miles walked

Currently: 33 degrees, mostly cloudy, Healy, AK. Watching wispy clouds float past the mountains outside.

What’d We Do?

Today was our first day in Denali National Park. We woke up to a snowy scene and leisurely made our way into the park. Inside we went to the visitor’s center to orient ourselves with the park and it’s history, and watched a great short film that showed the park through various seasons.

After the film we attended a ranger talk detailing Denali’s clean mountain program. The ranger detailed the steps the park has taken to maintain a pristine and natural mountain landscape. Many climbers think the program is too strict, but others think it should set the standard for climbing elsewhere the world. Climbers are required to pack out all of their trash, and also all of their human waste. There’s plenty of places we’ve seen the where there’s an expectation to pack out your toilet paper, but on Denali they give you a bucket and you’re not allowed to empty it until you reach a designated dump site at the end of your journey which may be three weeks later.

Typically the trash rangers find left behind are climbing accessories such as ropes, crampons and anchors, but all trash takes away from the natural state of Denali. The ranger detailed how Everest is known to have a foul, human odor when you near it’s basecamp, and Denali is committed to keeping the entire mountain in it’s natural state.

The park road was closed this morning due to weather, so we planned our next steps. We were planning to visit a sled dog demonstration in which rangers demonstrate how dog sled teams have been used historically in building the park, and how they’re still used in park maintenance today. To get to the sled dogs we had 2 options: hike or take a shuttle bus. We were committed to hiking and picked out a trail.

After a quick lunch, we realized there was a ranger-led hike following the same trail we had selected that would detail the fauna of the area and arrive at the dog kennel area in time for the demonstration, so we joined that group. The ranger is a Buffalo-area native and we talked briefly about the area, how she ended up in Alaska and small-world connections like her brother and my brothers all working at Geico in Buffalo.

The hike encompassed 2.4 miles of winding trail with small inclines through boreal forest and along a creek that we could only hear from the trail. The ranger told us all about the boreal forest that wraps the sub-tundra region around the northern parts of the Earth, and how Denali’s boreal forest consists of mainly white and black spruce. We talked about wildlife and how bears, moose and squirrels prepare their food for the winter…and speaking of winter, during our hike we experienced snow, rain and sunny conditions to give us a taste of what you can expect from Denali’s weather.

The hike ended at the dog kennels and we spent some time making friends with the huskies and their puppies. These puppies were caged though, so no chances to pick them up like yesterday’s puppies. The rangers led a program to talk about how sled dogs played a pivotal role in supplying areas of the park during times of construction, and how they’re still used in place of snow-machines when there’s a need to venture to sections of the park off-limits to vehicles. We then watched the dogs run in formation carrying a sled, and when they were finished, run back to their individual dog houses.

The park road opened by the time we were finished with the dogs, so we finally hit the road at about 6pm. We drove as far as they would allow cars and searched for wildlife along the way. No wildlife today, but we made countless stops to photograph mountains that appeared under waves of sunshine.

Tomorrow we’ll see even more of the park by driving 90 miles in up to Wonder Lake aboard one of the tour buses. The weather doesn’t look great for seeing the actual mountain (Denali), but we’ll cross our fingers.

By the way, yes, we heard that they changed the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali today. The state of Alaska has long recognized the name “Denali,” but today the federal government announced it would change the name officially to “Denali.” A park volunteer ran up and shared the news with the group as we waited for our hike to depart. Soon they’ll be announcing an updated measurement of the mountain’s height.

Who We Met

The park ranger who led our guided hike was originally from Lockport (about a 20 minute drive from where I grew up) and now bounces around the country working at various national parks. This was her first season in Denali, but she’s previously worked at Shenandoah and Everglades national parks.

What We Ate

Elk meatballs and reindeer sausage for dinner.

What We Learned

The government has a lot of signs to change from Mount McKinley to Denali.

It takes about 3 weeks to summit Denali and climbers must go through an orientation with rangers prior to any attempt.

According to a park ranger, Yellowstone and Great Smokey Mountains are the two most competitive parks to work at as a ranger.

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