Published On: Tue, Nov 14th, 2017

Adventure included at Alaska’s legendary Denali National Park

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA—This place is called Dry Creek — and by all accounts, it’s generally pretty arid. But not today. Filled up by recent rains, before me runs a mighty river; dark water rushing fast downstream, just a bit of white froth on top.

Sitting on the edge of the last frontier, sandwiched between the famous peaks of Denali National Park and miles and miles of uninterrupted Alaskan wilderness, I tarry, just a moment, behind the wheel of my three-seater Yamaha Viking ATV, a tiny bit worried the tide will carry me away, vehicle and all. And then I gun it, throwing my natural caution into the winds that carry down from the Alaska Range, cruising straight into the wild waters ahead.

One of America’s most legendary national parks, home to grizzlies, wolves and moose, as well as North America’s tallest peak (which was once known as Mount McKinley), Denali delivers some amazing adventures.

Totalling more than 24,000 square kilometres — three-and-a-half times the size of Algonquin — this park is almost indescribably huge. I’m here for just a handful of days, seeking to find whatever awaits me in the wilderness and to maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of the park’s elusive, namesake peak.

I begin on the back of an ATV, traversing a network of trails right on the edge of Denali, inside a notch carved out from the park to sustain a mining operation that’s since moved further away.

She also recounts the Athabasca legend of the formation of the twin peaks of Denali, a story of bravery and loves lost (and found) that culminates in two frozen waves, which now form the north and south summits of the mountain, noting that they’re not often visible. (Locals say you can actually see the peaks 30 per cent of the time, or less.)

Soon afterward on this trip, I’m faced with the rushing waters of Dry Creek.

After taking a deep breath, I plunge into the river — its rain-swollen waters washing over the hood and leaking heavily through the windshield, soaking my pants.

Still drying out, we arrive at one final overlook, where Crisp tells us more about Christopher McCandless, the would-be outdoorsman who came to this area, ventured well off the beaten path and perished in an old, broken down bus, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s award winning book, Into the Wild (which subsequently inspired a successful film written and directed by Sean Penn).

Noting that the film crew came to this very spot to record sweeping panoramic shots, Crisp adds that the actual bus, Fairbanks City Transit System Bus number 142, dubbed the “magic bus,” sits right out there, just beyond a rise.

But still no views of the summit — it’s blocked by clouds.

Unbowed, and looking to learn more about McCandless’s exploits, I make my way to nearby 49th State, a brewery housed in a former maintenance barn once used to repair national park vehicles. Out front sits one of the replica buses built by the film crew and used in the movie.

“It’s a huge draw, even for people who aren’t into beer,” general manager Chad Kaina says as we sit at a long bar under a moose-antler chandelier.

He adds that Stampede Trail — where McCandless disappeared into the wild back in 1992 — is just up the road from here and dozens or even hundreds head there every summer, looking to follow in his footsteps more than 30 km into the woods.

It’s a foolhardy and potentially perilous quest, with at least one “pilgrim,” as the locals call them, being swept away to her death in the Teklanika River. “Every year, we have to rescue someone,” Kaina says, shaking his head.

After snapping a few photos of the bus out front, I decide to avoid Stampede Trail and the magic bus, instead visiting Denali’s Wilderness Access Center. Most visitors come into the deeper reaches of the park via a single road which is mostly unpaved. Given the park’s remote nature, access for private vehicles is strictly controlled by a permit system.

So, I take the Savage River Shuttle, a two-hour loop. Grabbing a seat near the front, I chat with the driver, James Davey, who talks about the wildlife. Once, he drove up on a mama bear grizzly. Protecting her two cubs, she made a bluff charge, directly at his bus. “It was like looking death in the face,” he remembers.

And this route sometimes showcases the peaks of Denali as well, although it’s a fickle mountain. Davey remembers that once he even drove nine descendants of the peak’s former namesake, former president William McKinley. But then — as now — it remained shrouded in cloud. “It was all socked in,” he says, with a small head shake.

Soon, we reach the end of the paved road, crossing Savage River and pulling into a small parking lot. Beyond that, the road turns to gravel, travelling as far as Kantishna Roadhouse, a 12-hour round-trip that winds through dramatic Polychrome Pass and past the unforgettable vistas at Wonder Lake. But all of that will have to wait for another time.

After a short walk and a chat with the rangers posted at a little roadside station, I reboard the bus with reluctance, ready for more, but resigned to the fact that the rest of it — including a sighting of the summit — will have to wait for next time.

Tim Johnson was a guest of Alaska Travel Industry Association, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go:

Get there: Air Canada flies direct into Anchorage from Vancouver. From there, you can reach Denali by road (between four and five hours) or train on the Alaska Railroad (which takes more than seven hours), where you can view the passing scenery from their Gold Star dome car, which features an open-air platform for better photographs (and a real sense of what’s outside).

Play:Denali ATV Adventures offers both two-and-a-half- and three-and-a-half-hour guided tours, driving up to 35 kilometres on four different styles of vehicle, from a traditional single-rider Yamaha Kodiak to a four-to-six rider Viking VI. The shorter tour — their most popular — starts at $ 115 (U.S.)

Drink (and eat): Founded in the village of Healy, right next to the park, 49th State Brewing Co. serves up a wide variety of signature brews, all made with water from local glaciers, as well as top-shelf pub grub, and in the summer hosts festivals in its rambling outdoor beer gardens.

Do your research:travelalaska.com.

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Adventure included at Alaska’s legendary Denali National Park