South African adventurer Sibusiso Vilane and I lolled in the pickup’s bed as the truck whipped north along Alaska’s George Parks Highway, Denali’s gateway developments receding rapidly behind us.
“Nice truck,” Sibusiso marveled. He was developing an envious fascination for the typically massive Alaskan rigs. He could afford to; Diesel was still $2.90/gallon where he lived, which had me pondering the supposed benefits of imperialist foreign policy.
To our left, the Nenana River raged along the bottom of its deep V gorge, offering occasional glimpses of powerful wave trains and knots of rafts carrrying cruise line passengers on their post-dinner package floats.
Then we both slid forward against the cab as the truck swerved into a scenic turnout and braked to a snappy halt. Our two hosts got out, one older, one younger, both bearded and smiling the kind of mischevious grin that makes school teachers cringe in anticipation of spitballs to come.
Ric Martin introduced himself and Kyle, his passenger and nephew. They were both dressed in NPS work wear, official shirts, dark pants, steel-toed work boots. Plenty of dirt. No ‘Smoky Bear hats.’
“You guys Maintenance Division?” I asked.
“Nope, Trail Crew,” Ric said genially.
“Ah, well, one of the two divisions that actually works anyway,” I laughed.
“We appreciate the thought there,” Kyle smiled. They both lived in nearby Healy, meaning they were ‘local hires’ in NPS lingo. The lack of flat hats meant they were the rubber-meets-road Park Service, the folks who get things done.
“So, what are you guys looking for?” Ric said conspiratorially, rubbing his hands. “Rooms, showers, swiming pool?”
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Sibu digested the menu of possibilities, his native African sensibilities still unused to the American plethora of choices. He had the same look he got in restaurants when the options got too bewildering and he just told the waiter to choose.
“We just need a place to throw down for the night,” I replied. “We got skunked on campsite availability at Riley Creek.”
“So whaddya have with you?” Ric continued.
“We just came off Mt. Mckinley, so we got a tent, sleeping bags, stove, the whole works,” I replied. “We’re self-sufficient. We just need a place to camp until our backcountry shuttle bus reservations come up tomorrow. ”
“O.K. Cool. So whaddya like?” Ric plunged on. “Waterfalls? Swimming holes? A nearby bar?”
Sibu and I nodded enthusiastically at each choice. These guys were clearly on our channel.
Ric and Kyle looked at each other. “Dragonfly,” they said in unison.
“We got just the place,” Ric nodded.
As they piled back into the truck, Kyle reached into the cab. “Here’s something for the ride,” he said, tossing two beers at us. The truck sped on for several miles, then crossed an airy bridge over a deep gorge and ground to a halt near a thick knot of pines.The Martins popped out again.
“This here’s Dragonfly Creek,” said Kyle. “Nobody’ll mess with ya’ down by the river.”
“The trail’s a bit steep,” Ric explained. “But it goes past a coupla waterfalls, and there’s a pool you can rinse off in if you need to. Down by the river you’ll find a couple camp sites, and there’s usually a little driftwood. You can watch the rafters go by. Sorry, no saloon, but here’s a little something for your dinner.”
He pulled out a two-pound, vacuum-sealed pack of salmon, then added a bag of cashews and a bottle of Mexican hot sauce. Kyle doled out six more beers.
“You guys are Gods! My heroes!” I blurted. Sibu frowned slightly, his Christian sensibilities abraded by this deification, but added similar sentiments in more gentlemanly fashion.
We bulshitted for a while, traded addresses, shook hands, and the Martins rolled out like the Lone Ranger and Tonto: ‘Our work here is done.’ Sibu and I scrambled down the sketchy user trail – exposed as anything we’d climbed on the mountain. The river bar was apparently a local party spot, with several fire circles, a few tent sites and lots of spent fireworks.
That evening was the best of times, and more so because it was unexpected, serendipitous, a climb back up from our earlier frustrations. We watched rafters and rainbows, cooked up a salmon/rice dish (alas, we had no frypan), and sipped the best-tasting river-chilled beer we’d ever quaffed, our faith in the Park Service restored by the kindness of two dusty trail crew samaritans. (To be continued)