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