Alaska: Riley Creek – Sweet Relief! (Denali National Park)

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We woke this morning at 7:15, sick and tired of the rain and feeling pretty much defeated and exhausted, so we decided to pack up and catch the 8:45 bus.  We were both ready to just get back to Riley Creek and take it easy, so we were moving pretty quickly; we were packed up and back down to the road by 8:15.

I was pretty disappointed that it rained all night. (Again.  Shocker.)  There was supposed to be a show of the Northern Lights between 11-3 last night, but at this time of year it’s so weak that with a cloud cover it isn’t visible.  So we missed out on that.  Our only “entertainment” was the hum of the bush planes as they flew flightseeing tours overhead.  Well worth the $450 in the fog and rain, I’m sure…

At least we woke and emerged from the tent this morning to a sunrise (!!) and mostly clear skies – some high clouds, and of course, the patchy, shifty, finger-like fog.  As we stood and looked down toward the road, we could see the sun on the horizon, peeking between two mountain peaks off in the distance, its beams scattered and dampened in patches by the fog as they reached out to kiss our faces good morning.

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Back toward the park entrance, off in the distance, we got another partial view of Denali all fogged in and majestic looking as the morning rays played upon the constantly changing layers of fog.  It was such a stunning, peaceful, amazing view that couldn’t possibly be fully captured in a photo.

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We stood and watched for several minutes as the fog shifted and moved all around us.  I am still completely amazed at the way it forms and transforms around here every second, changing the entire view of any one spot within minutes.  It’s really cool and crazy to watch!

We hiked the narrow tractor trail back down to the road, part of it on a flat, muddy path dissecting blueberry bushes and lichen patches, part through tangled tree roots, wet and slippery with morning dew.

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The view as we descended back to the road was phenomenal – we could see so far in each direction, our views only limited by the enormous mountain borders or, in some cases, fog.

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As we stood at the road and waited, I had my eyes pealed in all directions around me, taking in the sights before we had to go.  Back behind us, I took a photo of a mountain in one instant, completely visible minus one skinny finger of fog slithering in across the middle of the mountain.  Three minutes later, I took the exact same photo of the mountain and it had almost completely vanished, shrouded beneath a large, dense patch of fog.

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The bus picked us up around 9:05 and we were on our way back to Riley Creek.  For the first hour or so of the trip, we were both very still; totally exhausted and silently gazing out the windows, internally processing the insanely beautiful visual feast spread out in every direction before us.  The park is so huge, so expansive, so amazing and majestic, it just completely blows my mind.

I took dozens of photos of the Alaskan range as we drove along the range for miles and hours.  The brightly colored, spongy tundra brush blanketed the otherwise bland, gravelly riverbed, spilling from the road out to and over top of the rolling hills in the distance, then bursting skyward into the massive, snow-capped peaks set against a brilliant blue sky, and topped off with a layer of fluffy, white cottonball clouds.  The photos seem so surreal, as if the tundra is the only real part, and the mountains are merely painted onto an impressive backdrop, covering a vast expanse of openness.

This place redefines the words “beautiful,” “amazing,” “majestic,” “expansive,” “impressive,” “insert thesaurus entry here.”  These words as you know them are meaningless against this awe inspiring, soul searing work of Mother Nature.  Despite the rain and gloom, I am so overwhelmingly thankful to have experienced this gargantuan, pristine, tranquil, thriving sanctuary.

I took many, many photos on the way out to document how the landscape changed from Kantishna – the furthest point, 92 miles into the park – to Riley Creek – the first campground just inside the park.  (This is my desperate attempt to make up for my lack of decent photos throughout the earlier part of this trip.  Forgive me?)

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At Eielson, we grabbed our toothbrushes and the beef stick, which we had somehow managed to forget about up until that point, out of the bear canister.  We went inside, brushed our teeth and filled our water bottles.  Within 5 minutes of getting back on the bus, we’d devoured the entire beef stick (!) – probably not the greatest idea, judging by the resulting stomach ache, but we were SO hungry we couldn’t quit stuffing our faces.  All I really wanted was a juicy cheeseburger (extra ketchup, no pickles), three slices of pizza, a bag of Dorito’s and a king sized Snicker’s, but I made do with what I had.

