“Wake up, man!” Someone was whispering outside the tent.
“It’s just 5:30 in the morning, Keith,” I growled to my friend.
“You’ve got to come out,” he insisted in a low pitch.
I unzipped the fly, stuck out my head and was in awe.
In front of my eyes, majestic Mount Denali rose tall in the sky. A few tall pine trees stood in the meadow, looking like they were guarding a gateway to the McKinley River. A crescent moon shone in the dusky sky. Rolling hills left from thousands of years of glacial erosion lay before me. But the peak was the showstopper, floating above thick fog that hovered in the valleys.
The sun’s early rays poked through eastern clouds, casting a layer of gold on the snow-covered peak. What a glorious gift the sun has given the mountain — and the few of us there to witness the scene.
I grabbed my phone and rushed out of the tent, oblivious to the chilly early morning temperature, somewhere in the mid-40s.
I was face to face with Mount Denali, the “High One,” as the Alaskan Natives people called it. (The mountain was once called Mount McKinley, but it has always been recognized as Denali by Alaskan people and the state government.) Covered with snow year-round, it is the highest mountain in North America; in 2015, a survey expedition using GPS technology determined an elevation of 20,310 feet. It is also the third-highest mountain in the world based on topographic prominence, the height compared with the surrounding landscape. Only Mount Everest in Nepal and Aconcagua in Argentina reach higher.
For me — a thrill-seeker who stays within his own comfort zone — this was a return trip to Denali National Park. Fourteen years prior, I’d gone solo. This time, my girlfriend, Ruby, planned the trip, and she knew I hadn’t trekked this deep in the park before. Although we wanted to get close to the giant with an overnight stay in the Wonder Lake Campground, such a clear view surprised us both.
The Denali bus
Denali Park Road is the only byway that cuts into the 6 million acres of wild land that is Denali National Park. It runs 92 miles, east-to-west, from the park entrance to the old Gold Rush camp of Kantishna, but private vehicles are allowed on only the first 15. Of an estimated 600,000 annual visitors who make a pilgrimage to Denali, according to the National Park Service, most travel no farther than the Savage River Trailhead, at mile 15.
Those who venture farther hop on a bus — a simple transit bus or a narrated tour bus with a naturalist aboard. In high season, mid-May through mid-September, they roll down the road, paralleling the Alaska Range through valleys and high mountain passes, low-elevation forests and alpine tundra.
My friends and I had taken the transit bus, with stops along the way where people boarded or exited; it took about five hours to reach our destination, the last of the campgrounds.
Although the buses travel deep into the wilderness, close to 70 percent of riders may never see the mountain at all.
The area’s microclimate means that during summer, when warmer ground temperature contrasts with cold air above, precipitation dominates. Clouds obscure the peak, if not the whole mountain, most of the time. A sighting is as elusive as a wolf pack.
As I stood outside my tent, the hum of opening zippers became the soundtrack. Campers one by one rushed out of their tents to see Denali.
My girlfriend and I, plus Keith and his girlfriend, Alice, hurriedly put on warmer clothes, grabbed our photographic gear and hiked up to the lookout area for an unobstructed view of the magnificent mountain.
A light breeze carried crisp, cold air and the fresh scent of pine. Evergreens stretched skyward, into a hazy navy blue. I took deep breaths, feeling humble amid the vast, pristine Alaskan Range.
Wildlife and wild berries
All eyes were on the summit, or so I thought.
I was absorbed by the camera’s viewfinder, zeroed in on the giant, when Alice whispered, “moose!”
Attention turned from the peak to the meadow 100 feet below us. A moose stood in the clearing.
Keith trekked through waist-high tundra bush to get a better shot. His camera’s flash went off, and the female moose spotted us. Within seconds, she had disappeared into the forest.
“Keith, what have you done,” I couldn’t help but shout out.
He shrugged his shoulders, downplaying his mishap, then said, “Guess what? You guys should come down here, there are tons of wild blueberries.”
We joined him on the cushion-like tundra, knelt and picked the wild berries, crawling over the low bushes like bears roaming a meadow.
Ruby reminded me of what a park ranger had said the night before, during a presentation at the visitors center: “Be a kid again. Get your hands dirty.”
When we’d finished scooping up the biggest berries, we returned to the campground. Fellow campers excitedly talked about our wake-up call. For many of us, it was a once in a lifetime experience to have a glimpse of Denali.
Everybody who gathered at the shelter area was having a late-morning breakfast, but the conversation was never far from our lucky day.
Clouds blew in during the next two days, but the rain didn’t dampen our moods. We put on our boots for more hiking and eating the bears’ lunch — fresh, delicious, slightly tart blueberries.
We’d seen the giant once, and that was enough. The sight strengthened my connection to nature and the earth, even more than the fresh-picked blueberries.