After leaving my trusty comrades at the airport, I pointed the Nissan north and headed to the National Outdoor Leadership School branch headquarters in Palmer. Immediately after getting out of the car, I was impressed with the scale of the operation: 5 modified school buses with NOLS written on the side. I quickly found the contacts I had and learned more about the school. 70 month-long wilderness expeditions in remote Alaska, 130 field staff. The base camp made Midpines look like small. I spent two days dodging the pissing rain helping in the massive garden, building a chicken coop and patching jackets with rip-stop. I pulled carrots out of the ground and ate them, which is an experience I didn't foresee having in September in Alaska.
My fellow hiking partners on Hunter Pass, South Fork of the Eagle River
The weather looked sunny but cold in Denali, so I called the park office and the lady who picked up said the campground was now closed, which meant it was free. She also told me the park road was open to 30 miles, which is further than in the summer season (open only 12 miles). I decided that it was worth the drive, so I took off from Palmer in the afternoon.
Fishhook Creek and the Talkeetna Range, Alaska, September, 2013
Reflections near Fishhook Creek
Pioneer Peak in the Chugach Ranger as seen from downtown Palmer
The Chulitna River near the Summit airport
The first part of the drive north on the AK-3 was pretty mellow, kinda sleepy. However, by the time I reached the Chulitna River, I couldn't drive more then five miles without pulling off the road and swapping my lenses around to create photographs. The setting sun, fresh snow on huge mountains, red bushes, yellow leaves, I felt like being a kid in candy shop. I was ecstatic and created a bunch of photographs and panoramas which I'll have to stitch together later.
The Parks Highway near the Summit airport
North of Cantwell, the weather changed. When I reached Riley Creek Campground the blue skies and bright sun were a thing of the past. Welcome to Denali National Park: overcast and snowing. I set up my tent, cooked dinner, bear proofed my scene and passed out wearing four jackets. During the the night I noticed the snow accumulating on the tent, I was feeling pretty happy but very cold. With the clouds and snow I didn't think the northern lights viewing was likely, so I didn't get out of the tent all night.
In the morning I got out of the tent in a fresh inch or two of light powder, cooked some breakfast and drove to the Mt. Healy Overlook trail. I talked to a ranger briefly about the safety of the area: bears, cold, avalanches, etc. I took off up the trail in fresh snow and enjoyed a sweet view from the summit. On the way down, I slipped a few times, and thought of hashtagging some photos on facebook #goingsoloingrizzlycountry #slipandslide. Standby on that.
Looking north to the Alaska Range from the Mt. Healy Overlook Trail, Denali National Park
Savage River and the Alaska Range, Denali National Park
In the afternoon I drove along the Park road to the Teklanika River. I did a short hike along the Savage River and saw a Grizzly and a Moose from far away. When I returned to the campground I met a Polish couchsurfer hitchhiker lady named Izabella. She said she was heading to Anchorage the following day and I volunteered to give her a lift. She had a campfire, and the skies were clear. We enjoyed some time talking about travelling and eventually I crawled into my tent and froze my ass off all night. I got out of the tent a few times to see if there was any Aurora going on, but mostly the fullish moon light up the sky. Stars were visible but no Aurora. Rumor has it it was around 7F that night. I wore seven jackets, and one around my feet, and still froze.
Full Moon rising at sunset, Denali National Park
In the morning Iza and I packed up and we found another hitchhiker and drove directly back to Anchorage without too many stops. At the Denali Viewpoint South, we caught a pretty legit view of Mount McKinley. I dropped my new friends off at their prospective locations, and drove back to the Knik River beach where I spent my last night in Alaska. I cooked some rice on the beach and slept in my tent. It was so much warmer, I only slept with one jacket and was fine.
Mount McKinley or Denali 'The High One' as seen from 'Denali Viewpoint South'
Knik River Sunset near Butte, Alaska