To enter the back country, the bus literally will drop you off at any good spot that will get you to your permit area. We were dropped off at what is known as “The Otter Slide,” a steep brushy hill that would land us on the Thorofare River. Looking at the lower mountains, you can see the light gray stretch where the Muldrow Glacier has carved its path.
One of the beauties of being in Denali’s back country is that there are no trails. When you pick up your back country permit you will be instructed to follow four very important systems to follow. One is to not create trails and to not follow directly behind others in your group. We discovered though that the space between the mountains and the moraine was narrow and staying off the social trail was too challenging for a couple of miles.
A second system to follow carefully is the process of fording the rivers. The rivers are unpredictable and water flow can change suddenly. Trekking poles are handy for measuring river depth, but some times a river simply has to be crossed. We hiked our first full day in wet socks.
Glacier Creek runs between mountains and the glacial moraine of the Muldrow Glacier. The moraine side was easier to walk, but we knew that spring water would be running off the mountains on the other side. The creeks running out of the glaciers, and thus the rivers, are filled with gray silt that clogs water filters. It takes the silt four hours to settle while still, so finding spring water is necessary.
The third system is about setting up camp. All camps in the back country, even at the campgrounds like Wonder Lake, must have food and cooking stations away from the sleeping area. At campgrounds, sheltered cooking areas are provided with bear closets or bear boxes to store everything in, including your toothbrush. A covered cooking area is also provided accessible to all campsites away from the tent pads.
When you pack in, however, you must decide how to best set up your camp. First find a good spot for your tent, then look for a fun spot about a 1,000 feet away to do your cooking. To store anything that smells potentially like it might contain calories, you must be another 1,000 feet from either of the first two points.
We set up camp on Red Mountain. Denali National Park asks that no food be near your sleeping quarters, creating a triangle. Here you can see our cooking area about 1,000 feet from our tent site.
Anything that smells like food must be stored away from the cooking area and the sleeping area. Here we store our bear cans, fuel, stove, and pots in a space defined by large rocks.
From camp, we day hiked up Glacier Creek. Jarrod is fast walker and I am probably considered a slow walker partly because I get easily distracted. Jarrod is in the middle of this photo.
The Muldrow Glacier, covered in rocks and dirt, makes a sharp turn around a well carved mountain. The gravel bed of Glacier Creek is at the bottom of the mountain this photo is taken from.
Looking up Glacier Creek at the clouds rolling over the Alaska Range. The range acts as a barrier to moisture which stacks up on the south side, leaving the north side fairly dry.
Looking across Glacier Creek from the Muldrow Glacier Moraine to our camp. You can see a faint blue, which is our tent, on the alluvial fan.
Looking down the alluvial fan past camp. The Muldrow Glacier starts on Denali to the right and deceands east (left) behind the mountains seen here and then turn and moves north west past our camp. The green ridge on the other side of Glacier Creek is the moraine.
The fourth system you will learn is how to avoid conflicts with wildlife. You will be taught how to decide if you are disturbing wildlife and what kind of decisions to make to avoid crossing the path of wildlife. Specifically, you will learn about Grizzly Bears, which are primarily vegetarian as there are no fish in Denali National Park. The bears here eat blueberries and ground squirrels. We learned that sometimes a bear might come near enough camp, that we needed to pay attention in case we needed to walk away from camp. Fortunately this bear was not very curious about us. He just checked on us a couple of times to make sure we wouldn’t surprise him. The ground squirrel calling out the warning to others was standing near our cook station and never took his eye off the bear. We did, as we wanted to make sure no cubs came up behind us!
Jarrod took this photo of me pumping water while a bear dug up ground squirrels up the hill.
When you reach the road you pretty much find a visible spot to sit and wait for the next bus headed back to the park front country. Glacier Creek is west of the Eielson Visitor Center, so park buses are less frequent than on any streatch of the road east of the center.