Scrolling Slideshow – COLOR
Autumn at Camp Denali – Dispatch from Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
It’s like a dream looking out the window from Camp Denali at Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak at 20,320 feet above sea level. I’m warm and snug in a log cabin with a wood fire burning. The mountain is an impressive mass of solid rock and ice. The Athabaskan people call the mountain Denali – meaning simply, the High One – rising abruptly 18,000 feet above the surrounding countryside, more vertical relief than any mountain anywhere in the world.
Clouds come and go all day, providing peak-a-boo views of the mountain. From where I sit, just over 30 miles from it’s base across the McKinley River, Pioneer Ridge is visible as it climbs toward Denali’s North Peak, casting a shadow on the Wickersham Wall, a climber’s nightmare. The mountain makes it’s own weather and reveals itself less than fifty-percent of the time. I know this from personal experience, as it took me three visits to the park to see the top of the mountain.
The rustic cabins and lodge at Camp Denali are 90 miles from the park entrance, near the far end of the winding, un-paved park road. I’m here by special invitation as the photographer-in-residence, teaching photography while searching the tundra looking for wildlife and scenic landscapes. You don’t have to go far – compositions are everywhere. We visit some of the locations made famous by Ansel Adams, including Reflection Pond and Blueberry Ridge overlooking Wonder Lake. When the mountain is out, concentrate on the mountain.
A wilderness area larger than the state of Massachusetts surrounds us. It’s not uncommon for bears, moose, and even wolves to wander through camp. We see them all during our day trips along the park road back towards the Toklat River. Bull moose wade in the kettle ponds, caribou graze the tundra, grizzly bears lap up berries like there is no tomorrow, and red fox hunt arctic ground squirrels oblivious to our presence. We even encounter two wolves, one with a radio-collar, not far from the road. Meanwhile Dall sheep graze the mountain ridges high above us, appearing as tiny white dots easily visible against the dark volcanic rocks.
Fireweed is a sure sign that fall is on the way. Autumn comes early this far north. At 63˚ above the equator, Denali is just south of the Arctic Circle. The color seems to change by the hour, providing interesting macro subjects with water drops clinging to every leaf and berry. Willow, birch, and aspen trees turn yellow, while ground-hugging bearberry and blueberry bushes paint the tundra with brilliant reds and burnt orange.
Overnight the snowline drops another 1000 feet. A cold rain and hard frost in camp accelerates the changing season. Two weeks from now Camp Denali will be buttoned-up for the cold, dark winter.
I place another log on the wood stove, pour a glass of red wine and look up at the mountain. Humbled by its wildness, I’m convinced this is one of the best views in the world. I promise myself I’ll return to Denali to spend more time in the shadow of the High One.
Ralph Lee Hopkins
September 5, 2014