Denali. Photo Credit: Jennifer Brown.

Unless you’re a seasoned wilderness expert, it’s hard to get off the beaten path. We settled for the road slightly less-traveled.

If you didn’t know it already, the state of Alaska is big. Over twice the size of Texas, which I’ve driven most of the way across, east to west, Houston to Big Bend National Park. As a tourist on a two-week excursion, the best you can do is get some impressions and hope to return someday with more time. Maybe a year would be enough? Alaska — this was my overarching impression — is that vast and that beautiful.

Having traveled by ship along the southeastern coast and over land to Denali and Fairbanks, my partner and I have vowed to come back in an RV and settle for a while, so that the unfamiliar contours of fjord and rainforest, tundra and taiga, can grow familiar and disclose more of their secrets.

Ship to Lodge #1

Leaving the cruise ship in the port of Whittier, we traveled by train and bus to a lodge in Denali State Park, on the southeast side of the much larger National Park. From there, we were told, we had a better chance of seeing the summit of Denali than we did from the entrance of the National Park. I hadn’t really known this beforehand, but anecdotally, only 30% of visitors to the park happen to see the peak of the mountain unshrouded by clouds. I’d say that’s a loose statistic, propagated more for the purpose of selling “30% Club” merch than because very careful tallies are kept, but it’s certainly true that “The Great One” is tough to spot. And we turned out to be in luck: from the prime viewing spot at the Princess McKinley Lodge, the clouds cleared and revealed the ghostly hulk, blue and white against the sky, delicate as if it were a painted backdrop.

Up close around us, as the summer solstice loomed, wildflowers bloomed profusely. My partner and I poked around the little nature trails in the long, long sunlight, stopping to photograph tiny flowers we didn’t know the names of along with the lupines and goat’s-beard we recognized. Passing a small tree, we suddenly noticed two downy woodpeckers in it, just a few feet away. To our surprise, they didn’t fly off, but kept doing what they were doing: the adult would flutter to the end of a branch and, clinging to a leaf, would gather something, probably tiny insects, with its beak. Then it would flutter back to the fledgling and stuff the goods down its throat. We watched, mesmerized.

All at once, the fledgling decided to fly a little. It made straight for me, brushing up against my shirt before zinging at an angle toward my partner. Maybe we looked to the young bird like trees ourselves. It perched for a few calm seconds on his shirt-front, but before I could gather the wits to snap a photo, it figured out that the actual tree was a better perch and returned for more mouthfuls of bugs.

From One Lodge to Another

A few hours of queasy bus-riding through astonishing scenery brought us north to the National Park entrance. The majority of the single park road is closed to any traffic but that of tour-buses, so most people get deeper into the park’s wilderness that way, riding school-bus-style for five to eight hours, hoping to see bears and moose and caribou and, if it’s clear, Denali. After our somewhat nauseating bus-trip, however, we weren’t interested in spending the next day on a bus, too.

Alaska superimposed on the lower 48. Wikimedia Commons.

That evening, as we ate a weird pureed vegetable soup, vegan stuffed pepper, and vegan fried crepe (like a giant eggroll, really) at, of all things, a Serbian restaurant called, punnily, “Moose-aka” (we did not try the moussaka), we formulated a plan that would give us a break from the land-transport that, necessary though it was, was wearing us out.

Between the train and the buses, we’d spent more than ten hours of the previous two days sitting in seats. We wanted to walk, even if it meant we had less of a chance to see a bear.

Denali National Park

From the Visitors’ Center, we’d thought we would take a ranger-led hike, but when we queued up, we noticed that people who didn’t look equipped for or capable of a hike were plentiful. The ranger confirmed that the hike would be slow, with lots of stopping, so we quickly decided to go it on our own. By chance, though, we were in time to catch the sled-dog demonstration — another bus-trip, albeit a short one — if we hustled to the bus-stop.

Along with fifty or sixty other park visitors, we milled around the kennels, watching the dogs and trying to get them interested in coming over to meet us. Most of the huskies were more interested in napping atop their wooden box-houses than in obliging their many fans, but one ten-month-old — Behnti — was happy to press up against anyone who wanted to ruffle her thick fur, tipping her head back with tongue lolling, in the universal gesture of “more, please!”

Disembarking the bus back at the Visitors’ Center, we studied the map and lit out on a trail leading toward the park entrance, to get to Horseshoe Lake. We passed a woman on the way who might’ve been a local or at least a long-term camper (she didn’t say), who told us to look out for a cow moose in the area with three calves. We looked — both hopefully and warily — but never spotted them.

