IMG_6607 (Large)The Denali backcountry office was a flurry of activity when we arrived. Brightly colored backpackers were everywhere. It was Friday afternoon with a gorgeous weather forecast for the weekend. In Denali, the backcountry has no trails so you choose a “unit” when getting a permit, and then hike off-trail within that unit. The number of hikers allowed in each unit is limited. By the time we got there most of the units were full. We wanted to hike on dry tundra and rock above an elevation of 3500 feet, since this is generally the most enjoyable terrain in Denali. Instead we ended up with a permit for a brushy hike along the Savage River at an elevation of about 2500 feet.

Although the terrain wasn’t ideal, our backpack trip was spectacular. You don’t have to go far in Denali to feel the intensity of the wilderness. Even the bus ride out to the beginning of our hike was memorable. The sky was blue, the mountain was out, and right before our drop off spot the bus screeched to a halt to observe a large grizzly strolling toward the bus.

IMG_6565 (Large)The bear kept its head down and mouth slightly open as it ambled along a gravel bar near the road, its large claws clicking on the rock with each step. It never even looked at us as it nonchalantly crossed the road right behind the bus and then munched on some soapberries nearby. The bus continued less than a mile and then stopped for us to get off. With the image of the bear fresh in our minds, we stepped off the bus and began our hike. We crossed the cold, braided Savage River and then headed into the brush along the river banks. We quickly tired of the brush and approached a small ridge to see if travel along the top would be easier.

IMG_6594 (Large)As we climbed the ridge we surprised a moose and calf in the brush. They froze. We froze. They were so close that I slowly reached for my bear spray, uncertain what would happen next. We could see only the mother moose’s head above the brush. Her ears were pointed and alert. After a few moments they ran away and we breathed a sigh of relief. Now we had encountered both a moose and a bear at close range, and our trip had just begun!

We would be sleeping out here with these animals, and after seeing the bear there would be no doubt in our minds that it could be nearby, smelling our dinner cooking or watching us as we picked berries. It was exhilarating to know we were surrounded by big animals. These animals were roaming the same brushy paths as we were and eating the same berries, so we would need to be very careful.

IMG_0265 (Large)We thrashed through brush, berries and wet tundra. Wet tundra, unlike its name, was mostly dry or lightly damp and varied in color from pink to green to pale yellow. Walking across it felt like walking across a field of very soft pillows. Our feet would end up about a foot below the ground surface with each step into the spongy mounds of tundra. Taking big steps up and down in this colorful stuff was fun but pretty physical, especially with backpacks. We only went about five miles in the tundra and brush but it felt like a heroic effort. We set up camp in a high spot among patches of blueberries with mountains in all directions. We camped there one night and hiked out the next morning. It was only a small taste of Denali’s terrain and we vowed our next hike in Denali would take place in elevations above 3500 feet.

IMG_6618 (Large)Berries were everywhere in the Denali backcountry. When we would stop to take a break, often it was impossible to sit on the ground without sitting in berries. This was our first hike with our new book to help us identify Alaska berries. We found seven types of edible berries during our hike! At first we decided the Bog Blueberries were the best. Plump and light blue, they grow on low bushes and were plentiful near our camp. We sat down to start picking and ended up filling a one liter bottle with blueberries pretty quickly. We ate large amounts of blueberries fresh from the bush, then saved the berries in the bottle for dessert that night, paired with a bar of creamy white chocolate.

IMG_0294 (Large)The next day as we hiked out we found the most delicious berry ever, even better than the blueberry: the revered Cloudberry. According to our book, this berry’s alternate name is the Apple Pie Berry. These wet, juicy, yellow berries had a delicious, complex and spicy flavor. They tasted just like a slice of apple pie flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. Wow. We ate all the Cloudberries we could find and declared the Cloudberry to be the pinnacle of berry deliciousness. I have never seen these anywhere but Denali.

IMG_6602 (Large) (2)It was a wonderful trip into the Denali backcountry and we’re looking forward to doing it again, hopefully this weekend. Unfortunately, the NPS permit system is difficult to work with (Backpacker magazine described it as a crapshoot and I have to agree) so we don’t really know what will be available. Our fate is in the hands of the NPS! Wish us luck!

Lisa Hackett

About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, drive from Idaho to Alaska solo, live and work in a van in the wilderness and dodge encounters with wolves and bears. Seriously. More

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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