The Nenawa River races along adjacent to our home base, McKinley Lodge, and over the centuries, its persistent course has smoothed assembled rocks and boulders with its abrasive force, nature's watery sculptor. We sit in forest-green Adirondack chairs, watching the water create quick, white flashes against the durable rocks that form frothy rapids. We are in Denali National Park and Preserve.
The magnitude of Alaska is beyond belief. I see t-shirts with a graphic of the state of Texas fixed three times inside that of Alaska's outline. Denali consists of six million acres of wild land, bisected by one slim ribbon of road. On our "Natural History" four-hour bus tour, we experience the relatively low-elevation taiga forest which gives way to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains, culminating in North America's tallest peak, 20,320 foot Mount McKinley, boasting an altitude so lofty that it creates its own weather system, and unfortunately, is visible only 20 percent of the time. Our friends from Dunedin, Florida are here with us to witness McKinley, and we do spot it several times from 80 miles away; nevertheless, for the bulk of our trip, it's obscured in fog. This is a land of solitude, tranquility and seemingly measureless wilderness that slows one's pace, forces us to spin a full 360 degrees and steadily contemplate the awe of such pure freedom.
Inside the park at the Visitors Center, we watch an 18-minute film which outlines Denali's history, and we visit the original ranger's cabin circa 1941 occupied today by Raymond McIntyre, a uniformed ranger so massive himself that he must be a Paul Bunyan descendent. In its first year, the park attracted a total of seven visitors; now it averages 400,000 per year. Raymond says that Denali was the first national park created to preserve wildlife, particularly Dahl sheep, and that it was the Boone and Crockett club that lobbied government for ten years, their wish finally granted in 1917, but with no rangers stationed here until 1921. I notice a Red Sox cap amongst Raymond's gear, and ask how they were doing in 1941. "They lost to the Athletics in the finals." I also notice his unique bear deterrent, hundreds of sharp nails surrounding his cabin windows.
Carol, an Athabascan native, explains indigenous life, describing their food, skill set and lifestyle. "If you live here," she says, "You always purchase shoes one size too big so you can wear two pairs of socks." There is only a three-month building period from May to July. Gas is $7.90 per gallon today, and Carol describes -45F to -60F weather. "At -65F, the heating oil gels in its tank!" She says that there are nine packs of wolves in the park for a total of 75, and that each pack enjoys their own turf. She chuckles, "And if you want to see a moose, just look at my husband in the shower."
Michael Bobbick, our bus driver, explains that forest fires are nature's way of regeneration because the topsoil is so thin and the growing/composting season so short. 800,000 acres have burnt here since 1950, and they do not bother to fight fires unless they are close to buildings.
We examine a
beaver lodge, and Michael tells us that beavers and humans are the only two animals who deliberately alter their environment. A beaver requires three feet of water for a protective lodge, but rangers have observed
wolves that dig down from above to capture this prey.
The Alaska Range Mountains that contain Mt. McKinley are 56 million years old and measure from 4,000-7,000 feet at their peaks. Alaska's immense scope is hard to digest. Michael says to simply shout out, "Stop!" when we see wildlife, and he will then ease the bus to the road's shoulder. I survey the 40 people assembled in the bus; most are seniors, some well advanced, so I expect few sightings, but almost immediately, from the back, comes the cry, "Stop!
"Where?" people shout. "There," the reply. "Where?" "Three o'clock." There's a quick shift of bodies to the starboard side of the bus. "There it is," says someone. "Oh, ya," another chimes in. The object is a white dot on a distant hill. Somebody equipped with binoculars shouts, "I see it!" Eventually I make out a white tail. Camera lenses zoom dangerously throughout the bus, nearly poking out several eyes. Canons face off with Nikons and Fuji's, and I wish I had access to my hockey helmet. We repeat this frantic process for hours, people shifting from starboard to port and back, lenses constantly zooming with the same guy in the back, blessed with tremendous eyesight, shouting out, "Stop! I see a
sheep, etc." (all in rapid succession) I want to scream, "Stop! I see a cloud that looks like William Wordsworth," but I don't.
A shuttle runs daily from the hotels in the area to the Visitor Center, and along with exhibits that provide history, geological information and flora & fauna, the staff are all friendly and eager to help.
During the bus tour, besides the powerful effects of peer pressure and mob psychology, we also learn about dysfunctional American politics. Michael tells us that each year in the US legislature, there's a motion to rename Mt. McKinley to Mt. Denali, which is Athabascan for "High One," but President McKinley was from Ohio, so the Ohio representative always speaks against the motion, and it inevitably fails. What will never fail is my fond memory of this gargantuan land!
Mt. McKinley, park photo
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
The High One
Denali National Park Alaska
Establishment of Denali National Park
In 1906, conservationist Charles Alexander Sheldon conceived the idea of preserving the Mount McKinley region as a National Park. He presented the plan to his co-members of the Boone and Crockett Club. They decided that the political climate at the time was not favorable for congressional action, and that the best hope of success rested on the approval and support from the Alaskans themselves. Sheldon wrote "The first step was to secure the approval and cooperation of the delegate who represented Alaska in Congress." In October of 1915, Sheldon took up the matter with Dr. E. W. Nelson of the Biological Survey at Washington D.C., and with George Bird Grinnell, with a purpose to introduce a suitable bill in the coming session of Congress. The matter was then taken to the Game Committee of the Boone and Crockett Club, and after a full discussion received the Committee's full endorsement. On December 3, 1915 the plan was presented to Alaska's delegate, James Wickersham, who after some deliberation gave his approval. The plan then went to the Executive Committee of the Boone and Crockett Club and was unanimously accepted on December 15, 1915. The plan was thereupon endorsed by the Club and presented to Stephen Mather, assistant secretary of the Interior in Washington, D.C., who immediately approved it.
The bill was introduce in April, 1916, by delegate Wickersham in the house, and by Senator Key Pitman of Nevada in the Senate. Much lobbying took place over the following year, and on February 19, 1917 the bill passed. On February 26, 1917, eleven years from the conception, President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into legislation.
Only a portion of Mount McKinley (not even including the summit) was within the original park boundary. The park was designated an international biosphere reserve in 1976. A separate Denali National Monument was proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter on December 1, 1978.