24 Jul Eluding Obstructions to Access
Just over 10 years since my first trip to Alaska’s Denali National Park, I stood near the Mountain Vista Trailhead searching through the clouds. I knew that somewhere in the distance stood a snow-covered peak whose summit stands as the highest point in North America. The horizon line loomed as a field of pale grey light behind a vast expanse of a deep green alpine tundra. The landscape was dotted with a few tall spruce trees scattered sporadically in a low-elevation taiga forest. Beautiful, but not what I was hoping for. Mildly disappointed, I shrugged and turned to continue walking. Then I heard someone gasp.
“There it is! I think I see it!”
Immediately, I raised my camera to my eyes while I turned back around. I knew exactly where to look. I snapped the shutter out of reflex, knowing that the image likely wouldn’t last. As we stood together, the clouds slowly parted to reveal steep angles in sharp relief, like the edges of a pyramid pointing up into the sky. Whips of icy vapor swirled as if it were smoke, in contrast to an ephemeral blue light that shimmered under the sun’s rays. There it was: Denali.
As quickly as it appeared, the mountain was gone, obscured by another blanket of clouds, as if it were never there. On this National Geographic Expeditions trip into the Alaska wilderness, our guests received a rare glimpse of the craggy slopes that the native Koyukon Athabascan People call “the High One.” Though I had seen it many times over the last decade, even when it was formally called Mount McKinley, I was just as thrilled as those enjoying the view for the first time.
Ibelieve that the illusive views of Denali are an excellent reminder of how precious and fleeting our national park experiences can be. Despite all the time, effort, and expense required just to be there, visitors are often denied even the few moments we were spared for a peek. Then there’s the added challenge posed by a crush of other tourists during the prime travel season, causing crowded hiking paths and long waits at restaurants and hotels.
Moreover, with the looming realities of climate change, sudden shifts of the earth and sky can often limit our access to the spots we hope to visit most. For example, rising temperatures and heavy rainfall in August of 2021 resulted in the closure of Denali Park Road. The Pretty Rocks Landslide near the 45-mile marker has cut the distance that bus tours – like ours – can safely travel into the park by half. The road to that point is estimated to remain closed until 2026. On previous trips through this tundra, I had seen grizzly bears, caribou, and moose from our passing coach. As we can only venture so far into the park, now those sightings are fewer and further between.
All these obstructions to access illustrate how fortunate we are whenever we have an opportunity to experience our national parks. We should never take for granted the privileges we enjoy while visiting these sprawling landscapes and the boundless natural wonders they enfold. Though they are profoundly resilient to the pressures of an adoring public, the delicately balanced ecosystems of the wilderness are more fragile to humans than most visitors realize. Therefore, we must encourage those who enter park gates to realize their crucial role as stewards in the long-term protection and preservation of these public lands for the benefit of current and future generations.
When we travel, we expand our understanding of the broader world in which we live. Our tour of national parks in Alaska introduced our guests to the region’s natural and cultural heritage. Starting in the town of Fairbanks, we visited Trail Breaker Kennel — ¬the home and training camp of the late 4-time Iditarod Champion Susan Butcher, and her husband, Yukon Quest veteran David Monson. Now run by their daughter, Tekla Butcher-Monson, the facility offers dogsled excursions and professional mushing instruction for aspiring winter racing competitors.
After a train ride from Fairbanks to Denali on the Alaska Wilderness Express, our tour of the national park continued along the series of trails near the entrance. During a four-mile hike, guided by Alaska Geographic naturalists , we learned about the many species of wildflowers blooming all around. From Denali, we ventured south toward Anchorage, where we visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center. There our guide walked us through a variety of structures that authentically model the homes of native communities, including the Inupiaq, the St. Lawrence Island Yupik, the Athabascan, the Unangax, the Alutiq, the Eyak, the Tsimshian and the Tlingit People.
On the road to the town of Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. On a self-guided tour of the grounds, we saw a variety of species ranging from musk oxen, bison, wolves, porcupine and bald eagles. With live animals – who had been injured or orphaned in the wild – this 200-acre property is home to researchers, educators and conservationists who promote, and expand, our understanding of the natural processes that can ensure the environmental health and longevity of the habitats they study.
Finally, on the last full day of our tour, we reveled in a private visit to the Alaska Sealife Center, near Kenai Fjords National Park. Another research institution, this facility educates visitors on the rich assortment of marine life found in the Gulf of Alaska, plus the surrounding ecosystems of the Northern Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. We then boarded a sightseeing vessel with Kenai Fjords Tours for a six-hour cruise of Resurrection Bay toward Rugged Island. Along the way we saw dozens of sealions, nesting puffins, a few sea otters and pods of both Humpback and Killer Whales.
Though the rainy weather and cloudy skies did not cooperate well with our plans, this trip through the wilds of Alaska proved to be not merely enjoyable, but transformative. Even with the crowds on trails, and highway traffic slowed by road construction, our journey was rich with opportunities to grow in my understanding and learn more about this remote destination on the edge of our continent. Like each time I have departed before, I am once again convinced that there is still much more to see.
Especially as we travel through our national parks, it is in learning the flora, fauna, and culture of these regions of our country that we might one day come to love them, and in turn, care for them. Once we witness these elusive sights of captivating wildlife, dramatic topography, and the enduring artifacts of ancient civilizations, we will undoubtedly demand that they be preserved so that we can return one day and see them again. Even better, we can inspire others to share in our enthusiasm and insist that we protect these places well into the next century and beyond.