One Man's Paradise

Happy birthday!

“Only by going alone in silence,
without baggage,
can one truly

get into the heart of the wilderness.
All other travel is mere dust

and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

John Muir

Those are the words of John Muir, who was a loud and clear voice in the creation of the national park system in the United States. His travels in and writings about the wilderness of North America had an influence on many, including Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, John Muir was opposed to the government running the national park system, as he considered many politicians as being incompetent, to put it politely. He wanted the US Army to run the park system. John Muir died 2 years before the National Park Service was instituted by Congress in 1916.

Today we celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service.

The Organic Act of 1916 states the mission and goal of the National Park Service, which is “…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Many voices and powers have formed the NPS into its current shape. Already at it’s 75th birthday it was recognized that “…the Service faces challenges greater than at any time in its history. The parks, many buffered by rural or wilderness surroundings in years past, are increasingly besieged by development. What goes on outside their boundaries can affect their air, their water, their wildlife, their natural and historic ambience, as profoundly as what goes on within. Natural and cultural landmarks outside the parks face similar threats, prompting pressures to include them in the park system.”


Denali National Park, Alaska

 My feelings about the national parks are ambivalent. The idea to preserve wilderness and history for future generations is commendable. However, what we consider wilderness and how we access and manage wilderness is contentious. I am with Edward Abbey, who suggested parks with limited access by automobile. I know this is not a very popular proposition, but it is the only way to experience real wilderness, as described by John Muir. Thanks to their remoteness, size, and administration some parks in Alaska come very close to John Muir’s idea. Access to Denali, Wrangell-St.Elias, Glacier Bay, and other parks in the state is limited due to their remote location and their sheer size. Those are the places that appeal to me.

In the 80’s I spent many days and nights in Yosemite Valley. Above the valley floor it is strikingly beautiful, but I never understood, why we had 1-hour film processing and other unnecessary amenities in the valley. There was a time when private traffic was banned in the valley, which I thought was a great idea. Today, up to 21,000 visitors find their way into the valley on a peak day! Campsites are hard to get without advance reservation. The Park Service has the difficult task to balance conservation and visitation. In 1917 there were 11,000 visitors in the park all year!

I think it is worthwhile, especially on a day like this, to reflect on our views of wilderness and conservation. Do we really need to drive our vehicles into parks and expect to see wildlife and pristine landscapes from the comfort of our cars?

I think wilderness is something that cannot be experienced from a vehicle. It requires effort, sweat, patience, and time…

It is not available on demand.

It is an experience that you cannot buy.

It is priceless.

Without it our planet is a cold, dead place.

To the next 100 years!

Into the Wild

Thoughts on Wilderness – № 2

“We need the tonic of wildness…

At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things,
we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable,
that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.

We can never have enough of nature.”

Henry David Thoreau

Denali National Park management goes one step further than most other parks by promoting their leave-no-trace policy. Backpackers in the park are now, as part of the mandatory safety instruction, advised not to publish or follow GPS-data on their hike in an effort to avoid the creation of man-made trails. “Leave only footprints, take only photographs” may be a popular motto in other parks with designated, and well maintained hiking trails. Not so in Denali National Park.

McKinley Bar Trail, Denali National Park, AK

McKinley Bar Trail, Denali National Park, AK

A few marked trails exist in Denali National Park, mostly around the park entrance. Few backpackers venture far away from the park’s road into the back country of this vast park. Those that do, enjoy the experience of wilderness as described by Thoreau. The management of Denali National Park wants to keep it that way. By preventing the establishment of man-made trails they hope to keep the majority of the park wild and pristine.

Tundra hiking in Denali National Park

Tundra hiking in Denali National Park

“Let the tourist be on his own, and not be spoon-fed at intervals. Let him be encouraged to keep his eyes open, do his own looking and exploring, and catch what he can of the magic of wilderness.” Those were Adolph Murie’s words in the 50’s, opposing a plan to develop trails in Denali National Park. His opinion seemed to have inspired the park’s trail-less philosophy.

This approach provides the unique opportunity for hikers to experience nature in the most profound and intense way.


Find your own path…

Wildlife management in Denali National Park also differs from most other national forest lands and parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. It’s hands-off. No animals are culled! In the most protected areas there is no hunting, period. In other areas subsistence hunting is allowed, but no guided trophy hunting, thank you very much.

Finally, no private traffic on the park’s one and only road. Just as Edward Abbey suggested. Unfortunately, many other parks look more like drive-through theaters than wilderness.

One Man's Paradise

One Year Ago Today: #2

It’s been already a year that we stumbled into this little adventure at Purkey Pile?

We had 3 days off. The weather was iffy. We had heard about this remote airstrip near Mt. Russell. Bears, berries, and mountains right outside the tent. The location looked awesome on the map. Our packs were packed. It was all up to the pilot to give it a go. He needed a good 3 hour window and daylight to drop us at Purkey Pile and make it home safely.

There wasn’t much time left when the call came through: “We are going.” Relief, we are going! That relief lasted for a moment. As soon, as we were in the air, I wondered if this was a good idea. Take off was no problem, but as soon as we were in the air, rain drops kept hitting out windshield. No wipers? Our pilot seemed unfazed. Just a few hundred feet above the tundra, below the gray clouds we rumbled West. I could not see any major landmark. Kettle ponds, small creeks, once in a while a big river…

After an hour we circled a crooked gray opening in the tundra that looked like a 4-wheel road from the air… That was our strip? Indeed, Purkey Pile International. From the ground the airstrip looks more like a gravel road, still crooked, for Alaskan bush pilots no big deal.

