@ The Outset
Photograph: A man in a beanie and a jacket, Joey, holds binoculars on the orange and red tundra. The sky is a uniform white overcast; brown hills roll in the distance.

Past as Prologue: Denali

Note: this blog post was written in March of 2018 and backdated to the date of the hike. It is based on contemporaneous notes and written in hindsight.

My boots were still wet.

It had been two days since my traveling companions and I had entered the wilderness, and there were other issues to be dealt with in this moment: the icy rainstorm that had turned to snow overnight; the immediate responsibilities of breaking camp and cooking breakfast on the camp stove; food which itself was fuel for the hike through the unmarked tundra that we were about to undertake. But that was all dependent on having shoes that could carry my feet that far, and just then, my boots were still wet.

A green school bus in Denali National Park livery had dropped my traveling companions and me on the side of the road on Sunday. We’d made our way through the dry dwarf shrubs, crossed the Savage River and made base camp on the mossy crest of a small hill. That hill had been our home for barely a day when the crisp fall weather gave way to rain and a wintry mix. It was only then that I discovered my once-waterproof boots now leaked like a pair of cloth sneakers, and spending night two in 36° cold had done little to improve their state.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Background

This is a blog about my hiking story, and that’s kind of a funny thing: I’m writing about an activity that more or less amounts to walking around. Sometimes I walk in circles; sometimes I walk in a straight line. Sometimes I walk so far that I have to stop and sleep wherever I have walked; other times, I’ve walked so far that it will be days of walking before I see home. Sometimes I walk in the heat; sometimes I walk in the cold. Some people fly airplanes; some people sail boats. Mine is a story of the places I can reach on two feet.

Every story has a beginning, but Denali is not where my hiking story begins. In a way it started decades ago, with a photograph of my grandfather hiking the South Rim of the Chisos Basin in Texas’ Big Bend National Park. The photo was taken sometime in the 1950s, after he returned from the Korean War. It hung in the hallway of my childhood home for years. My sister and I would come to assign it something of an iconic status in family lore. That time Grandpa hiked the South Rim Trail.

An old photograph: a man clad in khaki stands on the rocky South Rim in Big Bend, one foot up on a small boulder. He points toward the right of the frame, gesturing at distant mountains in the background.

Family photograph

In a sense then it seems inevitable that my parents would bring us out on the trail, back when I could count my age on two outstretched hands. Some of my earliest memories were of hiking in the Grapevine Hills of Big Bend, my parents driving over dirt roads to trailheads in a rented minivan that was in no way up to the task. Over the years we returned many times, hiking the Lost Mine Trail, Ernst Tinaja, the Window. We visited other national parks to be sure — Carlsbad Caverns, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Grand Canyon — but none loomed larger in my experience than Big Bend. It was just before one of those trips, probably late in high school, when my parents purchased for me a pair of Timberland hiking boots — the very hiking boots that now sat on the brink of freezing in the vestibule of my tent in the Denali wilderness.

Until this moment, I had only ever hiked day hikes; and even then, only ever on a trail. I had never wandered into the wilderness. Certainly I had never found myself out in the bush, dusted in snow, with a glacier-fed river between me and the closest thing resembling civilization: a partially paved road. Maybe that’s why in hindsight it feels as though my hiking story turned on this moment: for all the long walks I had taken up ‘til then, this was different, new, something I hadn’t known possible.

The Hike

Photograph: a female park ranger, left, speaks a woman in a knit beanie. Both are kneeling before a large map of Denali National Park, the main road highlighted in black and yellow. A tall man in a blue hoodie, Ian, leans in on the right side of the frame, looking at the map.

Ian examines a wall-sized map of the park in the Backcountry Information Center.

Denali is different from most other national parks, in a couple of ways. For one thing: at 4.7 million square miles, it dwarfs most other parks. Only two others are larger, both in Alaska themselves. But more than by quantity of wilderness, Denali sets itself apart with another quality: aside from a few nature walks near the entrance, there are next to no developed trails. The vast majority of the wilderness is accessible only by hiking through the backcountry. A 90-mile park road runs west from the visitors’ center. Beyond the first 15 miles, it remains unpaved: dirt and gravel that is closed to outside traffic.

