Time to Get Lost – A Former Ranger’s Guide to the Secrets of Denali

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For a couple of years in the late 1990s, I worked as a backcountry ranger in Denali National Park. The job was outrageous, in a good way. I and a handful of other college kids were required to work an allotted number of 12-hour shifts at the backcountry permit desk, and then, with the blessing of our supervisors, take off for several days at a time, to “patrol” the park.

We had to check in with other backpackers, making sure they were camped in the right area. We had to record areas of high human impact, places where “human” trails were forming. We had to report any and all camper violations (i.e. numbskulls getting within striking distance of wildlife, say, or storing beef jerky in their tents). And we had to count the number of aircraft flying over the park, for a program that might eliminate such noise pollution. Of course, we were also required to roam Denali to get to know it better, to become experts about the flora, fauna, and terrain. My tiny band of hiker-deputies and I fulfilled these jobs dutifully. But you can guess which part of the Denali ranger experience we liked best.

We were young and full of vigor and had legs that could hike for days across the bog-and-tussock- filled tundra. Logging that kind of time in the park meant countless mind-boggling, Wild Kingdom moments. During those years of rangering I saw at least 30 grizzlies. I encountered far fewer (but just as majestic) moose, Dall sheep, and caribou. On the rare occasion the sky cleared, Mt. McKinley—all staggering 20,320-feet of it—“came out,” as tourists say, affording me the chance to gaze at it from my sleeping bag on the tundra. During those moments I knew that I was the luckiest person who had ever accidentally inhaled a mosquito. My ranger friends and I also gaped at wolves, wolf pups—and once—wolves chasing grizzlies that in turn chased caribou in an unmatched wildlife trifecta. I was a ranger then, but I’ve also returned as a tourist, and I know how Denali can fundamentally change the people who visit, despite the crowds and permitting red tape.

The entire backcountry is broken into 87 “units”or sections. Each is big—after all, the park comprises 6.3 million acres. All are defined by terrain: river drainages, or the land between two ridg lines, say. And in all but a few, overnight backpackers are limited. While it’s perfectly fine to hike through any unit on a day hike, overnight stays require a backcountry permit, and the numbers of people allowed in 41 of the units per night are fixed. So say you want to hike into, and spend the night in a unit that allows just six overnight campers per night. You and other visitors are all vying for those precious overnight golden tickets—and you can’t secure permits in advance.

In Hard Truth parlance, this translates to: Whether you’ve traveled 20 miles or 2,000 to reach your dream destination, you might not get the unit of your choice. But the Denali backcountry experience is so amazing—for some, even life-changing—that navigating the system is worth it. Hence, here are a few ways to deal with the rules designed to preserve the Denali wilderness experience.

Tracy Ross

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