Ordinarily, Denali National Park is packed with people along the road corridor. The road takes you through four different mountain passes, which parallel rivers with grand vistas—all in just 90-miles. You might repair my ignorance but I know of no other road system in the state with this much diversity in such a short space. The wildlife is abundant and pretty varied as well. Heck, I’m thrilled to report we haven’t been consumed by a grizzly, taken out by a panicked caribou or mauled by a moose. Still, the bears and antlered deer would have to wait, the people could always wait for me. We were headed to Denali but a touch farther up than most generally venture. True enough, no two stories are ever the same. They are our fingerprints. Here’s ours.
If you’ve heard of Denali National Park, you may’ve come across a chap called Don Sheldon. A master glacier pilot, revered by the climbers he used to fly into the Range. Through scores of ski plane flights (the only means by which you can get in and out of the glacial haven), he built a remarkable little mountain house to be a destination chiefly for mountaineers, skiers, photographers and the like.
Constructed by Sheldon in 1966 where incredibly, the wooden hut sits on a 4.9-acre rock and ice-capped outcrop located at 5,800-feet (1,768-metres). Situated as no more than a dot in the middle of the Don Sheldon Amphitheater of Ruth Gorge, Denali National Park: our home for the next two nights. As wilderness-seekers, if there was anywhere that would make us feel utterly remote in wild Alaska, it had to be there.
For two and a half days we stayed slumped on a sofa inside K2 Aviation’s hanger, hope braiding with desperation, waiting for Mother Nature to permit us passage from Talkeetna. She was being a mother alright: deeming it too unsafe to fly amid rain and stormy winds hurling off the mountain range. Further prevented by a vault of charcoal grey cloud. The odds didn’t look favourable, in my shipwrecked mind, the air throbbed with rising tension and dread landed flopping in my stomach.
Even though the flight fare was refundable, the relatively steep accommodation cost wasn’t: I was disappointed out of all proportion. A congenital grouch trying to contain my ginger-whinger from emerging. I’d been hoping—expecting—that the flight would be right there for the taking. Any wisdom trying to counsel my need to control everything flew violently out of the window.
Part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough just 113 miles from metropolitan Anchorage, Talkeetna is a historic town—deriving from an Indian word meaning “river of plenty”. I’d read that among Talkeetna’s cluster of 24 buildings, 15 of those are on the National Register of Historic Places.
A turn-of-the-20th-century gold-mining center, Talkeetna has retained much of its early Alaskan flavour. Log cabins, clapboard storefronts and a roadhouse boasting a tantalizing menu of pasties (based on the same homemade recipes of the goldminers’ wives), lined the dirt streets, which at least kept the hunger and blues at bay until the turbulent elements abated. Main Street, the only paved road in town, greeted us with a hand-hewn sign: Welcome to Beautiful Downtown Talkeetna.
The third day of tedious waiting saw a new dawn, a new mood set the skies to clear. The sun bore down in full force and the planes were prepared for take off. Clambering aboard a bright red 1957-built Otter, gleaming to a high shine, she looked up to the task as much as our K2 Aviation pilot wore his smile ready for the big off. With a smooth ascent to follow, the aircraft settled into a steady rhythm causing no concern for the nervous flier in me.
I think it’s only when you’re a few hundred feet up in the clouds do you experience that all-encompassing holistic view of the real Alaska. A densely packed array of rugged mountains, sapphire blue glacial lakes, unbroken forests and rivers meandered through. She’ll dig her way deep into your heart long before you even touch down.
Punching prints a foot deep into the snow on Ruth Glacier, what should have been a ten-minute hike to our castle took us a grueling 45-minutes to scale. Hauling and dragging our gear and equipment without a sled on the powdery soft upward gradient was a schoolgirl error not to be repeated. Wet with sweat at the top, we endured the slog before dumping everything outside the mountain house door. Plopping my unfit rear upon a log, I let the bright light and crisp air wash over me. I heard nothing beyond my own pulse discharging in my temples, willing for it to register again somewhere close to normal.
Squinting through polarized sunglasses with an expression of exhaustion and pure joy at what lay before me, anyone would’ve thought I’d just summited Denali itself (also referred to as the “Great One”—North America’s tallest peak rising above the tundra to 20,320 feet / 6,194 metres). It was less than a kilometre yet by some contrivance of carriage and posture, I still collapsed like an accordion.