My traveling companions and I were mostly aware of these constraints when we arrived. I was in Alaska with two people in that moment: my good friend Ian, who had spent his summer working a cruise ship out of Seattle and Juneau, and his friend Anna, who had flown up from the warmer environs of San Diego. For my part I had come from New York City, on a two leg Delta flight that had taken me to Anchorage via Atlanta. The in-flight entertainment system was advertising a documentary on wild bears.

(I chose not to partake, incidentally. Instead I opted to read The Grizzly Maze, Nick Jans’s book about Timothy Treadwell, who died an infamous death after misunderstanding his relationship with Alaska’s native grizzlies. Life Pro Tip: keep your relationship with bears long-distance in nature.)

Photograph: Rolling gray clouds block out any hint of blue sky above the pine trees and mountains near the Denali National Park visitors’ center.

A view from the parking lot at the Denali National Park visitors center.

Ian, Anna and I had been in Alaska for several days before we made it to the Denali Wilderness. In that time we had spent a morning in an Anchorage hotel, sorting through gear, and an afternoon in the Anchorage REI, procuring more gear (at top of mind: bear spray). We spent a couple of days testing our gear: first camping in the rain at a state park on the outskirts of Willow, then canoeing over a half dozen lakes to a remote, one-room, unelectrified cabin. Anna filtered lake water with a hand-pumped filter, and I burned chorizo and couscous on Ian’s backpacking stove.

Finally we canoed back to civilization, if briefly; drove the three hours up the road past Trapper Creek and Cantwell to the gates of Denali National Park, where we hoped to claim a spot in the wild.

Day One

As bus depots go, Denali’s might have the most evocative name: the Wilderness Access Center. Beyond mile 15, these buses are the only way into or out of the park. Some are narrated tour buses, with views and wildlife sightings from the windows; others are transit buses that drop visitors off to hike or camp in the wilderness. That was our plan. But before any of that, we needed to visit the Backcountry Information Center, a few dozen feet away. A small building with a wooden deck out front, what struck me immediately was the backpacks. When we arrived there were at least a dozen, all splayed out on the porch, each one belonging to a hiker inside, someone making their own plans.

We dropped our packs and headed into the cramped office.

Denali, for those here for planning details, is broken up into more than 80 zones, or “backcountry units”. A large whiteboard behind the backcountry desk tracks unit availability for the next few days. In some cases, a unit with four people in thirty thousand acres will be considered at capacity. You cannot reserve these units in advance; all reservations happen in person, at the desk.

Photograph: a bearded park ranger wearing glasses and a National Park Service baseball cap speaks to someone just out of frame. Next to him, the woman park ranger from before works on paperwork for another hiker. Behind them both, a large whiteboard displays a table titled “Denali Backcountry Unit Availability”; it lists units and their capacities for the next five days. Most units show numbers like 4, 6 and 8; in a few, the word “Full" has been written in red.

Park rangers handle paperwork for a line of backcountry campers.

Approximately half of Denali’s backcountry units have these quotas, and they apply to anyone camping in the unit: your group of six, for example, won’t be allowed to claim a unit that only allows four campers per night, but your group of three would not be allowed in that same unit if a group of two had already claimed it. Moreover, some units are more than a day’s hike from the road; if you plan to hike to a far-flung region of the park, you may need to set up camp in one unit on night one, and hike to the second unit on night two.

In short, it pays to have a plan, but it also pays to be flexible. And to show up early.

We flipped through binders full of units, usually about one sheet per, each filled with notes about the terrain, the difficulty. Some units had advisories: access primarily by aircraft; excellent grizzly bear habitat; glacier crossing experience required. A few units warned prospective visitors not to drink the water in the area, even with filtration. Alaska’s history in mining predates its history as a state, and that legacy lives on in the form of runoff from heavy metals that no kit from the Anchorage REI can remove.

