About Us

Contact Us



Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters


for Dummies (as written by Idiots)
Rett Thompson on 'what to do if a bear grabs your sideburns…that kind of thing. If the point of the video is to scare us, mission accomplished'.
I have always envisioned myself as a rugged outdoorsman. I do this mostly when I am lying on the couch watching other rugged outdoorsmen on television. But when my friend Matt and I find ourselves in Alaska on vacation, it is time to put the vision to the test in Denali National Park.
Why Denali? As famous British explorer (and rugged outdoorsman) George Mallory responded when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, “Because it’s there.”

The park’s six million acres are divided up into 43 units for backcountry hiking. The Park Service puts a limit on the number of people that can be in any one area to minimize the environmental impact. We arrive a little late in the day (although it is difficult to tell since it doesn’t start to get dark until midnight) so a lot of the backcountry areas are already filled. The Ranger tells us it doesn’t matter all the areas are beautiful. We sign up for Area 28. We then spot a book that describes each of the various areas. Each area description is peppered with phrases like, “breathtaking views” or “lush open spaces.” We find the description of Area 28. It reads “Major characteristics – dense undergrowth and isolation.” My first reaction is, “If I want dense undergrowth and isolation I’ll camp in my bedroom.” But we trust the Ranger, after all this is Alaska, the last frontier - it has to be spectacular.

Before we head out, we watch a Backcountry Orientation Video. I don’t catch the title, but from the looks of it I guess that it’s called, “101 Ways You Can Be Killed By A Bear.” The video looks as though it was shot back in the ‘70’s – lots of campers with long hair and tie-dyes. It covers basic backcountry safety tips, what to do if you see a bear, what to do if a bear sees you, what to do if a bear grabs your sideburns…that kind of thing. If the point of the video is to scare us, mission accomplished.

There is only one road that runs through the Park. It is ninety miles long, unpaved and after mile fifteen, only buses and bicycles are permitted. On the ride out the bus driver tells us all to keep a look out for wildlife because it’s everywhere. He’s right. No sooner has he dropped us off than we have our first contact with wildlife – mosquitoes, hundreds and hundreds of mosquitoes. It is enough mosquitoes to be worthy of being considered a Biblical plague. We immediately paint ourselves with mosquito repellent. But these are wild Alaskan mosquitoes, and it has no effect on them. They will accompany us for the rest of the journey.

The bus driver said that caribou could lose a quart of blood a day to mosquitoes. Sometimes caribou will just go insane from the biting and run madly through the woods. I consider this, but decided to wait at least until the bus is out of sight. I remember laughing at my brother-in-law when he asked if we wanted to take mosquito head nets. It takes all of five minutes before we are pawing through our packs for them. And so, looking like a cross between a terrorist and a deranged beekeeper, we strike out into area 28. After hiking for a while we come to a small river. We quickly ford (read: fall in) it. We will remain wet for the rest of the trip thanks to ninety-five percent humidity. At first glance the landscape seems very green and lush, but I soon realize that it is the green mosquito net I have over my head. After awhile you’d forget that you were wearing a net over your head, although you’d remember as soon as you spit.

After crossing the river we discover a bear footprint. We have come all this way to Denali to see wildlife and now suddenly the last thing I want to see is wildlife. We walk along the other side of the river looking for a good route to take us up the mountain. After finding none, we decide to go commando for a while until we reach what looks like a clearing on the map. Now my experience with interpreting topographical maps is limited to golf course scorecards. To me it looks like just an easy six iron up to a clearing that will lead us to a ridge, which will take us to the top of the mountain. We end up hacking through brush so thick that we couldn’t even fall down if we wanted to (and we do). We arrive at what should be the clearing some two hours later. (Which is about right if you’ve ever seen me play golf.) Apparently there is no clearing. We trudge on. The brush appears to be either small trees or really big bushes.

One of the things we learned from the Backcountry video is that you’re supposed to make noise whenever you can’t see where you’re going so you won’t accidentally surprise a bear. We haven’t seen where we were going since we left the bus.

Matt decides that we should sing. I’m not so sure. Even though there is no one within twenty miles, I am still a little self-conscious about my singing voice. Matt asks me if I am self-conscious about being eaten by a bear. I lead stirring rendition of The Sound of Music. I am now convinced that there are bears lurking everywhere in the bush. I came to relax and get away from it all and instead I feel like I’m on point patrolling the jungles of ‘Nam. Matt says I’m suffering from bearanoia. We continue battling uphill for the next three hours.

The singing has now been replaced with cursing. We finally set up camp high atop the side of the mountain in the only clear place we can find. We plan to summit in the morning. (I say “summit” only because it sounds much more impressive than what we really have to do, which is “walk to the top of the mountain”) It has been a difficult trek so far, but we feel some sense of accomplishment for how far we have gotten. We stop and really look back on the park. For the first time we don’t have a face full of bushes, mosquitoes or mucus. The view is spectacular. The Alaskan Mountain range stretches as far as the eye can see. To the southeast you can make out the purple base of Mt. McKinley, its top obscured by clouds. And down the mountain, off in the distance, there is something moving. It could be brown bear, or maybe a moose, possibly even a Dall sheep.
Upon closer inspection it is a bus. We haven’t even hiked out of sight of the road.

Dinner - the one thing that we are truly prepared for. Having both seen the movie "Alive" we have packed plenty of food, but must now eat enough to fit what remains into the bear-proof container. It’s not even close. Neither of us is the least bit hungry, but we can’t leave the food out or the bears will steal it. I remember that clearly from the video. Or maybe that was from watching Yogi Bear cartoons… Either way we have no choice but to eat our way to safety. Four packages of Ramen noodles, two entire bags of Raspberry Fig Newtons, two bags of GORP and many stray protein laden mosquitoes later, we manage get the top closed on the bear canister. By this point, I decide that I would rather be mauled by a bear than eat another Fig Newton. We decide to call it a night, but between the Newton nausea, the droning of a thousand blood-sucking mosquitoes and the perpetual wedgie that comes from sleeping on a mountain slope, it is difficult to get much rest.
We wake with the sun (which comes up at 3:30am) and pack up the camp. We pause for a moment to survey the peak. Certainly it’s been difficult journey so far, but just over the mountain is new beginning. It offers us a chance to start over, to regain our perspective on why we came to Denali, and to walk in wonder, not fear. On the other hand, if we hurried, we could make the late check-in at the Wasilla Best Western. These are the agonizing decisions that explorers must face. I remember when we finished our trip, the looks we got from the other backpackers when we got back on the bus, dirty, sweaty, soaking, mashed hair, covered with dead mosquitoes… One concerned woman turned to us and said, “Oh my Goodness, how long were you out there?”
“About 16 hours.” I said.
Okay, so I might not be a rugged outdoorsman yet, but at least I know my limits, which is important, as I’m sure George Mallory would confirm if he hadn’t died on Everest. Still, when people ask me, “Why stay at the Wasilla Best Western when you are in one of the greatest National Parks in the world?” I answer, “Because it’s there.”

Visit to find out more about this destination

© Rett Thompson 2001
email: rett

More Travel in Hacktreks

< Back to Index
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article