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A glance behind the business of Denali National Park

The driver introduced herself as Cheryl. She dropped me off earlier in the day and was the one who tipped me off to the presence of the trio of bears in the area. Cheryl was a school bus driver in Milwaukee who left her husband and sons behind for the last fourteen summers to drive a Denali shuttle bus. The bus is free for the first thirteen miles of park road and runs in hour loops between the campgrounds, visitor center, WAC, ranger station, and Savage River Checkpoint.

“I came up for the first year figuring I would try it once,” she told me. “I’ve been hooked ever since. She told me about a friend of hers who she was going to Wonder Lake after her shift to find some bears. “He knows how to find them,” she spoke of her friend with a girlish reverence. “I see bears every time I go out with him.” The wilderness evoked clandestine romances among park employees of all ages. The warm summer days that seemed to never end brought one back to the long, carefree days of childhood summers and first loves.

“Whenever I go back to the city after my summers up here,” she said, “the colors always seem too bright—almost unreal.” She looked from side to side at the wild expanse. “I could live in the greenness up here forever.” 

I told her about the workers I had met.

“You should come up next summer,” She said. “I bet you’d like interp.” I asked what it was and she told me about the interpretive trail workers who portray themselves as pioneering gold rushers and wizened fur trappers of old. She told me about her boys back home. We talked about the kids that work at the park and compared them to the lascivious wildlife.

“Hope to see you next year,” she said when I got off the bus at the Riley Creek Campground.
That night I ate bacon for dinner, fried over my propane camping stove.  I sat at the site’s picnic table with red squirrels chirping and jumping onto the table to beg for scraps. A father and son set up camp at a site nearby beyond a few spruce trees. A squirrel ran away with a slice of bacon. His red fur rippled and he arched his back when he whistled at me.  Then he was gone.

At eleven I made my way to the spike. The sun was flirting with the horizon.

At the Spike I found Rhino at his usual post— by the pool table beating any and all comers. Caitlyn was on the porch with some familiar faces.

“Gezellig,” she said.

“Ja, Gezelligheid.” Gezelligheid doesn’t translate from Dutch, but it most closely means cozy in a social sort of way.

Soon Rhino joined us after tiring of victory at the pool table. “So are you making the Bake Mistake?” he asked.

“The what?” I asked.

“The Salmon Bake, over in Glitter Gulch. There’s a band playing tonight. Chris is driving. You can catch a ride with us.”

Chris was a park ranger. I met him a few nights before when I was camping at the Savage River Campground. He had given what the park calls a ‘campfire talk’, free lectures given by rangers on various topics from wildlife to geography. His talk was about the gear haul. Every year the park service sends a few rangers on a dogsled expedition to the Mogul glacier. Their mission was to drop off gear for the climbers that attempt Denali’s summit in the spring. The climbing season for Denali is from March to May. Fewer than ten ascents have succeeded in the winter months when temperatures drop to a hundred degrees below zero on the mountain called the tall one by the Athabaskan natives. Only fifty percent of in-season climbers reach the summit of the tallest peak in North America. Because no motorized vehicles are permitted in the park, the journey takes six weeks. Temperatures rarely crept above zero degrees. For the dogs, this weather was perfect. Alaskan huskies are most comfortable at ten degrees below zero. For humans, much high quality gear was required to sustain life. The air on the August night he gave the talk, in almost impossible contrast, was eighty degrees.

Chris and one other companion spent six weeks in the wilderness with sixteen dogs, waking up at six o’clock each morning to care for the team that was their lifeline. Emerging from their wood stove heated tent, he and the other ranger found sixteen mounds of snow.

“The best moment of the whole trip,” Chris told me, “was one night when me and the other ranger came out of the tent to see the Northern Lights. I said something about how good the last weeks of isolation in nature had been. As soon as I finished the sentence a shooting star blazed across a full moon with the lights dancing behind. It was perfect.”

When he and his companion finally reached the Mogul glacier after six weeks of traversing tundra, like solitary children in a sprawling wilderness, they sledded down the massive slope above the glacier.  A photo showed Chris on his stomach flying over the white domain. The dogs waited patiently for their playful masters to return.

Later, Chris told me about a bear that charged him three times while he was on a summer hike. The last charge, he claimed, had been thwarted when he smacked the bear in the nose with his ranger hat. I didn’t believe him, so he showed me a picture. The four by six Kodak showed a Grizzly in full stride only feet away from Chris. The image was blurred. The friend who had taken the picture was obviously shaking when he snapped the shot.

Chris didn’t run. He raised his arms above his head and waved them, making himself look big. By the third charge, the bear stood on its hind legs in front of him— that’s when Chris resorted to the formidable weapon that was his Smokey the Bear ranger hat— the bear cowered. He kicked rocks at the brown behemoth. When the bear looked back at him menacingly Chris said, “Fuck off bear.”

It was one a.m. and a trace of orange sunlight was glowing at the edge of the horizon, sending a darkening streak of light across the night sky from the polar west. Caitlyn, Rhino, Rick and I climbed into Chris’s jeep and soon were cruising along the park road, past the Wilderness Access Center, the new Visitor’s center, Riley Creek Campground and the mercantile, and finally to the Park’s highway. Chris turned the vehicle sharply onto the road and accelerated. He had already had a few beers at the Spike. Chris was the only ranger I encountered socializing among the menial park employees.