As Ian discussed the options with a park ranger, standing in front of an oversized map of the Denali wilderness, I filled out a form with information about my backcountry experience — or more accurately, my lack of any. It struck me that for all my long walks over the years, I was a baby in the backcountry. I was wearing denim jeans, and packing in a long-sleeved gift-shop T-shirt with a Denali logo; not nearly the right attire for a three day hike through cold, wet tundra. My sense of direction, to this point, was limited to “forward” and “backward” on the trail. My list of recipes for camp cooking? Instant oats, instant coffee, and whatever else I had burned on the camp stove so far.

Luckily Ian had more experience under his belt; we would both lean heavily on his outdoor skills in the coming days.

Illustration: a map of unit four in the Denali Wilderness, depicting the Savage River, mountains to the north of the park road and hills to the south. A short red line indicates our proposed river crossing, but no certain route.

After some discussion, we decided on Unit Four: the Upper Savage River as the site for our trek. Paid for a survey map of the surrounding hills, which Ian stuffed into a clear plastic dry bag, the outline of the unit drawn roughly in yellow highlighter. At that, we found ourselves underway, walking toward the shuttle that would take us west to the Savage River, where we hoped to leave the trail and find a place to call home, or at least to call camp.

The Plan

  • Cross the Savage River
  • Make camp at least three miles from the road

A late start to day one: it was 3:15 in the afternoon by the time we disembarked, but owing to the high latitude, the sun would not set for another six hours. The roadside stop featured a few benches and a short nature walk, which we followed for a few hundred feet. But our destiny lay beyond the trail.

Photograph: Ian, carrying an orange backpack and wearing a red beanie, stands in center frame in the brown and orange tundra, framed by two skinny evergreen trees. Fluffy gray-white clouds reveal hints of pink and blue in the sky. Ian gestures to the left with a flat, outstretched hand.

Ian gestures at a spot on the horizon.

In my hiking experiences to this point, the guidance had always been clear: you stay on the trail. In areas with developed trail systems, wandering off-trail can erode the surrounding environment, destroying the very pristine nature you had set out to enjoy. The goal of staying on-trail is to concentrate human impact on that trail, and in so doing, keep that impact away from the surrounding areas.

In Denali, the guidance is as far the opposite as one can imagine, yet counterintuitively, the goal is the same. When hiking in the backcountry, it’s better to avoid any paths you find. The idea here is to dilute the impact of any one person or group. In fact, out here, it’s preferable to have your party travel in a broad, spread out formation, rather than walk in single-file. In this way the vast backcountry can absorb your impact; when it’s just you, it’s as though you were never there.

Once off the trail, we quickly found flowing water. The stream was wide, but shallow; we commented to each other how placid it looked. “I can see the bottom,” I said.

“Yeah,” Ian replied. “I wonder if this is the river.”

We followed the flowing water for a while before deciding that whatever it was, we needed to cross it. After some brief back-and-forth about the wisdom of crossing in boots — “If you chance it, you have wet boots and wet socks for the next three days,” Ian warned — we removed our footwear and crossed the gravel creekbed easily in bare feet. I was feeling quite accomplished, not quite realizing that we had not yet crossed the Savage River.

Photograph: Anna, bent over, adjusts her shoelaces just out of frame. Ian, on the right, stares forward at the Savage River, dark and fast-flowing under a cotton candy sky.

Anna and Ian at the Savage River.

When we finally did find the Savage River, it looked too deep for us to safely cross with our packs. It helps, we had been told, to find a wider, shallower spot to cross a stream; where the river is forced over a wider area, it shallows out — “becomes braided” is the term — meaning less water rushing against your legs, less risk of getting swept away. So we followed the riverbank for a few hundred feet more, eventually settling on a spot to make our crossing.

