DEEP IN THE DENALI: AN AUTUMNAL IMMERSION

Charles Post

PHOTOS: Chris Burkard, Meg Haywood-Sullivan, Charles Post

LOCATION: Denali, Alaska

On most maps, Alaska sits in the upper left-hand corner. Alone, surrounded by water, ice and innumerable, likely uninhabited, merciless swaths of wilderness.

When looking at the scale employed in these maps, you’ll find Alaska gets the obscured end of the stick; its sheer size and vastness rarely earns the attention and scaled representation it deserves. A single glance out of an airliner window at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet will quickly redefine this scale, and establish a tone of unmistakable epicness lacking on most maps. Once your eyes meet that sea of ice capped mountains, glacial valleys and endless forests housed within Alaska’s icy borders, you’ll meet the real, true Alaska – a place where roads and trails end and wilderness begins. From a bird’s eye view, the view afforded from the comfort of your off-blue airliner seats, you’ll see Denali’s crown, the epitome of this northern world.

Below, blueberries stain each step across the Denali landscape. Billions of them pepper these Alaskan slopes; 100,000 of them become a meal every day for the scores of roving grizzly bears that roam the golden red, treeless landscape under a cloak of cool autumn sun. These grizzlies are noticeably smaller than their coastal counterparts who get fat on the salmon that swell turquoise rivers each year as they march upstream for their first and last time. But here above the treeline, and beyond waters born from glaciers and destined for the Gulf of Alaska, there are no salmon, just berries: blueberries, crow-berries, currants and countless more, none of which are poisonous, and all of which taste best covered in morning dew on the shore of Wonder Lake, Denali’s aqueous crown jewel.

From Wonder’s speckled shoreline, the brow of Denali shimmers on the lake’s sunlit mirror, perfectly silhouetted by rolling hills and foothills – that, to the novice eye appear to be more than foothills – but when the clouds part, moon sets or fog gives way, the real summits emerge, some climbing high into the range of mountains heralded as the grandest on our planet. Their valleys are braided in vast glaciers that give rise to chalky rivers brimming with rock flour, and polished cobbles – the handiwork of water’s steadfast artistry.

After crossing paths with a trail likely blazed from centuries of Dall sheep or grizzly forays, I followed photographers Chris Burkard and Meg Haywood Sullivan across a lush hillside towards a spit of land that poked out of the willows and extended up to a rolling knoll. As we navigated our way through a dense underbrush, commonly known as “bear brush” for obvious reasons, we found ourselves feasting on a view of a great cobbled valley. From this fortunate vantage point we sat embedded in a verdant blanket of lichen, willow and berries. This sort of intimacy is best experienced as a literal immersion – sit back and sink into the damp, lush blanket; let the blueberries and willow boughs hang and bend amongst your shoulders. From there, we were tucked away with a view to feast on. Our eyes scanned for the subtlest discrepancy.

It didn’t take long for the crowns of boreal nomads to bound across our horizon breaking the hue of autumnal lanterns – those senescing photosynthetic factories tirelessly capturing and converting the year’s last light to sugar and a winter fuel stash, a process that perennially turns these lands green, red, yellow and brown in that seasonally predictable and yet spatially variable progression. These antlered and cloven nomads that glide effortlessly among this Alaskan tundra are the caribou of the Denali herd, a group of roughly 3,000 individuals who roam between their winter grounds and summer breeding grounds – zones bound by elevational ties: lower in the winter and higher elevations during the summer months.

A lifestyle guided by the arctic seasons is the common thread that shapes each facet of the greater Denali ecosystem. Just like the caribou, willow and grizzly, Denali’s glaciers and rivers wax and wane with the seasons. Summer sun and rain sends pulses of sediment rich water through the myriad of drainages that pepper these lands, a force that carves a conspicuous signature into the floodplains and canyons that hug these cobbled channels. Similarly, winter’s onset grows glaciers and casts vast sheets of ice and snow across the landscape.

This wintery world is one perfectly suited for the creatures of Denali. Some, like the wood frog, Denali’s only known amphibian, spend the icy months underground and completely frozen – a unique adaptation flawlessly suited for life in these northern pockets of the world. Other strikingly adapted residents, like the collared pika, spend the summer months feverishly harvesting and stashing food, called haypiles, which foster and sustain a subterranean life until the snow melts and solar rays once again dance across spring skies. Yet, many stay above ground and face the inclement weather head on. These are the gray wolf, moose, river otter, Dall sheep, wolverine and lynx. Their tracks reveal the corridors and proclivities of these industrious and far roaming fauna.

Winter’s grip on the Alaskan wilderness not only drives unique adaptations and lifestyles, but also affords the attentive observer a history of the previous night’s happenings: a snowshoe hare’s nightly lope among willow feet or an ermine’s nightly hunt of unsuspecting red squirrels and brown lemmings. Their tracks and reactions offer a peek into the subtleties that unfold out of sight among the 4.7 million acre swath of wilderness that comprises Denali National Park and Preserve.

Traveling across these remote land and moutainscapes redefined my benchmark for adventure and wilderness – Denali’s wildness is tremendous, it’s vastness unfathomable. Having the opportunity to explore this incredible world with a crew of inspiring creatives and naturalists opened my eyes to lenses and perspectives that made our adventure all the richer. Looking back, I’ve realized the successes of my adventures do not lie in miles hiked, peaks summited or nights spent under the stars, but instead, I qualify success based on the degrees to which a place or patch of Earth has been exposed. I ask what I have learned about this place, and how I have grown from those experiences.

As I recall the ebb and flow of epic moments that stemmed from our adventure, it’s safe to say our trip to Denali was one for the top shelf of my memory bank. In the mean time, I’ll leave an X on my calendar and keep my eyes fixed North towards the wilderness that is Denali and an intention to return in a years time.

See more of Chris, Meg, and Charles’s work from their recent travels at the upcoming show, Conversation with the Wilderness in San Francisco.

Special thanks to Huckberry and NPS for making this trip possible.