Friday, July 15, 2011

Escape to Alaska: Denali is the Finale

We went looking for a mountain.

It sounds a bit odd to say we were hunting for a mountain when the mountain in question is Denali, officially known (according to Congress) as Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain on the North American continent and possibly the most impressive upthrust of rock and snow on the entire planet.

But Denali can be difficult to spot. Blame it on the weather.

The bus driver who takes you into Denali National Park tells you that you have only a 30% chance of seeing the mountain. When Denali does make one of its much coveted appearances, people speak of it as if referring to a shy person or a hermit who has emerged from a cave. "The mountain is out today," they say. The rest of the time? The mountain is not out; it is shrouded in clouds.

There wasn't much suspense involved in our trip into the park. Given that we had had slashing rains during the night, we were pretty sure that clouds still had the upper hand from the mountain's 20,320-foot peak to nearly its base. So we did what all other tourists on the bus did; we concentrated on spotting wildlife.

We saw moose, bears, caribou, and a fox. Unlike most of the others aboard the bus, I didn't rush to the window and stick my camera out and press the shutter release. I could see the animals clearly, all right, but it wasn't a photoworthy moment unless one had a giant telephoto lens. I just relaxed. I enjoyed the ride.

It was an 8-hour round-trip over the dirt road.

 We stopped every hour or so to use the park facilities and snap a few more photos.

An aptly named "braided river"...

The variegated colors of Polychrome Pass

Our driver, Joe, provided lots of interesting commentary about the history of the park and the features of the rocks, plants, and animals.

Did you know that an arctic squirrel hibernates but that brown bears don't? The latter are actually in a trance-like state in which they don't eat or eliminate waste, but they can be aroused awake during the winter. Winter hikers beware!

Did you know that due to climate change the boreal forest is moving north? With warmer temperatures, plants and trees are able to live at higher elevations and latitudes than before. Recent photographs of the park compared with those from nearly a hundred years ago show forests in places that were barren before.

Did you know that Mt. McKinley was named after Senator William McKinley not President McKinley? That a goldminer with ties to the Eastern newspaper establishment named the mountain to call attention to the senator from Ohio who (happily from the miner's point of view) supported a gold standard for the nation's currency base rather than a silver standard. The senator went on to become president.

Or did you know that one Alaskan town wanted to name itself after the state bird, but residents had trouble spelling P-t-a-r-m-i-g-a-n, so they became Chicken, Alaska.

Interesting stuff, but I still wished my wife and son could see the mountain the way I'd experienced it as a young man. Back then, five friends and I rode all the way to the end of the park road, got out, and camped in the shadow of Denali. And it was "out."  In fact, it looked just like the photo in the souvenir booklet that Joe the driver distributed to us at the end of the day.

As I looked at that photo I realized that the mountain was like a lot of things in life. It has to be there all the time even when it's not registering on the senses.

Like joy. A gloomy day comes along and one wonders was I ever happy a single time in my life?

Like love. When you're alone you wonder have I ever had a friend in this world? Has anyone ever really appreciated me?

Or the transcendent. If the world is making no sense it's easy to start to think there's never been a glimpse of some kind of presence behind this reality, some larger thing that actually cares that humanity and I are doing our best (or worst) to survive another orbit around the sun on this little rock we call planet earth.

But then I remember: I glimpsed it once. It was there. It was enormous and real. And even if I never see it again, it's still there, just the other side of the obscuring clouds.

When I believe that, it's a lot easier to move on through the curtains of rain. To appreciate the other, smaller things the sun illuminates when it finally breaks through the overcast.  To say that as long as today is today, this will be enough. - V.W.

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