Denali 8. Mr Cheep’s revenge

December 15th, 2012

Day 7:

Last full day in the park.

My plan is to pack up and get to the road in time to meet the first bus out in the morning. I have some things to do in Anchorage so I want to get back ASAP. I think the first bus leaves Wonder Lake at 6:30 but I’m not sure, and more importantly I don’t know how far Wonder Lake is. So since the weather is a bit crappy today anyway, I pack up my day pack and hike to the road. I get on a bus to Wonder Lake. It is weird to be among: 

  1. people 
  2. other campers 
  3. tourists

I realize that the landscape around Wonder Lake is much more in line with the kind of view that Sydney Laurence was portraying of Denali. This picture would be a very Sydney Laurence view of Denali, if not for the clouds.

On top of everything else I hadn’t seen a real TREE in 6 days. Also, I realized that if I were to ever come back here, I might want to use the campground at Wonder Lake as a base. This is what I saw a lot of people doing.

The Wonder Lake area is beautiful. There were a lot of mosquitos, and I felt a smug satisfaction at how much of a hardship this seemed to be for some of the tourists. I used a urinal, and washed my hands in a sink. Seeing my face in a mirror was also kind of strange.

I ride the bus back, past my valley to the Eielson Visiter Center. This is a pretty amazing place with a lot of info. I watch a 17 minute movie about climbing Mt. McKinly. I don’t need to do THAT. A bear shows up and the rangers have to close down one of the trails and one of the observation decks. I have to exert effort not to feel blasé and superior. Yes the guy who spilled half his water the on his first night is now Grizzly Adams.

I had been to the Visiter Center on my way in. All of the buses make a stop at all of the half dozen or so facilities like this. It’s set up very much as a way for people who are only visiting the park on the road to get a direct sense of the park. And they do a good job. I saw a small family get off a bus, kids running around and screaming. Later I saw a ranger corral the same kids, put her hat on each of their heads, make them do something like a scouting salute and swear an oath to protect the environment. The look in the kids’ eyes was really kind of cool. Like a lot of rangers that I’ve met, these people have a sense of which war they’re in the front lines of.


In addition to the bear, there was an arctic fox who appeared to be quite habituated to the center. Nothing was closed down when this guy showed up.

These moose skulls were reportedly found in this locked state.

One spur of one’s antler stabbing deep into the eye socket of the other. They died like this.

John Muir is still very much a guiding spirit in a park like this. Denali National Park would probably not exist without him. There is a stone at the visiter center with a quote by him carved into it:

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

My life is continually teaching me that this is true in art. This thought made me feel closer to Muir than I think I ever have before.

I talk to a ranger after the bear goes away. Mostly I want to verify some things about the caribou from yesterday. I also talk to the bus dispatcher about my plan for tomorrow. Everyone is gratifyingly happy that I’ve been out for week. They say things like “Nice going!” or “Well done!” I don’t know if they would say that if they had seen me stumbling around out there, but it makes me happy. I eat my lunch at a table!! I get a bus back to Mt. Galen and take a bit of a detour to look at the expanse of the Thorofare River delta.

I see another bear on the way back but he doesn’t affect my route.

However, when I get back, Mr. Cheeps is again upset.

Here is some video I shot of Mr. Cheeps the ground squirrel: YouTube video of Mr Cheeps

He has even acted out a bit. There are now two little nibbles out of the heel of one of my Crok flip-flops that were in the vestibule of the tent. More dramatically there are two little holes in the largest of my water bags. It is now useless. Harumph!

As I write this, I am reminded of something Lynn Schooler said to me about nature documentaries. He was talking about how, over the years that he was serving as a guide for a lot of documentaries, he saw a decline in quality, which he correlated with the educations and interests of the people who were shooting them. To paraphrase and generalize: It used to be that they were being shot by people who deeply understood the biological and zoological science behind what they were doing. Genuine experts who were interested in getting good footage that accurately represented the true nature of the animals and environments they were filming. The shift has been towards expert cinematographers who have a deep understanding of dramatic structure who are interested in getting cool shots of good looking animals doing exciting things, whether it’s scientifically representative or not.

He said: If you’re watching something and they give an animal a name… be careful.

So I’m very aware when I anthropomorphize a caribou or a ground squirrel that I am skating on thin ice. I actually have a deep problem with it. As I think I’ve said before, I think when we anthropomorphize, we’re cutting our imaginations off from exploring forms of consciousness that are significantly different from our own. I don’t think that whales are beautiful because they demonstrate sentience that is similar to ours. I think they’re amazing because they are the apex of a form of sentience that is their own. Just as we are. We are profoundly “other” to each other. And therefore we must tread softly when around each other. We can’t assume we know what’s going on in the other mind, and we diminish it when we try.

But Mr Cheeps is a water bag & flip-flop nibbling little terrorist who deserves to be reduced to a YouTube cliche! As much as I can be interested in the alien mind of the other… this guy was driving me NUTS! Cheeping like that RIGHT BESIDE MY HEAD…

Denali 7. WOW!

October 21st, 2012

Day 6.

July 9th, 2012


It starts with another crystal clear view of Denali during a 2am pee, but even when I get up later it is still clear.

Panorama I stitched together with Photoshop

For part of the morning, Denali is wearing a small beret of cloud but no matter. The range is as clear as could be as the moon makes a slow daylight journey over it.

