The last time I wrote about my trip to Alaska I ended the post with an image of me staring, slack-jawed up at the cloudless sky as a perfectly circular rainbow formed above. That took place roughly half way through the first week of our Alaskan journey. In this post let’s finish off the first half of the Trek America package adventure I booked those many years ago.

Eagles and Wolves and Bears, oh my!

Denali National Park is a big area (about six million acres of big) filled with beautiful woodlands, streams, mountains and wildlife. It’s so big that it took about an hour by bus to get to the visitors centre, located somewhere within the Park. Along the way those in the group equipped with zoom lenses pressed themselves desperately against the windows to try and snag a brief glimmer of a far-off mammal. I recall squinting at a number of dark brown dots while saying things like “Yeah, that’s definitely a bear … or a bush.”

Upon arriving at the visitors centre we were presented with two options of how to spend the next few hours. We could explore the visitors centre and then take the bus back along the way we came or we could make our own way back to the park entrance. After asking around it became apparent that I was the only one not interested in the bus. So off I went into the untamed wilds of Denali, alone and sweaty, with a slim idea of where the bus route originated.

The only vaguely okay photo from the park
The only vaguely okay photo from the park

Interlude: Why you should always read the manual.

When going to a beautiful foreign land it’s pretty standard practice to bring a camera along for the ride. I am notoriously bad at remembering to take pictures. I just get too sucked into gawking at whatever’s going down to get a camera out. This time I swore it would be different. I already had a half-decent digital camera, I just needed to expand the memory a bit. A month or so before the trip began I went out and bought the biggest, most expensive memory card I could find. It was 1GB.

I know, right? Massive!

I stuck the card in the camera and without even turning the thing on I packed it away into my travel bag. It didn’t come out again until our first day on the road in Alaska. It was the first time we’d pulled over, just for a quick toilet break. Nonetheless the view from the service area was stunning. The perfect time to snap off a few pics. I whipped out the shiny little light box, aimed it at the mountainous horizon, clicked once, clicked twice, took the batteries out, put them back, and sighed heavily. A message blinked solemnly on the screen:

Card read error.

My mood soured. There I was, ready to take hundreds of pictures of my amazing sojourn, when the fates decreed “Nay!” It was only upon my return to the UK, on searching the camera’s manual, that I found a section detailing how any memory card over a certain size would be irrevocably corrupted by the camera if not formatted first. As there wasn’t really an abundance of electrical stores in the Alaskan outback I settled for the only option open to me beyond “trying to remember everything really well and then staging a series of dramatic re-enactments once back home”: disposable cameras. I bought two of these plastic buggers and carried them with me at all times in hopes of scraping out at least a few decent shots.

It was around this time I discovered an annoying and inexplicable habit that I have. Whenever I take a picture with a disposable camera I instinctively wind the film on. I guess I just want the camera to be ready in case of a surprise Kodak Moment. What was the result of this ridiculous reflex? At least half a roll of film documenting the murky insides of my trouser pocket!

This is my excuse (for excuse it is) for why there are so few good photos of my daring adventure. But despite this foolishness there was a silver lining. In the shop where I picked up the cameras I also acquired a cap. A brown suede cap with “Alaska” written across the front with a stitched imprint of a map. I still use that hat today; in fact the picture of me currently in the side panel of this blog shows me wearing it. It’s been to every country that I have. It’s my closest travelling companion.

And no, it’s never been washed. (Unless you count the second night after I bought it when I left it outside the tent in torrential rain. It got so soaked that in the morning it was shrivelled and shrunken and has remained so ever since …)

Thanks for bear-ing with me.

Whilst trudging through the undergrowth of Denali National Park I only took about five photos with my disposable. Two were of the inside of my pocket and two of the other three were of blurry bushes and what might have been a far off eagle. After going in a rough direction for thirty minutes or so I decided that the area wasn’t really suitable for a casual stroll as I kept getting caught up in various tangly things. I made a B-Line for the road and reached it via a mild up-hill scramble. I proceeded along the edge of the dirt road in the direction from which the bus had come.

It wasn’t long before a car stopped beside me. It was a couple of park rangers. The man in the side closest to me leaned out and after a friendly greeting he asked me a question.

“There have been some reports of a bear with clothes hanging out of it’s mouth. Have you seen anything?”

“Huh?” I replied, wondering why a bear would want to munch on someone’s pants. “No.”

“OK. Oh, cool T-shirt!” remarked the ranger, noticing my Mastodon shirt which featured a furry-bikini-wearing cave-woman toting a large axe. “Yeah. Is that heavy metal, yeah? Rock on! Cool.”

I smiled and laughed with them but the conversation was clearly over. Before they drove away the ranger casually said “Oh yeah, and don’t go wandering over that way.” He pointed to the area of tangly things from which I had recently emerged. “There’s a wolf den over there. Cheers, bye!”

Their car kicked up yellow dust as they sped away. Some of it settled in my gaping mouth.

I didn’t leave the road again.

Fly, on your wings, like an eagle. Fly, touch the sun.

We hung around the Denali area until the end of the week. Whilst there we engaged in a couple of extra activities. The first was a tour driving an ATV, or as I knew them: quad bikes. This was a fun little excursion and despite the repeated warnings from the tour leader about not driving too fast a couple of us frequently hung back from the group in order to then speed up and “catch up with the group”.

Denali

However, the highlight of our time in the Denali area was when we crammed into a tiny aeroplane and flew around the highest mountain in North America: Denali (also know as Mt. McKinley). The plane seated maybe ten passengers and shuddered violently on take-off and landing. Both events left me in a cool sweat. We were all given sunglasses to shield our eyes from the blinding light from the bright sky above and the snowy peak below. I have no memory of how long the flight took, or of any other superfluous details for that matter, but the sight of such an intensely humongous natural structure seen from a god-like vantage is something that has been forever burned into my mind. I’ve often seen this kind of impressive visage in movies and on TV, but it never has quite the same impact. It never stirs my soul with it’s fathomless beauty the way Denali did on that day.

Near the summit we spied a handful of climbers. They looked like eraser shavings dotted along a pristine sheet of paper. One of them appeared to be waving. We waved back and called out “Hello! You’re almost there!” They couldn’t hear us. And we knew it.

"I can see my house from here."
“I can see my house from here.”

That’s it for Week 1 of Trekking Alaska. Still got one more week to go though! There will be tasty salmon, whales, and a jay-walking moose. Coming out in a couple of weeks!

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