Monday, August 22, 2011

Denali -- Persistence Pays

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.”
Frank A. Clark

The highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet, and it was our good fortune to actually see Denali, which is 17% glacier. The “great one” is typically visible only 30% of the time. Wow! It could be the ultimate wilderness experience. Definitely larger than life.

Wildlife abounds. The park is so huge, there is no need for the animals to come in contact with humans, but we did get a glimpse of some of the “natives.”

The Nenanna River, which flows north eventually reaching the Bering Sea, courses through the park. This is a braided river characterized by glacial silt, which forms ever-changing channels.

So how did anyone actually find this pristine wilderness? Well, Harry Karstens first came to the Klondike territory in 1897 in search of gold. He migrated down the Yukon River into Alaska in his quest. He gained attention as a pioneer in Alaska helping to haul supplies for the U.S. Army and building a telegraph line to link various isolated Alaskan outposts.

In 1906 Karstens guided a hunting/fishing trip along the Toklat River for naturalist Charles Sheldon. Sheldon was captivated by the beauty of the wilderness. He returned for longer periods. Establishing a camp became a goal. The road building process just to access the camp was arduous, and that was just the beginning. Getting fresh drinking water presented its own dilemma. They built a cabin for protection from the elements, and Savage Camp, the first hub in this untamed land, was born.

Sheldon recognized the importance of preserving this sanctuary. He persisted and lobbied Congress for 10 years to safeguard this natural masterpiece. In 1917 Sheldon’s vision finally became a reality, and Harry Karstens was named the first superintendent of the park serving from 1928 to 1939.

In 1928, President Theodore Roosevelt confirmed that the US should preserve this “great wonder of nature.”

What's in a name? Is it Mt. McKinley or Denali, “the high one” in Athabascan? Either way, you’re right. In 1895 a reporter called the mountain Mt. McKinley honoring William McKinley, who by the way, never set foot in Alaska. First nation people thought Denali a more appropriate name, and in 1899 it was called Denali. No matter what you choose to call it, there is nothing like it, and it is an amazing sight.

While in Denali, we were fortunate to chat with Carol Reid, a native Athabascan, who gave us an overview of the life of this First Nation people. She explained there are five tribes comprising the Indian population. In addition to her commitment to preserve Athabascan history and culture, Carol offered some interesting facts.

Did you know caribou antlers grow 1”/day until maturity at 40 lbs.? Natural predators of the caribou are grizzlies and wolves.

How about frogs that freeze in the ground in winter, reviving and thriving come the spring thaw?

I was a little surprised that Denali does not boast an extensive trail system. The wilderness is the real deal. Good news is that there are trails from the Visitor’s Center with great footing, views and even ice in June. What a nice opportunity to imagine the early explorers’ treks and experience the grandeur.


  1. Another great slice-of-insight into your experience in Alaska! That shot of the bear is pretty cool! Is that a grizzly?

  2. Great piece of writing Alice. I'm commenting from the lobby of the McKinley Chalets. The colors in Denali are changing for the 2 week-long Autumn. The tundra is mostly yellow but will be bright red the next time I see it. The bull moose are out fighting over mates as well. Pretty amazing up here no matter when you see it. Take care,


  3. Thanks Eric. So great to experience the seasons. I'm envious. Can you actually see the bull moose fighting? Photos?


  4. Hi Alice,
    Thank you for the interesting facts about Denali. I have never been but someday hope to make it! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences! I love that fact about the frogs - wow!

  5. The picture of the elk is amazing. You were blessed to see so many of the natives! Love, Marsha

  6. What an amazing place! Maybe in a way it's a good thing there aren't extensive trails? It's nice to think of the animals as able to choose whether or not to join you. Glad so many did!

  7. Thanks for the trip to Denali!!! I love the direction your blog is taking us! I am learning so much about the people, history, animal. You can get to Alaska from here!