The Denali backcountry is an absolute playground, a playground that you have to reserve a permit for, but a playground nonetheless.
At a playground there are all sorts of exciting things. Slides, monkeybars, swings and whatever else the kids are into these days. Denali is quite similar. There are over 40 different units of the backcountry that all feature different playgrounds like qualities to explore. Mountains, rivers, blueberry patches. Unlike the playground, you have to watch a 30-minute safety video that was made in the 1970’s or 1980’s and is pretty amazing.
Before you get your permit to camp you have to designate the unit in which you would like to camp. They have a notebook that details different things that are available in each of the units. You can also ask the rangers and they will provide you with information about each of the units. Although, we noticed that they wouldn’t provide specific or detailed suggestions about places to go, or things to see. We asked them about this and they noted that they try not to promote or suggest specific routes, because over time, those routes would develop social trails and ruin the wilderness aspect of the backcountry.
While we appreciated protecting the backcountry, we were at a loss for where we should go. We narrowed it down to several units. We were partly intrigued about some of the units that were known for good blueberry picking, and almost went for them. Then we realized that bears also love blueberries and they would likely be stuffing their faces before hibernating for the winter. We opted to camp away from the blueberries and picked a unit that had some good hiking. We settled on unit 18.
One of the other great parts about each of the units is that there is a limit on the number of people that can camp in each of them for a given night. The number ranges between 6-12 people, so you are usually guaranteed to have a wilderness experience without running into other people. It looked like there would be other people camping in our unit, but the rules were simple. Camp a ¼ mile away from the road and in a place where your tent is out of view from the road.
Trevor, Lindsy and I spent our first night in Wonder Lake and then rode the bus back to unit 18 where we would be spending the next two nights. It’s actual a moderately daunting prospect to camp in the Denali backcountry. When you get on the bus you let your bus driver know which unit you will be camping in. As they are driving along the road they stop, and you get out. The bus leaves and you just walk into the wilderness. I had a little bit of anxiety as we approached our unit. What if there was a bear right after the bus dropped us off? It’s really quite striking, because you go from being in a heated bus to hopping out and walking off the road to explore and find a place to camp for the night.
It rained the entire day. We got off the bus and it had already started, we put on our rain gear and put pack covers on our backpacks. Lindsy sported an amazing camouflage poncho/packcover. It covered both her and her back. The beginning of our trek involved descending from the road to the river below. We were able to hop across the river and made our way up and over onto some muskeg. Due to the possibility of bears and the fact that we were all wearing hoods on our rain gear we opted to hike in the riverbed so that we had good visibility, it was also much easier going when compared to having your foot sink six inches into the muskeg with every step.
We hiked and it rained. It was cloudy and we did our best to stay dry. Miraculously, we ran into two other people that were staying in our unit for the night. We passed them, exchanged quick hellos and then were on our way. Shortly after running into them we followed a river bed on the left up onto what we thought looked like a good bench to camp on.
We got up on the bench and were glad that we stopped. Further up the riverbed was a wall of fog. We were pretty much surrounded by fog. It was so thick that we couldn’t see the road and we had only hiked in several miles. We found a spot where we were sheltered from the wind and set up the Denali prescribed Golden Triangle.
One of the important practices in Denali is to make sure that bears don’t associate humans with food rewards, so you set up your camp in a equilateral triangle. At one point are your tents. At the second point, 100-yards away you do your cooking. At the third point, 100-yards away from the other two points you store your food in bear proof containers. According to the ranger it is also important to store the containers upside down. He had heard several stories of bears peeing on the canisters, and we wanted to avoid that.
While we set up our tents and the Golden Triangle we received a brief respite from the rain. We cooked a dinner of ramen and baked beans, and then settled into our tents. I had a new tent, because my old tent’s rain fly was defective and I had sent it into The North Face for a warranty repair. My new tent though, had a very unfortunate design flaw. It only had one door, so you had to exit from that side. Due to the terrain my door opened into the hill and I didn’t have a lot of space. Additionally, whenever I opened the rainfly it dumped water onto me, or into the tent. Not ideal.
I left my tent and joined Trevor and Lindsy to play a couple brief games of cribbage and then retired to my tent where I read a book that I picked up at the Wonder Lake campground. John LeCarre’s ‘Spy Came in from the Cold’, given the temperature the title was quite fitting. After reading and journaling I feel asleep to the pitter-pattering of rain on my tent.
We woke up in the morning and the weather was less than ideal. It was incredibly cloudy and we couldn’t see more than several hundred yards. Even more unfortunate, Trevor’s tent was leaking so Lindsy’s sleeping bag was sopping wet. It was also raining, so we couldn’t easily break our camp down without getting everything else wet as well. Our plan was to explore and try and make it to some of the glaciers that were further up the riverbed. Due to the weather and the wet sleeping bag we all decided that it was probably best if we head back to the road.
We didn’t want to cook food because it was continuing to rain, we had enough snickers bars that we figured we could eat as we walked and get out a little bit quicker. We hiked down our drainage and noticed that the water was gushing. The same was true when we got to the riverbed, it was wet the previous day, but it had rained all night so everything was flowing a bit more. We were zig-zagging across the river to avoid larger flows and consistently had to cross on top of rocks that were not yet submerged.
We got back to the road and we were wet, cold and ready for a bus. The first bus that came our way only had three seats and while we didn’t sit together we were happy to be on a warm bus full of people. It ended early, but we definitely got a feel for how quickly the weather can turn and why it is so important that you know what you are doing if you are going to go out into the Denali backcountry. I’ll be back there someday for sure!