Zane, our 10 year old, has never wanted to spend his time with small incremental steps. Instead, his motto has always seemed to along the lines of “go big, or go home”. With that in mind it was not surprising that for his ten year old trip he wanted to head to Alaska.
We left Idaho Friday morning, bound for Alaska. The smoky skies of the northwest yielded to spectacular blue skies north of Seattle and we were treated to unbelievable views of the coastal rainforests and glaciers of southeast Alaska. Denali itself was in plain view as well. We touched down in Anchorage and caught a shuttle to our hotel, retiring early and ready for a long next day.
Saturday morning we caught a shuttle over to the train depot for our train ride on the Alaska Railroad to Denali NP. We had fantastic weather for the train ride, with beautiful blue bird skies and unobstructed views of Denali. We disembarked at the train station in Denali and headed for the Riley Creek campground, just inside the park entrance. The two of us set up camp before walking a few miles out of the park to Prospector’s Pizza where we had a big pretrip dinner.
Sunday morning we woke and headed to the Backcountry Information Center where we picked up our backpacking permits for the Middle Fork of the Toklat River. We then took down our camp and caught a park bus out to the Savage River Campground. The two of us pitched the tent and then spent the afternoon hiking the beautiful Savage-Alpine trail. We had views of Denali for our third day in a row and enjoyed the spectacular alpine scenery. Storms rolled through that evening and we listened to thunder reverberate across the subarctic tundra.
Despite some rain during the night, the morning dawned clear and offered our fourth consecutive view of Denali, an extraordinarily rare run of good luck. We took down camp and repacked our gear to have it ready for our planned three night exploration along the Toklat. We caught the bus heading deeper into the park and were able to catch a glimpse of a wolf and grizzly sow with two cubs. We were dropped off at “I Scream Gulch”, a small drainage flowing into the Toklat. The bus drove off and suddenly the only sound was the subarctic wind blowing through the willows. We set off down the gulch with the silence broken only by our shouts of “Hey bear!” as we pushed through the willow thickets.
The two of us followed the Toklat, gray from the pulverized rocks from its glacial source. We forded braids of the river multiple times as we pushed east, ever deeper into the backcountry. We pitched the tent long the river bed and fixed dinner as the winds pushed down along the drainage. Zane and I watched caribou browsing the river bed as we cleaned up from dinner and turned in for the night.
Tuesday brought low clouds hanging over the Alaska Range. We hunkered down in a drainage to get out of the winds while we fixed breakfast. Our goal for the day was to head up to the glacier feeding the Toklat. We set out, once again fording the many braids of the cold, gray river. The terrain began to become more and more barren as we proceeded upstream. The small willows around the campsite yielded to the low forbs of the tundra, and eventually even the tundra gave way to barren rock as we approached the glacier.
The glacier felt like having stepped back into the Pleistocene. Waterfall and rockfall accompanied the ice as it slowly slid down from the Alaska Range. Significant glacial retreat had occurred since the glacier had been first mapped by the USGS, and it was interesting to see the moonscape left behind.
Increasing glacial melt during the afternoon complicated our route back to the tent. We ended up climbing the slopes to our south to avoid some additional fords of the now heavier flow of the river. We followed sketchy caribou trails through unstable scree slopes as we stopped to look at several waterfalls coming out of the hills. We made it back to camp and cooked a big dinner before collapsing exhausted into our sleeping bags.
Wednesday was to be another day of exploration in our little valley. We first packed up our campsite and moved about a half mile downstream in order to find a slightly more sheltered spot for the tent. The wind had not let up since our arrival and was not giving signs that it was going to. Our next order of business was to explore the Divide Mountain area to our north. We spent some time hanging out at a small lake, got up close and personal with some caribou, and snacked on bountiful blueberries. We finished the afternoon exploring a colorful canyon just to our south before calling it a day.
Thursday morning was to be our last in the backcountry. We fixed breakfast, broke camp, and walked back out to “I Scream Gulch”. We waited about 30 minutes for a bus to come by headed further into the park to Eilson Visitor Center. On our bus ride we were able to get great views of a grizzly sow with a pair of cubs. We completed to ride to Eilson where we disembarked and caught a ride back to headquarters and Riley Creek Campground. A trip back to Prospector’s Pizza for a post trip celebration capped the night.
Friday dawned rainy. We had until 2:15 in the park when our bus back to Anchorage was set to leave. We packed up camp and explored to Visitor’s Center and the Environmental Education Center before our long bus ride back to our hotel for the night in Anchorage. We were able to catch three hours of sleep before having to leave for the airport to catch our 2:00 AM flight back home.
Alaska was absolutely awe inspiring. We had fantastic weather, no mosquitos, no crowds, and unparalleled scenery. Best of all was getting to hang with my ten year old for a week.