The cold water felt refreshing against bare feet, and once across, we took our time fitting dry socks and dry boots on to feet dried with camp towels. The water crossings now complete, we fanned out over the brushy tundra, seeking a flat spot to make our camp.

Backcountry regulations in Denali required that we set our tents at least a quarter mile from the road. If that were the only requirement, we would have been home by now, cooking a hot dinner around the camp stove. But the regulations also required that we camp out of view of the main road, and that was a taller order. Heading south from the dropoff in unit four, the terrain slopes gently up for about three miles, rendering almost all of that area visible from the road. We would have to make our way at least that far in order to camp out of sight.

As the afternoon wore on and the white overcast sky gave way to darker and darker shades of gray, we came upon the perfect spot: flat and mostly clear of shrubs, situated just beyond the crest of a small hill that would shield it from view. The only problem: three moose, what looked like a family, lingering on a hillside a few hundred feet away. Far enough to admire safely, but close enough to pose a risk if they perceived us as a threat.

Photograph: A female moose, seen from afar, looks at the camera from a stand of trees on a hillside.

Photo: Anna Madsen

Moose, partially obscured by trees, wander the hillside near our prospective camp site.

Bears, we were told, are fairly easy to deal with. Mainly because they don’t actually like humans that much. They don’t like the way our voices sound, and they don’t like the way our bodies smell. They definitely don’t like large groups of humans; if you travel in a group and make plenty of noise, they’re likely to give you as wide a berth as you want to give them.

The guidance on moose was more complex. For one thing, they aren’t as smart as bears, which makes them unpredictable. And while they are not predators, they are highly territorial; where one never runs from a bear, fleeing a charging moose is the smart move. If you’re too close, we were told, your best course of action is to hide behind a large tree — mostly to put something between you and him if he charges, but also because he’s likely dumb enough to forget that you exist once you’re hidden from view.

Alas, there were no large trees on our small patch of tundra.

So we waited, watching the moose, not setting up camp just in case we needed to get away. As the minutes ticked by, either the sun dropped below the horizon or the clouds thickened significantly; it could not have been later than 7:30, yet the tundra was bathed in darkening twilight tones. For a moment, one of the moose made a move toward us; we stood up, began to back away. But then, as lazily as they had made their move toward, they made their move away; lumbered to the other side of the hill, leaving us to make our camp by the light of headlamps after sunset.

Day Two

I wish I could write something profound about my first time waking up in this remote wilderness. But the thing that stands out most about that morning was the blueberries.

Photograph: The travelers eat breakfast. Ian, seated on the ground at right, looks at Anna, left, kneeling on the mossy ground. Between them, a camp stove, and oatmeal mixed with fresh blueberries.

Anna and Ian eating breakfast at our cook site.

A dense patch of fog had rolled over the surrounding hills, and as we walked the hundred or so feet from our camp site to our cook site, the bright color of wild blueberries stood out against the otherwise gray ground cover. We made a quick breakfast of instant oats and these foraged berries, before setting out for the day’s expedition. An oldtimer on the bus had told us of a long-forgotten wagon trail that ran parallel to the Savage River. Ian had noted the location on our map with a couple of black pen marks.

The Plan

  • Hike to a farther point along the Savage River
  • Locate the old wagon trail
  • Return to camp before sundown

Setting out, I felt acutely aware of my lack of navigational skills; as our camp site receded from view, I asked Ian how we could know where we were going. “Dead reckoning,” he said, was enough. With a clear view of a hill we recognized on the map, and the knowledge that the river was between us and that hill, all we had to do was walk in a straight line.

Walking in a straight line, of course, was no mean feat; where some terrain was mossy and barely ankle-high, more often than not our “straight line” path cut through thick scrub or a stand of trees. We were pushing our way through the tundra at maybe one mile per hour, listening for the telltale sound of rushing water that would signal the Savage River.

