Dummies (as written by Idiots)
Rett Thompson on
'what to do
if a bear grabs your sideburns
that kind of thing. If the point of
the video is to scare us, mission accomplished'.
I have always envisioned
myself as a rugged outdoorsman. I do this mostly when I am lying on the
couch watching other rugged outdoorsmen on television. But when my friend
Matt and I find ourselves in Alaska on vacation, it is time to put the
vision to the test in Denali National Park.
Why Denali? As famous British explorer (and rugged outdoorsman) George
Mallory responded when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, Because
The parks six million acres are divided up into 43 units for backcountry
hiking. The Park Service puts a limit on the number of people that can
be in any one area to minimize the environmental impact. We arrive a little
late in the day (although it is difficult to tell since it doesnt
start to get dark until midnight) so a lot of the backcountry areas are
already filled. The Ranger tells us it doesnt matter all the areas
are beautiful. We sign up for Area 28. We then spot a book that describes
each of the various areas. Each area description is peppered with phrases
like, breathtaking views or lush open spaces.
We find the description of Area 28. It reads Major characteristics
dense undergrowth and isolation. My first reaction is, If
I want dense undergrowth and isolation Ill camp in my bedroom.
But we trust the Ranger, after all this is Alaska, the last frontier -
it has to be spectacular.
Before we head out, we watch a Backcountry Orientation Video. I dont
catch the title, but from the looks of it I guess that its called,
101 Ways You Can Be Killed By A Bear. The video looks as though
it was shot back in the 70s lots of campers with long
hair and tie-dyes. It covers basic backcountry safety tips, what to do
if you see a bear, what to do if a bear sees you, what to do if a bear
grabs your sideburns
that kind of thing. If the point of the video
is to scare us, mission accomplished.
There is only one road that runs through the Park. It is ninety miles
long, unpaved and after mile fifteen, only buses and bicycles are permitted.
On the ride out the bus driver tells us all to keep a look out for wildlife
because its everywhere. Hes right. No sooner has he dropped
us off than we have our first contact with wildlife mosquitoes,
hundreds and hundreds of mosquitoes. It is enough mosquitoes to be worthy
of being considered a Biblical plague. We immediately paint ourselves
with mosquito repellent. But these are wild Alaskan mosquitoes, and it
has no effect on them. They will accompany us for the rest of the journey.
The bus driver said that caribou could lose a quart of blood a day to
mosquitoes. Sometimes caribou will just go insane from the biting and
run madly through the woods. I consider this, but decided to wait at least
until the bus is out of sight. I remember laughing at my brother-in-law
when he asked if we wanted to take mosquito head nets. It takes all of
five minutes before we are pawing through our packs for them. And so,
looking like a cross between a terrorist and a deranged beekeeper, we
strike out into area 28. After hiking for a while we come to a small river.
We quickly ford (read: fall in) it. We will remain wet for the rest of
the trip thanks to ninety-five percent humidity. At first glance the landscape
seems very green and lush, but I soon realize that it is the green mosquito
net I have over my head. After awhile youd forget that you were
wearing a net over your head, although youd remember as soon as
After crossing the river we discover a bear footprint. We have come all
this way to Denali to see wildlife and now suddenly the last thing I want
to see is wildlife. We walk along the other side of the river looking
for a good route to take us up the mountain. After finding none, we decide
to go commando for a while until we reach what looks like a clearing on
the map. Now my experience with interpreting topographical maps is limited
to golf course scorecards. To me it looks like just an easy six iron up
to a clearing that will lead us to a ridge, which will take us to the
top of the mountain. We end up hacking through brush so thick that we
couldnt even fall down if we wanted to (and we do). We arrive at
what should be the clearing some two hours later. (Which is about right
if youve ever seen me play golf.) Apparently there is no clearing.
We trudge on. The brush appears to be either small trees or really big
of the things we learned from the Backcountry video is that youre
to make noise whenever you cant see where youre going so you
wont accidentally surprise a bear. We havent seen where we
were going since we left the bus.
Matt decides that we should sing. Im not so sure. Even though there
is no one within twenty miles, I am still a little self-conscious about
my singing voice. Matt asks me if I am self-conscious about being eaten
by a bear. I lead stirring rendition of The Sound of Music. I am now convinced
that there are bears lurking everywhere in the bush. I came to relax and
get away from it all and instead I feel like Im on point patrolling
the jungles of Nam. Matt says Im suffering from bearanoia.
We continue battling uphill for the next three hours.
The singing has now been replaced with cursing. We finally set up camp
high atop the side of the mountain in the only clear place we can find.
We plan to summit in the morning. (I say summit only because
it sounds much more impressive than what we really have to do, which is
walk to the top of the mountain) It has been a difficult trek
so far, but we feel some sense of accomplishment for how far we have gotten.
We stop and really look back on the park. For the first time we dont
have a face full of bushes, mosquitoes or mucus. The view is spectacular.
The Alaskan Mountain range stretches as far as the eye can see. To the
southeast you can make out the purple base of Mt. McKinley, its top obscured
by clouds. And down the mountain, off in the distance, there is something
moving. It could be brown bear, or maybe a moose, possibly even a Dall
Upon closer inspection it is a bus. We havent even hiked out of
sight of the road.
Dinner - the one thing that we are truly prepared for. Having both seen
the movie "Alive" we have packed plenty of food, but must now
eat enough to fit what remains into the bear-proof container. Its
not even close. Neither of us is the least bit hungry, but we cant
leave the food out or the bears will steal it. I remember that clearly
from the video. Or maybe that was from watching Yogi Bear cartoons
Either way we have no choice but to eat our way to safety. Four packages
of Ramen noodles, two entire bags of Raspberry Fig Newtons, two bags of
GORP and many stray protein laden mosquitoes later, we manage get the
top closed on the bear canister. By this point, I decide that I would
rather be mauled by a bear than eat another Fig Newton. We decide to call
it a night, but between the Newton nausea, the droning of a thousand blood-sucking
mosquitoes and the perpetual wedgie that comes from sleeping on a mountain
slope, it is difficult to get much rest.
wake with the sun (which comes up at 3:30am) and pack up the camp.
We pause for a moment to survey the peak. Certainly its been
difficult journey so far, but just over the mountain is new beginning.
It offers us a chance to start over, to regain our perspective on
why we came to Denali, and to walk in wonder, not fear. On the other
hand, if we hurried, we could make the late check-in at the Wasilla
Best Western. These are the agonizing decisions that explorers must
face. I remember when we finished our trip, the looks we got from
the other backpackers when we got back on the bus, dirty, sweaty,
soaking, mashed hair, covered with dead mosquitoes
woman turned to us and said, Oh my Goodness, how long were
you out there?
About 16 hours. I said.
Okay, so I might not be a rugged outdoorsman yet, but at least I
know my limits, which is important, as Im sure George Mallory
would confirm if he hadnt died on Everest. Still, when people
ask me, Why stay at the Wasilla Best Western when you are
in one of the greatest National Parks in the world? I answer,
Because its there.
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