Monday, August 14, 2006

Just sit right back, and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip

That started from Denali Park,
where they need to get a grip.

Our most recent camping trip was a disaster. Okay, not a disaster like anyone was injured, or got hypothermia or anything, but I have never been so wet in my entire life. We had planned a big Denali backpacking trip. I was looking forward to this for months! Here's what happened: to go backcountry camping in Denali National Park, you have to reserve certain designated "units". They do it that way so that you'll get the full backcountry experience, with no trails or other human sightings. The units are reserved first come, first served on the day before your trip. We had several routes planned, in case one was full. Well, when we got to the backcountry office, all of the units we wanted were full. So we had to plan a longer, more difficult route, with two parts.

The leader was a mighty hiking gal,
her friend was clumsy and unsure.
Two backpackers set out that day,
for a thirty mile tour, a thirty mile tour...

The first day went fairly well. We hiked through this valley, up to a mountain pass. Well, when you get above treeline around the Anchorage region, everything is very dry. Not so in Denali. It was very marshy, and not good camping at all. We finally ended up camping on a stream bed.

The weather started getting rough,
the tiny tent was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless gals,
the bear bins would be lost; the bear bins would be lost.

Then, just as we went to bed, it started raining. So we got up and checked everything out to make an emergency plan in case the stream started rising. We moved the food to higher ground, and picked a second choice for a tent spot, even though it was marginally higher than the first one.

When we woke up the next morning, it was still raining. Fortunately, the stream hadn't risen much. But that made sitting around enjoying a hot breakfast nearly impossible. So we ate some cold poptarts and headed out. Again, it went fairly well until we reached the top of this ridge about 1 mile from the road. We started down the other side, and it was a giant bog, with lots of tall brush. The brush was head height in some places. We were literally bushwacking, in water up to our shins at times, yelling "Hey bear! Hey bear!" so we wouldn’t surprise any one. Finally we made it to the road.

The trip ended on the second day after hiking many miles,
through marshy grass, and alders too,
rushing streams, and some bogs,
knee deep mud, torrential rain and rough terrain,
here in Denali National Park!

Now we were supposed to cross the road, hike over a little hill, cross a river, and hike 8 more miles into the next unit. I was not enthusiastic, but I thought we could at least give it a try, since my friend really was looking forward to the river crossing. Well, we started on the other side of the road and it was even worse! More bushes, more swamp. We hiked about 1 1/2 miles to the end of the "little" hill, and found out it was more like a cliff, with lots of tall (head height or greater) brush. The topo map we had was pretty good resolution, but the scale was so big it was difficult for it to be representative. We were already soaked -- even with rain gear on, the water had soaked through because it was Gortex, which is breathable, but not that great if you’re going through soaking wet bushes for many miles. Plus, the river was larger than I expected. We sat down to figure out what we were going to do, and it started pouring. It was raining so hard we thought it was hailing because the drops were bouncing off our packs. That was the last straw for me. I told my friend that I was done, I wanted to go home. So we hiked back out to the road and caught a camper bus back in.

My friend sent me some weather information this morning (she is also a meteorologist) and it looks like Denali got 1+ inches of rain Sunday night, which was supposed to be our second night. Also, she sent me the satellite image from this morning, and it looked like it was only going to get worse. We couldn’t have had worse timing if we had planned to visit New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Repeat: That started from Denali Park,
where they need to get a grip.

Part of the problem is that Denali National Park is so restrictive. You are not allowed to camp outside the unit you reserved, and you are required to make reservations for the campgrounds at the Wilderness Access Center in the front of the park. If we had wanted to camp at a campground and return the next day, we would have had to ride the bus back in (a 4 hour trip), make reservations and come back out. If we were allowed a little more flexibility, we could have stayed where we were the first night and day hiked, or camped in a closer unit, or gone to the campground and returned the next day. What really irritates me is that these restrictive rules are not for wildlife management, they are so you get the full backcountry experience. Well, on our first day out, we literally saw 8 other people! We got off the bus with another couple! I have seen less people backpacking on trails near Anchorage. I know that is not like the Lower 48, and I’m totally spoiled, but damn!

So next time (believe it or not, I’m already thinking about doing this another time!), I think I would pick 1 unit, and base camp, doing several days of day hikes. Or possibly camp at the campground and take the bus in to several dayhiking areas.

In spite of the fact that my boots are still soaked two days later, there were some good parts. The first day was fun – we got to hike through a couple of really cool canyons. I’m proud of myself for doing a true backcountry trip – no trails, never been there before, and we actually had to use the compass. And I didn’t quit when it started raining, just when it became a torrential downpour. Plus, we saw lots of bears – mostly from the bus, but we did see one bear on a mountainside about 3 miles away (thank you, binoculars!). We saw wolf tracks (no wolves), caribou, and a couple of moose. And like I said, it could have been worse – our tent could have washed downstream, we could have had a bear eat my toiletries (which wouldn’t fit in my bear bin and consequently got soaked), or we could have gotten stuck on the other side of that big river and then we really would have been screwed. Plus, it makes a good story. I read somewhere that it’s not really an adventure unless at some point you’re thinking “How did I get myself into this mess?” This was an adventure several times over!

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