Discovering Denali: A Voyage into Alaska and Self

Any serious student of spirituality and the American landscape must one day address his/her relationship with Alaska, and once in Alaska, he/she must confront Denali, the heart of the state, the state of the heart.

By Kim Heacox


September 2015

Denali

Denali National Park is the most accessible subarctic sanctuary in the world, and it has awakened millions of people to what’s authentic, priceless and true.

Photo by Fotolia/Randy Raszler

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In Rhythm of the Wild (Lyons Press, 2015), Kim Heacox weaves his personal narrative with the histories of Denali National Park. He eloquently makes the argument that we must save these places of natural beauty so they in turn may save us. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter, in which he is just beginning her voyage into the park.

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The Midnight Ride of Kimmy the Kid

SUNDAY, a day of rest. I find an old ten-speed bicycle—did I borrow it? Steal it? I can’t remember. I begin riding west into the park, the direction of dreams. I follow the paved road and leave behind seasonal ranger housing and park headquarters in Hines Creek drainage and climb slowly uphill toward tree line and beyond. I have a daypack with food and water, nothing else. No first-aid kit, no radio.

A cell phone is science fiction in 1981.

The country beckons me.

I’m pumping hard, as alive as I’ll ever be. I’ve made no decision to do this. I’m not sensible. I just go, storm-tossed, a spore on the wind. I have no idea how far I’ll get, or when I’ll turn around. Somewhere out there a wolf stalks a caribou, a grizzly circles a moose, a lynx tracks a snowshoe hare, a pasque flower rises through late spring snow. Somewhere out there a drama plays out, older and more elemental than anything cooked up by the Romans or the Greeks. Somewhere out there—everywhere out there—is a corrective lens.

I’m riding hard with a freewheeling ferocity, my head down, lactic acid burning, when a pickup pulls alongside and a voice says, “Where you going?”

“Huh?” I’m rasping for breath.

“Where you going?”

“West.”

“I can see that. West to where?”

“Far as I can get.”

“I can take you to Toklat.”

The Toklat River, big, braided, rambunctious, northbound off the Alaska Range. I’d never seen it. I stop and throw the bike in the bed of the truck; a little voice tells me that for every mile I ride west with this guy, I’ll have to peddle back in the predawn hours, as I’m scheduled to report for duty on my first day at 8 a.m. No problem. I’ll ride all night if necessary; bivouac in a wolf den.

I say “duty” because the National Park Service (NPS) is a paramilitary organization. We rangers don’t have a main office or departments. We have a headquarters, and divisions. We’re not the private sector or free enterprise. We’re the federal government, US Department of the Interior. We wear uniforms and shiny gold badges and read Mother Jones and The Far Side. Maintenance division employees take care of the roads and trails, buildings, and utilities. Administrators administrate. Resource managers manage the resource. Law enforcement rangers follow the Code of Federal Regulations and protect the park from terrorists, litterbugs, and other wrongdoers.

I’m an interpretive ranger, an education guy—a teacher of sorts—a seasonal naturalist in the interpretive division, here to interpret for summertime visitors the park’s natural and human histories. I carry no briefcase, Day-Timer, or gun. Should somebody make trouble, I’ll fight him with words, an adjective here, an adverb there. I might even assail him with a story. Take him down with haiku.

The pickup driver is Brad Ebel, a road grader operator based at the Toklat Work Camp, at mile 53, on the Toklat River. We shake hands and introduce ourselves. He has a firm grip, an easy smile.

“You know what they say,” he says, as if I know what they say.

“No. What do they say?”

“Happiness is headquarters in the rearview mirror.”

I’m thinking about this when he adds, “Funny name for a guy . . . Kim.”

“I’m a funny guy.” Some of the time.

The road climbs. The country opens up. The forest drops below and behind. Out ahead, tundra runs in every direction, a vast quilt of willow and dwarf birch, dry, gray branches with pale green leaves—the meager hints of spring. Stands of spruce huddle in low areas, protected from the wind, where a degree or two of added warmth spells survival. Somber clouds rake the top of Healy Ridge to the north, the Alaska Range to the south. It’s not the kind of day you see in travel brochures, courtesy of the chamber of commerce. It’s edgy, raw, the real deal.

We cross the Savage River Bridge, at mile 14, where the ninety-two-mile-long park road—the only road in the park—goes from pavement to hard gravel, and makes a fetching hemline as it skirts the lower slopes of Primrose Ridge. Brad knows it well, and speaks about the road as if it were a living thing, a lovely thing, every curve and dip, every culvert and bridge. “It was built by the Alaska Road Commission [ARC] over sixteen summers,” he says, “from 1922 to 1938. Guys graded the road with horses, tractor-crawlers and motor-graders, and made five dollars a day, and lived in canvas-walled tents with wood-burning stoves, and worked late into the fall when the temperature would drop to twenty degrees below zero. They had no scheduled days off, and they were thankful for the work.”

“During the Great Depression.”

“Yep.”

“How many guys?”

“Some summers as many as one hundred, other years only a dozen or so.” Brad adds that the original Mount McKinley National Park, established in 1917, didn’t get its first funding and first employee until 1921. The ARC spent five hundred dollars that summer doing preliminary reconnaissance. The next summer, 1922, the ARC spent two thousand dollars brushing the road route and erecting surveying tripods. “You know how many visitors the park had that summer?”

