Friday, March 8, 2013

In the Shadow of Denali

In the mid 1960’s, before the Parks Highway connected Anchorage and Fairbanks, a trip to Mt. McKinley National Park took a full day, a portion of which included 165 miles of rough gravel road just to reach the edge of the Park.  From there it was another 33 miles of gravel road to reach the Igloo Creek Ranger cabin where I spent two summers.  Back then relatively few visitors made it to McKinley.  Those that made the trek didn’t need to take a shuttle bus into the park nor did they need permits to go backpacking.  We were so much freer back then.

In June, 1966, two of us indulged in that freedom to set off for an overnight hike in the shadow of Mt. McKinley -- more affectionately known as Denali.  After an icy crossing of a glacial river and a frigid night camped on the rock-strewn Muldrow Glacier we were ready to head up.  Our hearts swelled with anticipation.  I was a mountain hiker not a mountain climber yet there we were on a ascent with no major obstacles remaining between us and the great one -- unless you count more glaciers filled with crevasses, rock walls and avalanches.  The few climbers who attack Denali from the north side “hike” up Muldrow Glacier so we were off that track -- explorers in uncharted territory.  All we had to do was ascend the ridge and there it would be -- a full frontal view of the Great One.”  

Excitedly we almost floated up the next ridges we encountered.  Tundra vegetation gave way to barren slopes as we climbed higher and higher while the top of the ridge continued to outpace us.  It was an area seemingly devoid of all wildlife except a few birds such as snow buntings when -- we heard something scrambling on the rocks above us.  What the?   Like something out of a dream, we found ourselves staring up at a flock of Dall Sheep ewes back lit by the sun.  This wasn’t sheep country.  What were they doing at this elevation?   Never mind, out came my camera to document as beautiful a wildlife sighting as I have ever experienced.

Ahead the ridge continued to rise.  We pushed as far as we dared until our watches said turn around or spend another night out, miss work the next day and sheepishly apologize to the search party that would come looking for us.  With a last yearning look in the direction of the elusive ridge top, we turned around vowing to return.  Neither of us ever did.

                                          High Refuge    16 X 20 inches    Alkyd on Canvas

Now, it has taken me 47 years to finally scan the surviving photo from a slide and put the image on canvas.  In so doing I  added one sheep to the foreground.  The "importee" migrated into my painting from a winter photo I took a number of years later on Sheep Mountain between Palmer and Glennallen.  Surely it’s the only time the ewe made the trip.

1 comment:

Cindi said...

What an adventure! You may not have reached the summit but you did something most people don't do, and got a great image (mental and painting) from the experience!!