Yelizaveta P. Renfro
Ten Days in Denali
"What do you do as the writer-in-residence?"
During my stay in Denali last July, I got this question a lot. Of course, the short answer is: write. But it isn't that simple. I didn't come to Denali and lock myself away in a cabin for ten days. The "writing" that I did was more a process of experiencing a place and taking a lot of notes. Much of the actual writing takes place later, after geographic and temporal distance gives me the space I need for reflection.
While I was in Denali, I was simply there. I came to Denali with a notebook and some pens and a camera—no computer, no smartphone, no screen of any kind. Back home in Connecticut, I spend more time looking at a screen than I do looking at landscape, much to my detriment, so here I wanted to do the opposite. After ten days, I had many pages of hand-written notes and drawings and sketches, hundreds of photos on my camera.
I hiked across the tundra and across gravel bars and stood on ridges and walked the park road. I saw the mountain, and then I didn't see the mountain for many days. I gorged on blueberries, tried crowberries, and even sampled a soapberry (which I don't recommend). I went out in sunny weather and in rain and in fog. I found caribou fur and antlers and bear digs. I saw a rainbow over Divide Mountain, and I saw a herd of about seventy caribou streaking across the hillside.
I saw Dall sheep, moose, golden eagles, Arctic ground squirrels, marmots, snowshoe hares, a porcupine, magpies, ptarmigans, and bears. A lot of bears. Every day for nine days straight, I saw bears—most of them from the bus or car windows. When you see more bears than mosquitoes—that's a good trip to Alaska.
I watched a bear and a caribou walk right past each other. I saw a bear digging for ground squirrels and another napping in the sun. I watched a bear bounding down a hill at top speed, and I saw a blonde mother bear with her two chocolate-colored cubs eating berries right by the road.
I learned about a lot of plants and trees: spruce, willow, birch, fireweed, gentian, cinquefoil, arnica, monkshood, azalea, harebell, tundra bones, grass of Parnassus, and Eskimo potato. And even if you think you know what an azalea is, the diminutive tundra version will amaze you.
I lived alone in a cabin at Toklat, at Mile 53, which allowed me to experience being in the park late at night after the buses have stopped running and all the day visitors have left. Late at night I walked out on the bridge over the Toklat River and looked at the glow on the mountains and listened to the profound silence.
Being right there at Toklat, I also had the opportunity to experience life at road camp—a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in running a national park. I learned that rangers are so much more than stern enforcers of the law and protectors of the wilderness who get to wear cool hats. On a Discovery Hike with Ranger Greg I learned about the wolves of Denali. I talked about the tundra with Ranger Tina on another hike. I talked about the concept of wilderness with Ranger Jonathan, who is working on his Ph.D. in history when he isn't busy being a park ranger. I found wolf and caribou tracks in the East Fork River with Ranger Emily. Hiking on a hillside with Ranger Ali, we talked of another place we both know and love—the Mojave Desert of California. And I am very grateful to Ranger Bob, who escorted me around bears on more than one occasion.
I also learned an extraordinary amount from the many bus drivers—Mike, Mona, Wayne, Anna, Paul, Beth, Lindy, Erland, Frank, and Elton —I had along the way, riding the camper bus and the discovery bus and the regular green buses all over the park. Everyone I met shared their knowledge and love for this place with passion and enthusiasm. Everyone I met loved to work at Denali—that's why they were there. How many places do you encounter in your everyday lives where everyone loves the place they are in and the work they are doing? Not many, I would guess.
I also watched park visitors interact with Denali in a whole range of ways. I met people from Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, California, Minnesota, Connecticut, Texas, Washington, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, Wyoming, as well as many international visitors from places like Japan, Brazil, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Hong Kong, France, and Bermuda.
