The Caribou

Caren della Cioppa

As the Wein Airlines jet circled to land at Anchorage International Airport, I gazed out the window at the immense expanse of snow covered mountains that seemed to go on for eternity, then  turned to my mother in the seat next to me and said “I’m going home, quitting my job, selling everything I own, and moving here.”  It was early September 1982 when I decided to take that trip to Alaska with my mother, and the following March I found myself living in a Volkswagen bus heading north to start a new life.

After we had visited the usual tourist locations, including trips to Nome and Kotzebue, we arrived at Denali Park. That is where my mother and I parted company because I had planned a long trek in the Denali Park back country as the grand finale to my Alaska vacation.  When I arrived at the park I stopped at the ranger station and asked about hiking possibilities in the park.  Of all the suggestions they gave, the route from Wonder Lake to McGonagall Pass sounded the most intriguing.  I was well aware of that route because I had recently read the book The Ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley: a Narrative of the First Complete Ascent of the Highest Peak in North America) by Hudson Stuck. In the early days climbers didn’t hop on a Cessna 185 in Talkeetna and get whisked to the comfortable base camp at 7000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier, then walk the well traveled West Buttress Route in the finest of lightweight high-tech climbing gear from the 21st Century.  No, in those days it was a three month trek through untouched wilderness just to reach the base of the mountain where the climbing part would begin.  In 1913, 50-year old Hudson Stuck, Episcopal archdeacon of the Yukon, along with three men and two boys, approached the mountain from the north side and made the trek to the Muldrow Glacier via McGonagall Pass.  It was the thought of these rugged climbers making that incredible trek so long ago, that inspired me to attempt the 20-mile hike along the McKinley Bar Trail that follows their original route to the base of the Muldrow Glacier at McGonagall Pass.

When I asked about the route at the ranger station, the rangers were very enthusiastic and highly recommended the route.  They told me that there is a trail at least to the river, and that although I would have to cross the river, it was not terribly difficult.  As I look back on their advice, I marvel at how times have changed in 23 years.  At that time I was hiking alone, and had never even been to Alaska, let alone wandered solo in the backcountry of Denali Park in September when the nights were below freezing and winter was fast approaching.  That idea didn’t seem unusual enough to the rangers for them to even attempt to discourage me from the 40 mile round trip, 3800 foot elevation gain, trip I was planning.  But today, if you suggest making that trip, the rangers are full of horror stories, complete with multiple accounts of how major climbing expeditions have summited the mountain only to be washed away to their deaths upon arrival at the McKinley River crossing. I’m not sure if we are getting softer or getting wiser – perhaps a little of both!

So, with my very large backpack, I caught the first shuttle bus to Wonder Lake where the trail begins, and began my trek into the wilds of Denali. I remember feeling somewhat uneasy as I watched numerous gigantic grizzly bears feasting on the ripe blueberries that blanketed the tundra everywhere along the 88 mile bus route.  I had my bear bells, but wondered how effective they really would be at scaring off such enormous creatures?   

 It was still quite early in the afternoon so I decided to hike up the trail and get the river crossing behind me before sunset. The trail was very beautiful with tiny rippling streams and picturesque ponds in every direction.  The mosquitoes had called it quits for the winter, making for a very pleasant hiking experience. When I arrived at the river crossing after two hours of easy hiking, I was a bit intimidated by what I saw.  The McKinley River was not just one river like I had envisioned.  Instead it seemed to be more like a huge collection of rivers.  The river is about one mile wide at that point and branches off into what seemed like countless braided channels.  I realized that I would not be crossing just one river, but many branches of the same river.  But they looked fairly shallow and I was confident that I could accomplish this task relatively easily.

I changed to my tennis shoes and stepped slowly into the first branch.  That was easy, it was barely deeper than my shoes.  Some channels were deeper than others, but gradually I was able to cross each one without incident.  Seeing the bank on the south side, I felt a sense of relief as I ventured into the last channel.  It seemed just like the others at first, but suddenly, my left foot stepped into a very deep channel and the raging current immediately pulled me off my feet.  I found myself floating face down in the water and advancing downstream at lightning speed.  At first I was not even able to get my face out of the water and was sure I would drown quickly.  I found myself imagining my mother who was now on a plane out of Fairbanks, as she was given the grim news of my demise. 

