A sigh of relief escaped me when the jet’s wheels slammed onto the Anchorage airstrip. We’d made it. After 30 years of hearing about my dad’s adventures in Alaska, I was traveling to see the place that shaped who he became.
It was here where he panhandled for food, worked in a logging camp, and ultimately hopped on a boat, lying to the captain about his sailing qualifications. He was out at sea before the truth was discovered.
When I turned off airplane mode, my phone lit up with a message from him. He wanted to know where we were headed. I told him we were en route to Talkeetna, and then Denali National Park. “That’s farther north than I ever made it,” dad responded.
Dad spent most of his time in Ketchikan, known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Ketchikan is about as far south as you can go in Alaska without winding up in Canada. And it was there where he wrestled with the fish, some nearly as big as he was. Or that’s how he tells the story. He’d hitchhiked north from Michigan with a childhood friend, admitting that Canadian authorities aren’t particularly fond of drifters. But back then, police officers weren’t very good at getting tickets to stick once you crossed state or international lines.
I wasn’t quite as much of a bandit as my dad. But I, too, felt Alaska’s magnetism. So in late September, my boyfriend, Tommy, and I hopped into our small rental sedan and left Anchorage for Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is the base camp for most Denali expeditions. It’s where hopeful mountaineers sort gear, eat town food, and make last-minute preparations before a bush plane drops them off on a glacier. Once on the glacier, they prepare to climb about 13,000 feet to the peak’s 20,310-foot summit and back down over three or four weeks.
From the outskirts of Talkeetna, Denali stands proud in the distance. She looks inhospitable, accepting only the most determined climbers. Tommy had been turned away from a summit twice before. On both occasions, the weather hammered him to the mountain, stealing every ounce of motivation he had. On his second trip, he left the mountain with frostbitten toes.
I’d scaled 14,000-foot peaks and walked 2,200 miles across the United States. But Denali still intimidated me. About three people out of every 1,000 die while attempting to climb the peak, which is a substantial decline from the mountain’s heartless history. From a distance, though, I couldn’t help but wonder about the magic that draws people to the summit. What versions of yourself do you encounter when you’re in a place like that?
Dad always found the best version of himself while sailing on massive freighters that made even the hardest of stomachs sick. After he worked on his first ship off the coast of Alaska, he returned home to Michigan where he fine-tuned his skills at the Maritime Academy, ultimately becoming an engineer. I hoped to become an engineer of my own destiny, too. And Denali seemed to offer a lens into my potential.
A few days after eating our fill of caribou, reindeer, halibut, elk, and yak in Talkeetna, Tommy and I drove north. It felt like a milestone to stand next to the Denali National Park sign after the short two-hour drive. It was like meeting a famous actor you’d looked up to your entire life. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Although the tourist season was over by the time we arrived, and most of the nearby businesses were closed for the year, a feeling of optimism lingered. Winter was coming, and it wouldn’t be long before the park was awake with cold-weather activities. Some of the most legendary wildlife species can be found in Denali National Park. Wolves, grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, and moose make their homes in this region. And then, there’s Denali herself towering over everything else in North America. The local ranger told us that we were free to day-hike wherever we liked in the park—even if there wasn’t a trail.
Unlike the trampled national parks in the Lower 48, Denali didn’t seem to be suffering from the same amount of human impact. So we drove deep into the landscape and pulled over next to a random mountain to bushwhack to the summit. The ground was soft, like we were walking through bubbles of moss. A dusting of snow covered all of the plants, chilling our feet as we hiked. A light wind whistled in our ears as we walked in tandem across the gentle peak. Each step felt easier than the last, carrying us higher. After a short while, we followed the ripples of the ridgeline to the peak, where we took it all in. Standing at the summit, I knew that I was hungry for bigger mountains. It’d be just a matter of time before I came back to get a closer look at Denali.
That night, the first big winter storm of the season wove its way across the park. Until then, Tommy and I had been sleeping in a tent next to rivers. But the big green and yellow blobs on the weather radar chased us inside for the night. The wind howled while we slept. And by the time the storm finally ceased, fall had entirely transformed to winter with a six-inch blanket of snow. It was time to head back to Anchorage.
Before catching our flight home, Tommy and I decided we wanted to see the coast. I threw a pebble in the water, watching the ripples distort the reflection of the mountains. Maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me, but while my eyes skimmed the surface of the ocean, I swore that for a moment, I saw my dad’s reflection staring back at me.