Explorer's Grant 2.0: Denali
Editor's Note: Last year, Charles Post was selected from tens of thousands of entrants as the sole winner of the Huckberry Explorer's Grant 2.0 to join professional photographer Chris Burkard on the adventure of a lifetime in one of North America's most wild places: Denali National Park & Preserve. Charles' background in Ecology granted him a unique perspective on the expedition, and a fresh take on what it means to discover a wilderness as defined by pioneers like Thoreau, Emerson, and Murie.
Just a few miles beyond the Visitors Center in Denali National Park there’s a point at which public cars are restricted; this is the gateway to the Denali wilderness. As we drove the single-lane dirt road leading up to this famous portal, and the final Park Service ranger checkpoint before the dirt road meandered into the wilderness, we carried a National Park Service ‘master key’ in hand. Let’s just say there was some pent-up excitement. Would we be getting in?
Like all great wilderness experiences, the location set the tone for everything that we did, but what's unique about Denali is how its environment is truly singular in scope. The intentional preservation of such a vast amount of land allows for the type of interaction with nature that explorers and adventurers encountered eons ago. Even in many of the most remote areas of our planet some form of modernization is in effect, yet in Denali none of that exists.
// Chris Burkard
As we approached the checkpoint, our driver, Steve, casually leaned out the driver's side window and flashed the key and a stack of credentials. From the back seat, we could see the scruffy-faced ranger looking curiously our way; we all knew he was the only thing between us and six-million acres of wilderness. After a few moments, he backed away from the window, pulled out his radio, and made a call. A few tense moments later, he looked up with a huge grin and motioned for us to continue into the park. At that moment, we had been given the green light to freely roam and explore one of North America’s greatest natural treasures. As I looked into the rear view mirror from the back seat, I could see Steve’s glowing eyes; he later told us that in all his years of guiding in Denali he had never heard of anyone getting this level of access. And with a healthy dose of anticipation, we began our adventure into the Alaskan wilderness.
Though, at that moment our adventure was well underway; we had already taken flights and driven hundreds of miles to get to that fateful checkpoint on the doorstep of Denali. Our trip had really begun on the curb of Anchorage International Airport, far away from Denali’s vast mountains, blueberry bushes, caribou and dall sheep. We were a crew of four, comprised of: Steve Busby, a seasoned Alaskan guide and owner of Greatland Adventures, Chris Burkard, an adventure photographer, Meg Haywood Sullivan, an outdoor lifestyle photographer, and myself, a pen-wielding ecologist and art director. With an endless sea of snowcapped peaks set in our sights, we traveled 238 miles north from Anchorage through Wasilla, Houston, Willow and the village of Trapper Creek, before our tired and jet-lagged bodies would even lay eyes on Denali.
At times it seemed like a dream, as if our trip had been dreamt up or retold in an adventure magazine or novel.
At times it seemed like a dream, as if our trip had been dreamt up or retold in an adventure magazine or novel. But as we looked around with an overwhelming air of excitement, we were clearly on an adventure of a lifetime, one made possible by the Huckberry Explorer’s Grant and the support of the National Park Service. This support would allow us to explore the park and peel back its layers to tell a story of ecology, wilderness, and resource management.
Our motley crew, with each of our tastes and interests, made a drive that should have lasted one hour last three, simply because each one of us had a say in every mile driven, and what was “worth” stopping for. Everything from the epic to the mundane — whether it was just a cloud, a band of light, a kettle pond, a glacier, a moose hiding in the willows or a grizzly sighting (eating its way through the 100,000 berries that a single bear will consume on any given autumn day), each warranted its own photo or story opportunity for at least one member of our group, which made getting from point A to point B a time-consuming but hilarious process. It didn't help that Denali is truly mind-blowing, so around every turn there was something legitimately incredible to check out. After nearly two hours of stop-and-go, Chris had had enough, so we picked up the pace to chase the “golden hour” window forecasted for a few miles up the road.
As we ventured into the park, its sheer size and vastness became strikingly clear. Nearly the size of Massachusetts, Denali’s massive expanse houses hundreds of glaciers including the Kahiltna, a mammoth river of ice that extends 45 miles, a distance greater than Rhode Island is wide. As we explored this epic landscape, it was nearly impossible to ignore the notion of ‘wilderness’ — how can it be defined, and how can something so vast exist free of human’s signature?
From the air, we saw braided rivers and thousands upon thousands of acres of colorful tundra that paint Denali's incredible spectrum. From these lakes, across vast glaciers and along twisting trails we were able to interact with flora and fauna in a way that few people will ever experience. Denali is truly a place that stands alone as a sanctuary for wilderness.
// Chris Burkard
These questions are in no way novel, each stemming from a class of America’s luminary environmental thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Adolf Murie, and John Muir who each toiled with pen and paper about the ecological fabric they keenly observed. Each deduced that the concept of ‘wilderness’ could only be expressed in the complete absence of conspicuous signs leading back to “man’s hand,” which contemporarily exists as a virtually omnipresent signature of human settlement across the globe.
In modern circles, the notion of wilderness remains largely unchanged – an attempt to qualify the “wildness” — or rather, the absence of human settlement — of a particular patch of Earth. And thus, we were left to compare one ‘wild’ corner to the next, and make inferences on what we think we know about each. Along this train of thought, it’s fair to say Denali is wild. How wild? Well, wild enough that park surveys indicate 25 percent of its visitors cross paths with a wolf; Wild enough to support 750 species of flowering plants, 39 species of mammals, 166 species of birds, 14 species of fish, and one particularly interesting species of frog, which can withstand being completely frozen during central Alaska’s brutal seven-month winter. Denali is wilder than most, that’s for sure.
