For all the talk of bears, we hadn’t actually seen one yet. The next day Sandra and I paddled across the lake with Hamilton to Wolverine Cove, a spot where a rushing creek emptied into a shallow, cobble-bottomed inlet. As I sat very still in my kayak, a vast school of sockeye salmon swirled underneath me, the fish’s backs roiling the water so thickly that I practically could have walked over them. Three brown bears, a.k.a. grizzlies, loitered on the shore about 50 feet away—an adult female with two adolescent offspring. A smaller black bear appeared on the hillside above them and stood observing cautiously. Hamilton told us that this is one of the few areas in the world where brown and black bears interact regularly.
SLAP! A two-foot-long salmon jumped clear of the water a few feet away. The juvenile brown bears waded out into the cove, prowling with their snouts in the water, plunging and splashing after the fleet-finned salmon. Their efforts brought them close enough that their splashes rocked my kayak. But they had no luck with the fish. “They’re just having fun,” Hamilton said. “When the salmon start running out of the lake and up into the stream, they’ll be much easier for the bears to catch.”
Over the next few days, we spin-cast for sockeye salmon, visited a waterfall, and took a jet boat up a shallow gravel-bedded river, then drifted down, watching the bald eagles watch us from their spruce-tree roosts. The last afternoon of our stay, I was sitting on the deck of the main lodge, examining the far shore for bears. I thought I spotted one in a bed of reeds, a black dot amid the beige. Just then, there was a clatter and shouting behind me. Two of the lodge’s cooks were banging pans to shoo a bear off the kitchen porch. I turned to see a black streak scurry up the path toward our cabin and then dart off through the undergrowth.
We caught another floatplane back to Anchorage on our way to Denali National Park, the crown jewel of Alaskan tourism. We passed over a pod of a hundred beluga whales cruising the coast of the Cook Inlet, their backs making long white ovals as they surfaced, then disappearing in the silty water.
To get to Denali, we would have to face a cruel reality of Alaskan travel: logistics. In a huge state with few roads, getting from A to B can require perseverance. The park itself is larger than Massachusetts, with only a single, unpaved road. No private cars are allowed, so you have to travel by bus. Along its entire length there are no services at all, only a handful of rustic lodges—ours was at the end, seven hours in. “Seven hours on a bus”: the five most heartbreaking words in the English language for a traveler.
We spent the night at the Hotel Captain Cook, a wonderful relic of the pipeline-boom 70’s—I half expected George Hamilton to leap out from behind the wood paneling. Then onward north, 7 1/2 hours aboard the Alaska Railroad. We sat on one of the top-deck observation cars, where the glass roof and walls gave unobstructed views as we made our way over narrow gorges and swift-rushing streams, past steep valleys framed by craggy mountains.
The next morning we boarded the converted school bus that would take us into the park. Soon enough, as we drove along the gravel road we saw spread before us a broad tundra valley with the Alaska Range rising from the far side and, many miles in the distance, the grand white slab of Mount McKinley (also known as Denali) itself. The passengers erupted in cheers. Because of the generally unpredictable weather in these parts, and the mountain’s great distance from the park entrance, many visitors never actually lay eyes on the Tallest Mountain in North America. So we could cross that worry off our list.
The High One—as its name translates from Athabascan—was soon hidden again behind intervening mountains as we wound up and down through a series of river valleys, climbing above the treeline to pass through areas of tundra with sweeping unobstructed views, then back down into spruce forest. Along the way we spotted a couple of grizzly bears, Dall sheep, countless caribou, snowshoe hares, and a lone wolf. Though Alaska is full of wilderness, the sheer scale of it here was awesome. Denali is the Alaska of Alaska—Alaska Squared, you could say.
At Camp Denali, we stayed in a one-room log cabin that stood by itself on a hillside, close enough to the main lodge for comfort and far enough for privacy. It had gingham curtains, a big wooden bed, and gas-powered lamps. And there, through the window above the writing desk, shone Mount McKinley, as clear and bright as the moon. Through a pair of binoculars, I watched the clouds whipping around the cornices and ice cliffs of the summit. Climbers consider Denali one of the most dangerous mountains in the world, combining extreme altitude with a near-Arctic latitude. For us it would simply be an infrequently recurring treat, like whale sightings on a long cruise.
One morning at breakfast we groggily nodded hello to the chipper couple across the table from us, Henry and Kathy Huntington, from the small town of Eagle River, outside Anchorage. He was giving a series of lectures at the lodge about the tribes of the far north, where he travels frequently to record the local folkways.