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Bus ride to Denali Back-country Lodges – Day 10 (Monday)

“rangers still use dog sleds to patrol in the winter”

Our first day in Denali was focused on traveling as far as vehicles could go in the national park. We took a six hour bus ride half-way into the park until we reached mile marker 186, which said “this is the end of the road”. Before departing on the bus, we had some extra time. We spent our free time at a show that the Denali park rangers offer about huskies and the importance of dog sleds in Denali. With this extra time in our schedule, we opted to view the show and see the dogs. They were beautiful. The Alaskan husky differs from Siberian Huskies in three main ways: they are not “pure-bred”, they have longer legs for traveling through thick snow, and their paws are bred to be wider with less space between toes (this is so the dogs do not get snow and ice crammed in-between toes as easily because that can cut the dogs feet). All of these traits together make the Alaska Husky a perfect dog for any sledding team.

Before the show began, we were able to walk around and interact with the dogs who wanted as much attention as we could give. There was a chain between us and kennels that we could not cross, but if a dog desired attention it would walk from the kennel up to the chain in order to let us pet them.

The dogs were beautiful. Every coat was unique and
varying from black to brown to white. Each also had the beautiful eyes that huskies have become famous for. One kennel even had three husky pups nursing. They were cute and playful but didn’t leave their mothers side. The show began with us watching the huskies get hooked to the sled and proceeding to pull it around the track. It was very apparent that the dogs were pleased when they were allowed to run and pull the sled. The ranger who was riding stopped the sled in front of us to explain the history of dog sleds in Denali Park. My favorite was that snowmobiles do not run in the cold temperatures experienced in the park, so rangers still use dog sleds to patrol in the winter. I imagine it is quite a cool sight to be passed by a ranger on a dog sled during this day-and-age.

After the dog sled presentation, we hopped onto the bus to get to our backcountry cabin. The six-hour ride was full of excitement. The landscape had rolling hills speckled with kettle ponds carved by the Alaskan glaciers. There were mountains in the distance, and eventually Mt. McKinley (or Denali as the natives called it) came into view. The huge mountain was lost in the clouds, but it had a 30-mile long glacier extending from its peak all the way down to our roadside, a stunning sight.

In addition to the beautiful scenery, wildlife abounded in the park. There was a fox, caribou, and several moose, but the coolest animals were the two grizzly bears. The second grizzly we saw was blonde with a dark undercoat. It was young and paid no attention to us as it munched away on clumps of grass just outside my window. As the bear slowly meandered down the shoulder of the road, our driver slowly pulled the bus ahead so we could watch the beautiful animal. It was thick and looked very powerful. I was glad to have the protection of the bus around me in spite of my lifelong desire to pet a wild bear. In time, our driver sped up and began taking us once again to our destination.  When we arrived at our backcountry lodgings, we found a beautiful community of cabins along a stream. We were greeted with a superb three-course dinner that included both fish and meat options.

As soon as dinner was over, my brother and I shot out of the dining room to do our first hike of the week. We planned to take an off-trail hike to the top of the nearest peak. An elevation gain of about 800-1200 feet. After rock-hopping across the stream, we began our ascent. The brush was high and thick, but we had a blast working our way through. It was the first time my brother and I have done something like this together and we were very excited. However, the further we went up, the thicker the enfemerae of mosquitoes became. When we had completed approximately half of our ascent, the mosquitoes were so thick I would kill 3-5 per swat. I have never been in such a thick cloud of mosquitoes – even our 99% deet bug spray didn’t keep them off of us. A summit would have been possible, but the mosquitoes truly took all the fun out of the climb. We decided to turn around. Back at camp we learned that the world record of 17 mosquitoes killed in one swat was set at a lake three miles from where we were. Neither of us were surprised. We were also told that a young, weakened caribou could be killed in one night from loss of blood due to mosquito bites. Having experienced the onslaught of mosquitoes on our hike, I again was not all too surprised


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Futbol en la Jungla (Soccer in the Jungle) – Costa Rica day 6

We awoke to the delectable smell of pancakes. Everyone ate his or her pancakes (and rice and beans) quickly so we could hit the trail as soon as possible. The plan was to migrate to Santiago’s parents home before lunch. The house was a few miles down the mountain and around a bend.

When we arrived at the house, we were shocked to see such an elaborate house in an area where all the materials had to be made on site or packed in on horseback (2+ hours down an unkempt dirt road in a truck, then 3 hours by horse). The house had a large kitchen and dining area with tiled flooring. On the second story, there were beds on a balcony open to the outdoors. The house was located on the inside of a river bend such that the river was surrounding three sides of the house (a safe distance away, of course) and had been built around a large boulder similar to a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

A husky puppy greeted as at the house along with chickens, other dogs, cattle, and of course the family who was very excited to meet their new guests. We introduced ourselves and prepared to immediately go out for a small adventure. Before we would eat lunch, we were going to rappel down a 100-foot waterfall.

