Alaska: Reflections from a Guest in the Wilderness
You can read about it and dream about going, but nothing compares with actually seeing it in person. Alaska, our 49th state, is an extraordinary place. This 582,000-square-mile parcel of land is sometimes referred to as “Seward’s folly,” after Secretary of State William Seward, who orchestrated its purchase in 1867 despite ridicule from his contemporaries. Now, after spending three weeks in Alaska last June, I can appreciate Seward’s vision.
Contrary to the criticism leveled by Seward’s critics, Alaska is not a wasteland. It’s a wonderland containing some of our most wild remaining landscapes, including Denali National Park, which lies along the roadway that runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the two most populous cities in the state.
Rather than renting a car for the trip, we traveled to Denali on the train, a slow, enjoyable trip of four hours. You can cover the same distance in half the time by car, but for a first-time visitor, the train provides a good introduction to the landscape and history, shared by guides who spot bears, moose, tundra swans, and other wildlife for the benefit of the passengers. The train stops just outside the park, where shuttles carry passengers to nearby hotels. Getting around the area is easy enough, thanks to the hotel shuttles and the fleet of buses that take visitors on tours into the park.
I knew there was only one road that went into the park, and I certainly knew that beyond mile 15 the only way to get into the park was aboard a Bluebird bus (similar to a school bus but with overhead storage capacity and seat belts). But I did not realize how vast the park is (equal in size to New Hampshire) or that with very few exceptions there are no trails crossing the landscape.
Denali, for all intents and purposes, is a wilderness park. Conservationist Charles Sheldon, known as the “Father of Denali,” helped establish the park as a wildlife sanctuary to protect the Dall sheep that roam the mountain range. Sheldon spent years studying different species of American mountain sheep, and eventually followed his passion to Alaska where he spent several summers exploring the lands at the base of Mt. McKinley. His passion to preserve the Dall sheep drove him to advocate for the establishment of the park, finally succeeding in 1917.
Visiting Denali was an eye-opening experience, especially since the journey coincided almost exactly with the summer solstice when there is no clear division between day and night. The nearly continuous light—it would get somewhat twilight-like at 2 a.m.—debunked assumptions we make in the lower 48 about the separation of night and day and how that affects animal behavior, including our own. Bears, moose, willow ptarmigans, and other animals and birds can be out at any time looking for food, taking a dip in a lake, wandering across the tundra.
I quickly realized that I was a guest in this wilderness. The creatures I had the good luck to see—grizzly bear sows with cubs, moose with calves, a lynx, herds of Dall sheep, and caribou—were roaming freely on their home turf. This point was underscored, when in a rare moment I left the Bluebird bus and walked across the trail-less landscape, exposed to the heat of the sun, and then several minutes later, a cold rain laced with hail. Denali is just one of 15 national park units in Alaska, each one extraordinary in its own right. How fortunate for us that Secretary Seward had the foresight to convince the United States to buy the land; and how incredible that the will and determination of one man set aside such an extraordinary park.
Inspired to make your own trip to Denali? Learn more about the adventure of riding into the park by reading NPCA Alaska Program Manager Joan Frankevich’s story “Over the Years, Denali Road Continues to Provide Superb Wildlife Viewing” (PDF, 439 KB, page 3). Book your own train ride through the Alaskan landscape at the Alaska Railroad Corporation. Or take a trip with your browser and check out our recent slideshow with stunning photos of Denali.
If you liked this story, you might also like:
- Getting Close to Katmai’s Bears in the Hopes of Protecting Them (July 31, 2012)
- New NPS Video: Spend Three Minutes in the Wilderness (April 11, 2012)
- Friday Photo: A Cool Swim at Katmai (June 1, 2012)