From our vantage point high atop the highway, we see a lot of firsts: our first mountain range sliced by glaciers, our first braided river (a wide, sandy riverbed interlaced with narrow, watery channels), our first jumbo RV park, and our first MOOSE CROSSING sign pockmarked with bullet holes. America's last frontier is evidently home to more than a few target-happy hunters and others with outlaw ways.
We climb through a landscape of Sitka spruce, quaking aspens, and birch trees. Fireweed, a plant we soon learn is ubiquitous in these parts, grows by the road. It has pink flowers in June and July, but now—already autumn this far north—it's ablaze with red leaves. Just before the road turns to gravel, we pass another bullet-riddled sign: TRAILERS, CAMPERS, AND RV'S ARE NOT RECOMMENDED BEYOND THIS POINT.
We decide to take our chances. Soon we're tracing dramatic switchbacks above the tree line and into the clouds. Once over the pass, we drive in and out of rain and splash through water-filled potholes and muddy washboard. Ponds materialize behind beaver dams. Aqua-colored glacial runoff courses down the mountains. When the motor home is parked, Amyas discovers—to my terror and the girls' delight—that the best views are from its rain-slicked roof, reached by the back ladder. As we descend toward the George Parks Highway, we catch a glimpse of McKinley, a twin-peaked ice cube swathed in clouds.
Talkeetna, which lies at the end of a spur off the highway, has a hip counterculture-meets-the-backwoods vibe. On a stroll around town—galleries selling nature photography, adventure tour operators (a run up McKinley, anyone?), and shower-and-laundry services—we pass grizzled types with ponytails and down vests as well as bronzed mountaineers in head-to-toe Patagonia. There are two RV parks in town, one with front-row views of McKinley, the other with electric and water hookups and hot showers. The call of comfort wins. Our neighbors in their gargantuan taverns-on-wheels carouse noisily until all hours, and at first I feel hemmed in. But once we close our blinds, our Dutchmen feels cozy—ideal for the four of us.
En route to Denali the next day, the Alaska Rangegets bigger and bigger. Before the town named Honolulu—"Dream on!" I yell out the window—we pull over and hike down to Troublesome Creek. The lush woods have a surprisingly tropical feel. Cottonwoods and willows are draped with a wispy emerald moss called old man's beard. Ferns, wild rose, and huge red-capped mushrooms cover the ground.
Inside the national park we drive into what looks like prehistory. Stunted spruces stand near the road while waves of tundra roll toward mountains white with clouds and snow. We'll spend the next four days at Teklanika Campground, which has 53 motor-home sites, each surrounded by sentry-like conifers.
Our days here take on a pleasing RV rhythm. Mornings are always freezing. Amyas gets out of bed and turns on the heat. I'm next, slithering down over the front seats. Once Saskia, our self-appointed majordomo, is up, she's in action: making and folding up her and her sister's beds (often with Tamzen, howling, still in hers), then setting the table for breakfast—sometimes eggs or pancakes, often simply cereal and bananas.
We either pack lunch for an all-day expedition, or return home between walks. Denali offers guided hikes and narrated bus tours, but we strike out on our own. One morning we get off the park shuttle at Tattler Creek, where we gorge on tangy little blueberries and scramble up steep, scree-covered slopes to a high col. Another day we explore Caribou Creek, walking on spongy tussocks and bushwhacking through prickly shrubs.
Everywhere, I scan for bears. During a walk on Denali Park Road, we pass a sign with gnawed edges that reads, NO HIKING OFF ROAD FOR NEXT FIVE MILES DUE TO WILDLIFE ACTIVITY. The park service has spiked the sign with nails, voodoo doll-style, to keep grizzlies from devouring it.
Fortunately, our many animal sightings are made from the safety of shuttle buses: caribou walking in single file; munching moose; golden eagles and ptarmigans; Dall sheep on distant inclines; and, most exciting, those lumbering grizzlies—especially the golden sows with their black cubs. Although we hear wolves howling at night, we never see one. Our closest wildlife encounter occurs one afternoon when we're toasting s'mores over a campfire. Out of nowhere, fearless gray jaysstart dive-bombing for graham cracker crumbs.
The most relaxing time in the RV is cocktail hour. Amyas, the cook in our family, prepares pasta with tomato sauce or chicken with rice in the kitchen at the rear of the vehicle. The girls write, draw, read, or play one of their imaginary games—baby, teacher, house (which, in the RV, has risen to new heights of domestic creativity), or, the current favorite, park ranger ("If you see a bear, follow these steps . . . "). I curl up in the passenger seat with my mug o' wine and watch fellow RV'ers traipse to and from a pump. After dinner my grim housekeeping duties begin. To conserve water I wash dishes frugally, so they always have a film of grease. But I'm manic about sweeping our white linoleum floor. "Take your shoes off!" I bellow when anyone enters the motor home.