I’m driving down Alaska’s Parks Highway when I see it. “That’s McKinley,” I say, as I pull over for a better view. My mouth is dry. Even though we’re 80 miles away, it looms large in the distance, its great white shoulders hulking up above the horizon and making the world seem small in comparison. I’ve been here for four days now, and this is the first time I’ve seen it-the cloud cover has never quite lifted enough for a clear viewing. But today, it’s decided to reveal itself to me in all its glory, and it’s a magnificent mountain indeed.
Further down the road, I run into some road construction and am held up for 20 minutes. I get out of my car to talk to the flag man, a native Athabascan who grew up in the tiny hamlet of Arctic Village, in the shadow of the Brooks Range, far into the cold northern reaches of the Alaskan interior. He warns me not to insult him by confusing him with an Eskimo, because his people used to fight with them a hundred or so years ago. In fact, he says all of the native people’s tribes speak different languages entirely and mostly revile each other due to ancient grudges. I ask him how he liked growing up in such a remote town, and he tells me he still goes home occasionally, as his family is still there. It’s composed almost entirely of people from his tribe. He tells me that once a friend shot a wolf in his front yard as it was trying to break into his house. He also says that there wasn’t much to do there, so mostly the young people would smoke pot and just hang around. Now, he says he can’t do that because of his job, which he values because he’ll be able to retire in a few years with a union pension if he stays clean. When the traffic clears, I wave goodbye to him, and I’m left with a flood of thoughts, mostly about how men will always manage to find a reason to kill each other, that maybe the drug war can be won with good jobs, and that unions aren’t so bad after all.
I head into Talkeetna, which serves as a base camp for visitors to Mt. Denali (until 2015 named McKinley). From its tiny airfield, I will step onto a small plane equipped with snow skis, and it will land me on a glacier in the shadow of the great mountain.
I arrive at K2 Aviation an hour early and, after paying for my substantially priced ($370 pp!) ticket and weighing in, I try on some rubber galoshes that I will need while traipsing around on the glacier. While waiting, I get plenty of opportunities to see the small planes coming and going. They’re the workhorses of the Alaska Range, mostly DeHavilland Otters like the one I will be in.
When the pilot assembles us for a ground briefing, we learn that we will have the benefit of a glaciologist on board. The scientist confirms what we’ve already heard: that the glaciers are rapidly diminishing due to global warming and a lack of precipitation. He sits up front with the captain and we take off. It’s a smooth, sturdy, slow ride, but the view of the bright mountains above is glorious. I ask him about the cabins I see below us, which seem to have no roads connecting them. He tells me they mostly use snowmobile trails to get into town.
We fly between the peaks of giants and land 10,000 feet up on an ice field. The landing is so smooth I don’t even realize at first that we’ve touched down. We get out of the plane and marvel at air so thin and clear and pure that we feel like we’re in the exosphere. Too soon, we have to leave, and this time I’m riding shotgun. I marvel at the view from the front. Even though we took off from a small town, there’s scarcely any sign of habitation for the hundreds of square miles I can see around us. From here, the sheer vastness of the wilderness that is Alaska becomes evident. It stretches out before us to infinity, an unbroken expanse of forest and lake, river and mountain, cloud and sun. It is at once a great mystery and an elemental challenge, an unconquerable land so primitive and wild and free that it still beckons us as one of the last great wildernesses on earth-a hope and a reminder that, even today, adventure and discovery are still possible on the blue planet. I only spent a few short weeks exploring the miracle that is Alaska, but I’ll carry its spirit with me for the rest of my life.
When to go-I went in August and it was great. The weather on Denali is completely unpredictable, but June and July are also good times.
What company should I fly with?-One of the things I enjoyed about K2 was their reputation of canceling a flight rather than make customers pay to see nothing but clouds and rain.
How much time should I allow?-I left from Denali Park in the morning and after stepping onto the glacier was sleeping in Anchorage the same night. In fact, as awe-inspiring as the adventure of it all is, the mere fact that this was possible tells you how small the world really is.
Should I spend much time in Talkeetna?-No, I wouldn’t. It has a reputation of being a funky/hippy/weird town (they have a mayoral cat), but it all seemed rather contrived to me, and way too touristy to be taken at face value. I’d eat at the Roadhouse, maybe just to say you did, but get there before 3 when they close.