We were also calling out, to no one in particular, the phrase “Hey, Bear.” I will spoil this plot point for you now: despite all the talk of bears up to now, no bears showed up on this trek, likely owing to the care we took in keeping them away. Ian had the bear spray, of course: a canister of potent capsaicin solution designed to be deployed as a last resort. But a ranger had reminded us just how last a resort it was: the spray is designed to reach 30 feet, which is much closer than you ever want to be. We want bears 300 yards away, or three American football fields. The point of the game is to try not to meet a bear on the ten-yard line.

So we took precautions. We packed our food in a bear resistant food container, stashed at some distance from our camp. We avoided wearing perfumes and deodorants, which bears are sometimes attracted to. We traveled as a group of three, itself an effective deterrent against unwanted encounters. And we called out phrases into the wilderness: “Hey bear!” “Just passing through your forest.” “Don’t mind us.” Our voices, too, served a reminder to the bears: humans are out here, and our ancestors hunted your ancestors. You don’t want a piece of us.

Anyway, by the time our calls of “hey bear” met the sound of the flowing Savage River, a third sound had joined the chorus: a steady, soaking rain.

Photograph: Water beads and streams down Joey’s black hooded rain jacket as he walks through the sparse green and yellow forest.

Joey walks through the rain near the Savage River.

We paused by the riverbank and, shielding ourselves from the rain with a large blue tarp, ate a lunch of apples and fennel sausage. Heading back to camp, we could feel the temperature dropping and see the rain turning to a wintry mix. Trudging through the now icy tundra, we could see snow collecting on the tops of the hills in the distance. We mused about whether we were witnessing the first snowfall of the Denali winter.

It was at about this time that I realized my feet were wet.

We eventually located the promised trail, though it was difficult to tell whether it was a wagon trail or a game trail; at one point, we looked down to see the remains of a large and long-dead mammal, its bones picked clean. Breaking off from the wagon-cum-game trail, we reckoned our camp site was a few degrees west of our position along the riverbank. So we walked, eventually spotting our tents on the hillside, a light dusting of wet snow on the whole of the camp site.

By now everyone’s faces were stung by cold. Wordlessly we made our plan: to enter tents, strip our rain gear and get into warm down sleeping bags as quickly as possible. The warming up turned into falling asleep, wild fever dreams accompanying the quick rise in body temperature.

The stressful call to dinner came late after dark. Ian and Anna had secured the tarp at our cook site; I joined them in sandals, feet wet and freezing, preserving my last dry pair of socks for the walk out in the morning. Cold and wet and tense, we shared a rehydrated backpacking meal of chicken and rice as the wet snow battered the blue tarp. Exchanged some terse words about hurrying up and the cold, before trekking directly back to our tents.

I did not write much else in my notepad that night, but I did record that the weather outside was “relentless”.

Day Three

After a couple of days around the camp site, I felt I had a pretty good mental model of what to expect outside my tent: the layout of our sleeping, cooking and food storage spots, the view of the mountains from my vestibule. Peeking out of my tent on day three, I barely recognized the scene before me.

Photograph: the camp site by morning. An inch and a half of snow has collected on the tent's rain fly, and the tundra has been painted white in all directions. Snow caps the peaks of hills in the middle distance.

The camp site by morning.

Snow had collected in a thick layer on the tents; the whole tundra was now coated in a layer of white. I got the sense that in three days, we had seen all the weather: a crisp fall day; a sudden rain shower; the first snow of winter. The scene was beautiful. But we had work to do.

I stuffed strips of plastic into my damp boots, torn remnants of a hotel laundry bag that had been holding my dry clothes. I broke down my tent while Anna collected the bear canister. Packed my backpack lopsided — “there’s no need for perfection”, Ian reminded — before we all triple-checked the camp site to make sure we had left no trace. All packed up, we headed out, dead reckoning back toward the river.

The Plan

  • Hike back to the Savage River
  • Follow the riverbank to a safe crossing point
  • Return to civilization

Rather than hike the same route that we had taken on day one — through the open tundra and across two water crossings — Ian set us on a new plan. If we simply made our way back to the river, which by now should be easy, we could follow the riverbank and find a reasonable crossing point. This was the goal as we headed eastward, the crisp crunching sound of breaking ice accompanying every footfall.

