A huge rainbow directly in front of me lured me south to Denali. The two-lane highway follows a ridge with lake-filled valleys on both sides. It looks like wilderness, but there is some sign of land use, either an unmarked dirt road or a mailbox or a business at least once every five or ten miles. I was reminded of how much more settled Alaska is with 500,000 people than the Yukon Territory with 30,000.
Denali means "the great one" or "the big one" in the local native tongue. Denali National Park is slightly larger than Massachusetts, contains one gravel road, and no trails. If you have the constitution and wilderness survival skills of a grizzly bear, it is a very pleasant place to spend a summer. I arrived there at midnight to find the north sky dappled with yellow and orange clouds; the south sky was a soft blue. I drove about 14 miles into the park, as far as one can with a private vehicle, and imagined that I saw 20,320' Mt. McKinley from the highway, something that is possible only on 30% of summer days.
At 1:00 AM, I pitched my tent in Morino Campground, a walk-in campground
only a 10-minute walk from the Denali Park Hotel parking lot. All the
other campgrounds were full of motor homes.
Thursday, July 8
A business-like rain made the morning dreary, but the weather improved enough by 11:00 AM that I embarked upon a four-hour voyage with McKinley Rafts down the Nenana River. This is a swift gray current of 37-degree water that cuts its way through a reasonably dramatic canyon. Six months before, I'd gone through Class V rapids ("risk of death") in Australia so I asked if the Class III rapids wouldn't seem tame by comparison.
"It's true that we don't have too many rafts tipping over or people falling out, but when they do, hypothermia sets in within three minutes," the sales clerk said with a cheerful smile.
Our trip consisted of me, two yuppie women friends in designer shades, and 27 U.S. Army soldiers and wives being led by Jim, their Baptist chaplain. I ended up in the back of a raft with a silent black soldier, Jim, and Darleen, an enlisted Army bus driver. We donned rain gear and life jackets, then set out on flat fast water occasionally roiled into waves by invisible rocks. Jim told me that he didn't have problems with his Army flock abusing alcohol.
"Alaskans are a bunch of fat misfits who spend the winter in a drunken stupor. In the Army, if you have a drinking problem, you get help and if it recurs, you get out. Today's Army doesn't tolerate overweight or alcoholic soldiers."
Jim said that not too many folks in either Alaska or the military are fond of Bill Clinton. "For one thing, his position on gays in the military hasn't made him too popular. Homosexuals exaggerate their prominence in the population to get more attention." No sooner had I said that I'd only met a handful in my life than Darleen piped up, "I'm getting a divorce from my husband because he's gay." Jim wanted to help homosexuals change their "deviant, learned behavior." I asked him if that wasn't asking quite a lot given that people had such a hard time shedding simpler habits such as smoking and, closer to home, knuckle cracking. Shouldn't he "walk a mile in their shoes" by trying to give up his desire for women? Apparently not.
Jim likes to hunt moose and is upset that the local wolves, none of which he's ever seen, are killing some too (popular bumper sticker: "Eat Moose; 5000 Wolves Can't be Wrong"). Along with many other Fairbanks hunters, Jim would like to start hunting wolves in earnest. I opined that perhaps the North American continent was big enough for wolves and that they might be left alone with their families to their harsh existence (wolves only live to an average age of 4 in the wild, as opposed to 13 or so in zoos).
"Extinction is good. If God had meant wolves to live, he wouldn't have created humans with guns."
When we got out of the river for lunch, I was chilled to the bone. When the sun was out, it was tolerably warm on the river, but sitting and doing nothing with one's feet in 37-degree water was a mite nippy. Unlike previous rafting trips I'd taken, where everyone paddles, it was deemed too hazardous in these hypothermia-inducing waters to have anyone lean out of the boat and paddle. The guide rowed from the center with a big set of oars. Our raft was self-bailing, but there was still some frigid water collecting in the bottom of the boat.
