“Denali is special,” the Park Ranger explains.
She is smartly dressed in her khaki green uniform and bubbling forth with information.
“Not only is Denali a National Park but it is also a Wildlife Preserve. This means that aside from a handful of maintained trails and the one main road that leads 92 miles into the park, the remaining 6 million acres is untouched wilderness. No motorized vehicles or even power tools are allowed off of the main road. A recent suspension bridge repair was completed with the use of sled dogs and hand tools.
When people choose to hike the backcountry here we don’t offer much in the way of route advice. We want each person to have their own experience, their own interaction with the wilderness and as a result, their impact is varied and leaves minimal damage to the vegetation and to the wildlife. To be honest, it can be a very humbling experience to be dropped off by a park bus and set out on a hike without a path to guide you. Being uncomfortable is a good thing. We want you to be reminded that as humans we are the visitors, Denali does not belong to any one of us.”
I discover that she is right. Being here in Denali and stepping out into the wilderness is humbling. I’ve experienced equal parts respect and reverence, discomfort and grand appreciation. On my end, the discomfort is due to my desire to embrace the wilderness, but not necessarily the proximity to animals (mainly grizzlies) which I don’t typically share my space with. It’s not an unusual tradeoff (experiencing something new in exchange for facing a fear), just one where the stakes seem slightly more elevated. Yet the desired effect is achieved—I don’t feel at home here. I am the outsider trespassing on land that is not my own.
As our time in Denali unfolds, I find myself enjoying more and worrying less. My routine now involves grabbing bear spray before heading out the door and my vocabulary has widened to include the ranger suggested, “Hey bear!” alert call as I move through the trees. I venture out to hike the Mount Healy Overlook trail with Ashlyn and three other friends, ascending over 1,600 feet to overlook the park without Trent’s protective presence. It feels like a double victory to return home both alive and successful in our hike.
However, I still find it difficult to fully relax in an environment where my kids can’t run freely through the forest without instructions, supervision, and wildlife reminders.
While I don’t particularly enjoy being uncomfortable, I no longer shy away from it. I’ve learned to value the growth that it brings and the way it stretches me into someone new each time I choose to lean in close.
A few days later, while sitting alone in a creek bed wash, bear spray at the ready, I reflect back on the words of the ranger. “We want you to be reminded that as humans we are the visitors, Denali does not belong to any one of us.” As I take in not only the local reality of my location but also the larger reality of my lifetime, I realize that she is only partially correct.
Sure, Denali is not my home, but as a believer in Christ, neither is Alaska, the United States, North America or even Planet Earth. As the author of Hebrews points out, “this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.” Hebrews 13:14 NLT
In this life, I am always, only, a temporary visitor.
Living in an RV for two years has given me a taste of that sojourner spirit and helped me loosen my grip on the land. Not owning a traditional home attached to land has allowed me to sample the reality of permanent displacement.
Yet, I will confess that I frequently find myself focused on the temporal, fleeting and frivolous despite these factors. I may not be home, but I sure find ways to become overly focused on things that lack lasting value.
I find that my wandering heart needs a regular reset. Is it any wonder that sitting in solitude, prayerfully seeking my Savior, grants my spirit something that nothing else can? I was reminded of this while reading Luke 5:16, “Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”
If my Lord required it for Himself, who am I to think that I don’t also require this regular refreshing? I find that when I slip away and pray, regardless of where I am, I find focus and renewal. Not surprisingly, it is often easier to accomplish this focus outside, alone, away from the things, the people, and the cares of this world.
When was the last time you slipped away into the wilderness to pray? This last year Trent bought a small tent and committed to slipping away for an overnight stay at least four times a year. While I had plans to find my own version of this, I recently realized that I’ve not acted on it. Like exercise, sleeping well and drinking water, it’s easy to neglect the things that are beneficial but not urgent. I have Denali to thank for reminding me of the value of being uncomfortable, homeless and alone.
Did you know?
Denali is the highest peak in North America at 20,320′. Many climbers who have reached the summit of both Denali and Everest say that Denali was the more treacherous of the two! The mountain is so massive it generates its own weather systems making it visible to onlookers only 1 out of every 3 days. One worker said that the view of the mountain the day we were there was the best she had seen. We felt so blessed to have a beautiful view of the mountain on the day we were closest to its base.
Where we stayed:
-We stayed at the Riley Creek Campground for five nights and the Teklanika Campground for an additional three nights. Because we had friends that were turned away from the Teklanika Campground after being told that their airstream was too big (it wasn’t), we took some preventative measures and talked to a head ranger before we took the drive deeper into the park to this more remote campground. She took photos of our RVs and sent them ahead giving us preapproval. Apparently this year the rules have changed on larger rigs so there is still some confusion among the staff. Thankfully we were able to get into the campground without a problem and although the sites were a little tight, we fit and loved our stay.
-Although we dry camped at both campgrounds, Riley Creek has a water and dump station as well as showers ($5) and a laundry facility ($2 to wash/$2 to dry).
What we did:
-There are ranger programs several nights a week held in the campground amphitheaters at 7:30 PM.
-We also loved the discovery backpack that families can borrow free of charge during their stay. The backpack includes a variety of activities, experiments, picture books, guide books and binoculars.
-The free ranger-led Sled Dog Demonstration was a highlight for all of us and occurs several times a day.
-We took the shuttle bus from the Teklanika Campground as far as the Eielson Visitor Center and back. It took about 3.5 hours total not including our time at the visitor center. The drive time can vary depending on how many animals you see and how long the driver stops for breaks along the way.