My laundry bag patch job had, of course, proven useless; my boots were waterlogged almost immediately, socks soaked through in the melted slush. All I could do was keep moving, to at least keep my body temperature up.

Photograph: Photograph: Against a backdrop of freshly fallen snow, Ian carries a large red-orange backpack into the tundra.

Ian carries his backpack through the snowy tundra.

Ian’s plan, on the other hand, worked out well: soon enough we found ourselves at the river, where we hung a left, away from the hills, north toward the park road, seeking a safe spot for crossing. The river seemed deeper and stronger than the day before — no surprise given the recent rainfall, but worrisome nonetheless. Eventually we located what looked like the same spot we had crossed two days prior. The difference was striking: what had been a sandbar in the middle of the stream now shimmered under water, to say nothing of the dusting of snow all along the riverbank.

“Just know,” Ian said as we stripped off our boots and socks, “this is going to really suck. Your feet are going to get really cold.”

We made the crossings barefoot once again, pants rolled up to knees to keep them from becoming soaked in the freezing water.

Photograph: Ian, balancing himself with arms outstretched, crosses a section of river. Anna stands on the riverbank at the right side of the frame, holding her hiking boots. A light dusting of snow coats the ground at her feet.

The last water crossing.

“Joey!”, Ian called out as I stepped from water into mud. “Tarp!”

I ran the tarp over, and we set it out on the muddy riverbank. Anna warmed her feet with a disposable hand warmer; I put my damp socks on my damp feet. When it seemed like we were lingering, Ian clapped his hands: “C’mon, let’s go!”

And just like that, it was over. A half mile walk and we found ourselves on a gravel trail. Benches. Interpretive signs. Asphalt. The bus stop.

Out of the wild.

Photograph: Ian rubs his hands together in the black vinyl seat of the shuttle bus, hunched forward in shadow, his forehead pressed against the seat in front of him. Outside, skinny evergreen trees speed by under the solid overcast sky.

Ian rubs his hands together on the ride back to the park entrance.

Aftermath

The day after this hike, we met up with friends of Ian’s from the ship; made our way to a public-use cabin on the shore of Byers Lake, just north of Talkeetna. I scribbled notes in my notepad as quickly as I could, while the details were still fresh in mind. I knew the moment we had left Denali that I needed to get back there. I also knew that I lacked the experience necessary to embark on a trip like that alone, much less to lead my friends into the backcountry like Ian had.

I needed the skills, and within days of this trip, I had already hatched a plan: I would undertake backpacking trips near my city, and through these trips, I would learn those skills. I’m perhaps a bit late in writing about these travels; the Denali trek took place in late 2014, and the first hike in this new plan happened three years ago as I write this. But then, I didn’t know how this story would end at the outset. I didn’t know what I didn’t yet know; didn’t know what I would learn, the mistakes I would make, the choices, poor and wise, that would shape my hiking story.

So that’s what this blog is about: the trips I took to learn the skills, and the stories that happened along the way. They will not all be heroic stories; in fact most of them involve some sort of screwup. But from those mistakes and miscalculations, I learned to make better choices, to anticipate the challenges I would face, and to better prepare for the next ones.

I hope that I can write these stories in a way that conveys those lessons, and I hope that you’ll join me on the journey.

A few weeks after this Alaska trip, Ian would return to New York briefly before moving to Colorado. Before his departure, he would leave me a pile of his gear as a starter kit for my next adventure. It would be five months before I could put that gear to use.

But that’s a story for next time. @

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A headshot of the author.

Joey Castillo

Texan by birthright, Joey now lives in Brooklyn, NY with four roommates and his truck, Ghost. He likes backcountry hikes, cold weather camping, dark starry nights and hot camp stove coffee in the morning. He’s carried a national parks passport since 1996.