I'd only brought a couple of snacks, but Real Americans won't let their fellows go hungry. Gentle mooching yielded a tuna sandwich, cookies, and Whoppers. We got back into the river for some more serious rapids, but I was a bit too cold to enjoy them. This was Darleen's first whitewater trip, though, and the whoops of joy of this heretofore soft-spoken woman were infectious.
I hurried back to the plush McKinley Chalet Resort to warm up in the hot tub with Mark and Woody. Mark, a long-haired writer, and I talked about his three years here in Alaska. He came here with a master's in social work to accept a lucrative job with the state. Mark was based in Anchorage but frequently flew out to see his clients, Aleuts (pronounced "alley'oots"), on various Aleutian islands.
"I quit because, much as I despise conservative politics, I couldn't help feeling that they were on to something when they said, `Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.'"
A bona fide dropout like Woody made Mark look positively timid. Woody was the product of a redneck father and a hippie mother and grew up in Barnes, Wyoming (pop. 50). One grandfather was a minister and had to watch Woody's aunt convert to Judaism. On the other side, Woody's uncle went to Israel and changed from Fundamentalist Christian to Fundamentalist Islamic Holy Warrior.
Woody clung tenaciously to atheism.
"I was part of a high school graduation class of seven. I was 17 with $1500 and a backpack and decided that I could just as easily flip burgers in Hawaii as in Barnes. After 18 months in Hawaii, I went back to U. of Wyoming on a swimming scholarship. One of the first guys I met was Dan Shane, a doctoral student in molecular biology. We teamed up, taking graduate courses for three years. I was doing great, but the department wouldn't give me a bachelor's because I didn't have the prerequisites.
"I left school in 1991 and started backpacking across the U.S. If it didn't fit in the backpack, it didn't fit in my life. Last year, I came up here to work in the canneries and met some Chileans and Argentineans. We hitchhiked across Alaska, caught a plane ride to Seattle, and hitchhiked to Nogales, Mexico. From there, I went with Gonz, the Chilean, for four months in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras."
Nicaragua didn't appeal to Woody because people there are too accustomed to violence.
"They have rehabilitation camps so guys who've been carrying guns from the age of 8 can learn to shake hands without shooting each other."
Guatemala was nice because people are peaceful.
"Last month Guatemala overthrew their government totally peacefully and nobody even read about it."
Honduras was best, though.
"If you've got the money you can do anything--if you are the right person with the right attitude, you can break laws."
"One thing I learned in Central America is that U.S. poverty isn't squat. People living here on welfare with their decent apartment, bags of food, television, telephone, and clean water have no conception," Woody noted. In fact, he thinks it is absurd that couples in the U.S. will both kill themselves with work in order to have an outrageously materialistic standard of living. "The richest time of my life was when I was dumpster diving; all of my time was my own."
Central America overall appeals to Woody because people there are free about sex and inhibited about violence and death. "I'll never live in the Lower 48 again because people are too blasé about violence and too inhibited about sex. People think machismo is all about power. It isn't. It is about respect. Women have to respect men and if they say `yes' that means `yes.' At the same time, men have to respect a woman's `no.' Thus, women control sex even if it doesn't look that way. In the U.S, women know that `no' might be interpreted as `yes' so that they have to be afraid all of the time."
Another reason Woody has sworn off the "States" is that "there are at least twice as many laws down there and you have to obey them. In Alaska, there aren't many laws, and the police don't really care if you obey them. If you get into this mindset where you have to obey the law, pretty soon you have to buy insurance. Then you've got the wife and kids."
Woody told me about a movement called "Buy Back Alaska," started by a mysterious rich guy from Fairbanks who'd disappeared recently. The idea is to buy back all the federally owned land here and then secede from the union. Had I been here in Denali on July 4th, I would have witnessed the most recent skirmish in the state/federal war. Alaskans find it irksome that they are herded onto government-run school buses to see the one road in Denali Park. Fourteen protesters drove through the private-vehicle barrier on July 4th in defiance of the ban. Rangers photographed their license plates but avoided a publicity-generating confrontation.