Hard to see the moon in pictures, but it’s there above Denali.

I spend the bulk of the morning just watching the light move across.

I am in a heightened and constant state of utter awe for the entire morning. I take a lot of photos. I rig my Gorilla Tripod to my treking poles as a makeshift tripod.

I realize that this day is why I came here! This is my gift from Denali! I savor it.

I was so concerned that I get a good picture that I spend 15 mins cranking the handle on the weather-band radio which has a USB power output, to get just enough charge on my iPhone to get the above picture. I crank and crank and crank, get the one shot and it dies… This is perhaps the one day, I wished I had a better camera. I don’t mind not lugging a huge lens around to get close-ups of bears, but I do wish I could have given the mountains and sky more justice.

The day is clear and warm, and after lunch I look at the broad green slopes that lead up the north side of Mt. Galen and I decide to take a walk. I decide NOT to commit to climbing Mt. Galen. Just a walk in that direction that might end up on the summit.

Photoshop panorama of Mt. Galen

I’m prepared either way. I get to a point further North than I’ve yet been and am looking up the slopes when, BAM! There’s a bear. Smack dab in the middle of where I need to go to approach the mountain. I have time, and he is plenty far away, so I sit and watch him to see what his intentions are. It quickly becomes clear that napping is the order of the day for him. I keep an on him as he shifts positions in his snoozing. The term “lolly-gaging” comes to mind. For fierce beasts these things can get pretty silly.

This is again the age-old paradox: The beautiful landscape can kill you. The terrifying predator is cute. etc. It is disturbing to think how accurate Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree actually is.

The fact of the matter is that in the environment I was in, a bear would first appear in the landscape as a fuzzy caterpillar. That’s what I would look for, perhaps because I grew up with caterpillars and can see them more easily. It reminds of a time when I was a teenager, shortly after moving to North America from Japan; I was riding my motorcycle at night, and suddenly there was a deer right in front of me, and I had to swerve rather violently to miss it. The thing is that it took several seconds, after I was safe and the adrenaline was dripping off of my brain, to realize that it was a deer. The alarm thought in my head was “That’s the biggest dog I’ve ever seen in my life!” Now that I knew to look for fuzzy brown caterpillars on the hillsides, I was seeing the bears.

At one point, I think he’s gone, but then his head pops up as he is apparently doing the back-stroke in the bushes. It becomes clear: Mt. Galen, by the Northern route, is off for humans today.

This is the thing about this place: You don’t try to alter the environment to your wishes. You adapt to it. You evolve. You change. And it’s not about being powerless or weak. It’s about being attentive and in tune. I’m not saying that I am. But I am beginning to hear that I am off key…

I took some time, while I waited, to use another piece of equipment that I bought at REI in Anchorage. My Sanitary Trowel. I haven’t been bringing that up, but yes, I have been using my trowel from time to time.

A scoping of the river valley to my left reveals that it is open, so I cut down to the river and continue exploring upstream. After quite a bit of picking my way up the river I hear a trotting sound and a caribou comes jogging almost right up to me. I see him before he sees me and when he does see me he stops and does a kind of “Oh Shit!” and then buries his head in a bush, almost casually, as if to play nonchalant.

My first sensation is relief that it isn’t a moose, followed by “what do I do now?” The valley here is narrow enough that it’s hard to simply move around each other, and my prime directive in Denali is to not alter the behavior of wildlife, so I began to calmly back away, as I gingerly get my camera out.

He turns and trots back the way he came, and I turn and move downstream a bit more quickly.

After a bit though he turns around again and tries to pass me on my right.

He stopped and looked right at me basically posing for a picture, while we both seemed to be feeling an awkward sense of, hoping no one was looking, because this was NOT how we were supposed to interact. There was a weird sense of embarrassment. And wonder… Embarrassed wonder.

He gives up and backs off again before trotting past me on my left with an almost audible “Fuck it!”

I wonder if all the moose tracks that I’ve been seeing are in fact caribou, so I go over and check…

…and these are indeed quite different.

When I get back to camp, there is a ground squirrel near my tent who seems to have had it with me. He is “cheeping” and running around. I explain to him that I’m leaving soon and am sorry if I’ve caused distress. Every once in a while he pops out to check things out, or he just “cheeps” at me when I’m in my tent.

All in all, an AMAZING day…

Denali 6. Hey bear!

September 1st, 2012

Day 5:

Fitful sleep. Wind and rain and bear thoughts. Wake up to a layer of fog in the mountains just above me. No sign of bear. BRFC is undisturbed.

The standard practice I was told, was to put your Bear Resistant Food Container on end, mouth down (rain) and put a spare fuel can on top. That way, if it is even casually messed with by a bear, you will know. I kept my beloved granite-ware cup on top as well. The lid of the BRFC is designed to be easy for humans, hard for bears and is basically held fast by two little hooks that are flush with the surface of the container and turned with a screwdriver, key or coin. As it turns out, a quarter was the easiest tool to turn them with so I just kept one in my pocket with my knife. It was one step easier than opening my knife. I would get really nervous though when I was hiking etc, that I was going to loose my quarter. It took me until about day 5 here to realize that I could just leave the quarter under the fuel canister. This didn’t occur to me before because, I had to admit to myself, part of me was thinking that if I left the coin a bear would use it to open the container! It is a continual wonder that I have the wits to get food into my face!