One of my roles, as writer-in-residence, is to help interpret the park experience for others. The way the writing process works for me—and for many writers—is that there's a fairly lengthy rumination period that occurs after an experience. While I'm in the middle of it, I'm still forming impressions, still figuring out the shapes of the nascent narratives that are emerging. My story is still finding its way, seeking a path like the water in the braided rivers.
Some of the impressions, though, glint like the threads of those braids in sunlight.
When I was riding Mona's camper bus from the park entrance with a group of adventurous campers who were going out to Wonder Lake, she said to them, "Most people who come to the park only look at the landscape. You're going to be part of the landscape." This is an idea to consider. The landscape is not just something to look at and photograph from a bus window or visitor center parking lot. The landscape is something to experience. Don't merely take photos with the landscape behind you as a backdrop to show your friends back home that you were here. Take a few pictures, sure, but then put your cameras and screens away. How can what you are seeing compare to anything on your screen? And how can you ever capture it adequately in an electronic device? Experience it unmediated. Capture it with your mind—that is the only device capable of holding it, of truly taking it in.
So walk into the landscape. Become a part of it. Strike out across the tundra—even if you just go a short distance. Experience the two-dimensional backdrop of landscape becoming three-dimensional space as you enter it. On a Discovery Hike with Ranger Ali, we climbed high up on a hillside with the road below us. A bus traveling on the road stopped, and all the binoculars on the bus were trained on us. Someone had seen movement, and they were all checking us out.
"We are the wildlife," Ranger Ali joked. And in a way, it was true—we had become the creatures who move and live in this space.
I hiked the alpine trail up above the Eielson Visitor Center on a cold, rainy, foggy day. I accompanied Ranger Jonathan, a group of three from Belgium, and a couple from Connecticut. When we got to the top of the ridge, we couldn't see anything—just fog, all around. The visitor center down below was completely obliterated in white. Still, we took pictures on the summit with just that white as a backdrop. And then Ranger Jonathan said, "We all share something very important in common. You could have gone on vacation anywhere in the world. You could have gone someplace warm;you could have gone to Disneyland. But you all chose to come here, to Alaska, to Denali." And that is what all of us in this park share in common as well. We all picked this place, for whatever reason. This is not a place you're likely to end up by accident. It takes a lot of planning, a lot of effort to come to Alaska. And we all share that desire to be here.
In his documentary series on the national parks, Ken Burns explores the notion that the National Park System is America's best idea. Denali exemplifies this. Just look around you. Protecting all of this? I can't think of any better idea. Saving this place—and the hundreds of others in the National Park System—is something we got right. And the fact that people from all over the world come here—the fact that all of you are here right now—is a testament to the wonder of this place and our protection of it.
On one of the Discovery Hikes I went on, Ranger Tina asked the hikers how they would describe walking on the tundra to someone who has never done it. The answers varied. Walking on tundra was compared to walking on marshmallows, on sponges, on foam, on snow, on velvet, on a Tempur-Pedic mattress, on a waterbed, on carpeted bowling balls, or walking like a drunk person. "It is indescribable," one visitor said, and that is the truth. To say that it's like anything is to diminish the experience. The reason we do these things—the reason we visit national parks and watch caribou and walk on tundra—is because these things are unlike anything we know. The fact that I cannot describe it—that words fail me—is all the more reason for you to walk on the tundra yourself. It is an experience unlike any other, an experience I cannot interpret for you.
A couple of days before my departure, I met a man named Lee who was originally from Texas but now lives in California. He worked for forty years at a desk, and then at the age of sixty he started hiking. He's now in his seventies. He told me that the wilderness affects him so profoundly that sometimes he just sits down on a rock and cries.
That is how a place like Denali can affect us, if only we open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to the wilderness.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro, of West Hartford, CT, is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader's Digest, Blue Mesa Review, Parcel, Adanna, Fourth River, Bayou Magazine, Untamed Ink, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska. Currently a resident of Connecticut, she's also lived in California, Virginia, and Nebraska. Visit her website.
Last updated: March 29, 2017