We leave Anchorage in a light rain, driving on blacktop with our little rental Nissan wedged between SUVs and big rigs worthy of Ice Road Truckers. The suburbs don't linger, but stoplights do slow us down in Wasilla, where the banner outside a coffeeshop proclaims "Palin Fever!". We hit the liquor store inside the Fred Meyer early in the morning to pick up a bottle of whiskey for our relatives. You don't show up empty-handed in rural Alaska, where the nearest Costco may be over 100 miles away.
Getting off the highway, we snake around back roads and climb slowly toward Hatcher Pass. At Independence Mine State Historic Park, we're almost the only visitors walking along the wind-whipped trails through a ghostly settlement once gripped by gold fever. The road turns to crunchy gravel before summiting the pass, then sails down into the valley. Hunters in their pick-ups and RVs chew the fat by the roadside. A moose rockets across the road going 30mph, maybe sensing that hunting dogs might soon be hot on its hooves. That quick flash of wildlife is all we'll see of Alaska's megafauna for days.
Grizzlies? Forget about seeing 'em, though signposts in Chugatch State Park warn us off certain barricaded hiking trails along the Eagle River, where bears are chowing down on late salmon runs. Same thing goes for moose in Denali National Park: signs along the main park road tell us to stay out of certain areas of the wilderness, because the beasts are rutting now. (Apparently, they value their privacy.) Almost a week in Alaska, and our wildlife count is still laughably low: 4 fat squirrels, 2 bald eagles, 1 shy snowshoe hare, 1 moose on the run, and zero caribou, bears or Dall sheep.
But in no way is Denali disappointing, even if we can only drive the first 15 miles of the park's winding road into the wilderness. We tumble along the Savage Canyon Trail through a valley cloaked in a rustic palette of autumn colors. Summer has lasted longer than expected, with blue skies and strong sunshine that made putting on the Capilene base layer this morning pointless. None of the dozen straggling hikers on the trail talks very much. We all beam with beatific, even idiotic smiles.
It's mind-boggling how many millions of acres in Alaska are even more remote, remaining almost perfectly in their natural state, than this small river canyon. One human life is not enough to even get to know the Last Frontier. Even John Muir only explored a tiny corner of it, in an obsessive quest to finally prove that glaciers carved the Sierra Nevada. To see those blue-ice glaciers calve into the sea is where we're headed next.
But not before we stop by the park's sled dog kennels to give the canines a scritch (most prefer to just bark at us from atop their little log-cabin doghouses). Then we detour for a late-afternoon hike alongside the railroad tracks down to Horseshoe Lake to see the beaver dam. Oh yes, and grab microbrews at the hilltop Salmon Bake bar. Luckily, we still catch the alpenglow over Denali, the mighty mountain itself, before heading back to bed in Talkeetna, where the howling of a pack of Iditarod dogs rings out as regularly as church bells all night long.
Travels in Alaska: A is for Anchorage
American Wilderness: Too Noisy for You?
National Parks in 2010: Looking Forward
Photos: Alaska (Michael Connolly, Jr.)