Cold wet. Something wrong with the ignition on the Jetboil. I walk the perimeter of my little mountain.

I am much more aware now of where a bear might be. Watching that guy last night was a real education. Seeing how he could disappear into the little knots of scruff that are everywhere.

My attitude swung from “no bears around here” to “there could be a bear anywhere.” This was actually a bit more rational. There is no better way to learn how well a bear can hide out here than watching one popping in and out of view among the bushes and scruff. And he would very quietly stay completely hidden for minutes, in ways that would make my walking up on him very easy. I was very calmly recalibrating all of my instincts.

The thing about this landscape is that it is very difficult to judge what is going on, from a distance. Much of the ground itself is spongy moss covered tundra.

And what looks like alpine meadow from even a short distance can be furrowed with trenches and little creeks and sloughs. That first day getting through to camp 1 was almost all on rough ground like this.

There are no trails and the scruff and brush can get thick and impassible while offering excellent cover for animals. The area around Mt. Galen varies between this kind of land and actual alpine meadow.

After breakfast I make a little scouting trip out into the area where he was when I watched him. Partially it is verifying that he is gone. Partially to further my education about his behavior.

Looking back up at my camp from where the bear was.

My regular call of “Hey bear!” gets old fast and as I now know I need something more constant.

The bear-call that I picked up from the Rangers in Holcolm bay was a “Hey Bear!” that is very close to “AY-Bear!” It’s a good sound. It gets it out there. That opening “AY!” when projected sharply can really carry. What it reminded me of is the Louisiana pronunciation of the surname Huber. So the call would always make me think of my friend David Huber, with whom I share certain bear-like qualities.
I have carried a bear-bell on my pack for years. I have one with a little magnet that allows you to muffle it except when you need it. But in the bear-awareness briefing in Denali the rangers made the point that your voice is better because it communicates more about you. It makes it clearer what you are. You are human. Given my artistic interest in the primacy of the human voice, and its role in expression, this is a deeply profound and attractive idea. So I didn’t bring my bell. From now on, I’ll just use my voice.

I do what I’ve heard so many hikers here do. I sing. At one point I simply talk to the bear. It gets kind of emotional. I realize that a lot of my fear is based on guilt. Species guilt. Civilization guilt.

“It gets kind of emotional” is a bit of understatement. This is hard to express. It wasn’t any kind of dementia or hallucination but I literally started talking to the bear I had seen. I tried to explain why I didn’t want any trouble with it and it quickly led to tricky territory. Trying to explain what I was doing there. Why I felt I should be immune from the rules of “eat or be eaten” which was the obvious local custom. I ended up begging forgiveness for the mess we were making of things in our stubborn and long-term attempt to shield ourselves from the discomforts of nature. Something deep rose up and came cracking out of my chest and I cried like a baby.

It starts raining pretty hard so I go back and sort things out a bit in the tent. It gets really cold so when the weather breaks I grab a quick lunch (tuna taco) and head out with the day pack.

A tuna taco is vacuum packed tuna eaten by wrapping sporkfulls of it in pieces of whole wheat tortilla.

I’m ready for rain, but it stays clear. I head back across “bear Valley” and find the antler I had seen.

I work my way up the rise along the ridge overlooking the river. The closer to the ridge the easier the walking. Every time I try to head towards Mount Galen I hit scruff. And yes, I’m singing. I’m like an iPod on shuffle. Simon & Garfunkle, Beatles, old Irish Sea Songs. While looking for a good path down to the river I spot a sow with two cubs on the mountainside opposite me. They are further upstream and well up the mountainside. Nevertheless, after watching them for a bit I hurry down to the river. The wind is blowing upstream so I want to stay upwind of them if they cut down to the water. The theory being, mom will avoid me if she smells me. I keep looking back and up the mountainside as I make my way downstream but I see no sign of them. During my early-morning perimeter scam, I saw the red back-pack in the distance, disappearing up the river. I wonder where camp was, and if bear contact was made. the river is swollen and watery coffee color from the rain. When I get to where I hiked yesterday I can see how the terrain is totally changed. By the time I get to the little canyon that leads up to my tent, the sun is shining but I’m seeing dark clouds. I do my water filter thing and head up my mountain. I come up with a version of “Suffragette City” with “Hey bear” instead of “Hey man.”

The Alaska Range minus Denali is waiting for me. It is breathtakingly beautiful.

The mountains are constantly changing. The light is always doing amazing things.

The peaks of mountains that were bare yesterday were frosted with snow this morning, but much of it is now gone. The sun is out and I am in Alpine paradise. I’m still concerned about the mom and her cubs so I go to the river Ridge and spend a good while glassing the area I saw them, and both up and down stream. No sign. This is not reassuring. I would rather know where they are or wetn, but I am getting used to my ignorance and the base level of fear it stokes in me.

It has turned into an amazingly beautiful evening. The only thing missing is Denali which has been very shy for days now. Perhaps I was to forward camping here in such a great place to see all of it… I spend some time drying boots and socks. No bugs!

Time moves so slowly here.

