The northbound Parks Highway forks left from “1” into “3” after crossing into the Mat-Su borough, where we spot our first bull moose calmly munching in a wetland within the interchange. Distances and locations are designated by mile markers, e.g. the “secret” blueberry area was to be found in the vicinity of Mile 200. We again are following the Iditarod Trail for a while. The traffic thins out considerably after the Wasilla-Big Lake corridor and we climb almost imperceptibly out of the Mat-Su Valley, along the Susitna River, which I imagine to be full of salmon.
We are on our way further Inside, going to The Great One.
Denali. It’s the name we prefer, although at least for now the mountain is still officially known as McKinley. The Athabascans named the crown of North America “High One” or “Great One.” Semi-nomadic, they were hunters and gatherers, and their trails through the Alaska Range are defined by its major passes. Denali’s vertical relief exceeds that of Mount Everest, and three-quarters of The Great One is covered permanently with snow, so it is aptly named. Glaciers moved rocks and deposited other debris, and tectonic plates collided to bring this immense spectacle forth.
Later we will agree that nothing in all our experiences combined has prepared us.
Mile 113 marks the Talkeetna Spur. This is the town “where rivers meet” and its importance born from a natural crossroads grew during the construction of the Alaska Railroad. Talkeetna today is a quirky little destination, as likely to attract spring mountaineers as it is the throngs of tourists lining up for the Roadhouse’s breakfast menu. The main street is filled with gift shops and galleries, but we take a short hike to the riverfront and meet two elderly grandmas in rain gear who had just finished a rafting trip. “How was it?” The first grandma answers tersely: “Cold.”
It is said you will see The Great One from Talkeetna. We do not. It is overcast and the drizzle turns to rain, so back to the Parks Road we go. Sailing past all sorts of intriguing hints that Denali would be visible to us on any other day, we enter Broad Pass, at treeline. I wish we could take the turnoff to the east-west Denali Highway, along which there are hundreds of archaeological sites. This Highway is an ancient migration route, and remains mostly unpaved.
On we go to the National Park Entrance, marveling how the Grande Denali Lodge is perched atop a peak overlooking Horseshoe Lake and the Nenana River canyon. We note the Denali Borough population consists of 300 grizzlies, 2,000 moose, 2,000 caribou, 2,500 Dall sheep, 1,943 human beings, and 80 adult wolves. Guess which ones are designated “The Big Five” to see? We vow we will achieve this, although it should be noted that up ’til now we’ve seen nobody but the freeway moose. Not even a single piece of roadkill.
Since it’s late in the day, we enter the park intending to drive just for a bit. A quick stop at the Visitor’s Center yields a $20 auto pass, good toward bus fare later on. We’re on the road in toward Savage River. Slow traffic ahead and a bus is stopped. Could it be? It is! Mama moose and her baby. Pete jumps in front of the bus (is this a good idea?) to get close for this shot. Our luck seems to be changing in the unseen shadow of The Great One.