Denali Encounters

I have always wanted to lay my eyes on the tallest peak in North America.

My whole life, I’ve been intrigued by Denali, even when it was still called the much less exotic Mt. McKinley. I have always wanted to lay my eyes on the tallest peak in North America. But the interior of Alaska seemed forever inaccessible to me.

That is, until this month. This month, I went to Alaska. And I refused to go to Alaska without paying homage to “The Tall One”, Denali.

Denali is 20,310 feet high. That’s hard to wrap my head around. That’s more than 3.8 miles high. Miles. And the National Park that surrounds this mountain is 6 million acres of undeveloped land. That’s bigger than the state of New Hampshire. And the crazy thing is, there’s only one road.

And believe you me, that road is treacherous. It’s so scary bad, in fact, that private vehicles are not allowed beyond milepost 15. That’s disappointing, considering that the road is 89 miles long. (By comparison, New Hampshire has 33,328 lane miles in a smaller area.) But limiting access like this also helps keep this park wild and natural, so for me this roadblock is well worth it.

To go beyond milepost 15, you have to take one of the park’s buses. There are several options. There’s a free, unnarrated one with limited access, an unnarrated transit one, which takes you from one park facility to the next, or there are several tour bus options, including the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which takes you as far as the Stony Hill Overlook at milepost 62. That’s an 8 hour, round trip tour, which tells you a lot about the state of the road, and also allows for the fact that your guide will stop a lot, and by that I mean A LOT, to allow you to take pictures of all the wildlife you’ll encounter.

The buses were a disappointment, though. They were school buses with ever-so-slightly upgraded seats. The windows kept falling open, letting in the frigid air and the road dust. I felt every bump in the road. Even if you had been the size of an elementary school student, you’d have still felt there was not enough leg room. But the place made it worthwhile.

During our tour, we saw 18 Dall Sheep, 8 Grizzly Bears, 5 Moose, 4 Caribou, 1 Arctic Ground Squirrel, 1 Ptarmigan, 1 Spruce Grouse, and 1 Magpie. The only thing missing was a partridge in a pear tree. We also saw glorious Autumn leaves, stunning mountain ranges, braided rivers, and a glacier.

And then… Denali. We joined the 30 percent club. Since the peak is so tall, usually most of the mountain is shrouded in clouds, so only 30 percent of the park visitors get a chance to see it with their own eyes. But we had a bright, clear, sunny day, apparently the first one they had had in weeks, and there it was, rising up to greet us, almost as if it knew I had been waiting for this my entire life.

And I’ll leave you with one final note. I’m so glad this glorious mountain is no longer called Mt. McKinley. It was first called that by a gold prospector who admired President-elect McKinley, and then after the president was assassinated in 1901 the name caught on. There has been controversy over that choice since well before the park was even established back in 1917. The State of Alaska itself has been pushing for the name change since 1975, but was continually blocked by the Ohio delegation in congress, because Ohio was the state that McKinley was from. Nevermind that McKinley never stepped foot in Alaska. (We’ll also probably never be able to do away with the useless penny because Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, will never stand for that.) The mountain only got restored to its earlier, Athabaskan name in 2015, and I’d say it’s about time.

If you ever get the chance to see Denali, do whatever it takes to do so. Its vast beauty will transform you. Here are a few of our pictures from our visit.

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Ziplining

I mean, hoo! What a rush!

A few years ago, I was driving through Utah, and took a side trip to Provo, simply because I had always wanted to go ziplining. I was so excited. But on the big day, they cancelled my reservation, theoretically because it was too windy. (I strongly suspect that it was because I was their only customer for that time slot.) They said I could try again the next day, but I wasn’t going to be there. Provo isn’t exactly a tourist hot spot. I spent the night in a shabby little hotel room, all alone, feeling sorry for myself.

So I was even more excited for our trip to Alaska, because we planned to go ziplining in Denali National Park. This time, I wasn’t going alone, although my husband had reservations about the reservations. (Sorry. Had to.)

What I hadn’t counted on was the fact that ziplining was a breeze compared to getting up to the platform itself. To do that, you had to cross rope bridges with wooden slats that seemed like they were a half a mile apart. My husband urged me to watch where I was stepping, but I could not look down or I would have lost it. So I felt for each slat with my foot before shifting my weight. And with every step I took, I was saying, “You can do this.”

Because it was a very near thing. I could feel a panic attack looming on the horizon. But rationally, what could I have done? Giving up would have meant turning around and going back over the same bridges that were freaking me out in the first place. So, onward.

You see, I have a very weird fear of heights. I knew ziplining wouldn’t bother me at all, because I was hooked into a ton of safety equipment, and the potential for disaster was pretty much out of my hands. But the ladder… Oh, I could screw up that ladder. Yes, I was still hooked in, but I could have hurt myself very badly at any moment.

My fear of heights is more of a fear of my own ability to cause my accidental death or dismemberment. Therefore, I can rock climb while roped in, but I can’t stand at the edge of a cliff. I can rappel like a demon, but if I walk across a catwalk with low railings I feel sick.

Yeah, I know. Go figure.

There were seven ziplines on this course, and each one was more exhilarating than the last. I mean, hoo! What a rush! But those bridges were the stuff of nightmares for me. Below are some photos and a video of my experience. I hope you like them.

Would I go ziplining again? Yes, indeed. Without hesitation. But it depends on how you get there. My husband found one that requires you to walk from one looped rope to the next, over a crevasse. No thanks. I want to live.

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Have we Overstayed our Welcome?

Aw, jeez, I need to stop surfing the internet. I just came across a website called Recent Natural Disasters, and it gives you all the reported disasters all over the world, 24 hours a day. I have a hard enough time avoiding my tendency to anthropomorphize nature, especially when it seems as though the planet is becoming more and more pissed off.

Typhoon Haiyan has certainly displaced thousands of people, but it’s only the latest in what seems to be an increasing number of natural disasters, from the expected to the downright bizarre. I mean, who expects flooding in Saudi Arabia? But that’s been happening, too.

And I’m stunned by how many of these events have escaped my notice up to this point. Here are but a few of the headlines from the past few months:

Massive landslide in Denali National Park, Alaska – Could take 10 days to clear

Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung volcano eruption prompts evacuation of 3,300

Mudslide traps 20 in Cross Rivers, Nigeria

Very severe cyclonic storm Phailin: India’s biggest evacuation operation in 23 years, 43 killed

Eurasia’s highest volcano Klyuchevskoi spews ash up to 3.7 miles

40,000 evacuated amid Gujarat flooding

7.7 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan kills 400, Awaran declares emergency

Flooding in Bunkpurugu, Ghana kills 1, displaces 6,000

Shanghai heat wave 2013: Hottest temperature in 140 years!

Spanish Mallorca forest fire: Worst fire in 15 years evacuates 700

Namibia African Drought: Worst in 30 years

Yarnell, Arizona Wildfire 2013: 19 firefighters killed

Central African Republic gold mine collapse kills 37, national mourning declared

Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand flood 2013: At least 5,500 killed

Colorado wildfires destroy 360 plus homes, 38,000 evacuated

Whether you believe in Global Climate Change or not, don’t you sometimes get the feeling that we as a species are no longer wanted on this planet? And if so, who could blame Mother Nature? I mean, we take and take and take, and what we give in return is pollution, destruction, and devastation. If a guest in my home were behaving this badly, I’d kick him out, too.

eruption