We slept in the Bearproof food storage locker in Wonder Lake, escaping the snow and freezing winds, it was not part of the plan, but nature had other ideas. We were not the only ones caught out by this bad weather in Denali National Park.
Two Days Earlier
I thought that we had timed our visit to Denali National Park just right. The buses that ply the route from the entrance of the park to Wonder Lake were only operating half of the 85 mile distance. So we could cycle and hike the rest of vast wilderness areas in relative peace, with only the Bears, Moose, Caribou and other wildlife to keep us company. So we made a plan. Catch the tourist bus to the furthest destination with our bikes and hiking gear, to a place called Toklat River which is 53 miles from the entrance of the park, then cycle from there to a wild camp near Wonder Lake which is at Mile 85. The following day would be spent at Wonder Lake, hiking and cycling around the area before returning to another wild camp near the between the Wonder Lake and Eielson Visitors Center, which was still closed to the public. Then we would leave our bikes at or near Eielson Visitors Center and hike for 3 days in the mountains and glacial areas, then return to the entrance of the park by bike. It sounded like the best way to spend a week in Denali National Park.
The day before we set off we made our way to backcountry permit office to discuss our plans with the ranger and get all the permits to cycle, hike, camp and travel in the park. We had to watch a 1 hour video on bear safety. I think it was the same video I watched when I was here 18 or so years ago, complete with funky background music. The weather forecast and information from the rangers indicated that we ‘should‘ be OK with the weather and our intended route ‘should‘ be safe enough and relatively clear of snow. We were advised that Northern slopes of many of the mountains where we planned to hike might be a bit sketchy due to the snow pack. We were cool with that as we didn’t plan on hiking or climbing near any north faces. So with our bear barrels we set of to fill them with food. The local stores in the nearby town only a mile away, known as ‘The Canyon’ had little in the way of nutritious supplies. So our food for 7 days consisted of Granola Bars, rice, pasta, soup, coffee and chocolate. Little variety or flavour was available.
The following morning Johann set off early, he planned to cycle the whole 85 miles or 137km from the camp to meet us at Toklat River or at some place along the road to Wonder Lake. Lucile and I prepared and made it to the 10.30am bus. The bus has racks on the front to carry 2 bicycles. We then sat back and enjoyed the bus ride that took a couple of hours to make its way slowly to our destination. We sighted 6 Bears, several Caribou and a couple of Moose by the time we stopped. It was only slightly unsettling to have the bus drop us off about 600 meters from a Grizzly Bear feeding near the side of the road. Just prior to our cycling departure from Toklat River Lucile decided not to join us. So just Johann and I set forth up the mountain passes .
Leaving Toklat River there were several kilometers of climbing. It was not too steep but it was consistently uphill. There was also a very strong tailwind of about 50km/h to assist with the climbing. As we made it over one of the passes that had a series of switchbacks in the road. I was now side on to the wind. With my framebag and panniers my bike handled more similar to a sail on a yacht. I came close to being blown off the cliff. As I had little weight over the front tyre it ‘washed out‘ on a couple of occasions causing a bit of anxiety as I tried to lean the bike sideways into the wind. The loose gravel made this difficult. I made it past the crosswind area to be hit with a vicious headwind which was so strong I had to peddle hard to make it down the 6% grade hill. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I am not sure how strong the cross winds and headwinds were, Johann seemed to think they were about 100km/h, I was not going to disagree. I will say that for the first time on this trip I felt out of my depth.
Once through the switchbacks we had the tailwind again which was somewhat tempered now as we had descended from the high point. Mt McKinley or Denali as it is called came into and out of view as the weather dictated which was not helping the fact that I now faced a dilemma of sorts. My tent pole was already broken from a fatigue crack that happened not that long ago. I was using the emergency replacement sleeve to effect a temporary repair. I was certain it would not withstand 100km/h wind gusts. The decision was made to head to Wonder Lake campground and find a spot sheltered by trees, it was not on our permit to do so but the wind was just too strong. Anyway, the campground was officially closed so nobody should be there. I think if we had mountaineering tents it would have been a difficult camp in our prescribed area on our wilderness permits. Not sure how the groups up on the mountain must be coping with this kind of wind!
On route to Wonder Lake we encountered a mother Bear and cub in the distance along with a couple more Caribou and Moose, none of which were close enough to cause us any angst or get photos for that matter.
To our surprise Wonder Lake that was officially closed had others camping there. A mountaineering group who were hauling their 30 days supplies of food and equipment up to a cache on a Glacier that was several hours walk from Wonder Lake. We chatted for a while until it was made very clear that one of the climbing group didn’t like me, nor want me anywhere in his vicinity. 3 of the 4 climbers were nice and friendly.
