By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services
I wish I were a moose.
For a few hours anyway, in Denali National Park .
Denali is a “trail-less” park, which means that hiking there isn’t like hiking on easy-to-follow trails in, say, Yellowstone or Yosemite. During our visit, we hiked on spongy tundra and skittered across snow in June, bushwhacking through willow and poplar. The day I wished I could morph into a moose, we were slowly making our way up a gully that, according to our Camp Denali guide Brian McCormick, moose traverse with ease.
At the edge of the Thoroughfare River, as we near the terminus of the 30-mile-long Muldrow Glacier, we see not only moose, caribou and bear tracks, but fox tracks as well.
What is special about this place, besides the wildlife and the fact that it contains the tallest mountain in North America, suggests Kris Capps author of “A Wildlife Guide: Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska,” is that it continues to flourish on its own largely without human intervention.
That’s because even though Alaska cruises have become increasingly popular, especially for multigenerational groups — even Disney now cruises here — only 300,000 people visit Denali each summer, only one-tenth the number who visit Yellowstone National Park.
Just one road leads into Denali’s 6 million acres and after mile 15, the road is restricted to park buses. The most common day trip is an eight-hour round trip of the park. There’s also an 11-hour trip to Wonder Lake and back. However you go, the excellent Murie Science and Learning Center is a must-see.
You can’t get much more remote than here. Before we even got to the park entrance, we’d already traveled 237 miles by bus from Anchorage. You can also take a train or fly. That’s why we’ve opted to take our time, spending a few days 95 miles into the park at Camp Denali, which offers just 18 cabins all with breathtaking views of Mt. McKinley
Driving so far into the park just may have been the slowest and most interesting 95 miles I’ve ever driven — the trip taking us more than seven hours over the Polychrome Pass. Mt. Denali is shrouded in clouds — that isn’t unusual — but we see grizzly cubs by the side of the bus, caribou (did you know their antlers grow an inch a day in summer), moose calves and Dall sheep so close we can count the rings on their antlers. We are grateful for the picnic dinner stop on the side of the Tolkat River. (Though it is 4:30 p.m., we are so far north it is as bright as noon, as we feast on homemade bread and blueberry jam, made with the park’s berries, as well as smoked salmon and reindeer sausage.)
The last time we were here was 13 years ago with our kids and it was one of the most memorable adventures we had ever shared; now we’ve brought some of my husband’s family to experience the wonder. Wildland Adventures arranged both trips for us, and I found Lonely Planet’s “Introducing Alaska” helpful.
(You can read more about our Alaska adventures in my travel diaries from last summer.)
Camp Denali with its to-die-for views of Mt. Denali, when she came out of the clouds, proved one of the most memorable places we’ve ever visited, as much because of the lack of creature comforts as the location. We were prepared for no electricity. There are just propane lamps and a pristine outhouse with views of the Alaska Range. Hot showers are in a communal bath house. That is all part of the adventure, as are the naturalist-guided hikes every day.
What people don’t realize, said Simon Hamm, who with his wife, Jenna, now runs historic Camp Denali and North Face Lodge, which Jenna’s parents ran for more than 20 years, is that only these two lodges can provide guided hikes in these vast wilderness areas of Denali because when they were established, they were outside the boundaries of the park. Since the park expanded, the lodges are now inside and thus Camp Denali has acquired historic operator status, which give the Hamms the exclusive ability to offer guests the chance to travel through the park with guides.
Because there are no defined trails, no trail signs and no cell service, you either need to be experienced in the backcountry and know how to use a compass and map or be fortunate enough to hike with someone like Brian McCormick, who has been guiding visitors for years.
Hamm says Camp Denali requires its naturalist staff to commit to at least three summers, though many have been here a lot longer than that. Their enthusiasm and knowledge shows in every step they take.
But even the so-called moderate hike is challenging as we make our way across a stream, down to a river and push our way through stands of Alder, scrambling over loose rocks and up the gully.
“We want to instill curiosity in the natural world,” said Jenna Hamm, who has a master’s degree in environmental studies, is the mom of two young kids and welcomes families all summer. In fact, some weeks there are so many kids in camp that special family hikes are offered.
The place also offers a lesson in sustainability for all ages. There is a greenhouse and food bought from local farmers. The scraps from our table feed the compost pile and the sled dogs at the end of the road get our leftovers. There is a solar-power system to provide hot water for the kitchen.
Certainly the original camp owners had their own challenges, not the least of which was carving this place out of the wilderness. Today, the Hamm’s challenges are different — not the least of which is convincing first-time visitors that a place with outhouses and a BYOB policy is worth more than $500 a night. The fee does, of course, cover your ride in and out of the park, your meals, your guided hikes and even gear you might need (trekking poles, rubber boots, backpacks, etc.).
By the time we leave, it feels like we’ve gotten a bargain. We fly out — a spectacular journey with Kantishna Air Taxi — and circle around the snowcapped peaks of the Alaska Range, flying right over the Thoroughfare River where we hiked the day before in the moose tracks.
Wow! Seeing the terrain from the air makes the area we hiked even more impressive.
Not for the moose, of course. It’s just another walk in the park for them.
© 2013 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.