The Denali Highway

After nearly a month of work in Fairbanks since returning from the Arctic, Angela and I decide that the best thing to do is for her to pick up my truck from my buddy Pat’s in Bellingham, and drive the damn thing to Alaska. This would accomplish two things; get her here and get my truck here, effectively getting two birds stoned at once. She navigates the truck through B.C., up the Cassiar Highway, and onto the Alcan for a 4 day trip to Fairbanks. One night around 1:00 am, Angela pulls up, wide eyed and exhibiting the thousand yard stare from many hours behind the windshield. We spend the next day and a half getting her bike prepped and our proverbial shit together, and together is comes. We leave Fairbanks at around 3 in the afternoon on August 4th, and still manage to pedal 34 miles to a nice woods camp in the Nenana Hills, including a stop at Skinny Dicks roadhouse for a beer and a laugh. The forest is a splendid place to be as the past weeks of being in Fairbanks had been wearing thin upon me. After hearty supper and a victory cocktail, we fall into a deep sleep that only two tired yet happy people can achieve. Pedaling the next couple of day brings us to Nenana, Healy, and McKinley Park; the third day of which, a car, speeding up behind me, veers onto the shoulder and nearly creams me, inches away from my handlebars.  That night at a sweet lakeside camp just north of Cantwell, we watch as the sun sets behind the western rim and an alpenglow on the opposing peaks highlights a small herd of magnificent Dall Sheep, clinging wildly to the upper slopes. After entering the Alaska Range proper we finally sail into Cantwell, western end of the glorious Denali Highway, and an entrance into some of the most fantastic splendor and scenery Alaska has to offer.

The Denali Highway was built in 1957 and for many years prior to the George Parks Highway’s completion, was the only way to approach the areas of Denali National Park, hence it’s name. The road is 135 miles long and connects Cantwell to Paxson; 120 miles of that are dirt and gravel. To me, the DH, as I like to call it, is representative of the greatness that Alaska has to offer. Yes, that is saying something in a place that has greatness writ large across nearly every available foot of land spanning it’s monstrous heft. The DH traverses the entire Central Alaska Range, in all it’s glory, crosses uncountable streams and rivers, features tundra, forest, mountains and lakes galore. It also features some of the best free range camping anywhere I have ever seen. It is truly a mountain paradise.

We roll out onto the welcome relief of the gravel surface of the DH and, short of the dust from occasional traffic, sailed smoothly along the grandiose Alaska Range Central; surrounded by tundra, taiga, and wilderness. Dall Sheep and Caribou season starts in a couple of days and unlike the time I was here before, in 2011, the DH has more people roaming around, hunters in particular.  We spy a two track leading into the forest and decide that there might be a reward at it’s end. We ride through beautiful forest and brush, spotting a large Bull Caribou along the way. After about a mile or so, the forest thins and the road turns downward to gain the roaring river below. But here, at this transition, lies one of the most spectacular camp spots of my life. It is an open view of all the big peaks of the range; Mt’s Hess, Hayes, Deborah, Geist, Balchen, and Shand. After recently reading Robert’s “Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative”, I was exited even more to once again be witnessing this spectacular place. In front of us was endless tundra and forest and river and towering peaks, encompassing one of the greatest wilderness regions on the continent. Watching the sun set upon this picture, with it’s hues of red and orange, mixed with the deep blue of the glacial spectacle in front of us, was a sight I will not soon forget.

The last time I was on the DH, I had found a camp , just west of the airstrip of the Gracious House, located atop a hill, overlooking the braided and surrealistic Susitna River, and it’s mother source, the Susitna Glacier. I had spent 2 days camped here prior, shooting time-lapse and photos and generally freaking out on how this place blew my mind. Angela and I hike up to the old camp for a looksie and a breather; and the view is as grand as my memory had served. We were looking to gain some mileage that day and decide to push on; we are rewarded later with a nice forest camp that is secluded from the road and offers a nice ridge top for an after supper hike before bed.

The following morning it is raining, the first of this leg of our journey. We pack it in and commit to the rain and the mud, and soon McClaren River Lodge comes ’round and we drop in for a beer and a cheeseburger. Back in 2011, when I was here before, I had ducked into the Lodge from a viscous rainstorm coming over McClaren Summit, and today was no exception. We leave the lodge during a brief interlude in the water’s descent, and climb the 1000′ up to the summit. We are exhausted and wet, and it is raining solidly. We ride down the two track of the McClaren Summit trail, and throw down our nylon ghetto onto the soft and sopping tundra and dive into the tent. In the morning, it is still raining, but our spirits are high as we prepare for the last day on the DH. Cool temps and more rain bring us to the beginning of the pavement 20 miles from Paxson and signaling the end of the highway. Again, we stop at the Paxson Lodge for a treat. The weather begins to abate, and as we leave, we are granted fine weather for a pedal down the Richardson Highway in search of another fine Alaskan camp.

But that is another story…

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4 thoughts on “The Denali Highway

  1. Linus, so good you’re stoked to share these experiences. Your cup overfloweth! And Angela… I knew that girl was special! How fortunate you both get to be with another wide-eyed reveler and
    glory in the mystic mountains of your paradise found…

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