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I got a couple of photos of the narrow, twisting dirt road with a sheer rock wall of mountain on the left side and a steep, 200-300 foot rocky drop off, with no guardrails, to the right.  The buses took this road at a slow, steady pace, carefully inching past one another in opposite directions every so often.  It was a slow bumpy ride, but slow gave us a great opportunity to really digest and experience the torrent of stimuli attacking our senses.

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I was totally giddy over the fact that the rest areas were powered by solar panels on the structures’ roofs.  Hooray for green energy and conservation in the wilderness!

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I stared out the window the entire ride, searching wildly for more bears or a big bull moose, but no luck – not even in the areas marked off limit for the moose rut.  We did see one caribou, not nearly as big or as impressive as the one yesterday, and we saw a wolf with her pups – but so far away we could barely make them out, even with borrowed binoculars.  What gives here?  We came all the way to Alaska to see impressive wildlife, and so far I’ve been pretty disappointed.  I wanted one of those close up (to the bus, not my tent) grizzly encounters that are always shown in the tourist brochures.  I guess it just wasn’t in the cards for us this time.

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The full 92-mile trip from Kantishna to Riley Creek took around 5 hours.  We made it back to the Wilderness Access Center a little after 2:00 and reserved a walk-in campsite (another $14).  We were totally psyched to find out that the Riley Creek mercantile has hot showers and coin-op laundry.  We were so exhausted, but the promise of a hot shower and clean, DRY clothes lifted our moods immeasurably.

We hiked over to the campground, set up the tent, packed up our dirties and headed to the mercantile.  Showers were $4, and included a clean, dry towel – TOTALLY worth it.  At this point, I probably would have paid $400 for a hot shower and a clean, dry towel.  We bought some Denali Dreams soap (locally made and smells yummy), got some free samples of shampoo and conditioner from the girl behind the counter (thank God since they sold everything under the sun in that store except shampoo and conditioner) and paid for two showers – $14 total.

Can I just say, I have never in my entire life been so happy to be warm and have clean hair, body and especially underwear.  (Though I will admit it was a very close call between this moment and the non-stop-rain-and-mud-pit-fiasco of Bonnaroo 2004.)  The words “happy,” “joyous,” “over-the-flippin’-moon excited” don’t seem to describe my mood adequately.  To make a great feeling even greater, I blissfully stuffed my face with a king sized Twix and guzzled a giant Gator Ade while I waited for the laundry.  The fact that I had junk food and not smooshy, bland, camp-stove-cooked pasta made me giddy (…or maybe that was just the sugar high?).

We made one more trip back to the mercantile for a cord of firewood (another $8), then walked back to our site, set up the sleeping mats and bag, picked up some sticks for fire kindling and started dinner.  We had one of our pasta with veggie dishes – not the juicy cheeseburger that I was really craving, but it did the job.

After we cleaned up dinner, we built our fire.  It was hard to start since everything was all wet, but my little pyromaniac finally got it going.  We burned through all of our wood pretty quickly, so we walked around scavenging from the ground and other empty sites.  We found a downed, half-burned tree trunk in another fire pit – most certainly illegal for whomever chopped it down, but we didn’t cut it down so we decided to chance it and take advantage of the dry fuel for our dwindling, pitiful fire.

I’ve been sitting here writing, all toasty warm, drying my boots out while K’s been playing in the fire for far too long.  He’s having a blast covering small twigs in the copious amounts of sap bubbling out of the commandeered pine log, then lighting the sap on fire and using the twigs as mini torches.  Thank God our campsite – and his eyebrows – still exist!

K also called a hotel in Seward and made reservations for tomorrow and Thursday nights.  No more tent nights after tonight…for a while, at least.  After the past few days, I think a few nights in a hotel are important for both of our sanities!

It’s after 10:30 and just now starting to get too dark to see.

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Probably time to turn in for the night while I’m still warm from the fire.

One thought on “Alaska: Riley Creek – Sweet Relief! (Denali National Park)

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