We unload our backpacks, and wave the plane good-bye. Standing in the rain we try to get a handle on our whereabouts. The sky is gray, in all directions. Where are the mountains. We head towards an abandoned lodge, when we hear the sound of an ATV approaching. Mike, a friendly bear hunter and bush pilot, gives us the lay of the lands. “The lodge is off-limits. The owners are never there, but they don’t like trespassers.” He then points us to a trail that he has bulldozed into the hills. We gladly accept his advice and head into the gray. Blueberries all over the place. Some alders, but thanks to Mike’s trail, we make great progress. We only have to cross 2 creeks, less than knee-high, no big deal.

Before night fall we pick a flat camp site surrounded by blueberries. We have seen only one moose, no bears…


Next morning we wake up to an amazing sight… The storm is clearing, mist is still hanging around the mountains. Very slowly the clouds are climbing, revealing a fresh layer of snow on the mountains.


Too be continued…


Into the Wild

Good bye Denali

Tomorrow I will leave Alaska for Lost Wages. I will miss the splendid mountain views. Even from 100 miles away Denali is an impressive mountain range.

Denali from afar

Denali from afar

It was fascinating to see the mountain in different light, under clouds, above clouds, at various seasons.


Above the clouds

Curiously July is the worst month of the year to see the mountain because it is mostly covered in clouds during that time. That’s off course when most of the tourists come and some may come and go without seeing the great mountain. I revered the moments, when the mountain was partially hidden in clouds.

Denali and Wonderlake

Denali and Wonderlake

The alpenglow was outstanding, too, on a few occasions, with hues of green and blue in the shadows and a beaming orange glow.


So close and thus so far

I will miss those views, maybe not for long…

Into the Wild

One year ago to the day…

An adventure began. I planned on spending a summer in Denali National Park. I did not know what to expect, I had no expectations. Oh I was curious, but I did not comprehend the excitement of our coach when we loaded up the vans and headed for the Park. We would be the first and only group, besides the road maintenance workers and the rangers to drive along the 92 miles of dirt road from the park entrance to its very end at Kantishna. Then, I did not know the privilege of having this experience. And what a trip it was.

The message board at the Toklat gift shop on May 24, 2013..

The message board at the Toklat gift shop on May 24, 2013..

It was a gorgeous day. Blue sky, the sun brought the snow alive, the road was a dark band winding its way along rivers that had just cracked the ice. Breakup was in full progress. A late snowstorm had dumped a couple feet of snow in the higher elevations, giving the mountains a pristine look.

At mile 30, the ranger checked our placard and waved us through. All other vehicles had to turn around at this point. The road to Kantishna had opened the day before. It was muddy, wet, and just wide enough for one van in places. Our advance team had called that we should not stop in muddy places and under no circumstance drive on the shoulder. The road around Polychrome Pass reminded me of India. A single-lane winding mountain road without barriers. If you had a window seat on the “wrong” side pf the van, it like the view from a low-flying plane. Right down the ravines into the valley floors. We stopped for wildlife and at all the tourist attractions, which were deserted, even Polychrome Pass. Only months later, I started to appreciate the solitude of this special day.

Our coach had guided many years in Denali National Park and he was a walking encyclopedia… We learned about wolves, caribou, moose, and off course bears. It did not take long and we encountered our first bear. Two mountain bikers stood in the middle of the road making wild gestures. We stopped the vans, and learned from the bikers that they had spotted a grizzly near the road a couple hundred yards ahead. The bear had disappeared behind a curve and they were “uneasy” about finding out, where he went. We looked, couldn’t see a thing and decided to move on, slowly. And after a few turns, there he was. Digging on the side of the road for some roots or squirrels. We stopped the van, turned off the engine and gawked at the bear, who did not pay any attention to us. Good. He meandered around, inching towards our van. Stopping, digging. I am not sure he found anything edible, so he kept going getting closer and closer. Finally, he was less than 30 feet from the van and everybody snapped pictures through the windows, doors closed.

A hungry looking grizzly...

A hungry looking grizzly…

I held my breath, not sure about everybody else, but seeing a bear that close (from the safety of a van), was quite thrilling. The bear kept going and headed uphill away from us. We started the engine, only to realize that we had a flat tire. Oh wonderful, there goes the safety net. Getting out of the van with a bear roaming around is one thing, but we also had food for 30 staff and 2 weeks in the van. Naturally, the spare tire was underneath the food. So, we had to unload the food, change the tire, with a hungry grizzly around. Luckily, the bears in Denali are not familiar with human food, otherwise this may have been a different story. When all was set and done, we had a good story to tell. No harm done.

There is one more memory of that day, the moment I saw Denali for the first time up close, if you can call 20 miles up close. It feels up close, because that mountain is so huge. There are valleys and 5000 ft tall mountains in front of the massive formation of Denali. In other areas they would look like impressive mountains in itself. But then on top of those “hills”, Denali rises another 15,000 ft. I don’t know how to describe this. This has to be seen with our own eyes. It’s a jaw dropper.

Well, that’s it for today. It was a good day then, and it is a good day now.