As we made our way deeper into in the vast tundra, glacial valleys and mountain ranges of Denali, we encountered a landscape largely devoid of man’s signature. Widely considered the Serengeti of North America, Denali is a wild landscape that exists in a world vastly removed from our own; one maintained only by the ebb and flow of a rich ecological fabric shaped by sun and snow — and the subsequent insect emergences that cloud spring and summer skies, a keystone of the park’s vibrant food web.
Widely considered the Serengeti of North America, Denali is a wild landscape that exists in a world vastly removed from our own.
As a visitor in this vibrant landscape, the notion of human access strikes the tangible surface, though only subtly. Simply put, the park’s access is limited only by the needs and ability of the keen traveler. That means no trails or network of roads will guide you step for step into Denali’s backcountry. With only your boots leading the way, a well-used caribou trail or creek bed will become your highway, and knee-high blueberry brambles will flank you on four sides.
There is a profound sense of awe that slowly builds inside of you when you are able to pass through wilderness that is relatively untouched by humans. As you move further into your journey, you become increasingly aware of the subtleties of nature. In a strangely intertwining juxtaposition, your awareness of small details - the sound of the wind, the design of leaves, the patterns that form on glaciers — collectively make you appreciate the vast landscape even more than you initially did.
// Chris Burkard
As our first day in Alaska faded with a low sun, we were left to reminisce on the day’s events. Our hands and lips were blueberry stained, and our trail had crossed paths with countless ptarmigan, a dozen caribou, four grizzly bears, and half a dozen dall sheep. With bellies full of berries and our curiosity satiated, we made our way towards an ‘X’ on the map, one that demarcated the cabin we would call home for the evening. A sheer cliff-lined road and a wide river crossing was all that laid in our way.
After traveling through two vast glacial valleys, we came across a rough dirt road shrouded in yellow willows. From the head of the road, we could barely make out the vague outline of a one-room, single chimney cabin. While Chris and I looked over the map to confirm that we were indeed at the correct cabin, Steve yelled out, “that’s the cabin where Adolf Muriel lived!” My heart skipped a beat as I pressed my face against the cold window of the van trying to catch a glimpse of my hero’s famous cabin. For those of you who don’t know the name, think of Adolf Murie as the John James Audubon or Jane Goodall of Alaska. Murie is best known for is landmark studies on wolf ecology, which, for the first time, illuminated their importance in the food web. More specifically, Murie’s landmark studies were the first to show that wolves represented a vital thread of an ecosystem, and if that thread was broken, so too was the community in which they lived.
It was freezing outside, and surrounding valley was swarming with grizzlies, so we were all pretty excited to be staying in a warm cabin for the night.
As we neared the weathered, one-room cabin, I found myself awestruck by the thought of staying in the very place that housed one of the great luminaries to speak on wilderness’ behalf, someone who paved the way for science based conservation and wildlife management. Not to mention, it was freezing outside, and the surrounding valley was swarming with grizzlies, so we were all pretty excited to have a wooden door between us and the outdoors, and a stove to keep us warm for the night. With the heavy bolt and latch unhooked, we curiously made our way into the cabin, and proceeded to unpack sleeping bags, camera gear, food and flashlights. Tacked to a wooden board flanking the table in the heart of the cabin, we noticed a yellowed photo of Adolph Murie; it showed him standing on the cabin’s front porch, binoculars in hand. It was clear we were in the right place.
Before long, we had some Grateful Dead drifting through the cabin and a heap of food ready for the stove. Dinner was a sausage and pasta medley, and lasted just long enough to top off camera batteries on our Goal Zero chargers. We had just settled in around the stove, when we got the call we had all been anxiously waiting for.
Steve burst through the cabin’s bear-scratched front door with a grin stretching from ear to ear, so we grabbed our cameras and headlamps and rushed back into the cold. We were greeted by a faint Westward glow of dancing light that garnished the silhouette of a distant snow-capped ridgeline. That unexpected aurora borealis was the start of a night none of us will soon forget. In fact, the breathtaking solar dance of yellows, purples and greens among the starry sky would set the tone for the remainder of the entire trip – one filled with moments that redefined our own definitions of beauty, adventure and wilderness.
It became strikingly clear why Denali felt so wild; it’s because its caretakers had given it room to breathe.
At that moment, it became strikingly clear why Denali felt so wild; it was because its early caretakers had given it room to breathe. Denali wasn’t smothered, congested with traffic or cement paths and dumpsters; Its network of trails were made by eons of migrating caribou and foraging bears, not dozers, excavators and endless visitors traveling the same trail day after day.
The Don Sheldon Mountain House is arguably one of the most scenic and spectacularly situated cabins in the world. Located in the amphitheater of the Ruth Glacier and surrounded by majestic granite peaks, it was built in 1966 as a shelter for mountaineers, skiers, and photographers by a pioneering glacier pilot named Don Sheldon, who flew in the building materials piece by piece in his ski-equipped airplane. The vantage point made it easy to lose all perspective of where heaven began and earth ended, like we were waking up in the clouds. When people ask me what my favorite part of Alaska was, without a doubt: this was it.
// Chris Burkard
In my eyes, Denali embodied a landscape managed exclusively for the preservation of wilderness through a deeply rooted intention to preserve the land’s natural constitution and integrity, an ethos and management plan that lets bears be bears, and affords wolves and the majestic caribou room to roam across vast plains without the disturbance of helicopters buzzing overhead or cars racing from trailhead to trailhead. The National Park that Denali has become is one carefully managed with respect and reverence for the ecological dynamics and relationships that make this swath of Earth unlike any other, one that exemplifies the notion of wilderness.
Let’s take a page from the stewards of Denali National Park, and find ways to preserve what wild corners we have left. [H]