Denali National Park: The Quiet World



As our full day at Wonder Lake continued, we enjoyed sunny skies over the tundra/taiga transition in which the campground was situated. We had spent the morning and early afternoon on a solid four-and-a-half hour hike to the McKinley River, and now, as we rested, the Alaska Range flooded the southeastern horizon with the Alaska of one’s imagination.


Mount Brooks (center), the Pyramid Peaks (right), Mount Deception (left)


Image: Sean M. Santos


We’ve experienced multiple occasions in the National Parks, most notoriously in Big Bend, when because of weather or circumstance we’ve been unable to see a view or visit a site. And I’ve tried to make peace with that when it has happened. Often, it forces us to look more closely and appreciate beauty on a more human scale. But I would have been profoundly disappointed not to have seen Denali while we were in the park.


It turned out, though, that already a new weather front was settling in over the Alaska Range, gathering like some sort of massive alien spaceship over Denali. We settled in to watch the drama from our sunny campsite.


Image: Sean M. Santos

It was Monday, August 24 and easily seventy degrees. And although there were gnat-like insects, there were no biting flies and no mosquitos. It was an ideal time to camp at Wonder Lake. (That said, there would be six inches on snow on the ground the following week.)










As we rested and enjoyed our quiet afternoon, a thin veneer of cloud cover crept in from the southwest, creating a sundog. As the cover grew more insistent, the temperature dropped, and I put on long pants and a long sleeved shirt again. Our sunny, golden moment was drawing to a close.


One of the shelters at Wonder Lake Campgound


Around 5pm, we decided to go for a hike up the ridge above the campground. Ranger Andy had recommended it in the event that the Alaska Range was visible. We wanted to have a look before the clouds enveloped the range again.

For most of the hike, we simply followed the campground’s access road that continued up the ridge. It was an easy grade, a stroll really.


Near the top, we slipped through some willow brush at the road’s edge and followed a wildlife path through the tundra partly down the slope. Stepping out into the glorious landscape we were struck that there was essentially no built human impact…no structures, no roads…for miles upon miles upon miles to the south and to the west.


Environmental historian, Douglas Brinkley titled his wonderful book about conservation in Alaska The Quiet World, Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960. I had read it earlier in the summer as we prepared for our honeymoon. Here, facing the Alaska Range, I definitely understood the title. We were really only around the corner from the campground, but it felt like we had stepped into another, quieter world. There was an immense sense of scale and also of quiet. The only real sounds were the occasional calls of Sandhill Cranes floating up from the marshy areas along the McKinley River below us.


Image: Sean M. Santos


Denali had mostly vanished into the advancing cloud cover, but beneath its heights, the range stretched east-west across the southern horizon.



Scat, perhaps Lynx?



Mount Mather


Lowbush Cranberry



We returned to the access road and continued up the ridge.


Black Spruce

The road dead-ended at a small solar-powered cabin and huge cistern. It was the water acquisition and sanitation system for the campground.




We toyed with the idea of crossing, off trail, up to a higher ridge, but we thought better of it and decided to head back so we could have our supper before that evening’s ranger talk.




Gray Jay





Back in the campground, we prepared our supper. We saw Kristen and Brucek, who had been successful in their excursion to capture a photo of Denali reflected in Wonder Lake.

Overheard conversations among fellow campers who had just arrived that afternoon on the camper bus from the park entrance underscored how lucky we’d been to have had Denali reveal himself to us for such a glorious afternoon. Although the lower peaks and slopes of the range were still visible, The Mountain was completely obscured by clouds (and would not appear for us again). The Swedish fellow at the table behind Sean and his companions were chagrined that they had missed seeing it.


Restrooms and dish washing station at Wonder Lake Campground


By the time the evening’s ranger talk began, heavy cloud cover again obscured all but the lowest slopes of the Alaska Range.


Ranger Andy Keller’s talk focused on the impacts of climate change in Alaska and was titled “Glaciers, Climate, and You.” It was a masterful presentation, pitched directly to those who would hear it at Wonder Lake Campground. Ranger Andy encapsulated the global issue of climate change into the specifics of what was happening in Alaska from both the ecological perspective and the public opinion perspective.

He discussed the sudden changes to ecological and natural systems across the state: much reduced glacier cover, the encroaching of forest into what had been tundra, melting permafrost, much reduced sea ice. He used the map of Alaska heavily to show how the geology and topography of Alaska caused weather, climate, and ecological systems to behave in certain ways (mountain ranges that block precipitation, river systems that produce vast wetlands) and how those systems are behaving increasingly erratically.

He played a recording he’d made of melting ice in the Muldrow Glacier, which descends from the Alaska Range behind him and feeds the McKinley River.

Most illuminating, though, were the already palpable impacts on life in Alaska. Whereas Miami’s South Beach has begun occasionally to flood at the highest of tides, in Alaska a lack of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea between North America and Asia is causing coastal erosion that threatens whole villages. Homes in Fairbanks are sinking like boats into the ground as the permafrost layer beneath the area’s topsoil melts. 2015 was the second-worst wildfire season in Alaska history (topped only by 2004).

These impacts are having an effect on public consciousness, even in a state where so much of the economy is dependent on fossil fuel extraction. The vast majority of Alaskans believe that climate change is a real threat:

  • Over 81% of Alaskans are convinced that global warming is happening.
  • A majority (55%) believe it is caused primarily by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, as opposed to normal cycles in the earth’s environment (37%).
  • Most Alaskans believe global warming is already causing or accelerating the loss of sea ice (83%) melting permafrost (82%), coastal erosion (74%), and forest fires (72%) in Alaska, among other impacts.

Source: The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University

This is the point at which most National Park Service rangers would end their talk, after imparting information and emphasizing the threat. Perhaps they would talk about the ways the park was working to mitigate the effects of climate change, which Ranger Andy did. But he also boldly called for each of us present to state to the group what we personally would do to help fight climate change. He asked us to pass around a beaker of melted glacial ice and a dropper and when our turns came we would say one substantive thing we would do (whether it be turning off the lights in our homes or driving less) to help fight climate change. The droplets represented our individual contributions to a hoped-for wave of change.

When my turn came, I promised to more robustly share the reality of climate change with Chicagoans through my position at Openlands. (As I write in February 2016, this promise is coming to fruition, as a team at my organization engages with how we can better connect our work to the causes and threats of climate change in the Chicago region. And how we can better engage the public in this work.)

Ranger Andy offered free copies of the book, Fight & Win, Brock Evans’s Strategies for the New Eco-Warrior to young people in attendance. Evans is president of the Endangered Species Coalition and in his long career has held leadership positions with the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. The book is both a memoir and a how-to manual in organizing opposition to threats to open space in your community. It is fascinating to see this book come out in 2014 after three decades of failure by large green organizations in trying to find climate solutions by compromising and partnering with extractive industries. This book’s premise is right in line with the sense that substantive climate action is not going to happen at the national or international level, but at the local level as towns, cities, and counties (and states) work to improve quality of life for their residents.

After the talk, Sean and I chatted with Ranger Andy (again) for about an hour. He picked our brains a bit about the structure and emphasis of his talk. And he gave me a copy of Evans’s book, which he inscribed. Near the end of our chat, it began to rain, so Sean and I helped Ranger Andy quickly load his materials back into his SUV. Then we said farewell.

Light rain continued as we heated our water bottles and climbed into our tent for the night.


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