My Wilderness: Lori Yanuchi

By Lori Yanuchi

Local resident Lori Yanuchi describes an epic winter adventure by dog sled in Denali. This submission won a park-run 2014 essay contest challenging the public to share what wilderness means to them, and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner published her piece as well.

Standing breathless on top of McGonagall Pass, inner sanctum of Denali’s north side, I soaked up the solitude. Rivers of ice coursed from every direction in a magnificent… primal landscape…untrammeled by man…

Concealed behind boulders, pikas chirped displeasure at my intrusion, while distant avalanches thundered beyond my field of vision, in the deep recesses of my psyche. Across the frozen valley, rose the 12,000 ft. face of Mt. Brooks, sentinel of a timeless ice age. Denali’s north peak appeared reachable by an easy stroll up Pioneer Ridge, rather than a three week expedition up vertical slopes riddled with crevasses.

Beside me, my husband and partner wedged a picket in the rocky moraine to stake out our pack of four legged nomads. Our presence represented the human species for nearly a hundred miles in any direction. Together, we traveled by dog team from Kantishna, retracing the historic trail of the Sourdough Expedition of 1910, as they freighted their provisions up McGonagall Pass, en-route to the upper reaches of Denali. Not a snowmachine trail was in sight…offering outstanding opportunities for primitive recreation…

The approach presented some of the most difficult terrain a man – or woman could travel through…and man himself is a visitor who does not remain… A 20% grade and exposed, jagged rocks made freighting up McGonagall an extreme challenge for mushers. Gaining 2,000 ft. in elevation in the last two miles, it could take as long as six hours for a team and driver to ascend with a heavy load, and only twenty harrowing minutes to descend to Cache Creek, six miles below. Negotiating that scoured canyon by dog team created a visceral response in me, one that made me feel alive, present, and aware of all that was and wasn’t around me.

Before us stretched the Muldrow, 35 miles of moaning ice, flowing from the cleavage of Denali’s summits. Merging with the Traleika Glacier downstream from McGonagall, it gained mass in a tangle of jumbled blocks on its eastward route. Beyond that, we knew, it carved a horseshoe turn, emerging from the mountains wearing a jacket of green tundra and pulverized granite. The McKinley River gushed forth from a yawning chasm in its stagnant toe. Born on the slopes of Deenalee, the Athabascan Giant, and compressed by eons, the ancient Denali Water then joined the vast Kantishna watershed, pulsing to the Bering Sea, nourishing all living things along its path with Denali’s essence.

That dazzling amphitheater, filled with emptiness, was a temple greater than any made by man, hewn from the living rock and ice by The Giant himself. The temple held powerful energy for me, a place where shadow yielded to awareness in a mystical convergence of faith and physics. A place where science could not tell the whole story. A place where gifts were conveyed through signs, dreams, and intuition, resulting from intimacy with the land. For the land held potential – not for development…so the population does not occupy all areas…but for the mystery – the chance to encounter the unseen, the unknown. An inversion of sorts, where man does not transform the land, but is transformed by the land…for the good of the whole people…

Returning from McGonagall, we drove our teams across the smooth ice of the McKinley, up the riverbank and entered the old growth spruce of Big Timber - an oasis of trees in a treeless landscape. Our dogs knew that trail well, had broken it themselves, knew it was close to a hot meal and rest, but something else gave them speed. Full of twists and turns, they blasted through the forest, whiffing scents of unseen creatures on whose turf we trespassed. Is it the spring bear, whose tracks wound through Thorofare Canyon? Is it the wolverine, whose tracks crisscrossed Turtle Hill?

The land held secrets, of that I was certain. Sheltering wildlife and wilder men over centuries, it held its secrets close in an ageless tongue waiting for translation. Visitors pausing to listen might hear it embedded in the howl of a wolf or the wandering of caribou. Who knows what it might say? Are we entitled to know? The mystery is the beauty. In rhythm with the panting of the dogs, I might have heard it whisper as we passed… Wilderness…