Every year, Denali National Park Service opens its road lottery in
June. For a $10.00 application fee, you can enter to secure one of
the 1600 road permits that are issued for entry to Denali National
Park. For four days after the "regular" season closes, the Park
allows four hundred cars a day to drive the 90 mile road to its end
in Kantishna. In addition to the ten dollar application fee, if you
are one of the lucky ones to win a road permit, there are a couple
of additional fees that bring the total entry cost to $55.00. So
what do you get for $55.00? The experience of a lifetime.
Alaska residents know that Mount McKinley, The Great One, is so huge
that it creates its own weather. Because of that, it is impossible
to predict when the mountain will be visible. It is only visible
about 20% of the time and there is obviously a greater chance that
you won't get to see the splendor or magnitude of North America's
tallest mountain. Tourists and residents alike, are awed by the
sight of this magnificent mountain, especially since it is so
elusive. Add to this, the unpredictability of Alaska's weather in
September, and your chances of seeing Mount McKinley, decrease even
We headed south with four dogs, 25 extra gallons of diesel,
emergency survival gear and food, enough diet Coke to keep me happy
for a day or two, cameras and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The weather in Fairbanks was gray and drizzly when we left,
prompting speculation on what the weather would bring in the Park.
The Weather Channel was predicting sunny skies with comfortable
temperatures. Weather predictions are like opinions, everyone has
one. We topped the ridge surrounding Fairbanks as the sun emerged,
and the clouds disappeared revealing an azure sky. The weather gods
obviously smiled on us as the weather held throughout the day and
night. It was perfect - absolutely, poetically, picture perfect.
After paying our fees, purchasing trinkets in the gift shop, and a
large caffeine fix for Roger, we headed into the Park. Leaving all
the unfortunate souls who didn't win the lottery at the Savage River
turnout (the last place the general public can drive to -
approximately 11 miles into Denali), we crossed the bridge at Savage
River, reassured the young Park Ranger at the check in that we
wouldn't play with the bears or feed the wildlife, and headed off.
Mount McKinley was not only visible, the view was unobstructed by
clouds, snow, fog, mist, haze, smog or ozone. Within the first hour
of driving while watching Mount McKinley the entire time, we ran out
of adjectives, superlatives and any and all words that could begin
to describe the majesty, the magnitude, the mystique and the magic
that you feel when looking at something, anything this monumentally
huge. Coming up woefully short to try and describe the beauty we
were seeing, we settled on, "Wow".
I cannot begin to do the Mountain justice in describing what I was
feeling as we gazed in wonder at it. Most times, we just simply sat
silently in awe and reverence. There is something sacred and
spiritual being in the presence of a monument so great as Mount
McKinley. We are ants in comparison. It can't be bulldozed or
paved over. It can't be sanitized or reduced to an "A" ticket ride
at Disney World so that it is safe. It just is. When I look at it
and ponder the forces that created it at the beginning of time, my
existence seems minute and tenuous.
We drove our usual speed - turtle, letting the hurried and harried
masses go around us. We weren't on a schedule or deadline. We
didn't need to reach Kantishna at a particular time in order to turn
around and leave the Park before it got too late. As long as we
were back at the Savage River bridge before midnight, we were fine.
The views, the wildlife and the beauty dictated how far we went
before stopping again. We let something bigger guide our journey.
Near the end of the road, not far from Wonder Lake, we stopped for
dinner. Sitting on the tailgate of the truck, eating peanut butter
and jelly sandwiches as the alpenglow started to color Mount
McKinley with wisps of salmon, electric pink, vibrant orange and
touches of purple, we had the best seats in the house for Nature's
dusky show. As the shadows gathered around us, we reluctantly
turned East back toward the entrance that we had left behind a world
Dusk gave way to dark. It is a primitive darkness of long ago -
before street lights and manmade torches. It is the darkness that
you remember from childhood summers when it felt as if you could
reach out and dip your fingers in it. With no other light to
interfere, the stars began to twinkle and shimmer for us. The Big
Dipper brilliantly hovered overhead, the lights from the truck as
its only competition.
As we talked about the wonders and the magic that we had been
privileged to witness, we wondered how it could have been more
perfect. It was Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled up
into one trip. It was natural perfection. There was not a single
thing that could have made the day more idyllic than it had already
been. That is until the aurora began its ghostly seduction.
The first indication that we might get to see the aurora came as a
whisper light ribbon of pale green. Then to make sure that it had
our full attention, the aurora spontaneously burst across the
blackness. It swirled and spun like veils on a belly dancer. Pools
of color dancing and undulating, teasing us with whispers of
shimmering light before fading into blackness. This light show went
on for hours as we drove slowly toward the entrance. The aurora
escorted us home all the way to Fairbanks, forcing us to pull over
too many times to count so that we could watch in awe and wonder at
its beauty. It was the perfect ending to an absolutely perfect day.
As I attempt to document and capture all that I witnessed, I find my
words and my vocabulary woefully lacking in trying to describe the
overwhelming beauty, the raw power of the land, the absence of
manmade intrusions in this magical place. I desperately search for
ways to convey the magnitude, the majesty and the magic. I can't.
My words pale in comparison to seeing this natural wonder first
hand. Even if I had hours to spend poring over a dictionary and
thesaurus, I would never be able to find the words to do the
experience justice. All I can say is, I couldn't have asked for a
more perfect trip.