This is truly one of the most profound revelations I had on this trip. I had always known that civilization was speeding up time. But to feel the difference in one’s bones… I know this is part of why Lynn didn’t want me to bring a book. To really feel the wide open space that is a day. How simultaneously liberating and terrifying it is. Minutes take days to pass and hours became lifetimes. Part of this is the flat rotation of the sun around the sky. It is not the midnight sun which I experienced as a teenager in northern Norway, but the days are long and the night never really gets dark. But the more important factor which I am acutely aware of, is the absence of the tick-tock, tick-tock of human interaction.
And as I’ve said, I developed a weird interest with time: Making little lines in the sand by the river to count the days. Lining up pebbles into little calendars. I never took my watch off. And almost always knew what time it was. It wasn’t like a tick or a clinical-type obsession, but when there was nothing else to occupy attention, time was right there waiting to take up some brain-cycles.

Denali 5. …shit.

August 30th, 2012

Day 4:

Slept very well. Woke up cozy in my sleeping bag and slept in. Made move to camp 3 in 2 trips. I just don’t want to carry the heavy pack too much. Left tent for second trip. Finished move around noon as weather makes clear signs of rain. I hurry to deploy tent. It is windy, nevertheless I do the best job of it yet. Practice. I put on rain gear and pack water kit for a trip down to the river. Glassing the valley across from me I see what appears to be moose antlers. I decide to investigate at a later date. Rain on and off as I go to river and explore upstream a bit. Many moose tracks. What is proper moose avoidance behavior? it begins to rain harder as I collect water and head back. After dropping off water I go on a scouting mission to explore what might be an alternate route to the road. It isn’t, but I clarify the best route. I am planning to do this early on the morning on the 11th. I don’t look forward to the heavy pack, so I want to eliminate route mistakes.

In retrospect and even at the time, it is amazing to me how much I obsessed about what day it was, how many days I had been there, and when I was going to leave. This little trip to the road was all about trying to quell constant worries about whether I knew the way well enough. Also, I had been quite distressed by how hard I found it to hike with my full pack, and the return to the road on the morning of the 11th was the next time that I would have to face that.

I go all the way to the road. It rains hard most of the way back but the sky is clearing. Also: earlier after pitching the tent I was able to get a signal on the Weather-band radio. Isolated showers and thunderstorms. Clearing up by Monday. So I am not profoundly worried about the weather.

I had tried the radio at both of my other camps and got nothing. I assumed it was a bust and I had wasted money on the thing, but I think the higher elevation of camp 3 gave me a signal. I had to hold it in a very specific way which was not a lot of fun, but the robot voice of the automated weather radio system at least gave me a point of reference in terms of my own observations of the weather. The new camp was in fact a little exposed and I was worried about storms.

My rain gear is working well. Tent egress is tricky.

I rest in the tent when I get back and wait for a break in the rain to go out and cook dinner. Louisiana beans and rice with Earl Grey tea. Very good. I see a lone hiker with the red pack working up the river. I pack up the Jetboil, and check the hikers progress… skipping my valley. I go back to food storage to get a vitamin tablet after brushing my teeth. As I return I see something across the valley.

Grizzly bear.

It is slowly working its way back and forth across the valley opposite me. But he is definitely coming towards me.

The camera is not doing justice to this situation. Even at maximum zoom, it’s just that fuzzy dot. But in the flesh he was huge and coming closer and soberingly real.

I’m not sure what to do. We’re supposed to avoid them and not let our presence alter their behavior, but what if it’s coming towards your camp? It appears to see me at one point when it gets to the bottom of the valley. I wave my arms and yell “Hey Bear!” It rears on its hind legs to get a better look, and then follows the valley floor around to the south, avoiding me.

I follow it with the binoculars as it heads, ironically, in the direction of the site of camp 2.

After watching it for long enough to see that it is not decidedly leaving the area, I put up Lynn’s bear fence for the first time.

A huge part of what was so distressing about this encounter was that for some stupid reason, I had thought that the fact that I had seen no bears in my immediate vicinity and only scant bear-sign, meant that there were “no bears around here.” This is why I hadn’t ever put the fence up. It was now painfully clear that this assumption was based on ignorance. I fell for the oldest trap in the book, even though, intellectually, I quite familiar with the maxim that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” How stupid could I be?

And then when this guy shows up, all my knowledge about what to do in bear encounters is a tea-spoon of comfort in an ocean of doubt. I’m still not sure if what I did was the right thing. I was downwind and up-hill of him. But I was banking on the thought that he would avoid me if he knew what and where I was, early enough to save face. I knew that as threatening as it was, when he reared up he was probably just trying to get a better view of me. I was pretty sure that we were far enough apart that I wasn’t in violation of the distance principle, but I kept a mantra going in my head about most charges being bluffs.

I knew I didn’t know enough. I also knew that no amount of knowledge would be enough. This is reality. It can be pretty scary. Even a pretty mundane encounter like this one, can be pretty scary.

I’m pretty sure he saw me and will avoid me, but I’m not absolutely sure. Just when things were tiny bit in control… Or seemed that way.