Marijuana is another subject of controversy. Woody says that a privacy clause in the state constitution makes it impossible for the state to outlaw dope. Until two years ago, one could grow an unlimited amount for personal use.
"Then the religious freaks in Anchorage pushed for a referendum to make it illegal. Nobody in Alaska ever votes anyway so this thing passed with only 15% of the voting age population supporting it. Everyone in the rest of the state was shocked, and now there is going to be a court fight to see if the referendum is constitutional. Meanwhile, we have to buy Matanuska Tundra Fuck. It costs $320 per ounce but with 24 hours of sunshine it is the best dope in the world."
The new law seems to be that possession of less than one ounce is a noncriminal ticketable offense.
Woody is living out of his 1973 VW camper-van now. It feels like sybaritic luxury compared with living out of a backpack, but he doesn't bother locking it. On the inside of a door is an essay penned by 16-year-old Hunter S. Thompson that asks who is happier, the man who has been tested by life and lived or the man who chose security?
"Woody, when people look at you now they say, `How wonderful that a 23-year-old is living this adventurous life.' But when you are 50 and your gut is hanging out from under your old tie-dyed shirt, people will say `How pathetic that this guy never accomplished anything and is still living out of his VW van,'" I asserted.
"How many guys do you know who are living this way and putting money in the bank?" Woody retorted. "I made $48,000 working January through March on a crab fishing boat in the Aleutians. You can't do that in N.Y."
Can anyone do that?
"Anyone who is tough enough and knows what he is doing with a boat."
I learned from another Alaskan that the job involves hanging over the side of a leaky boat in the dark, 16 hours/day. If you fall into the frigid water, you die rather quickly. Fifty-two people died last year in this industry.
Woody left me with a precious epiphany: "If you want more out of life, give up everything. If you want people to be your friend, give them everything you have. Give them your food, house, companionship, trust, love. When you start hoarding things, that is when the world turns against you."
Friday, July 9
Having gone to bed at 12:40, the sound of my alarm and the sight of gray sky at 6:15 AM was most unwelcome. Nonetheless, I convinced myself that I hadn't come this far to punt, and went over to the bus terminal. At 7:00 AM, I embarked upon The Mother of All Bus Trips: 11 hours over a dirt road in a school bus. Cramped legs, mind-shattering roar, desperate desire to curl up and sleep, and gloomy weather combined to cast a pall over what might be a nice trip. The single road in Denali National Park pushes along a ridge of the Outer Range of mountains, looking across a broad glacial valley to the Alaska Range, highest in North America.
My companions were a singularly typical bunch of American tourists: families with children and some retired couples. Our folksy southern driver asked everyone to shout out where they were from. After a Texan piped up, an Alaskan guy said, "Did you hear that we were thinking about splitting Alaska in half? That would make Texas the third largest state."
We had hardly passed the hotel before we saw a huge moose cow and her calf. She'd sought protection from the bears by bringing her calf around some rangers' living quarters. Smart cookie. Thanks to the presence of some sharp-eyed children, we picked out six bears, numerous caribou, three foxes (one carrying a dead squirrel in her mouth home to the den for her kits), distant Dall sheep, and, most spectacularly, a cagey gray wolf. The wolf magnificently ranged up and down a hillside about 150 yards from the bus. His dignified face was clearly visible when viewed through a 480 mm lens.
I was thrilled to have seen my first wild wolf, but couldn't help
thinking that a TV nature program would have given me a deeper
understanding of the animal. Riding the bus was more like the work done
by the poor sap who got stuck in a blind for a year with a camera.
Watching Nature's outtakes after a full night's sleep, on a sunny day,
from the comfort of a quiet Toyota might have been quite pleasant;
desperate for sleep and crammed together in Kelly's nightmare of a bus
with "a bunch of smelly other people," it seemed unlikely to become the
highlight of my trip to Alaska.
