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Quick Sprint Around Denali

It would dominate our thoughts--not merely our horizon--during a circle tour above Anchorage that lasted three days and covered 600 miles: Denali! Mountains do that to you, but at 20,320 feet, Denali seemed more than a mere mountain. It was akin to a legend.

Denali is the highest peak in North America. Wait a minute, you say: aren’t I talking about Mount McKinley? I am, but during our visit to Alaska for the Klondike Road Relay, I discovered that President William McKinley not only never saw the mountain named after him, but cared little about it. Like many Alaskans, I now prefer the name used by the Athabaskan Indians, which means "The High One."

After the Relay, Rose and I caught a flight out of Juneau to Anchorage, landing late on a Sunday evening. Monday morning, we breakfasted at the Anchorage Hilton with Alden Todd, a friend who had moved to Anchorage. Alden brought maps and directions and a push out the door as we climbed into our rental car to head north up Route 3 toward the town of Talkeetna.

 "Be cautious," warned Alden. "Moose can appear out of nowhere. They weigh 1,200 pounds and will bounce right through the windshield if you hit them."

 Thus warned, we headed north beside Cook Inlet and, after a turn west near Palmer onto Route 3, we passed through Willow, the low snow years starting point for the Iditarod, the famous multi-day sled dog race. We might have stopped to visit the Sled Dog Musher’s Hall of Fame, but a narrow window of three days for our travels allowed little time for ordinary sightseeing.

Mesmerized by the Mountain

There was plenty to see from the porch of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. The Lodge, though outside the borders of Denali National Park, reportedly offered a better view of that mountain 60 miles away than any viewpoint within the park. Mesmerized by the mountain as viewed through the window of our room, I would not disagree.

When we arrived Monday afternoon, the upper reaches of Denali were obscured by low-lying clouds. The same proved true during a ride by a jet boat managed by Mahey’s Riverboat Service up the Sinitsa river to a nature preserve. Instructed by a naturalist, we learned how trappers from the previous century lived as well as which berries or leaves could poison us if ate or touched them! Heading back, we saw a small black bear frolicking at the edge of the water, our only bear sighting during a week stay in Alaska. Had we more time, we could have chosen a sightseeing flight around the mountain

Tuesday morning, visibility had improved. Denali’s twin peaks stood stripped before me. Perched on the Lodge’s porch, I began sketching the mountain. Although we were XX miles away, the air was so clear, I felt I could stroll across a separating meadow and begin climbing this highest of North American mountains.

Mountain climbing, however, didn’t tempt me. It was too dangerous for an aging road runner. Denali was first climbed in 1913, and each year 1,000 climbers attempt an ascent, taking nearly three weeks to do so. Some succeed; others lose their lives. Later, stopping at a roadside overlook and I learned from a display that there are 44 higher peaks in South America and 650 more in the Himalayas! No matter: Denali is as good as it gets.

Spectacular Drive

Bypassing the national park, we turned eastward at Cantwell onto the Denali Highway, a gravel road that would take 135 miles to reach Paxson to continue our circle tour south. The road would have been more suitable for the Ford Explorer I left parked in my driveway in Long Beach than our rental car, so we slowed our pace--no problem considering the scenery. "This highway provides one of the most spectacular drives in the state," Rose read from our guide book. "It traverses some of the most diverse topography anywhere."

No argument there. Our visit to Alaska came mid-September. Back home, everything was green with babes in bikinis still sunbathing on the beach, but summer is shorter in the land of the Midnight Sun. The trees and bushes already had begun to assume their autumnal coloration. The reds, oranges and purples I saw in some beds of low-lying bushes would have stunned Van Gogh or Monet. We tried to capture these colors on film. Alas, when the film was developed, we hadn’t even come close. You needed to have been there, done that. Why had I waited so long to visit this most beautiful of the 50 states?

Our stop Tuesday night was at Tangle Lakes Lodge. For $85, you could get a cabin with a canoe, but one of the Lodge’s attractions was bird-watching, guided by naturalist Audubon L. Bakewell IV, who works at the Lodge. Yes, that’s his name. Audie, a graduate of Dartmouth University, who speaks fluent Japanese, regaled us during dinner and breakfast with birding information--but also warned of bears nearby.

Alaskans frequently make fun of the threat posed by moose and bears. "Grizzlies don’t like being surprised," warned Audie. (Bad news for runners.) One ploy, he suggested, was to wear bells on your wrist, and also be on the alert for bear spoor on the trail.

"How do you recognize bear spoor?" I asked.

"Because of the bells in it," chuckled Audie.

Fearless, Rose and I headed out for a hike. Audie pointed to a hill across the road. "Once you get atop the ridge, the footing gets easy," he said. Getting to that ridge, however, proved tricky, since no natural path led to the top. We stumbled through bushes and brambles before reaching the high ground. There, as Audie predicted, the footing was easier, the tundra forming a carpet across which I felt I could hike for hours.

Whooping It Up

From Tangle Lakes on Wednesday, our final day, we drove south along Highway 4, which parallels the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. Occasionally we could spot the pipeline off in the distance as it snaked up hill and down dale. It is this pipeline, and not gold, that is at the heart of Alaskan prosperity today, bringing black gold from Prudhoe Bay to the docks of Valdez. A turn west aimed us back toward Anchorage along the Alaskan Highway. Views of glaciers were only slightly less impressive because of low-lying fog. Stopping at one roadside overview, we spotted a moose beside the road, but it was a baby moose and showed no interest in leaping through our windshield.

We were back in Anchorage Wednesday night, this time staying at the Anchorage Hotel (907/272-4553), older than the glitzy Hilton Anchorage next door, but recently remodeled. Alden Todd met us for dinner and retrieved his maps. We promised to return soon to Alaska. Indeed, among the strange things done in the Midnight Sun, one is to think you can tour a state as large as Alaska in only three days, or even a week. The words of Robert W. Service continue to beckon me:

It’s the great, big, broad land way up yonder;

It’s the forests where silence has lease,

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

Copyright © 1999 by Hal Higdon. All rights reserved. Requests to reprint will be considered. Hal Higdon, Senior Writer for Runner’s World, is author of the recently republished Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide.

Related Content:

- Strange Things Done in the Midnight Sun