My backpack was so heavy that the large pocket on top was forcing my head into the water. I was finally able to force my face out of the water and gasp for breath.  But I was still rocketing downstream.  I felt my legs go completely numb from the combination of being smashed on the passing rocks and the icy near freezing temperature of the glacial water.  I struggled, and gasped, and fought, but just when I figured I was lost forever, my backpack suddenly caught on the rocks along the shore.  This slowed me down long enough that I was able to roll over onto my back, and stop myself from becoming another disaster statistic of the Alaska wilderness.  I was able to meekly crawl out onto the shore.

I was now both soaking wet and freezing cold.  Fortunately my backpack was relatively waterproof and my sleeping bag and extra clothing had stayed dry.  My legs were an agonizing mass of bruises, but I was still able to walk and had the strength to set up my tiny bivouac tent, light my stove, and change into dry clothes.  It was obvious at that point that I would probably not be going any farther in the direction of McGonagall Pass, at least not on this trip. 

It was getting later and the cloud cover blocked the sun completely.  I discovered quickly that Alaska gets cold even in September.  After a hot meal I crawled into my sleeping bag feeling quite defeated.  I also found myself feeling increasingly worried about my ability to cross that river again, without a repeat of the day’s performance.  I had totally underestimated the power of that river.  I spent a very restless, sleepless night huddled in that tiny tent.  I took turns praying and worrying about the return river crossing, and the numerous grizzly bears I had seen along the road.  My tent was only about two feet high, and I pictured all sorts of animals tripping over it in the night and stepping on my helpless body. 

But I managed to make it through the night without becoming a meal for  the Alaska wildlife.  In the morning I felt a false sense of security inside my sleeping bag, but knew that eventually I was going to have to peek outside.  The trouble with my tent was that it was so small that I could only see straight out the front of the door.  To actually look towards my feet would require me to completely remove myself from the tent.  So gradually, I gathered up the courage to unzip the door.  The first thing I saw, to my dismay, was a fresh blanket of new snow.  It wasn’t deep, but it looked very cold indeed.  I looked straight ahead and to my relief, there was not a huge bear looking back at me.  I looked to the left and to the right, and once again felt I was alone.  Then, shivering, I extricated myself from the tent to look towards the foot end.  All I could see was an enormous brown fur body.  At that moment, it seemed to block the entire horizon.  But I was quickly relieved to discover that the body was not that of a bear, but of a stately lone caribou.  I was so shocked to see him that for some reason I stood there and said “hi.”  He just glanced at me then continued to nibble on the tundra vegetation beneath our feet. 

 I looked around my campsite and saw that the clouds had cleared and there stood the majestic Denali, covered with new snow, dominating the horizon.  It was breathtaking. After admiring the spectacular view, I proceeded to pack up my camping gear, stuff my sleeping bag, and take down my tent, while my caribou companion stood by quietly.  Once I  had all of my gear neatly in my pack, I pulled it onto my back and stared with trepidation at the mile-wide maze of braided river before me.  As if suddenly realizing that I was ready to go, the caribou began to walk up the river towards the bank of the first channel.  For lack of a better idea, I followed him.  He would occasionally glance in my direction as if beckoning me to follow.  Then he stepped into the water.  He seemed to have chosen a very good entry point, so I followed him into the channel.  Branch after branch of the river, the caribou found perfect entry points, and I continued to follow him.  His route was so much easier and the current much slower than my original one had been the day before.  He had obviously done this river crossing thousands of times.  Together, we crossed the entire McKinley River.  I reached the other side, safe and dry.  Then as if assured that I was safely across, he turned towards me a final time, nodded his head, then turned and ran briskly up the river and disappeared. 

I shouted “thank you” as he disappeared into the distance.

I then found the trail again and walked cautiously through the mud and snow, trying not to be too concerned about the fresh bear tracks that had not been there the day before.  I made my way back to the Wonder Lake campground and set up my tent again.  The next few days I just rode the bus and made friends with other campers, but I never forgot the beautiful caribou who helped me cross the river.  To this day I still consider the caribou to be my special totem, and feel a sense of reverence whenever I see one.


There in the Wonder Lake campground

I made a solemn vow to never eat caribou meat

as long as I live!   

All photography Caren della Cioppa