Finishing up this post in Madrid Spain, almost eight weeks after the day in question has put this day in a different context for me. For one thing, Madrid has, as a heraldic symbol, a bear eating from a madroño tree, so everywhere I look here, I see bears. And then a couple days ago I got an email from Lynn Schooler, with a link to a news story. It is no longer true that there have been no bear-fatalities in Denali park…

A 49 year old man from San Diego was found dead along the Tolkat river on Friday August 24th. There appears to have been a violent encounter with a bear. A bear which was sighted from a helicopter in the immediate vicinity of the remains was shot and killed as well. It has been established that this was the bear that killed him. The man’s camera was found, and the last 26 pictures on the camera were of the bear that killed him. The bear’s behavior in the pictures appears to be placid grazing, however there only appears to be about 40 yards between the camera and the bear. This is by Denali regulations, way too close. However, as David Tomeo wrote me in an email after the incident:

“…pictures likely don’t tell the whole story. Why was he so close to this bear and not backing off, perhaps other bears were just encountered
behind him, in the direction of retreat. The bear in the images appears to be feeding, but it is known that bears will often ‘ease up’ on their prey by casually moving closer and closer. If this hiker backed away as soon as he saw the bear, would things have been different. We may never know the full story.”

As I said, the incident throws my own little encounter into a totally new light for me. If I were back at my camp today and I saw that bear again, I would probably try to move away without letting it see me and try to find a vantage where I could watch my camp and the bear from a “safe” distance. The fact of the matter is that I will never ultimately know if what I did was the best choice. I didn’t have a “negative incident” so, on one hand, I was categorically correct, but I will probably always wonder about it.

Aside from my sympathy for the lost man’s family, I worry about the repercussions of last week’s tragedy. For the park. For the bears. For the community of people who work in the park. And for my own sense of proportion about it the next time I’m in grizzly country. David says:

“I’d like to emphasis that in some ways this is very much like a rare lightning strike or a weather-related car accident. It does happen, but not very often. Thousands of people walk through grizzly bear country everyday, some may take it for granted, but sometimes, just sometimes lightning strikes.”

I know that it is MUCH more rational in my life to be afraid of cars and busses. I am much more likely to get hurt or killed by these dangerous things that surround me every day. But I am a product of millennia of evolutionary programing, and that programing has a very old and powerful piece of code that asserts itself in the presence of a predator. Rationality has little to do with it at that point. And that piece of code just picked up another little bit of power last week. It hunkers down, deep in my amygdala and mutters: “…see… I was RIGHT!”

From the very first time that I went hiking in Alaska the presence of grizzlies, and my knowledge that in that environment I was NOT on the top of the food chain, was the active ingredient in the acidic solvent that I could feel, burning my hubris away. However, I do not think that the humbling nature of the cosmic perspective gained, is worth being actually mauled and eaten for. David is right, and wise, to point out how rare these incidents are. But if the lightning is striking you, there is really nothing you can do about it.

I don’t know of anyone in my acquaintance who has earned the right to a full-spectrum response to this kind of thing more than than Lynn. And I think he summed it up exceptionally well when he said in his email that his first thought when he heard about the incident last week was: ‘shit…shit, shit, shit.’

Denali 4. Dragon Faces

August 24th, 2012

Day 3:

Didn’t sleep too well. 2 AM pee not as spectacular as night before, but on balance, completely stunning.

I’m talking about the view/experience of the environment here. Not the actual urinating…

Woke up with headache. Took two Advil. Back to sleep. Finally got up about 9 AM. Feeling better. Used freeze-dry envelope for oatmeal. Much more satisfactory. Bugs are bad. Wind was keeping them at bay.

Pack up daypack with rain gear, water kit, map + compass and head out to scout the area. Find a probable site for better camp north of current site. Base to summit view of Denali. Spend time overlooking the small river. Glass it for a long time. Pleasant. Take some pictures.

Make my way down to river. Hike upriver a ways. Human and Moose tracks.

It is interesting to me that almost everyone you talk to who spends a lot of time out in these wilderness areas tells you that the animal that they are REALLY afraid of is the moose. Specifically a large moose cow. Despite this, there is almost zero information offered about how to avoid a moose or what to do when you encounter one. The best I could come up with was “…Just run. As fast as you can. Serpentine if you’re out in the open, but find something to hide behind if you can…” This is not comforting advise. Especially when you’re in a place without a real tree to speak of or really ANYTHING that could actually hide me from a moose. I think what it comes down to is that although a moose is probably never going to hunt you and eat you, it is much less predictable than a bear. You just don’t know what it’s going to do. Not that I’ve been led to believe that bears are exactly predictable, but they do seem to have patterns. From what people have said to me, moose are just giant masses of biological fury that will come at you for no apparent reason and use you as a punching bag until they calm down.

Fill water bottles, and climb back up. Scout around top of bluff. Confirm campsite. after yesterday’s fatigue want to take it easy. Decide to move next day. Get back to camp. Make miso soup and coffee. Sit on hillside and read with the bugs. Occasional stints glassing the mountains. Faces the snow.

It’s kind of an amazing thing and not something that comes across in pictures very well; there are so many faces of the mountains that literally begin to look like faces after awhile. I know it’s a natural and almost inevitable instinct that we anthropomorphize the universe when we look at it, but I’ve never noticed it this intensely. The snow and rock are so sensitive to the changing light, and I watched for hours to see little nuances of expression passing across these stern visages.

I heard once that the geomancers of the Fensghui tradition were actually trying to see “the Dragon” in the mountain, so that they could site buildings in places that would not be on a toe or something that would irritate the dragon. The longer I am out in the wild, the less poetic and more practical this seems. Perhaps it is the merging of the practical and the poetic that the wilderness is constantly waiting for us to catch on to.