The only outcropping of civilization along the entire road is the Eielson Visitor Center. At the bookshop there, I leafed through Kim Heacox's superb book of Denali photos. Heacox spent years here as a park ranger, and his book illustrates most of all the virtue of being in the right place at the right time. He was there when golden light bathed a caribou's rack fringed with red moss. He was there on hundreds of the rare days when Mt. McKinley's summit is visible. He was there when a bear or a moose showed up to turn an otherwise nice landscape composition into a spectacular example of Nature's Glory. The Denali Park of Heacox's book is cruelly different from the Denali Park that any visitor could see, in a way that isn't true for the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Yellowstone.
Rangers had embarked upon a short nature walk just before I arrived. However, the appearance of a medium-sized grizzly sent the entire group of 20 scurrying back to the visitors' center. It was pathetic. When in the history of mankind has a bear gone 200 yards out of its way to attack a group of 20 people? I chided them for being cowards.
When we reached our destination, Wonder Lake, we were all sorry to be there. The light was flat overcast. Mt. McKinley was mostly obscured. Mosquitoes by the zillions set upon us. All of the campers who had stayed overnight there were walking around with their Gore-Tex shell hoods up and mosquito nets over their faces. I had planned to come back to Wonder Lake by school bus the next day and camp for the night; my first glimpse of the mosquito nets was enough to convince me to cancel those plans. Seeing so many mosquitoes at once made me realize how fortunate I'd been so far. Alaska is renowned for mosquitoes, but they have quite a short season and the season is different in each location. For example, at the park entrance, less than 100 miles back, the mosquitoes were mostly out of season and constituted only a minor nuisance.
Two Swiss-German couples hoped on the bus late in the afternoon. Walter, a black-haired 30ish dairy farmer, enjoys dairy subsidies and markets so sweet that he can make a good living with only 14 cows. He has visited 45 of the 50 states, missing only Hawaii, North Dakota, Washington, Maine, and one whose name he'd forgotten. I asked him how he liked Boston and was shocked to learn that he'd spent two weeks with friends in the Berkshires but wasn't interested in seeing Boston because "all big cities look the same." Since he hadn't bothered to see my hometown, I decided to abuse him.
Walter hollered "bear" and made the bus stop for what turned out to be several distant--and already overly familiar--caribou. Afterwards I referred to all the caribou we saw as "Swiss bear." This regrettably started a trend and rocks became "Connecticut sheep," etc. In perfect idiom he said "why is everyone always picking on me?" (Unlike their German neighbors, the Swiss watch American movies in English with subtitles and hence are that much hipper to the lingo.)
Karin, Walter's wife, spoke French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and a truly excellent English. With a sunny and thoughtful disposition, Karin prevented the last hours of the trip from dragging on into days. Karin sells spare parts for Swiss diesel engines, mostly to Latin America. What, you say you don't have a Swiss diesel in your vehicle? Maybe that is because you don't need 20,000 horsepower. Despite their conspicuous lack of coastline, the Swiss have long been one of the world's leading suppliers of big ship engines. The Swiss like to make products that require precision engineering and craftsmanship, yet are not so fundamental that they attract the heavy guns of mass-market manufacturers in big countries.
Karin and Walter come to North America nearly every year, and this is already their second trip to Alaska. The only Old World thing they really miss here is "the bread." While delicately trying to spare my East Coast sensitivities, they eventually were willing to state their conclusion that people in the West were much more open and friendly.
"The standard European prejudice against Americans is that you are superficial, but Walter and I have found on the contrary that it was easy to make real friends here. We've tested these friendships over the years and found them as strong as any," Karin observed.
Ask an American what his principal gripe with tourism here is, and chances are he'll say, "All those old fogies in motor homes clogging up the two-lanes by driving 20 mph." Karin said that what she liked best about tourism here is the old fogies.
"In Europe, old people look old. They are old when you talk to them. They feel too old to travel after the age of 50 or so, and after they retire they just wait at home to die. It is wonderful to see old people feeling young and getting out to see things."
Next time I've gotten my Type A personality stuck behind a motor home with a "we're spending our children's inheritance" bumper sticker, I'll try to recall Karin's words.
