Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Alaska 17 (belated)
So we've fallen behind again. We were in New York and we valiantly didn't even bring the computer, which wouldn't have mattered even if we did because we were too busy eating and drinking to post anything anyway. So... where were we again?
Oh, yes, the tale of woe! The Mosquito Bog of Death. Now I remember.
Our kayaking guides were two young, energetic, outdoorsy types. They had wisely gone to Alaska after college and were now running around guiding kayak trips in the summer and pursuing other outdoorsy vocations (skiing, teaching kids about nature) in the winter. Smart kids. And so when one of those smart kids told us that when we went to Denali after the kayaking trip, we should grab a permit for Zone 15 if we could. The attraction there is awesome views of Mt. McKinley/Denali from along the McKinley River.
Most National Parks in the West have a system of trails, and most have along those trails a series of designated camp locations for backpackers. In Denali, by contrast, the whole park is split into Zones. You get a permit for a zone, you walk into the zone wherever you will (no trails) and you figure out somewhere to camp. It's true wilderness. It's wonderful. Except when it sucks. So we got to the permit desk, read the descriptions of the various zones, grabbed Zone 15 for two nights, and then another night at higher elevation for the next couple nights.
We took the long bus ride all the way to the end of the road where Zone 15 starts. We hiked down to the McKinley River, and planned to start hiking along the river, which has a wide riverbed with braided channels crisscrossing it. Unfortunately, a swift deep channel ran up right against the forested riverbank. So we hiked overland through the forest. Which forest was filled with felled trees and low willows, soft squishy uneven footing and 1,000,000 mosquitoes.
The going was arduous. We often had to stop to figure out a path around a fallen tree, but every time one stopped the mosquitoes swarmed even more intensely. Even just hiking along they were so thick that one wound up breathing them in as they swarmed around your face. We thought back to reading the description of Zone 15, and the prophetic, understated line: "During summer you can expect lots of mosquitoes." We have hiked through the jungle of Guatemala. We have camped by ponds and lakes in wilderness across America. We thought we knew what "lots of mosquitoes" meant.
We had absolutely no idea what "lots of mosquitoes" meant.
Finally we decided we had no choice but to get away from the boggy forest and its mosquito infestation, so we waded across the icy river to the open riverbed. The mosquitoes followed. We could look at one another and see a personal mosquito cloud, which The Lovely Katherine likened to Pig-Pen from Peanuts cartoons. Except with mosquitoes instead of dirt, I guess.
We left the river in our dripping-wet boots and socks, and aimed for high ground to find somewhere dry and flat to camp. No such spot existed. We reached the top of the only ridge we could find on our topo map, and found it consistently covered in willow bushes. We were exhausted, we were peeved with the mosquitoes, and it was fixing to rain. So we set up our tent on top of a sea of low willows, and pulled out our sleeping bags to climb in.
It was then that your correspondent discovered that the high-quality Chinese import water bottle that he acquired in Nepal had sprung a leak inside his pack, dripping two liters of water onto his sleeping bag and extra clothes. As it continued to rain outside, we attempted to string up the down bag so it would dry (above), and then huddled under The Lovely Katherine's bag, spread out like a blanket. We left the tent as little as possible, because even a quick trip out to pee attracted a swarm of mosquitoes - pouring rain or no. We slept, and woke to find it was still pouring. So we waited.
It rained all day. We contemplated whether we could break camp and get to anywhere drier or flatter than our current location. Nowhere on the map was apparent. So we stayed in the tent all day, and a second night. The second day, the rain was lighter. We packed up the tent, and hiked the five or so miles directly back to the road, which involved wading across the icy river several times, backtracking a bit when this led to uncrossably deep channels, and spending some time back in the boggy forest.
We got to the road at Wonder Lake, and were happy to catch a bus heading back toward our next night's camping area without too much of a wait. The bus was almost full of park visitors whose entire trip would involve riding the bus to the end of the line and back. One wag who got out to see the view at the lake, and got back on saying "It's called Wonder Lake because you Wonder if you got malaria from all the mosquitoes." If only he knew.