Dinner of freeze-dried chicken and rice. Best one so far. A few drops of rain as I finish up. I put up everything and get in tent. Strange sound like swarm of insects from direction of creek. Bits of rain as evening wears on. Hard not to get down in evenings. Worries about coping with real rain. Wondering if other campsite is too exposed.

Denali 3. Hump day

August 2nd, 2012

Day 2:

Slept relatively well. Cooked oatmeal in Jetboil. Should have used bag from last night’s meal.

Best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my entire life.

No kidding. I still can’t believe how amazing coffee tastes in this environment. It is completely and overwhelmingly sensual.

Looking at Denali in glory. Take a couple pictures.

I am out of water and must move to Unit 34, so pack-up and am moving by 8:45.

Gan’t make progress straight east so return to road. Walk road 3 + hours. See Chuck in park maintenance truck. Spend some time in Compass/map land. Trying to make sure where I am. A Mercedes van that passed me on the road is stopped near where I want to cut in to find a camp near Mt. Galen. There is also a stream and what looks like a trail head. I drink some filtered water (cold) and then fill one of my bottles. I head up trail and it quickly disappears. The landscape opens up into a nice valley behind a ridge. I find a possible camp, but wonder if there is better further. I realized that I’ve dropped my maps, and permit. I drop the pack and get the daypack out, fill it with water bottle and filter bag. I hurry back along what I think is my route. Finding the trail again, the map bag is in the middle of the trail near the road. I continue to road and fill both the Camelback and filter bag. Return to pack. I evaluate site and decide to at least spend the night. Set up camp. Marginally better at it. Fewer mosquitoes, more wind. I cook freeze-dried meal. Marginally better at it. I think the van by the road was a group climbing Mt. Galen. I see them a couple times. Never close. Nap. Look at Mountain. I’m tired.

The morning hike with the heavy pack really knocked me out. I’m just not used to carrying that heavy of a load, and the one piece of gear that I’m not so happy with is my pack.

I keep wondering how much difference one of the new, high-tech packs would make on a trip like this. I’m also not sure if I’ve even rigged this thing right. I should have showed it to someone like Lynn who would probably show me some tricks. I keep thinking about that scene in PLATOON where Willem Dafoe inspects the new recruits before their first night ambush and just pulls gear off of them tossing it on the ground saying… “you don’t need this… and this…” I’m certainly glad that I didn’t ever plan on covering a lot of distance on this trip. This was my highest mileage day in terms of humping it with the pack.

This is a view of Denali from Camp 2:

By evening my spirits are dampened…

Doubts again. Am I actually safe?

Denali 2. Independence day

August 1st, 2012

The 2012 ASTI program ended on July 1st. I had a flight up to Anchorage on the morning of the 3rd so I had some time to prepare in Juneau. The way my dates were working out, it was looking like I would have 7 days out in the wild. My plan was to take advantage of a program that Denali Park has, called Back Country Camping. I would spend a week, alone in the wilderness of Denali Park.

Denali Park is the size of Vermont and most of it is completely undeveloped. There is no trail system in the bulk of the park. Instead of trails, the system that exists is that the park is divided into 87 “Units.” To get access to the Back Country, you must register with the Park Rangers who discuss your itinerary and then work out with you when you will be in which unit. The point of this is that each unit has a quota of people who can be in it at any given time. The units are unmarked, except on the maps at the Ranger Station, so you have to get your US Geological Survey maps and mark the relevant borders for your trip, yourself. It is then up to you and your compass skills. You are on your own out there. The only way that anyone will know if anything is wrong is if someone calls park dispatch because you didn’t return when you were supposed to. At that point they will know which unit you were supposed to be in last. It is interesting to note that many of the units in Denali are larger than entire state/national parks in other parts of the country.

I identified about a half-dozen units which would potentially give me some options in terms of finding some spots with good views of Mt. Denali, and began gathering my gear. I had a rather old-fashioned external frame pack that someone gave me several years ago, along with a very cool little tent. Although I like the tent very much I didn’t have a rain-fly for it, and I just wasn’t sure about spending that length of time dependent on it. At the urging of my “little-big-sister” Faith (an experienced back-packer), I looked into renting a tent from REI in Anchorage. It was 50 bucks for a weeks rental of a pretty good tent, so this became a no-brainer. I had most all of the rest of the gear I would need from other trips including the Kayak Ranger trip. But there were some things I needed.

Art Rotch put me in touch with a friend; David Tomeo who is a Program Director for Alaska Geographic
at the Murie Science and Learning Center which is inside Denali. He was wonderfully reassuring when I explained my plans.

I wrote to Lynn, mostly because I wanted to see him while I was in Juneau, and see if he had any advise. His response surprised me. He offered me the loan of an electric bear-fence! I had seen these things at Western Auto (the best place to get gear in Juneau) but it really surprised me that someone like Lynn even had one. The result of this was the thought: “Am I in more trouble than I thought?” There is one thing that I knew. I would rather have the bear-fence and not need it, than need the bear-fence and not have it. I was deciding not to take any kind of gun or bear-spray. My reasoning being that by the time I was in a situation where I could use mace, I had already made about 7 mistakes. But I remembered how hard it was to get to sleep in Holcomb bay the first couple of nights. I would close my eyes and all I could think about was waking up with a bear-snout sniffing my face… As David Tomeo said about the fence; “You probably won’t need it, but if you think it’ll help you sleep, it’s probably worth it.”