Both Karin and Walter are distraught over the ethnic tensions fracturing Europe. Karin spoke of the trouble a dark-skinned Swiss girlfriend of hers has just going shopping. Merchants speak to her in broken German on the assumption that she is a foreigner. When her friend tells them she is a "real Swiss," they refuse to believe it. Walter thinks that the industrial economies of Europe have enough troubles of their own and shouldn't have to carry a bunch of lazy foreigners. Karin thinks that people who are comfortably situated shouldn't complain about the resources allotted to the less fortunate, "we have enough and can afford to help others; if there are a lot of freeloaders in Switzerland, it is because our laws encouraged them to come and we should blame ourselves."
I staggered off the bus at 6:00 PM and went straight into the Jacuzzi at the McKinley Chalet. Mark had been there all day chilling out and reading the paper, still recovering from a week in the backcountry where it had rained every day. Joe, a white-haired Irish Philadelphian, settled his ample body into the tub. Joe came from a family of nine, and one of his sisters moved to Anchorage 20 years ago. He and his brothers always talked about coming here to visit but never did.
"Three years ago, one of my younger brothers died of cancer, and it occurred to all of us that we might not live to fulfill our dreams. I immediately flew up here with another brother, but our wives refused to join us. `Alaska is too cold; we'll spend the time at Wanamaker's [the big Philadelphia department store].'
"Alaska as the Last Frontier was my dream, and I've returned every year to live it. I'm retired now so I'm spending five months here this time; it's a bit lonely because my wife still won't come."
A reindeer dinner at the chalet proved that Women Who Run with the Wolves is a better idea than Men Who Eat like the Wolves.
Saturday, July 10
Acting on a tip from a local photographer, I drove out some gravel roads to an abandoned coal mine and walked into an interesting (and trail-free) canyon. I took a few snapshots and then headed back along the canyon floor/stream bed. What had been firm ground suddenly swallowed my sneakers and I found myself standing in the mud in my socks. The rest of the hike out was wet, disgusting, and squishy.
After winding down from the hike and lunching at the Chalet, I drove out to the end of the pavement on the park road and pulled the bike out of the car. Bikes are allowed free access to the park road 24 hours/day. The gravel road starts with a 600' hill, but the beautiful scenery made me tolerant of the climb. I coasted practically all the way to Sanctuary River, which is typical of the rivers on this valley floor. When the park was glaciated, a glacier carved a deep and wide riverbed, then lined it with gravel. The river is just a tiny fraction of the size of the glacier and winds its way back and forth across the huge riverbed. I stopped for a snack by the river around 7:00 PM and felt the benevolence of Nature in the blue sky reflection, in the golden glow of the mountainsides, in the gentle wind that kept mosquitoes from flying, and in the overarching peace. Before you set the preceding words to Beethoven's 6th, I should tell you that I was attacked by a seagull. He kept flying directly at me and then pulling up at the last minute before circling around again. Dumbfounded at first, my caveman instincts came to the rescue eventually, and I conceived the idea of throwing a spray of pebbles in his face. For my first shot, though, I could only find one stone and missed him cleanly. Nonetheless, after the stone went whizzing by, he parked himself on a midriver rock.
My ride back was just as much of a climb but seemed even more enjoyable as the light turned softer and a big rainbow arched over to the Alaska Range, compensating somewhat for the fact that I'd not seen a single mammal. Despite my lack of wildlife spotting, I'd have to say that biking beats the school bus hands down. If I come back, I'll reserve a campground far into the park and take camping gear, especially a water filter, to spend a few nights.
I spent the rest of the day with various Alaskans and summer employees, most notably an 11-year-old boy. Ben's mother was a schoolteacher, and he had just finished a remedial arithmetic course: "I did pretty good. We learned timesing and minusing." All Ben wanted out of life was a television to watch. He couldn't see any value in learning math. I told him about all the wonderful things people at MIT did with mathematics, but he remained unconvinced.