Seeing Denali in her unclouded glory only made us want to see her again. On Sept. 3, Dave and I left Fairbanks and the Bueler family again but this time with all our belongings back on the bikes and no immediate plans to return. We were so grateful to Ed, Jill, Thomas and Vera for letting us stay with them on and off for about three weeks in their home. They told us we’d made their fall more interesting, which we truly hope was the case and not that they were just being polite. Either way, it was great hanging out with an old friend I had some fun history with and having the chance to get to know his sweet family.
Dave and I rode toward Denali National Park on a day that was clear everywhere we were but off in the distance, Denali was covered in cloud. We couldn’t see her along the Parks Highway in the places we could the week before.
We found a place to camp up a short, steep dirt road a few miles north of the park’s entrance and built our home and a fire for the night.
A nice place to make our home for the night. Photo: Heather Lea
We were in bed early and fell into a deep sleep. Around 11:00 p.m. my bladder woke me up. I put on my headlamp and wandered out into the bushes. I have a habit of turning off my headlamp while peeing and now suddenly ensconced in darkness, my eyes began adjusting to something spectacular happening in the sky. Northern lights! I ran back to the tent. Wait, first I pulled up my pants then ran back to the tent. Dave was inside snoring lightly in a way I knew meant he was totally out. At first I petted his head lightly so as not to alarm him whispering that he had to get up. He didn’t even stir. I shook him a little and talked in a normal voice. “Dave, you have to get up and see this.”
“Dave. Dave. Dave. Get up. Dave.” A little more aggressive shaking.
I felt bad but didn’t think he’d want to miss this. Finally some stirring. It’s good to know a grizzly could come into our tent and Dave would probably sleep through my mauling. I told him about the northern lights. His voice sounded like he’d swallowed dry cornflakes then chased them with whisky and cigarettes.
“Can’t I just see them from the tent?” I pulled the tent door aside. “Holy shit,” he crackled and just like that, the lights had him. He was going for his camera and my work here was done.
Dave shot one of the best photos of the trip that night.
Northern lights near Denali National Park. Photo: Dave Sears
He seemed happy I’d woken him up. We stayed outside about an hour until we could barely detect even the faintest glow from the night. At their best, the lights had been purple, red and a toxic-looking green, like something a monster oozes from its body after being slain. We realized how cool it was we’d been able to travel in the north long enough on this trip to see both northern lights and 24 hours of sun. I thought to catch each you’d need to spend a complete year up north. We’d been in these parts from the end of July, all of August and now into September—arguably the best time of year to travel the north. The bugs are gone, the fall colours are out and most of the gas stations are still open.
Denali National Park is over than 6 million acres (24,500 km2) of epic Alaskan wilderness. Over 400,000 people visit the park each year and on Sept. 4, Dave and I were two such visitors wanting our share of the experience. We waited in a slow-moving line to get tickets for the bus that would drive us into the Wonder Lake campground where we’d leave our stuff and go for a hike. Private vehicles are allowed to use the first 24 km (15 mi) of the road but after that you must use the park’s bus system for the remaining 122 km (76 mi).
While in line, we noticed the Wonder Lake site availability was nil. We looked on the digital screen for other options and as we got closer to it being our turn we got more stymied as to where we were going to spend the night. A parks employee was cruising up and down the line asking if anyone had questions. Dave and I asked him a few things and just before it was our turn we left the line-up to head over to the warden’s station, where it was suggested we get a backcountry permit to camp in the wild. We chose a spot then watched a mandatory 45 min orientation on how to conduct ourselves in the park. While watching, I started thinking how we were going to carry our stuff. We had no backpacks. Wild camping here meant you had to hike at least one mile off the road and could not be seen from the road. We couldn’t carry duffle bags, bear vaults, water, tent, sleeping bags and mats all in our hands for one mile in the spongy tundra. We made the sad decision not to go into the park. The weather was poor, we didn’t have the right equipment and we couldn’t get into where we wanted to go anyway.
At various points along our trip it’s been tough on both of us to be right there in a place of the world we’ve long dreamed of being, and have no gear for playing. Our motorcycles are great toys but can only hold so much. Although we are very grateful to experience this trip from the seat of a bike, it does have its limitations when you also love hiking, climbing and ski touring and are in world-class places where you may never get another chance to be again. We felt this about not being able to climb in Patagonia or get to off-the-beaten-path places in the Galapagos Islands.
But the great thing about Denali is it’s not so far from home. Dave cheered me up by promising we’d come back someday with a truck and all our toys; mountain bikes, backpacking gear, climbing equipment… and a beer fridge!
Just before leaving the parking lot to continue south toward Hatcher Pass, we received a text from our Texan friends we’d met in Fairbanks. Joseph and Kim, riding two 1200s, asked where we were in our travels. We made a plan to meet them in Seward the next day and continued to ride up and over the beautiful Hatcher Pass.
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