Denali: The best park of 'America's Best Idea'

A memorable stay at a wilderness lodge in Denali National Park shows a rare example of faithfully carrying out the Park Service's mission of conserving wildlife unimpaired. For now.
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Camp Denali, deep in the National Park surrounding Mt. McKinley

A memorable stay at a wilderness lodge in Denali National Park shows a rare example of faithfully carrying out the Park Service's mission of conserving wildlife unimpaired. For now.

The lone wolf posed in profile, icon of the untamed wilderness, and surveyed the blue and white school bus. After loping gracefully alongside and then directly in front of the bus, she had bounded up a steep, rocky ridge above the Toklat River before pausing mid-climb. It was my welcome to Alaska'ꀙs Denali National Park, a 6-million-acre refuge intended to provide predators such as canis lupus with room to roam.

That such an experience is still possible today is powerful testament to the success of a uniquely American experiment: the National Parks system. The history of the people whose collective actions transformed a world-first idea into reality makes for a compelling story, one that is the subject of Ken Burns'ꀙ latest documentary series for PBS, 'ꀜThe National Parks: America'ꀙs Best Idea,'ꀝ airing this week on KCTS and other public broadcast stations.

It can be argued that Denali is the system'ꀙs archetype park and grandest achievement as measured by the park service'ꀙs original directive: 'ꀜto conserve the scenery and the natural and historical objects and the wildlife therein,'ꀝ and 'ꀜleave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.'ꀝ Embedded in this mandate from the 1916 law establishing the National Park Service is the basic conflict that has continually vexed NPS bureaucrats and politicians: how to balance 'ꀜconserve unimpaired'ꀝ with 'ꀜenjoyment'ꀝ — protection with public use.

Denali was established only six months after the Service itself in 1917. Originally a 2-million-acre park, it was later tripled in size by the 1980 Alaska Lands Act. Denali provides instructive insight into the ongoing balancing act.Only seven people visited the park in 1922, the year its first superintendent was hired; in 2008, more than 430,000 people from around the world made the pilgrimage. I was one of that throng, just a few weeks ago.

The park'ꀙs lone entrance road is a 90-mile sinuous ribbon that winds westward to Wonder Lake, paralleling the northern base of the Alaska Range. Only the first 13 miles are paved, and private vehicles are generally banned past the Savage River checkpoint. The remaining 77 miles of narrow, dusty gravel road are accessed only by park and licensed concessionaire buses.

As the final episode of the PBS series recounts, the road remains mostly primitive and unpaved, not by chance or a lack of funding, but rather because protection outweighed unfettered public access in a pivotal battle of competing visions. A mid-50s national parks plan, dubbed Mission 66, advocated for widening and paving the road to Wonder Lake and building an extensive lodge complex in the style of Yellowstone and Yosemite. However, a pivotal player in Denali'ꀙs story, and one who is prominently featured in the PBS series, legendary wildlife biologist Adolph Murie, opposed the ambitious development plan and ultimately prevailed.

Murie explained his vision this way: 'ꀜThe feeling one gets is that the road passes through a wilderness that comes up to the road.'ꀝ And that is precisely how I felt after sharing the good fortune of the wolf/bus pas de deux with my fellow travelers.

Murie was also instrumental in spearheading a stewardship philosophy that places the greatest weight on wildlife protection. His field research proved wolf predation plays an essential role in maintaining healthy herds of sheep and caribou. For the first time in American history — including up until then even within the Lower 48'ꀙs most renowned national parks — wolves gained proactive federal protection.

Our destination is a backcountry camp on a high ridge in the Kantishna Hills past Wonder Lake. We all hope to catch glimpses of the free-roaming animal species of Denali'ꀙs so-called Big Five: caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bear, moose, wolf. And, also, of course, of Denali (Mt. McKinley), the highest peak in North America. The massive Alaska Range creates its own weather and clouds cloak Denali'ꀙs 20,320-foot summit four days out of five.

Camp Denali, a collection of simple cabins without electricity or inside plumbing, is itself part of the park'ꀙs lore. Homesteaded by Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood in 1951, it has welcomed summer visitors continuously for 58 years. Celia and Ginny met as Women'ꀙs Air Force pilots during World War II and then flew to the Last Frontier seeking new adventures. Propelled by a tenacious pioneer spirit, the lifelong friends gambled that future visitors would come to embrace wildlife and wildness as the essence of the Denali experience.

Their bet paid off handsomely, for the women were at the vanguard of eco-tourism. The camp'ꀙs legacy of providing warm hospitality and unsurpassed memories now prospers under the Cole family, who in 1975 acquired the 67 acres for the steep price of two handcrafted New England rocking chairs.

Our four days pass by in a flurry of sights, sounds, and emotions. Late August is Denali'ꀙs autumn, so seasons shifted from late summer to peak fall to early winter and back again. Tundra colors blurred together in a smeary palette of green, yellow, red, orange, and purple. Animals spotted on outings included grizzlies, ground squirrels, gyrfalcons, moose, merlin, and marmots.

The final morning dawned gloriously clear, a beautiful Indian summer day that sharpened all our senses. From atop Xerces ridge, 200 miles of Alaska Range panorama mesmerized us. Chatter slowed and dissolved into silence — no planes, no traffic, nothing but the rustle of the breeze over crimson bearberry leaves.

This was an entirely different experience than my other National Park visits, far from the crowds at Old Faithful or the small city ensconced in Yosemite Valley. Denali park service managers have unequivocally erred on the side of conservation — so far. Managers are reviewing a multi-year study of road traffic and wildlife interaction, in response to political pressure for increased public access.

Whether Denali can serve as the model for the entire system is problematic because other parks cannot easily turn back the clock. And the philosophical/political debate continues about how to balance wildlife with public access. But Denali will probably remain the great exception, the place where an historic opportunity was recognized and seized. George Hartzog, the former NPS director who backed up Murie on the watershed Wonder Lake road decision, sums it up in the Ken Burns documentary: 'ꀜThis is the Last Frontier. Your last opportunity to save virgin America is Alaska — and it'ꀙs enormous.'ꀝ

Note: 'ꀜThe National Parks: America'ꀙs Best Idea'ꀝ runs nightly on PBS stations through Friday, Oct. 2. The final episode, 'ꀜThe Morning of Creation,'ꀝ features Denali, Murie, and Ginny Wood. For more information on Camp Denali, go to its website.


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