All-night tundra trekking in the shadow of the Great One


Tip Sheet

" Spend the extra $150 to take a flightseeing tour around Denali, provided by nearby Kantishna Air Taxi, (907) 683-1223.


" Do bring sturdy hiking boots, bug repellent and a good camera and binoculars.

" If youre impressed with your meal, buy Camps cookbook, A Cache of Recipes from the lodges mini gift-shop.

The name of the wilderness lodge is Camp Denali, and I noted with amusement that the scene at the Denali National Park train depot did resemble a bunch of grown-ups incongruously en route to a kids sleep-away camp. Adults -- dressed in fleece, colorful waterproof jackets and sturdy boots -- dragging bags and suitcases over to rows of school buses, some posing for photos by the wood-frame train station while others trekked to the gift shop to buy Alaskan-wilderness postcards.

Anticipation was in the air. The conversation was peppered with references to various mammals: bear, moose, wolverine. And our bus driver, Fritz, warned us not to stick any extremities out of the windows when we stopped for photo ops. Whoa.

So this was no simple sleepover camp. Actually, nothing is simple about being a visitor in Alaska -- the states sheer size and scope is overpowering from the start.

Each and every traveler clustered around the vans, for example, had debarked either a five-hour trip from Fairbanks or an eight-hour one from Anchorage. Getting anywhere in Alaska is a lengthy exercise, mitigated, however, by the grandeur of all that, well, nature.

In for the long haul

Denali National Park is like that, too. The park is famous for its main mountain, 20,000-foot Mount McKinley, known simply as Denali around these parts.

But consider that to get to Camp Denali we had to take a six-hour drive down the parks lone, unpaved, 90-mile road. The park itself totals about 7,392 square miles in area, and the total park and preserve is more then 9,000 square miles. So really, we were barely making a dent in the place.

Camp Denali is actually two places: the actual Camp Denali, or simply Camp, and North Face Lodge. Camp consists of 17 wood-frame cabins and a main lodge, a dining building and an outhouse (with modern toilets and showers) perched on a hill.

Camp overlooks North Face Lodge, a single building with 15 rooms connected to a common living/dining room and kitchen.

Camp was established in 1951 by two women as a true camp for backpackers and mountain climbers passing through to Kantishna, a former mining camp at the end of the Denali road. The Cole family, which bought Camp, acquired the Lodge in the 1980s, mostly because it was an eyesore, and fixed the place up nicely.

Which place guests book into says a lot about them. Camp folks might be construed as a little more adventurous, more romantic, more into roughing it. The Lodge folks are people who value the comforts of having their own private bathroom.

Both also have views of The mountain is out: A nighttime view of Mount McKinley from the trails behind the North Face Lodge in Denali National Park.Mount McKinley, or Denali -- which means Great One in Athabascan, a Native American tongue -- on days when the peak deigns to peek from behind a veil of clouds.

I had had visions of sitting on the porch of my Camp cabin, drinking in Denali views over a glass of Duck Pond Pinot Noir -- purchased in Fairbanks, as Camp Denali requests guests BYOB.

But Im just a writer, not a paying guest, and Camp was full up, so I was moved to the Lodge. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, especially after Id gotten to know my fellow Lodgers. Which didnt take long, as we were climbing all over each other on that bus at each animal sighting.

I detected a swell of excitement as our bus cleared the checkpoint at the roads 15-mile marker. A lot of visitors dont get beyond that point, the cutoff point for private transportation. Only a few vehicles are allowed past mile 15, including Park Services buses and those from the three lodges at the end of the road: Camp/North Face, the Kantishna Road House and the Denali Backcountry Lodge. The latter two, just down the road from Camp, run daily trips from the depot, but Camps shuttle runs just twice a week, Fridays and Mondays, which means guests must book three- or four-night packages.

Hike in the night

Six hours, three rainstorms, two bears, multiple caribou and several hundred Dall sheep later, we arrived, excited and weary, at the Lodge and were met by hosts Bronwyn and Matt.

We all, formally, introduced ourselves. The group was comprised of the kind of people youd want to be cooped up with on a cruise or in a lodge -- each introduction was funny, friendly, intelligent and brief. It was clear theyd made an effort to get out here; for some it was obvious that Camp Denali was the highlight of their Alaska vacation. Also, at $425 a night, its not cheap.

By then it was almost 10 p.m. and the sun was still out. The weirdest part about visiting Alaska in June is that the sun never really sets; evening stretches on through night and the sun maintains a steady midafternoon position past 11 p.m.

Needless to say, I didnt feel tired. I gave the rooms loose-leafed binder a quick read, as it included important guidance (about bear encounters). Armed with false bravado, my hiking boots and camera, I headed for a hike in the hills between the Lodge and Camp.

I hiked over the brook and up a ridge. Magnificent is the only word I can use: The sun lit the hill with a golden glow, the air was fresh and clean, and there was nobody else around -- in particular, no bears. Best of all, Denali was out, its snow-capped peak visible amid some light cloud cover.

I hiked over a creek and down a trail, but since the Lodges hiking map is extremely vague, I got lost. I first worried about it getting dark, then worried that the constant sunshine and ever-babbling brook would drive me nuts -- an unchanging scene that I would be stuck in forever.

But by midnight I had made it back down the hill and to the Lodge, where a couple of ladies were taking turns looking at the mountain through a telescope.

Time on the tundra

Camp Denali is unique; because of its history and environmental record it is the only company allowed to offer private guided hikes within the park boundaries.

At breakfast we were given a choice of hikes -- easy, moderate or strenuous -- and then divided into groups of 12 and sent on a six-hour trek.

Hiking over tundra is indeed an adventure. Even if you dont meet a bear youre confronted by all types of new surroundings, such as spongy tundra, which is like walking on a mattress. Our guide Fritz went into raptures over spotting a rare redhead bird. The next day we saw a moose and a wolverine that, happily, ran in the opposite direction from our group.

Then there is the majesty of the mountain glaciers, which appear, seemingly, out of nowhere once the cloud cover lifts.

Later, marketing director Sharon Gerhardt drove me up to check out Camp, where each cabin has its own wood-burning stove and porch. Camps meeting lodge is a wonderful old log building, and theres a cabin devoted to the history of the complex.

It was somewhat obvious the Lodge is the stepchild of Camp, but returning to the Lodge, I felt a stubborn pride in its warm, comfortable lounge. Someone had lit a fire, which was crackling away, and the giant floor-to-ceiling windows gave me an awesome view of Denali.

It was 10:30 p.m. -- the perfect time for a bike ride down to Wonder Lake.

The 20-minute ride was all uphill, but I finally huffed my way to the lake. Several photographers of professional caliber had had the same idea: Capture Denali with the lake and evergreens in the foreground and the mountain -- given a pinkish hue by the ubiquitous sun- reflected in the waters.

But the photographers had thought of something I hadnt: Theyd all brought mosquito nets, while I was getting eaten alive by bugs. Still, I was able to snap several dozen photos of Denali before zooming downhill to the Lodge around midnight, the sun barely setting behind the hills.

To contact Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].


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