I went out to Lynn’s beautiful house near Amalga Harbor. He cooked us some of his excellent pasta, and treated me to his always fantastic conversation. There were two pieces of advice he gave me that really stuck with me. One I followed. One I didn’t. The one that I followed was to get some trekking poles. The one that I didn’t was not to take a book. I understood why he advised this. It was to remove any internal escape. And I agreed. I had already thought about not taking a book, and had decided that there was one that I would take. It was The Golden Spruce. And there was a specific reason why I wanted to take it which had little to do with escape. I did not take lightly, setting aside the wilderness advice of Lynn Schooler. On the other hand trekking poles were an absolute revelation! I was SO HAPPY Lynn suggested them. As he said: “You’re much more stable as a quadruped, and it saves your knees.”

I was struck that Lynn rather casually referred to my trip as my “vision quest.” It’s not a term I feel I have a right to, but I certainly liked it as a container for what was ahead of me.

The entire trip, lived as a knot in the pit of my stomach. I had that weird sense of how this must be the right thing to do because it’s completely freaking me out! Or is this accurate fight-or-flight and I should just go home?

I got into Anchorage early on the morning of the 3rd and took a cab to Lucy Peckam’s house. She was down in Washington State but had arranged for me to use her Honda Escape for my trip while she was gone. I drove it to the Anchorage REI and got there in time to see the doors opened. I spent the bulk of the morning there. Jetboil, binoculars, water-filtration system, weather-band radio, freeze-dried meals, and trekking poles! Among other miscellaneous stuff. Plus, I picked up the tent I had reserved. Then to a grocery store to pick up the rest of the food I needed; oatmeal, cheese, vacuum-packed tuna, whole-wheat tortillas, coffee, tea.

At the crack of dawn, I headed up to Denali. Passing through the famous Wasilla (which auto-correct just tried to spell as “weasel”). It was a gorgeous drive up along the eastern edge of the park. Listening to Anchorage NPR slowly get fainter and fainter…

I checked in at the Back Country Camping desk. Went through the briefing process. Discussed my itinerary. I would spend the first night in Unit 35 and the rest in 34. I bought and notated the maps I would need, and was issued my BRFC (Bear Resistant Food Container). I was told that Denali has NEVER had a fatality caused by a bear. The main reason for this is that they have very successfully disassociated humans from food in the mind of the bears. In order to maintain this, it is very important that a bear NEVER get any food from you. Also I was taught an important triangle: With your tent as the downwind point of an equilateral triangle, your food storage is 100 yards away as another point, and your cook-site is another point 100 yards away.

The knot is the stomach is tightening and becoming a solid surface to push off of. I buy my ticket for the bus which will take me along the one road in the park, and drop me off in Unit 35. The buses are the main way that most people see the park, or get to the organized campsites. Once in the park, we campers can ride any bus that has room if we want to go somewhere further than we want to hike… but there’s only one road.

I call Akiko and give her the number for park dispatch and tell her that if she doesn’t hear from me by the evening of the 11th, something’s gone wrong and she should call them.

From here on in this series, italicized text is transcribed from my camp-journal.

4th of July: Day one

Boarded 2:00 pm Camper Bus driven by Mona.

5 hour bus ride to aprox Mile 72. Saw 3 bears + 2 cubs. 2 Caribou.

In my experience in the wild, to get decent pictures of wildlife, you have to either get really really close, or have a bigger lens than I want to be lugging around. I’ll leave that to Michio and Lynn. Here are some shots of the landscape as we drove into the park. Click on the images for high res.

Met Mona’s Husband Chuck, and camper from Anchorage. Denali Played peek-a-boo whole trip.

First Glimpse of Mt Denali

Bus driving away after dropping me off…

Hiked in towards Moose Creek from road. Hard work. Heavy pack. Glad to have poles, but lost tip caps. No good running stream so made camp near small pond. Got feet + boots wet trying to get water to filter. Also lost half may water to Jetboil tipping. Ate freeze dried meal. I think I brought too much food. Can’t get sunblock, bug juice into BRFC. Leaving them in small bags nearby along with first aid kit. Mosquitos a big pain. REI sent two tents. Went to sleep a bit discouraged.

The brevity of this first entry in my journal is eloquent to me. I was deeply discouraged this first night. The short hike had been SO difficult. The pack was heavier than I had thought and the terrain was impossible. I don’t know what I would have done without my poles. On top of this I was devastated that I was so stupid as to get my feet unnecessarily wet, and especially that I lost half my water just because I wasn’t being careful. Mindful. There’s a description of a man in The Blue Bear that I kept thinking of: “…the slow careful movements of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors…” This was NOT how I would be described.

My BRFC was full of food. It was my driver Mona who advised me to put everything that didn’t smell like me in the BRFC. But when I tried I couldn’t get the sunscreen etc in…

Also it was true. I had checked the contents of the tent bag before leaving but I didn’t unfold the rain-fly. When I did, I found another tent folded into it. Now I had THAT to lug around with me. It wasn’t that big or heavy but I didn’t need it and there was nothing I could do with it.

By the time I went to sleep I was cold and deeply miserable.

