After our peaceful float past Denali on the Nenana River, DOC delivered us back to our cabin at the Otto Lake outpost. We all took a hot shower and changed into some warm clothes and prepared to enjoy another ridiculously long day. We hit the Three Bears grocery store in Healy where we stocked up on all the items we needed to cook our own meals for the next two and a half days.
Cooking our own meals was a bit more work, but if you factor in the time and bother of looking up a place to eat, driving, waiting, eating, then driving back to our lodgings, the work ended up taking less time than paying someone else to cook for us. This also considerably reduced the cost of our meals, so we splurged and had ribeyes the evening of our rafting trip. Once we returned back to Otto Lake, I had to label all of our food items before placing them in the shared refrigerator and on the counters. I tossed a few potatoes in the oven, prepped a salad, and settled in with a good book on my kindle with a lakeside view to enjoy some chill time while Brinn and Ian explored the lake and fished.
Cleanup after dinner took hardly any time at all, so we were soon off to explore the campground portion of the outpost and marvel in the mountain views. To no one’s surprise, the day got away from us again and before we knew it evening was over and we were looking at 9:00 PM again, yet the sky was as bright as it was at 2:00 PM. We got Ian settled in for bed with Steele and Ferd, and headed back to the kitchen to prep some sandwiches and pack a few snacks for our next Denali adventure.
The next morning dawned a bit more drizzly, but no less beautiful than the previous two mornings, and we were up early to cook breakfast in the communal kitchen. The other family using the kitchen were up even earlier than us, so they’d already finished cooking and eating before we made it up there, so we did’t have to fight over the large skillet for frying bacon and eggs. After a big breakfast, a few dishes, and several cups of coffee for the boys, we were all dressed warmly with backpacks stuffed full of water and bear mace and rain coats thrown over our arms. We hopped in the Sequoia and headed for the Denali Visitor Center.
A quick conversation at the front desk laid our options for the day, and we quickly decided to hop on a bus bound for the kennels. On our way across the park, we saw another mama moose crossing the road with babies. The excitement of the moose was starting to wear off just a little bit… Two days earlier we got to meet some of the dogs who had competed in the Iditarod. Now we would get to meet the working dogs who provided transportation around the park during the winter months. We learned that these dogs were bred to be much bigger as power was more important than speed when hauling scientific research equipment. Indeed, these dogs were huge! They were also very personable, and we were allowed to pet several of them before watching their demonstration.
After walking through the kennels, while discouraging Ian from showing Steele to the park dogs (he didn’t seem to grasp that Steele looked like a very desirable chew toy), we made our way through the rain to the covered seating to watch the demonstration. The drizzle waited until the presenting ranger began his speech, and then turned into a full on deluge. He laughed and soldiered on with his descriptions of the park kennel, its purpose, and functions. We learned that some areas of the park are restricted from all forms of pollution and no one is allowed to snow mobile in, even if they need to collect data for an ongoing research project. That’s where the dogs come in. We also learned that these dogs are bred with very specific traits in mind. One of those is for small feet with little webbing between their toes. Small feet move more easily across the ice crust on the top of deep snow, and webbed feet can accumulate ice pack that will hurt and slow a dog. Tight toe configuration helps prevent this. I don’t guess a sub zero dog has much need for a swimmer’s physique.
When the rangers were ready to show us how they hook the dogs up to sleds, the entire kennel came awake. Dogs went from laying flat on their sides with their tongues hanging out of their mouths to jumping against the kennel doors and barking like mad. The handlers had to bring the dogs out on their back legs because otherwise, in their excitement, they are simply too strong and could knock a grown man over easily. Each dog kangaroo hopped its way to the cart it would pull, and we learned about what type of dog is needed for each position in the pulling hierarchy, including where the novice runners would usually start at. After harnessing everyone up, the handlers then clipped the dogs to a ring in the ground the keep them stationary until the whole production was ready to roll. Once the dogs were unclipped from the rings, they were off! Like the Iditarod dogs, these showed complete enthusiasm for their job and showed pure joy as they lapped the dirt loop around the kennel area. We laughed and cheered for the furry exhibitors, then pulled our raincoats back on as we made our way to the buses that would return us to the visitor’s center.
Upon our return, we hit the gift shop to pickup some souvenirs, visited the coffee shop for a hot drink to knock of the edge, then made our way back to the Sequoia to plan our afternoon. We each had a sandwich and some chips, and then we headed to the visitors’ center to tour the displays. We particularly found the map of the park and mountain range impressive, but Ian liked the pull out drawers that showed interesting science information, like what animals sleep beneath the surface of the earth, and what is below the permafrost. We wondered around for 30 minutes or so, then we set out to hit the trails.
