Outside the Classroom: Partners in the Park – Denali
I had never done “real” camping before. Prior experience included backyards and indoor blanket forts. This trip was pretty far out of my comfort zone, but I like a challenge. It ended up being one of the most enjoyable learning experiences of my life.
My friend Ryan and I were greeted at the Fairbanks airport by Dr. Channon “C.P.” Price, a Physics professor at the University of Fairbanks with a long ponytail and an encyclopedic knowledge of Alaska. On my first day in Fairbanks, after sleeping in a tent on the UAF Honors house lawn, I was already picking rosehips and wild blueberries and making friends with students from Quinnipiac, Long Island University, and the University of Florida. We stared skeptically at our week’s supply of food, laid out on two small card tables, mentally preparing for starvation. Among other things, we saw pasta, peanut butter, cornbread mix, tortillas, canned chicken, and the obligatory beef jerky (which, throughout the week, could often be found hanging out of the corner of my mouth as I gnawed). Todd Peterson, program co-founder and SUU professor advised us to think, “What are some new ways I can put these things together that I’ve never had before that will be the most awesome ever?” He was fond of beef jerky and peanut butter. C.P. recommended hot Tang. We went through more Tang than any other group ever had, the corners of our mouths permanently orange.
There is only one road that goes through Denali National Park, and we traversed it in two big red vans. By the second day, I was sharing an airplane pillow with my new friend Reagan as the group came to terms with what we thought the bathroom facilities would be like. It turned out that every campsite had SST’s, sweet-smelling toilets, essentially a permanent porta-potty. You make friends quickly when crammed in a van for hours on end between campsites. That’s not to say we had a bad time traveling. This was our main chance to catch sightings of the “big five”: moose, caribou, wolves, bears, and Dall sheep. We spotted four wolves throughout the trip, which is a phenomenal percentage of the 500 wolves in the park. Moose and bears were seen with calves and cubs, and Dall sheep and caribou were but white dots on hillsides. Matt Nickerson, the other co-founder, informed us that reindeer are just domesticated caribou. At rest stops, ground squirrels fruitlessly scavenged for table scraps. The park is very adamant that animals have no access to human food, and I was surprised to learn that visitors adhere scrupulously to this policy. We actually had to store all scented items in the vans, including toothpaste and deodorant because those also attract bears. I guess even a grizzly cares about hygiene. Largely thanks to the rules, bears rarely enter campsites and no one has ever been killed by a bear in the park. This was honestly just fantastic to hear.
The most impressive campsite was the final one, Wonder Lake. The closest campsite to Denali, this is where Ansel Adams pursued the perfect photograph of the mountain. I liked to think of him hunched over his tripod composing and recomposing and adjusting his shutter speed. Joan Digby, the creator of PITP, inspired us all to channel his talent. It rained constantly for our two days there, but it was not an unpleasant rain and if anything, it brought us closer together as we huddled under the picnic shelter, everybody veiled by mosquito head nets. On our second day, we were delighted to see the clouds part to reveal a rare glimpse of a shoulder of Denali.
Of course, our trip would have been nothing without rangers Kristin and Rachel, as well as intern Christina Forbes. Not only did they bring us surprise snacks like salad and sandwiches, they led hikes and taught us as much as possible about the park. Their passion was infectious and before long, everyone wanted to be a park ranger. Rachel was always ready to joke with us and name any landform or mountain range. Kristin was brought to tears at the Teklanika river, reading a passage about it but explaining that words could never capture her love for the park. Christina, a geologist and berry enthusiast, made our trip to the glacier much more intense as she explained the technicalities of the flowing ice beneath us. When we were cold, they clothed us; when we were melodramatically sure we’d starve, they fed us; and when we least expected it, they moved us deeply with their love for the park.
I can’t remember every being bored. Even when nothing was going on, there were always trails to explore and wild blueberries and raspberries to pick, discovered by Reagan the Berry Whisperer. We visited the sled dog kennels, where the dogs stay to be admired by tourists and to give demonstrations in the off-season, when they’re not pulling rangers across the winter tundra. This is actually the principal form of transport on the other side of the calendar. We watched them run a ranger on a sled around a circular gravel track, demonstrating their strength and discipline. At the glacier, we fingered pawprints in the silt as C.P. named the animals who made them: wolf, bear, moose. On our last day, we met UAF provost Dana Thomas, an impossibly cool man who took us all rafting on the Teklanika river after feeding us bread and brie. Somehow everyone knew that food was the quickest way into our hearts.
The new experiences, challenges, and struggles made me proud of my newfound ability to adapt and flourish, learning from others and being forthcoming about my needs. Before I visited, I had never set up a tent, but halfway through the week I could pitch one in ten minutes flat, making a marathon of it as the other campers cooked dinner. I did find my breaking point in my interminably cold, wet feet after an unfortunate incident with glacial sludge and meltwater, and even then, Todd and Melissa Johnson, UF Honors director, came to my aid with dry socks and shoes. When Ryan got so sick with strep throat that he had to leave, I couldn’t help but feel a little scared for him and adrift without my one connection to the rest of the world, but the wonderful people I was with displaced my fear and uncertainty.
The street cred of having visited the Last Great Frontier is pretty enviable. But Alaska isn’t just some place I went; it’s a part of me now.
-Caroline Malouse, Linguistics