Circumnavigation

8:00am.  It’s going to be a long drive to Eielson Visitor Center.  My shuttle bus driver has a…. annoying way of speaking.  Nothing that’s his fault, but grating nonetheless.  Six year old kid behind me.  Not doing anything wrong or unusual, but have you ever sat in front of a bored six year old for four hours?  Fun.

The usual assortment of animals.  Mama grizzly with two cubs.

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Nearly four hours later.  Off at Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66 on the park road), fill up on water, and immediately walk the 4 miles of road back to the base of Stony Dome.  I get lucky and barely any buses pass me so I have the road mostly to myself.  It’s nice to walk several miles without pushing through challenging terrain.  A rarity in Alaska.  Leave the road.  I quickly find a social trail that makes for easy walking.  Dry tundra, fields of blueberries and a few straggling flowers.  A beautiful cascade falls for several hundred vertical feet.  It will be even more beautiful in 2 weeks when the fall colors peak.

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My easy trail disappears.  Which way?

My goal was to circumnavigate this small mountain, but a nearby ridge is calling.  Short detour to summit a small peak.  Enjoy the different perspective.  The park road is not visible from this spot, making it feel more remote than it is.  Lunch of nuts, berries, an orange, an apple, and a granola bar.

Shoot some summit photos.  Across a draw, a marmot navigates down a cliff then rests on a flat rock.  We watch each other for several minutes.  Living off the road, it probably doesn’t see humans regularly.  It’s grey coloring blends well with the surrounding rock.

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Looking east, and down into the canyon I am about to navigate. From here it looked so easy! Not quite.

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In Colorado a view like this would have been the apex of my hike. In Denali it’s remarkably ordinary. This park has spoiled me for mountain vistas.

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Turn back east.  Dropping down off the ridge line, I’m faced with some decisions.  Stay higher up on Stony Dome for easier walking?  Or drop all the way down to the canyon floor to stay true to my goal of circumnavigation?  Option number two will require a challenging descent.  Option number two, of course.

Quickly discover how challenging my choice is.  Walk easily down a steep slope, then scree ski another 100 vertical feet.  No problem.  Slope now steeper.  Nothing solid anywhere.  Slope is about 50 degrees, nothing but small rocks.  Problem.  Twenty minutes to carefully pick my way down 60 vertical feet.  Rest on a large boulder.

Next challenge.  More than 10 nearly vertical feet with no holds for hands or feet and an uneven landing.   Jumping not an option.  Where’s my 30 feet of cord I carry in the desert?  Over five minutes of starts and restarts, doubts and worries.  Success!  Not sure how.

Rest at a small waterfall.  Canyon looks and feels more like the desert than Denali.  Rocks.  More rocks.  No vegetation.  A small pool of water.  I smile, thinking of southern Utah adventures.

Onward and downward.  How to get down this 12 feet of sheer rock?  Where the water flows there are solid but useless holds.  The corner has no holds, but it’s dry.  Chimney my way down the corner.

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All challenges are now behind me.  Continue down the canyon, stream hopping occasionally.  Canyon opens up and connects to a wider glacial valley.  Walking north.  Following the braided stream.  Back to the road.  Five hours of hiking completed.  Quick luck with the bus – I’m picked up within 5 minutes.

Bus is packed.  Never fun.  But the wildlife viewing is good.  We spot 5 different caribou within 5 minutes, all pretty close to the road.

Toklat rest area.  An empty “sweeper” bus pulls in.  I join 6 other hikers on the empty bus.  A much more pleasant ride home.  The hiking group is from all over the world, on an Alaskan adventure with a company called Trek America.  We talk hiking adventures and photography.

Driver recognizes me, promises to send me a few more photos for our company Facebook page.  Good plan – his last photo was beautiful and well received.

Mama grizzly with a cub high up on Cathedral Mountain.

Closer to the entrance.  Two bull caribou near a female moose.  Moose are notoriously territorial.  The caribou draw closer and the moose chases.  I’m delighted to catch a brief moment of it on video.

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Two minute video with some moments from the day.  

Back to reality.  Bus drops us at the Wilderness Access Center.  A quick goodbye to the other hikers.  Three hours with them but I don’t know their names.

Drunken noodles at the Thai food truck.  Home at 9pm.

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