This was what I’d most looked forward to while planning our trip: hiking in Denali. We slipped out the side door of the bottom floor of the visitors’ center and quickly found ourselves faced with multiple trail options. After some deliberation, we decided to take the McKinley Station trail, which was listed as a mild 1.6 mile trail. We didn’t realize initially that this was a one way distance, nor the so many trails intersected so often. We had already topped of our water bottles, hung our bear mace on the sides of our back packs, zipped up our rain coats, made sure Steele was tucked away safe and dry in Ian’s rain coat, and headed on down the trail.
Black spruce and white spruce both abounded in every direction. Within a matter of minutes we had lost sight of the visitors’ center and found ourselves completely alone in the forest. A few more minutes down the trail and Ian stopped us. “Mama, Dad, do you smell that?” We all stopped and breathed deeply and failed to smell anything. Ian explained, “It just smells so fresh!” And indeed, it did. No hint of car exhaust, or food, or human waste. We simply breathed cool, fresh air. Initially the only sound we could hear came from the soft, almost silent drizzle of rain against the trees, but eventually the sound of running water became stronger. After 20 minutes of hiking and a brief descent, we came to Hines Creek. We waded out into the creek bed for some photos and to hunt for unique rocks. Ian enjoyed throwing rocks and watching the splash. He also enjoyed sticking his fingers in the water then holding them to the back of my neck. Here is where I discovered my combination of water proof socks and Astral loyaks make a killer combination for wet hiking. I had great traction, kept dry feet, and the drain ports in my shoes kept them from getting super heavy. After some splashing, we followed the creek to our first water crossing where we briefly reconnected with civilization as we saw the train trestle in the distance and were able to watch a train go past. Ian volunteered to take some of the pictures so that Brinn and I could have a few with the two of us together. Great job, Ian!
After crossing over Hines Creek, we left the water for a time and wondered back away from the train and people. Our phone gopro batteries began to drop, and we told ourselves to save the juice, but everything we came across looked photo worthy. Eventually we came to our second water crossing: Riley Creek. After crossing the bridge, we followed the water some ways, but eventually Ian’s little legs gave out on him. We stopped for a break overlooking the water and soldiered on, but Ian fatigued again, so Brinn hefted him up onto his shoulders. Brinn and I continued on for another quarter mile or so, but turned around when we realized that Ian had fallen asleep! He was riding Brinn’s shoulders like a little bobble head. We took care to avoid low hanging limbs and worked our way back to the bridge over Riley Creek. We climbed under the bridge here and settled in out of the rain to all take a break and let Ian catch a short nap. Without the steady movement of Brinn’s walking, Ian’s nap didn’t last long, and he was soon ready to move on. After crossing back over the creek, we opted to follow a new trail which took us up a fairly steep climb. Ian climbed back on Brinn’s shoulder and took the easy seat for the majority of the climb. He also drained all of our water bottles dry and used the remaining battery up on both of our phones and the gopro. Here is where I learned that my Astrals are not as great for dry hiking. I always had great traction, but the thin soles that let me grip loose ground let me feel everything on hard ground. After a while, I began to feel every single rock we crossed over, and started to regret leaving my chacos behind.
Eventually we made our way back to the visitors’ center where we reconnected with my dad and made our way back to McKinley Park to hit the gift shops. We wondered from shop to shop, picking out cute tee shirts for ourselves and our friends, and a new Christmas ornament for Ian to bring home. We found caribou summer sausage, gourmet popcorn, donuts, and coffee. After an hour or so of shopping, we were wiped and ready to head back to our cabin. At this point the rain moved out and the sun reappeared. Figures, right? But we decided that we didn’t care. The rain actually ended up helping us have a great day:
- No mosquitoes! So long as the rain kept up, the mosquitoes stayed away. We made it through our entire hike without one single winged invader interrupting our peace.
- No people! We only passed two other hikers the entire time we were in the woods. It really added to the whole experience to have the trails and creeks to ourselves.
- No heat! We didn’t overheat and sweat at all during our hike. With the lowered air temp from the rain, along with the awesome air quality, we were able to hike longer without tired legs or winded lungs. If we had not had little legs, I believe we could’ve comfortably gone all day.
Hiking in Denali confirmed my suspicions –this was an absolute must for our trip and I loved it every bit as much as I’d hoped I would. While there are a few things I would have planned differently had I known better, hiking Denali is not one of them. I loved the trails that we selected along with the weather and the overall experience. This particular outing is one we will repeat for sure.