles in Alaska I think this will continue to evolve in my mind. For now, here are a few thoughts:
The laws of man no longer apply. You’re not necessarily at the top of the food chain. Even if you are at the top, there are things that are willing to fight you for your place. It can be very quiet. Things can go from good to bad to worse much faster than you want to believe. It’s beautiful. In the not too distant past it was almost everywhere. We’re generally out of touch with it. A weekend backpacking trip is just enough to remind us that it is there, but not enough to truly be in it. If we’re not careful, we’ll lose it.