Went out to pee at 3am. Mind blowing sight of Moon + Alaska range. Denali in glory. Too cold to take picture.

Maybe this wasn’t so dumb…

Denali 1. Prologue

July 31st, 2012

Working on the theatrical adaptation of The Blue Bear at Perseverance Theatre during 2010-11 had a transformative effect on me. I had realized fairly early on in the process that there were things about this story that were inaccessible to me because I simply didn’t have the relationship to the natural world that the two principal characters in the story had. It isn’t that I think that you need to share the principal characteristics of characters in order to portray them, but in this case, I felt that the vague sense of wonder and respect that I did feel for the natural environment of Alaska was too easily mistaken for the very specific and deep relationship that Lynn Schooler and Michio Hoshino
had with it. It was too easy for me to think I understood it. So I went out with the Kayak rangers of Holcolm bay and at least had the sense that I understood the place, knocked down a bit. The experience didn’t give me the same depth of understanding, but I got a better sense of what it might be to have a deeper relationship to place, from which it was possible to extrapolate as an artist. The effect on The Blue Bear which premiered in Juneau in January of 2011 was of incalculable value.

I have been intending to blog about my experience with the Kayak rangers and still plan on doing it, but for the next little while, I’m going to post a series about another trip, while it’s still fresh in my mind, heart and body…

The summer of 2011 after the first ASTI (Alaska Summer Theatre Intensive) training program at Perseverance, I traveled up to Anchorage to look at the the Sydney Laurence theatre where we were going to remount The Blue Bear in early 2012. After spending some time at the theatre with Art Rotch, I headed over to the rather excellent Anchorage Museum. Wandering through the galleries I was struck by one room in particular. Landscapes that were poised precariously on the razor edge between impressionism and realism. And there was a subject that kept asserting itself like Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s prints. These were the paintings of Sydney Laurence, and his Mt. Fuji was North America’s highest peak, Mt Mckinley.

Like Monet’s water lilies, reproductions do little justice to these paintings.

This is how dumb I am: It took WAY TO LONG for me to realize that the theatre I had to come to Anchorage to check out, was named after the painter who’s work I was being so struck by in the museum.

But to be honest, what I was really getting from Laurence’s portraits of Mckinley was an awe and regard for the mountain itself. And there was one particularly monumental work that just took my breath away. The truly awe inspiring Arctic King:

This afternoon in the gallery began a low level obsession in me. Mt Mckinley is more properly called Mt. Denali or just Denali. That’s its Athabaskan name. Attempts to change the name are consistently blocked by the congressional delegation from president Mckinley’s home state: Ohio. That’s how dumb the United States is!
Denali means something like “The Great One”. The mountain has an origin myth/story, which I will not relate because although I’ve heard it, I don’t really understand it or have the right to re-tell it.

Reproductions of these works being so poor, I hurried back to the museum when I returned to Anchorage for the remount of The Blue Bear. And looking at the paintings again, the low level obsession began to focus into an impulse. It was actually very simple.

“I want to go and be in a place where I can see Denali.”

I recognized this impulse. This was not a vague need to face nature, or testosterone driven need to test myself. This was an artistic impulse. I decidedly did not want to climb the mountain. It was almost the opposite of that impulse. It was an impulse to simply go to its feet and… hang out. To listen to what it might want to say to me.

But I wasn’t naive enough to think that I could handle such a trip. I was definitely being egged on by thoughts of Michio Hoshino
spending 30 days in a tent on the Tokositna glacier just to get one shot of the northern lights:

Or Lynn Schooler’s solo trek around Lituya bay
. But I wasn’t delusional enough to automatically think I could go out into the wilderness by myself. Nevertheless I knew that we were planning on doing another ASTI in the Summer of 2012 and it was looking as though my schedule might be open after it was over. I had enough Delta miles to get me a flight up to Anchorage from Juneau. Denali Park is a bit of a drive north from Anchorage, so just as a trial balloon I asked my good friend, the Anchorage based composer and sound-designer Lucy Peckham, if she could drive me up to Denali if I came up in early July. She said we could definitely figure something out and that I could assume her help.

But I still wasn’t sure if I was just fooling myself, so on one of the last nights we were in Anchorage, I mentioned the idea, rather hesitantly, to Lynn. I knew him well enough to know that the last thing he would do would be to encourage me to do anything foolhardy, but also that he would wish for me to learn the lessons that I would learn by getting into a bit of trouble. Half-way through my description of what I was thinking, he got a steely kind of look in his eyes, and he just started saying one word, over and over as I was talking…

He kept saying: “Go.”

Kiva! Help save the world… for FREE!!

August 1st, 2011

I’ve been using Kiva for a little bit now and I’m very impressed with it. It’s basically a web-based micro-lending site, where you make loans of, usually, 25 dollars to people who can really use them. Then when the loan is returned, you can reinvest it with someone else.

It’s great. Go to the site. Check it out.

The thing is that for a limited time Kiva is allowing members like me to offer a free trial whereby you can make your first 25 dollar loan for free. There are only a limited number of these so please act now!

Here’s the link


You’ll be glad you did. I promise…


April 5th, 2011

I’m acting in a show at Columbia U. this weekend.

It’s a lot of fun.

Check it out.

It’s Free!

Here’s the info: Hypochondria

See you there!!!