“A million?”

“Seven.”

“Seven million?”

“No. Seven. Just seven.”

 

TODAY it has hundreds of thousands.

The original Mount McKinley National Park was the vision of a few dedicated people who encountered resistance at every turn, and never gave up. Consider Charles Sheldon. A Yale graduate who made his fortune in the railroad industry, he retired in 1903 at age thirty-five to pursue his fascination with—and studies of—the mysterious lives of wild animals, especially wild mountain sheep. Teddy Roosevelt said of him, “Charles Sheldon is not only a first-class hunter and naturalist but passionately devoted to all that is beautiful in nature.” A member of the influential Boone and Crockett Club, Sheldon spent a month in the Denali area in the summer of 1906. Entrusted by the US Biological Survey to study and collect Dall sheep, he returned for ten months in 1907–1908 and hunkered down for the long cold winter. He rode it out and loved it, thanks in no small part to his capable twenty-nine-year-old guide, Harry Karstens, who’d come to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. Everything intrigued Sheldon: the silence of the snow, the voices of rivers, the family dynamics of wolves, the power and beauty of grizzly bears, the hibernations of marmots and arctic ground squirrels, the feeding and breeding strategies of ptarmigan, the migrations of golden eagles and arctic terns.

On a cold January day in 1908, Sheldon stood on a rise in the Kantishna Hills and pulled out his field glasses—more important to him than his hunting rifle—and looked around. Everything his eyes feasted on could one day be a premier national park, he told himself, the Yellowstone of Alaska, preserved and protected for one reason above all others: to celebrate restraint as an expression of our freedom, our rare ability to leave a place as we found it. Sheldon studied the ocean of land, the waves of rolling tundra, vast, intact, winter white, the blue-green earth holding its breath, so still yet dynamic, epic and epoch in its dimensions. Such an ambition. More than a dream, it was a spark of idealism. Could he do it? Could one man—with help from a few committed colleagues and friends—successfully campaign for the creation of a national park?

I’m thinking about this when Brad tells me, “Watch for bears.”

“Bears? Where?”

“Everywhere. Riding your bike on this road at night, in low light. Be careful, that’s all I’m saying.”

“I thought it stayed light all night, this far north, in summertime.”

“You thought wrong. It doesn’t get pitch dark, but it gets pretty damn dusky. We’re still a month shy of summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and we’re two hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle.”

“And bears use the road?”

“Sometimes, late at night. You don’t want to come upon them suddenly and frighten them, especially a mother with her cubs. She’ll charge you.”

I feel my voice constrict. “Right,” I say. “A charging mother bear. Not good.” But my fear makes it come out as, “Rigghh, a charring mudda beh, na goo.”

 

THOMAS JEFFERSON, mastermind of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, said it would take one thousand years for enterprising Americans to civilize their emerging continental nation and build cities on the Pacific as they had on the Atlantic. It took fifty. Throughout the nineteenth century, the so-called myth of superabundance—that we would never run out of fish, bison, and bears—was rapidly becoming just that: a myth. One hundred years after Jefferson, Charles Sheldon headed west, as hungry for discovery as Lewis and Clark had been. But he had another vision, and a different president. Cut from the same cloth as Teddy Roosevelt, Sheldon was a keen student of zoology and natural history, a hunter/conservationist who was already rich. Gold didn’t interest him. He arrived in Alaska when the young US territory had no roads and only eighty thousand people (fewer than twelve percent of what it has today), and found his way to the mountains.

Let us imagine him in the Kantishna Hills on that January day, the sun demure below the horizon, the air brittle, the night falling, the stars cold and watchful, beginning to take their places in the winter sky. To the south rises the icy granite massif gold miners in Fairbanks called Mount McKinley, but Sheldon called “the mountain,” or “Denali,” the Athabascan name meaning “the high one.” (Both names are used today.) Certainly a mountain like that could take care of itself, being the highest in North America. But what of the magnificent wild animals that embroidered it, the grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, moose, Dall sheep, and others that moved about with ancient mystery and grace? Market hunters were coming into the country to kill wild game to feed gold miners and railroad workers. It had to stop. Sheldon made detailed notes of everything and headed back east with one purpose: to make a national park. No easy task.

“This is fine,” I tell Brad as we cross the Teklanika River Bridge. “I’ll get out here.”

“You sure?”

“Yep.” Nope. Is there anything I’m sure of, other than my own mortality?

“Toklat is another twenty-three miles west,” Brad says. “I can take you there.”

“This is good.”

“Okay then, have fun. Don’t kill yourself.”

I stare at him.

“I’m just saying it’s a lot of paperwork when somebody dies in a national park. That’s all. I gave you this ride. If you died, I’d be the last guy to have seen you alive, so I’d have to do all the paperwork.”

“And stay in headquarters?”

“Yep.”

“Not good?”

“No, not good.”

“Okay, I’ll stay alive.” Promises, promises. The things I do for other people.


Reprinted with permission from Rhythm of the Wild by Kim Heacox and published by Lyons Press, 2015.