Lessons learned on the trail
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Lessons learned on the trail

Trustees interns always explore the Alaska wilderness with new eyes and perspectives. Here, Catherine talks about the life lessons learned on the trail during a recent trip to Denali National Park. Read about our 2017 summer interns and what they’re learning about the issues.

Denali’s peaks rise just above the clouds. Photo by Catherine Danley.

Take Advantage of Every Sunny Day

To celebrate a long Fourth of July weekend, I set off for Denali, keen on seeing some of the best wildlife and scenery Alaska has to offer. My first day in the park was postcard perfect: blue skies, sunshine, and wildlife abounded at every turn. Almost every 20 minutes my bus driver pulled over so we could all watch a moose or bear moving through their daily routine.

Luck seemed to be on my side, especially as I made eye contact with a beautiful black wolf. Later, I watched grizzly cubs playing near their mother.

Going eye to eye with a wolf teaches one of the life lessons learned on the trail. Photo by Catherine Danley.

No matter how many animals I saw, every encounter felt like the first one. I felt rapt upon seeing every creature, whether a lumbering bear or a waddling ptarmigan. I learned the unexpected—that every animal, no matter how small, made the Denali ecosystem possible.

Arctic ground squirrels – what some rangers called “bear burritos” – make up about 20 percent of the mammals in the park. Mosquitos pollinate virtually all the vegetation. Without these smaller species, Denali would not live up to its name, “the Great One.”

This realization made me appreciate every creature I ran into, but I’ll admit–I’m still not a big mosquito fan.


Hiking along the Savage River Valley alpine trail. Photo by Catherine Danley.

Be Willing to Hike in the Rain, or You May Not Hike at All

My second day in Denali turned grey and cold. Scattered showers seemed to find me on every trail. I persevered. The views and wildflowers were worth it as I fought through rain and wind through the Savage River Valley. Even as droplets drizzled down my pack and back, I found myself relishing the beautiful colors of various wildflowers and the high-pitched squeaks of marmots among the boulders.

Denali, I realized, kept its beauty through all weather. Where else can you hang out with Arctic ground squirrels while waiting to see if North America’s tallest mountain appears between and through the clouds? (It didn’t, but the squirrels and I enjoyed the valley views just the same.)

Squirrel! Photo by Catherine Danley.

Though my rainy hikes lacked the sun and wildlife of the previous day, they turned out equally beautiful and enjoyable. Each day in Denali gave me a different perspective of the real Alaska. Denali depends on rain for its lush foliage and larger species, just as it depends on mosquitos!


Enjoy the Journey

On the last day of the long weekend, I ventured south to Hatcher Pass to hike the popular Reed Lakes trail. Though rainless, clouds clung to the mountains and limited visibility to about 20 feet. As my friends and I progressed, we slipped across muddy trails and clung to boulders, hoping we wouldn’t break a bone.

A grizzly sow with her cubs in the trees behind her. Photo by Catherine Danley.

Though we never saw them, we heard babbling brooks and rushing waterfalls. A lot of other hikers turned back because the trail got socked in, but my friends and I found ourselves enjoying the misty scenery. Maybe it’s because I’m from a desert state, but Hatcher Pass felt otherworldly to me. I felt as if I had entered Tolkien’s Middle Earth instead of a wild place an hour away from Anchorage, Alaska.

In fact, the mist got so thick that we passed by the lower lake without realizing it. Other hikers let us know we only had a half a mile to go the upper lake. We simply shrugged our shoulders and marched onward. A few minutes later, to our surprise, we emerged from the clouds into a pocket of blue sky, sunshine, and a view of the upper lake.

Wildflowers in July. Photo by Catherine Danley.

I know that the real Alaska isn’t just the postcard image of a grizzly by an alpine lake. It’s the experience of wildness and wilderness.

Knowing that kind of wild means hiking rainy ridges, watching a moose wander through willows, noticing the small things as well as the huge. If my hiking adventures teach me anything, it’s that Alaska can’t be captured in a single photograph.

Alaska is an experience – and whether wet or sunny, it always involves swatting at mosquitoes when experiencing another unrivaled adventure on the way to a summit, lake, river or peak.