Nine of us lined the window seats of the single-engine de Havilland Canada DHC-3, waiting for a glimpse of Denali, the mountain named after the Koyukon word for “tall.”
Flying at 14,000 feet, the summit of Denali appeared above the cloud cover like a premonition from a dream. At this height, the 20,300-foot mountain obliterates all sense of scale.
Flying closer, we could see the West Buttress, the primary route for climbers summiting the mountain, draped from the South Summit and descending into the clouds. In August, no humans could be seen climbing the mountain. Most attempts occur in May and the last expedition ended in July. As such, the mountain appeared to us in its solitary beauty, devoid of human presence save for nine sets of eyes exploring its slopes.
Denali, and its surrounding 6 million-acre National Park of the same name, remains one of the largest wild spaces in North America. Aside from the 1,200 climbers who try to summit and the 600,000 visitors who tour the park annually, an abundance of acres still exist where wildlife live without human presence. As does the mountain, wilderness derives its beauty from this solitude.
To Doug Peacock, author of “Grizzly Years,” “wilderness” differs from its implied meaning. “What we call ‘wilderness’ was to the Indian a homeland, “abiding loveliness” in Salish or Piegan. The land was not something to be feared or conquered, and ‘wildlife’ were neither wild nor alien; they were relatives.” Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux, said, “To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded by the Great Mystery.”
My wife and I visited some of the wild places mentioned in Peacock’s book on a previous trip to the National Parks out west, including Glacier, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Once you leave the mass of humanity congregated around geysers, hot springs and other natural attractions and head into the backcountry, you leave all assumptions behind.
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In the miles of trails we hiked, we never saw a grizzly – we avoided a trail where two hikers had just seen a grizzly sow and two cubs – yet their very presence created a mystery-bound world in which we became the interloper.
Standing on the ridge overlooking Two Ocean Lake to the east and the Grand Tetons to the west without another human is sight – a panorama so vast it defies any single point of view – humbles the mind and lifts the spirit. Mystery lies at the very heart of beauty.
Wilderness offers a respite from the symmetry of civilization. Trails follow the contours of the land without regard to Euclidean geometry. Landscapes, filled with the random trajectories of life and littered with the remnants of death, present an astonishing array of chaos. You can enter the wilderness and never completely know it. Yet by entering, we leave with a better understanding of our place in the world.
Back in the DHC-3 orbiting Denali, our pilot asked the tower in cryptic language for a flight path back to the Talkeetna Airport. Because of the cloud cover below 12,000 feet, we might not experience the low-altitude tour of the Denali glaciers.
Suddenly, a hole opened in the clouds. The pilot radioed the tower to cancel his flight plan and dove down into the hole. A strange and forbidding landscape opened before us. Rocky crags of the Alaska Range serrated the horizon. The striated length of the Kahiltna Glacier, a 46-mile highway of slow moving ice, stretched from the slopes of Denali to the Kahiltna River.
Nine interlopers, witness to the extraordinary, seemingly created more from poetry than land forms, sat spellbound. This is wilderness, to be witnessed and cherished. And afterward, left alone. For only in solitude can wilderness survive and provide us with a measure of ourselves.