Horseshoe Lake, still and clear, very much unlike the nearby cloudy-gray and swift-moving glacial river, turned out to have been made entirely by beavers: there were enormous trees felled everywhere, and many levels of dams, as if successive generations of beavers had struck out with their own architectural plans to annex more of the stream to the lake their parents and grandparents had started making.

We watched some Canada Jays up close and spied a beaver in the water, munching as it swam along. While we were watching the beaver, I went around a curve in the trail to get a better view and saw a moose crossing ahead of me, maybe 20 feet away. “Moose . . . moose . . . moose!” I stage-whispered to my partner, flapping my hand to get his attention. A few other hikers gathered with us on the edge of the pond to watch as Mr. Moose waded in, colossal and munching. He didn’t seem to care about us one bit. We, on the other hand, were short of breath, in awe of his beauty and bulk, thrilled to be so close. We walked all the way from the park back to the lodge on a path along the river, watching for more moose. All told, it was several miles.

The Beast. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown

Healy and the “Magic Bus”

Part two of the day’s plan was to take a shuttle from the pizza place across from our lodge to the 49th State Brewery in the town of Healy, maybe 10 miles north of Denali Park. As we understood it, you could pay to take a shuttle to see the movie-set replica of the “magic bus” that Christopher McCandless had died in. I’d read Jon Krakauer’s wonderful non-fiction book, Into the Wild (Villard, 1996), many years before, and I’d seen Sean Penn’s movie adaptation of it (Into the Wild, 2007), but somehow, I hadn’t realized that McCandless had died just a few miles away from both a town and the national park. It wasn’t that I had come to Alaska to see the bus — or the replica of the bus — but since it was right there, we figured, why not?

So, we waited at Prospectors Pizza for the 2:05 shuttle. At the appointed time, an unmarked, dirty, banged-up white van pulled up. A couple of young people who were clearly employees of the restaurant got in. The driver made no indication that she was driving a shuttle that we could also take. We decided that it must be a van specifically for workers. Ten minutes later, she pulled back in, and much the same thing happened. I wondered, but dismissed the thought, because we had seen so very many buses around the place that LOOKED like shuttles. Surely this beat-up junker wasn’t what we would be paying to ride in!

But another bus didn’t show. We went in and ate lunch, hoping to catch the next bus — hoping it would arrive. Although we asked a few employees at the restaurant, no one seemed to be very clear on the workings of the shuttle. We sat on a bench in the surprisingly hot sun, trying to ignore the rancid stench of a nearby septic-tank repair, waiting. The shuttle service ran a north and south leg, according to the map, and when a marked (small) bus arrived, it was the one that made the south loop. The driver told us that the other bus would be along shortly, but we continued to wait without seeing one.

Finally, the sketchy-looking van returned. It was indeed the shuttle we were looking for. So we piled in, along with a handful of employees and no other tourists. We began to wonder if tourists ever went to Healy. The trip up the highway was scenic, dramatic, and it was a beautiful day by any standard: bright, clear, warm, breezy. We saw no bears nor moose, but in every direction, gorges and glacial rivers, and mountains. Healy, as anticipated, was barely a town. We rattled into the vast parking lot of 49th State Brewery and disembarked with the cooks and dishwashers.

There was a small crowd on the covered part of the patio and indoors at the bar; no one was out in the large yard except a couple of employees starting a fire in one of the pits. The replica “magic bus” was parked in a shady corner, looking convincingly like the one in McCandless’ photos; a family was poking around it, taking their own photos. We did, then, too. Next to it was a small stage — the brewery looked to be a venue for all sorts of things. We got beers, took them out to a picnic table in the sun.

“Magic Bus.” Photo credit: Bret Appel.

Reboarding the shuttle to return to our lodge, we got an unexpected tour of Healy: the shuttle ran to the seasonal workers’ housing before returning south. Off the main road, the van swung abruptly into a small complex of repurposed shipping containers, stacked two high. They had doors cut into them, most of which were padlocked, and no windows. In a few doorways, people stood, smoking. In the center of the compound was a picnic table and fire-pit. The driver parked the van and carried a bag of take-out to one of the people standing in a doorway. Then, she drove us and a couple of twenty-somethings back toward Denali, leaving the employees to their evening shifts or nights off and us to think about the unglamorous underbelly of seasonal service-work.

Our day in Denali was not a narrated bus-trip with views of wildlife and stops for photography (maybe next time!), and it was not enough time to fully take in and ponder what must be the strangeness of life in a place so remote, yet, for a few months, so replete with visitors. But it was food for thought, and the seed of what we hope will be a return visit someday. If not, at least we can say we saw the mountain.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.