We pulled into the parking lot of the Salmon Bake with a final shot of orange light penetrating the darkness. The Bake is a bar and restaurant at the center of Glitter Gulch—a small enclave of civilization that consists of a gas station, a few restaurants, a couple of hotels, and one traffic light.

We navigated past the bouncer checking I.D.’s: mine from Massachusetts, Rhino’s from Michigan, Rick’s from Iowa, Caitlyn’s from California. We walked into the bar where the band was getting ready to play downstairs. We went upstairs where Scott was smiling and talking to the bartender. He turned around with a pitcher of beer. “You want a beer?” he asked. I accepted and he handed me a glass. By the time he was done pouring beers there was less than a half glass left in the pitcher for himself.

Rhino introduced me to the crowd as a tourist. I was greeted as one of the first tourists to infiltrate their crowd all season.

“I’ll tell you a joke,” said a wizened older man with a gray mustache, “so that you won’t be such a Chechako. It’s an Indian word for rookie.” I nodded. “How do you know when you’ve past Denali in the dark?” I said I didn’t know. “The toilet won’t flush.” He paused and studied my reaction, “Do you get it?”

“Yes,” I lied and laughed.

“Well you’re doing pretty ground because it takes most people a few months to figure that one out.”
When the band began to play we went downstairs. Rhino bought me a Knob Creek on the rocks. “When I saw you on the bus I thought, ‘There’s a guy who needs to know what really goes on here.’” I thanked him and told him I was glad he had invited me into the community that existed behind the tourist tumult of Denali.

The musical entertainment was a jazz band. An assortment of revelers danced on the small floor in front of the stage.  A low ceiling was supported by thick wooden beams that divided the dancers from the wallflowers sitting at tables on the periphery. The walls were hung with tapestries of wolves and moose. Chris was sitting at a table nearby talking to someone. Almost everyone here worked in or around Denali National Park. Rhino jumped onto the dance floor, gyrating and flailing his arm, the one that wasn’t employed by his glass of whiskey. He took occasional head tilting draughts from his glass.

Once in awhile we walked outside to the picnic tables where people smoked cigarettes. We were surrounded by park workers and Rhino knew them all. I talked to a few I recognized. There were bus drivers and bus washers, WAC cashiers and managers, mechanics, campground cleanup crew, interpretive actors, and ecologists working as guides on the natural history tour. Few had lived in Alaska their whole lives and those who had were revered like elder members of a commune.

After a few more whiskeys, the band finished their first set. The three musicians put down their instruments and went to the bar upstairs where they let people buy them drinks. The band was from Minnesota and was in Alaska for the first time.

Chris was nowhere to be found. He had left without our noticing. The Bake ran a sporadic shuttle to the park, Rhino told me, “There was one an hour ago. I think the next one is at four”.

By four o’clock the band had finished its last set and I had drunk too many Rhino supplied Knob Creeks. I had danced, if you could call it that, for most of the last hour. The morning sun broke above the horizon and was casting light through a gray miasma of smoke from forest fires a hundred miles away. The gray green mountains in the distance looked barren in the haze.

Various attempts by Rhino to find a ride back to the park had failed and we were resigned to the shuttle; it was no more than a van with an eight person capacity. When I attempted to get in there were already upwards of twenty people onboard. Rhino opened the rear doors and dove over the seats into the laps of drunkards. He was greeted with shouts of protest. Judging by the response he received, I opted for the side door. There was no room to sit, not even on laps, so I stood on the interior step of the sliding door, turned sideways, and slid the door shut behind me. I hunched my head to accommodate the curve of the roof.  People were packed in, seeming to defy the laws of anatomy. I moved my leg to take pressure of my squeezed foot and heard a female voice say ‘owe’. I looked down and saw that my knee had jabbed into the head of a girl who was under the first bench seat. Above her a row of eight people sat with a few others on their laps. As the van pulled away from the Salmon Bake, the pungent aroma of marijuana wafted into my nostrils.

When I thought we were near the Riley Creek campground I asked the driver to let me out. One other rider extracted himself from the knot. “Later, Rhino,” I shouted.

“Peace man!” came the muffled shout from a remote region in the back.

I walked towards the camp with the other rider. “I work in forest maintenance,” he told me. He recounted a bear story from a hike earlier in the day.

“There was a big mama and her babies. There was only one tree about a hundred yards away that I thought I could make it to if she decided to charge me.” All bears can climb trees. Apparently he rejected the whack-bear-with-hat approach that Chris had used to thwart his bear. The bear paid him no mind though and the tree remained unclimbed by neither man nor beast.

I said good-bye as we reached the campground. “Damn, you really are staying at Riley Creek.” He said.  “I thought you worked here.”

“Nope, just visiting” I said.

“You should come back next summer, man. There are tons of jobs up here. You’ll get one easily.”

I told him I was thinking about it. It was a good life that the summer people lived here on the other side of the tourist bubble, far from home. He shook my hand as we parted under the morning sun. In his eyes, like in those of so many others I had met, I saw an addiction to Denali. Already, I felt enticed to join the ranks.

The workers here made a sort of  pact with the park—in exchange for a summer of work, they got a summer of life in Alaska, a place to drink with people they knew, and the chance to see things that some only ever dream of and say someday.

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