The weather was cold but a bit calmer in the trees near the camp so we set up for the night. At about 10pm while I was lying in the tent reading I heard a pack of Wolves howling in the distance. It appeared that there were about 5-6 different Wolves with differing pitches in their calls when they all called together. I had earlier learned that Wolf numbers were quite low in the Park, possibly part of the natural cycle of life. Cold winters with huge dumps of snow might weaken Moose of Caribou due to the extended difficulty in getting food making them easy pickings, maybe, or is it something else causing numbers to decrease!
Next morning we woke to calm weather and packed up our tents ready to hike and bike around the Wonder Lake and surrounding areas. Mt McKinley was still obscured by cloud. Through the morning I noticed the clouds descending lower and lower on the distant mountains, not too sure thats a good thing when it comes to the weather. We moved our gear to one of the eating shelters that had a large Bear proof storage room and made a coffee. We were out of water so I walked down to the lake to fill up the water containers. Just before I set off it started raining lightly and the temperature started to decrease rapidly. It was a 5 minute walk to the lake. I set off in 6 degrees Celsius temperature and by the time I reached the lake wet snow was falling. By the time I returned to the shelter there was heavy snowfall and a cold wind that cut to the bone. The temperature dropped to -3 degrees Celsius. That’s a 9 degree temperature shift in 15 minutes. I put on every layer of clothing I had. I was cold. We weren’t going anywhere for a while. It was snowing harder and the wind blew the snow right through the shelter. Nothing to do but brew up another coffee and escape the snow and wind as best we could. I wrapped myself up in a sleeping bag and read my book and stayed as warm as I could. Johann decided to have a sleep in the Bearproof storage room, out of the snow and wind. The water I had earlier gathered from the lake was filled with millions of swimming animals clearly visible. When we boiled the water for coffee there was a thin layer of red and white scum within the water. I can only think it’s the remains of the animals that we boiled. But still we scrapped it off as best we could then drank the hot coffee with no effects.
Several hours passed and it was now late afternoon, it was still snowing and the strong wind had abated which allowed the snow to settle on the ground easier. We were here for another night. This was not part of the plan but we adapted. We were warm enough, comfortable enough and both happy with our decision to stay. We also both enjoyed some downtime to read our books. I spent several hours reading Ernest Shackleton’s journal of his trip to Antarctica in which his boat was crushed by pack Ice and he spent over a year living off rations of Seals and Penguins meat in the brutal cold. Made me feel somewhat comfortable in my current situation. I spent a lot of time also staring out into the snow. I should have been viewing the mountain range but only had about 400m visibility when I was lucky.
We spent the night sleeping in the Bearproof room. It was big enough to sleep in but surely not recommended. There was about 10cm of snow throughout the campsites at this stage.
The next day we were confident that the weather would hold for us to hike and bike around the lake area so off we set. I can see why Wonder Lake is popular, it was made all the better for us by not having 1000s of other people to bump into while there. Wonder Lake is the place where the stereotypical postcard photos are taken with the lake and either a Bear or Moose in the foreground and Mt McKinley in the background. No Bear, Moose or Mt McKinley for us. By mid morning we had seen all we wanted of the vistas of the Lake and non-existent Mt McKinley so we set our sights on making it to Eielson Visitors Center. The weather looked like it was set to change again for the worst. Large black snow carrying clouds began to appear behind us. We raced to the Visitors Center and saw dark snow covered clouds swallowing the mountainous area where we planned to hike. At one point we stopped to cook up some soup and rice, after 40 minutes the rice wasn’t cook. It was only later that we read on the packet of rice, ‘Cook for 45 minutes’. Never had to cook rice for that long before! We both agreed that with the current weather situation we would not be able to continue with our planned hike. When we reached the visitors center we jumped on the shuttle bus back to the park entrance, we would not have been able to outrun the storm and make it to the next campground or shelter below the treeline in time.
Very little on this trip went as we planned. While all of three of us were disappointed that we didn’t fulfill our goals for Denali National Park, none of us have any regrets about our decisions. Things just weren’t meant to be. Each of us all felt we made the correct decisions. As we left in the bus the huge snow storm started to hit the area. We would have been knee deep in snow. That night and the following day snow and strong winds buffeted the mountains. We would have been smashed by the weather and not in a position to complete our hike anyway. Although some are not meant to be I found the last couple of days to be amazing, even while shivering at Wonder Lake reading a book I felt like I was in the remotest place on the planet with nobody for 1000s of kilometers. Cycle tour the length of Denali National Park – FAIL, hike for 3 days in the wilderness areas – FAIL. Guess I might have to return again in another 18 or so years!
Our last night together was spent drinking bear and eating up big, Johann is now off on a mission to make it to the Arctic Circle before his soon to depart flight home to France, great traveling with you mate.
Toklat River to Wonder Lake – 53km
Wonder Lake to Eielson Visitors Center – 35km.
Next Lucile and I will be cycling to Fairbanks for some rest and repairs before heading up the Dalton Hwy to Prudhoe Bay, which will have us out of contact with the outside world for up to 2 weeks.