|The camper bus dropped us off at the Cathedral mountain. Our back country adventure started here. Initially, we had to be careful not to venture into the restricted area (wildlife breeding zone), and we kept walking for a few miles away from the lone dust road in the park, crossing swamps, brooks, and mountains.
Winds from the glaciers, rivers in the valleys, caribou running in the wild, the tundra carpet, were all experience of a lifetime. My attempts to describe what we experienced that day would fail miserably. Per the ranger's advice, we kept making noises (Yo Bear!) not to startle any wildlife as we kept hiking into the wild.
Our first interaction with wildlife happened when a caribou couple ran past us as were were savoring the scenery of the valley below us. We were all excited, and had our lunch talking about this. We studied the map and followed to compass, and climbed up a small hill, and we spotted a grizzly. The binoculars came in handy and we spotted another grizzly with three cubs. This was danger zone and we started to plan a different route. Adrenalin kicked in. All of a sudden a caribou emerged out of nowhere. It got curious enough and kept moving towards us. Caribou look innocent, but can be dangerous with their antlers, I guess. We began to retreat from its territory (at least that is what we assumed). It did not give in and began to chase us. We ran for our lives. We ran stumbling through swamps, rocks, bushes, hills, water holes, and above all keeping away from the grizzlies and their cubs in the distance. Luckily for us the Grizzlies did not join the chase.
After an exhausting run with the heavy loads on our backs, we had a couple of energy gel shots. When having a snack, we both always faced in opposite directions so that we had full view around us (to warn ourselves of approaching wildlife). We continued to hike through some very steep terrain, and then encountered the Toklat river. This is glacial river, with ice cold water, and water brown from the sediments. We walked along the rocky river bed, looking for a spot to cross, but could not find one for miles. And in the mean time, another Caribou started following us from across the river. It followed us along the river for more than a mile. We had enough Caribou for the day, but it was unaware of this, and we had to run again. After a while, the Caribou lost interest and ignored us. Exhausted, we crossed the river, getting wet in freezing water. Harsha feared frostbite, but our extremities did not fall off.
We found a camping spot on a nearby hill, avoiding the icy winds from the glacier. We made sure that the camp, the cooking/eating place, and the bear-resistant food container were on the corners of a equilateral triangle with 100m sides. Also, that the wind did not blow from the food to the camp (to prevent wildlife venturing to our camp). All this, along with the chases earlier in the day made us skeptical about the night. Some animals (we did not know what) got curious and started poking at out tent at night. But, we were too tired to respond. We continued to sleep, burying ourselves deep in our sleeping bags.
Early next morning, we took a peek outside the camp and there were three Caribou, very close by, staring at us. We had no clue how long they were staring, so waiting was not a prudent option. I decided to test waters, and stepped out of the camp. They kept staring but did not approach me. Quickly we packed up and left that place. After hiking for a bit, we stopped to freshen up and have breakfast. Here we saw a herd of Caribou running across the hills.
We continued our hike, trying to reach the Polychrome glacier. After each hill that we climbed, there was another to climb, followed by another. And suddenly there would be a very steep descent. After hiking for miles through chilly winds, we came across a tributary of the Toklat river. However, this was less menacing than the previous one (though the wind made it worse). We reached the Polychrome glacier by the end of the day, but could not find a place to camp for a long time. It was hard enough to stand in the wind, leave alone camping. Finally, we found a place on the leeward side of a hill, where the wind was not as intense. Though it was at a 30 degree slope, we were too exhausted to be picky. We slept through the night, this time without any animal interference.
The next morning, we headed towards the lone road to catch a bus. The hike through the brush was more taxing than climbing hills. We reached the road finally, but it was a few hundred feet above us. The climb to the road was more than 60 degree steep. As a fitting finale to our back country adventure, this was one the toughest climbs I'd done - thick vegetation, loose rocks and sand, steep slopes. We had to crawl on our bodies occasionally. But we did make it in the end without major injuries.
There are times which change your perspective about things. Our time in Denali back country was one of those.