Sunday, August 19, 2012

Interlude: Notes from Denali

     Just recently back from an absolutely spectacular experience in Denali, which despite my many adventures trekking elsewhere across Alaska, still remains a six-million acre blank spot on the mental map. One of the things I learned on this 3-day sortie was that the National Park & Preserve also encompasses a third specific zone designated "Wilderness," which has a direct bearing on managing the inevitable runoff of humanity that accumulates around other such natural landmarks. Besides the crowds and circus-like gauntlet of concessionaires, the main reason I traditionally avoided this area had been because of what I saw as an excessive degree of control over my hikes. But then after years of seeing firsthand the inexorable degradation of neighboring state parks (and the systematic undercutting of resources dedicated to their upkeep by so-called "conservative" legislators) such as runaway ATV impact and the wholesale extirpation of wildlife, one can better appreciate the efforts of the Federal system to ensure protection of this national treasure, as local government obviously isn't up to the task. Many Alaskans market and profit from the natural wonders of the state of Alaska without any regard for taking care of the very resources that provide many its citizens with a livelihood. It's much easier to promote the image of a state that has endless fish, game and scenery - quite another thing to defend those same 8x10 glossy selling points from mindless over-consumption.

Mornings tend to get blurry around the edges without coffee.
     Park officials and specialists are well aware of the insidious effects that large crowds have upon a visitor's aesthetic appreciation of Denali, and go to great lengths for mitigating impact and controlling the usual insanity that coagulates - not unlike bacteria swarming around an open wound - around the openings of many such vacation destinations. They are even scrutinizing thresholds for human-generated noise which has steadily become a creeping concern. Which for us, to give an example, was the hum of motor-home generators at the campground where we pitched our tent, the takeoff and landings of helicopter tours and other aircraft (reminiscent of an earlier essay re: Elmendorf/Chugach Range), and the blare of the Alaska Railroad late at night. To a large degree it's the absurd contrast between the two worlds, the herds of people versus the calm of the Park, that calls attention to how cheap and crass so much of what humanity concerns itself with... seems it always suffers in comparison with nature.

     The tendrils of commercialization have bled over the Park boundaries from surrounding Glitter Gulch, and the ubiquitous Aramark owns/runs everything through their unholy alliance partnership with Doyon Corporation. By far the worst shock came at seeing the most recent eyesore courtesy of the hideous Grande Denali Hotel - a monstrous and visually intrusive presence only slightly less hideous than the infamous Overlook. This is brought to us by the same lucrative franchised property shell-game employed via no-bid sub-contracting loopholes that game the system and let the camel's moose's nose under the tent. Case in point, this particular joint is owned at least in name by Old Harbor Native Corporation; the facilities are run by NMS Lodging; who is in turn owned by NANA Development Corporation, itself a wholly owned subsidiary of NANA Regional Corporation. Exhibit "A" in how shortsighted corporate greed will never see past the ultimate stupidity of destroying the inherent qualities of what makes anything special, unique and beautiful in its mindless pursuit of profit.

     But fortunately all these annoyances and concerns blissfully fade after a few twists and turns into the Park, and one leaves behind the comparatively shallow, petty clusterfucks of people. This is the one state where the usual ratio of wilderness-to-urban environment is flipped: Outside there are isolated and beleaguered pockets of nature hemmed in by a rising tide of civilization. But especially at night, and from the air, in Alaska there are vast areas of darkness uninterrupted by the grid, and the isolated pools of electricity are far and few between.

     I came away on this particular trip deeply impressed with the lengths that Park personnel go to to manage a visitor's impressions. Even my brief stint for one season as an Interpretive Ranger in Acadia increased my appreciation for the degree of professionalism and passion these folks bring to the job. Herding cats on the scale of hundreds of thousands is a gargantuan task, not only thankless, but at times means serving as the scratching post for discontents. Nowadays my usual response to anti-guv'mnt types is to point out the condition of most (mens) public restrooms, particularly the sad state of affairs of many a toilet bowl. In other words, if it weren't for the constant upkeep and efforts of so-called "environmental extremists" our race would blithely continue to shit all over itself without any concern for the consequences (least of all the next person using the bathroom).

     The Significant Otter and myself were treated to a special six-hour road-trip 66-miles up the Park Road as far as to Eielson Visitor Center. I was the third wheel/back-seat commenter (the poster-boy for "Oooh can we stop - I wanna take a picture/I hafta pee again"), almost to the point of reenacting a five-year old on a fairground ride while our van veered close to the cliff edges around Polychrome Pass and the dizzying drop below.

Image NPS Wall Photo

     Regular readers will note the lack of normal photos besides the two snapshots posted here. This mainly stemming from the death of the camera, but also due to the abject failure of an iPhone to come anywhere remotely close at capturing the phenomenal expanses, or much of anything in the low-light conditions. Like hiking in the backcountry, taking adequate pictures requires proper gear, and it'll be a while before I can venture forth properly armed. 

     Seen on this outing were seven magnificent grizzlies, including two sows each accompanied by a pair of older cubs. And like the porcupine we saw waddling away from us into the brush, they were all surprisingly very blond as compared to other bears I've encountered elsewhere in Alaska. Also spied were a herd of Dall sheep, an occasional caribou, one furtive fox and a pair of Golden eagles soaring in and out of mountain mist. 

     The ambiance and character of the landscape would continually unfold and evolve into totally different scenes with each passing mile. Around each bend in the road would be a new unveiling, with an overwhelming level of detail on both micro and macro scale: the mind and senses would zoom in and pull back in an attempt to take it all in. My mind was blown. And I've seen and experienced some pretty spectacular places in my time up here, but this little toe-dip of a trip was enough to seriously whet the trekking appetite all over again. Soon as I'm done playing in the backyard.

"Cross Fox" color phase


  1. Sounds like a great trip, despite the themeparkization of nature along the way. It's good to get past the commercial and into the rapidly fading real world.

  2. There's a peculiar perspective in the West that Nature is separate from Human Places: as exemplified in the visual arts especially, the two shall not overlap, they are not integrated, one "ruins" the other. Nowhere in a National Park is this more evident than the lengths taken to restrict humans activities in Denali, where it is still possible to influence impact such as regulating X-number of campers per zone. This stands in complete opposition to say the Acadian experience, where a permeable boundary renders such delineations moot. And yet the overwhelming percentage of artwork created about that place has blinders on an filters out the dominant species on the island. Occasionally a stray boat or lighthouse might wind up in a composition, but the idyllic stereotypes of "Nature" are largely kept free from any taint of urban evidence.

  3. Oh and yes, it was a great trip (both Acadia AND Denali!)...

  4. I heard a great phrase recently to describe such control--"nature, sanitized." I also recently went to Denali, but I didn't go beyond Savage River because I didn't have the money or time to take the long bus ride. As I drove back, I started daydreaming of how to depict my newly learned phrase (spruce tree in a condom?...plexiglass case over the actual mountain?), but this is really more your expertise, so have at it while I go paint a picture with my blinders on, sorry, but I like escapism.
    -Sarah DeGennaro

  5. Thanks fur comment Sarah: that's a provocative phrase. I would reverse it and have "hand-soiling" stations instead of those ubiquitous sanitizers whereupon entering nature you apply tree sap, bear shit and dirt to your hands and briskly rub them together. Ahh, much better now.