A glacial scene of meringue-coated mountains in every direction. Sweet and unfettered. Thick silver white snow glinted in the sun, taking everything I had not to venture out with reckless abandon into the boundless glitter. As extended masses of persistent ice go—formed from snow falling over millennia—constantly moving under its own weight, this beautifully blue, stark wonderland left me overcome.
It looked like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk pulling heat from my fingertips, from the soles of my feet. Everything transient and aching. Magnified by the rumbling sounds of avalanche after avalanche, I listened with mounting fascination. Twenty thousand sounds of the melting, moving snow engulfed me. The snow boomed and caromed down, shifted and dilated, fell over itself, opening a portal of sound larger than anything else up there.
The UV rays were perhaps the most intense I’d been under for a while. Within one afternoon Jason and I both bore raccoon eyes from the powerful exposure to the bright sun. I could feel places getting singed that you never think about plastering in sunscreen: below the chin and beneath one’s nostrils as a starter for ten. The sun is hot as madness and the ground crunches like cinders. Wild hair accompanied my face—a field of freckles in full bloom—flush with sun and gratification.
Time over the next two days took on a pace that would barely register with a tortoise, let alone a glacier. At least it did for me. While Jason ran around like a hare on steroids for the most part, a little vessel of indefatigability, charged by an unrivaled spark of creativity, I immersed myself into glacial rock life. I’d lost Jason the moment we boarded the aircraft. His brain had become one wet kilogram within which his new world had begun to spin.
To my mind, that was a non-issue; I had a cozy sanctuary to dip in and out as I pleased, warmed by a wood burning stove and festooned in mountain house comforts. Perched atop a giant rock in which to explore with the deep-seated hopes I wouldn’t fall down a crevasse. Thigh-deep into the white stuff was as far as I plummeted. Books were lightly read and jigsaws assembled with gusto, something I hadn’t enjoyed since my childhood. Comfort food was consumed and hot toddies supped. Outside, slats of wood leaned against the shedder and I couldn’t help notice the paisleyed frost. It made billions of tiny diadems and coronas, a lattice of dumbfounding complexity. And often times the snow bore uncanny resemblance to the knots and grooves in wood.
For large portions of the day, I found myself sat quietly beneath the blinding sunbeams on my favourite log, fashioned into a stool just outside the hut and perfectly positioned on a rocky outcrop. Losing myself in realms of memory if not a meditative state. Overlooking the odd string of tourist planes that would make their glacial landing from a half hour’s sightseeing, that is, when the weather window permitted. Sightseers explored with trepidation in the snow, just metres from the plane: most toting brightly coloured clothing and coat hangers in their mouths. Some singing out loud; I too felt the same giddiness rising and sparkling in my blood.
By dusk, the place became wholly our own again. Sunsets gave rise to big veins of crimson glowing above the white each evening, billowing with brightness in a kaleidoscope of sunlight. With the sky aswirl in orange flourishes, any wants and needs I might’ve had were rinsed away by colour and light.
The sky barely dimmed throughout the night, whose sun had set yet wasn’t fully swallowed leaving the light permeating the hut at all times, as well as my circadian rhythm (the body clock regulating sleep during a twenty-four-hour cycle) off kilter the entire time. Fine by me. My soul glowed with some fundamental acceptance: I wanted maximum value from the experience, you can sleep when you’ve snuffed it. So thoughtlessly we sling on our destinies. Time is a slippery thing anyway: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever. Who doesn’t want to be alive before they die?
Every fibre in my being wide awake, gripped by the raw beauty and solitude, gulped me down whole. Happiness cartwheeled out of my body and tumbled across the snowdrifts. Sometimes the shadows of clouds dragged against the mountains, and patches of sunlight touched down everywhere. Red strings of planes miniaturised by the mammoth mountains glided over them like toys.
Despite the place warming expansively, through the ravines of cold nothing stayed constant, everything deviated. To me, Ruth Gorge seemed incomprehensively large, big enough to contain just about everything anyone could ever feel. Out in the luminous, peaceful place where the light at this time of year never fizzles out, I fell into its dreaminess, enwombed in its otherness. A place beyond thoughts.