The climb had gone well. Now it was party time. Bellies full of pizza and Alaskan Amber, Sibu and I were hanging out on the banks of the Chulitna with Makio Kanzaki, a tough, funny Japanese soloist we’d climbed near for most of our West Buttress ascent. Makio had also just provided invaluable support for our alpine-style assault on the extra large pizza.
Now, like most people who’d wandered down to the Chulitna River, just off Talkeetna’s main street, we were burping off dinner, skipping stones into the swirling water, and hoping McKinley would emerge from its usual cloud-wreathed sulk.
But try as we might, it was clear that, only a day off the mountain, we were already bored. We decided to take the Alaska Railway north to Denali National Park’s main entrance near Healy, then do the shuttle bus thing for some roadside camping in big, bad, bear-rich Alaskan five-star country. We just wanted casual hiking and immediate gratification in regards to vast, watchable herds of exotic wildlife. The thought of backpacking seemed rather drastic.
Sibu had been a game ranger in Swaziland and South Africa. Makio was a trekking guide in Japan, on the southerly island of Yakushima, with its plentiful sea life. That meant as de facto gringo tour leader, the pressure was on me to find glamor megafauna.
Makio missed the train, and we assumed he’d cast off again on his solo wanderings. But the railway proved a most civilized way to travel. No psycho traffic. No airline Naziism. And most of all, great scenery, big windows, and room to move – as in restaurants, a bar/lounge, vista dome seats, and fresh air between the cars. The train dumped us 200 yards from the Park Visitor Center, and bureaucracy took over.
We’d called earlier and been told there was no need to reserve campsites at nearby Riley Creek. We got the same beta at the V.C. info desk. So we wandered the campground and chose an empty site. Then it was time to pay. "We’re all booked up. We usually are, even the walk-in sites." No signs. No notification. No communication between Visitor Center and concessionaire, or concessionaire and phone operators, or campground host and signage. I’d looked forward to pridefully showing Sibu our park system. He seemed non-plussed. Myself and half-dozen other potential campers vented on the decrepit Aramark-owned shuttle bus back toward the park entrance. "Yeah’ we’ve been hearing that a lot," the driver commiserated. "This place is all screwed up."
Evening was falling and clouds threatened. Sibu and I walked back out to hitch north on the George Parks Highway making for Healy, 12 miles north. It was high season. Most lodges and campgrounds sported full signs. The intervening roadside was lined with ‘no camping’ signs. Despite the bumper-to-bumper traffic, even empty pickups zoomed by us. Prospects looked bleak.
Then a big truck whipped in to the road shoulder. "Hop on. Where ya going?"
"The closest commercial campground I guess," I nodded as we tumbled into the tall pickup bed.
"You sure about that?" the driver yelled back with a wicked smile."We’ll talk up ahead."
He gunned out into traffic and the truck roared north, its slipstream snapping our hair and cooling the pack sweat from our backs, while we pondered just where ‘up ahead’ might be. (to be continued).