Everyone had fun participating in the rappel. Some had never done anything like it before in their lives and got quite a rush from it. Since I had previous experience in climbing and had grown very comfortable with heights, I decided to see how fast I could let myself down. Carlos, having faith in my abilities, gave me extra slack in the backup line and told me not to do anything stupid—my friends would probably agree this is good advice for me to hear in such a moment. I consented and went over the edge.

With my camera in one hand and my other hand guiding the rope I began to lower myself. Immediately water rushed over me and I began my descent. I quickly found myself reaching the bottom and wishing the ride was longer. After I was unclipped from the system, I cut my ankle of a sharp rock (which left a gnarly six-inch scar!). Everyone laughed as I had just repelled down a waterfall at high speeds and with only one hand and remained safe, but walking back to the group was when I got hurt.

As some rappelled, Santiago taught others a cool trick with one of the jungle plants. There was a specific leaf that could be folded in half and would fly like a giant paper airplane. Several members of the group experimented with these and had a few good tosses (watch the video to see one in flight).

After our adventure in the waterfall, the group followed Carlos back to the Lopez residence for lunch. It was the middle of the afternoon and we had all grown quite hungry. The food that had been prepared was rice and beans with fruit and some of the most delicious juice I had ever tasted. The meal was accented with a strong Jalapeño salsa (salsa verde).

Following our afternoon meal, we were taken to the school about a quarter-mile down the path. Children would hike two hours down the trail from surrounding houses to come to school each morning. The building was a single room and housed anywhere from 1 to 14 students in any given year.

Adjacent to the school was a dormitory/cafeteria where the government provided teacher lived and cooked for students during the school year. There were also two other houses very close. Once was finished and the other was under construction by our guide, Santiago.

We toured Santiago’s house-in-progress while he described to us how the houses are made. He explained that everything from the toilet to the tin roof sheets and all the concrete must be packed in by horseback. By Locking a chainsaw into a contraption and using it as a planar, Santiago furnished boards for the house for his family’s house. Power tools were seldom used because gasoline must be packed in and electricity is scarce in the area.

Me in front of the goal

After the tour of Santiago’s project, we were taken to the soccer (futbol) field on the far side of the cafeteria. It was a level field surrounded by banana trees and other assorted plants. The goals were fashioned from tree limbs and lacked nets. A hard shot would undoubtedly send the ball into the jungle,  but this was not a huge issue for the locals as they do not play as rough and competitively as people who grew up in American culture are accustomed to. The locals played hard but played in a noticeably different style. They seemed to play ‘cleaner’ than I had ever experienced.

We played against the locals for a while and worked up quite a sweat. When we were finished with the game we headed back towards the house but took a detour to the river. We jumped off rocks below the rapids and swam in the cold, refreshing water until each had their fill.

The group migrated back to the house for the rest of the afternoon. We conversed with one another and got to know each other on a deeper level. Dinner came and went and I washed dishes, as that was my duty for the day. After finishing with the dishes, I went to grab something from my pack. Maya, the husky puppy, was curled up in-between two of the packs.

I laid down next to the pup and petted her for a while. I am quite attached to my dog back home and enjoyed getting to pet one again. Maya had fleas but I didn’t mind. She was too adorable not to love. Not knowing the mischief the puppy would soon get in to, I left her alone and went back to the group. We later found that she had chewed through one of my dry bags, destroyed some other things from my group members packs and puked it all back up on one of the other guy’s packs. It was a typical case of being a puppy and nobody could be upset with her for long.

The rapids above where we swam

When the group reconvened for the nightly meeting, we were met with a somber tone. One of our group mates whose company we had all enjoyed had been struggling severely with anxiety. The individual was unable to manage the surge in anxiety caused by the foreign environment and countless hazards. It was announced that in the morning our group leader and a guide would be taking the student t the front country to fly home. As a group, we were supportive of the decision and reaffirmed our friend for having gone so far and done so much already. We prayed for our friend before ending the meeting.

The group decided to stay up late and see our fellow member off with a good tone. Upon this member’s request, we played “the game of things” where a category is stated and each writes a response. A member of the group then must guess who said what and gets points for each correct guess. Nobody, however, cares much about winning. The game is all about seeing who can come up with the funniest responses. Our group was very good at this.

Since it was late at night, we had to speak in whispers so as not to wake up the family who had so kindly extended their house to us. This was more of a challenge than we expected, but it seemed to make the game even more fun. Some responses made us laugh so hard we nearly cried but we had to hold our laughs inside (which always seems to make them worse!). We played the game for quite a while and enjoyed our last night together as a full group. Eventually, we all migrated upstairs to our beds for the night. We slept in bed, yes I will say it again, B-E-D-S on a balcony in the rainforest of Costa Rica, five hours from the nearest town. It was magnificent!


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