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Road Trip Chronicles - Heeding the call of the wild

Hand picked blueberries, a man named Jeremy, Wonder Lake, and a headache

By: Eric Murdock + Save to a List

Day 5 & 6, Sept 4th - 5th

Entry 5

We rose early so that we could have time to hike back out to the dirt road in order to catch the first camper bus in the morning so that we could in turn make it to our next unit with plenty of time to find a suitable camp. 

I was one of the first ones to manage to give up the warm security of my sleeping bag and make it up to the ridge for breakfast, and with a little encouragment, the others soon followed. The weather that we were expecting to encounter that evening was showing early signs of itself with some ominous clouds creeping just over the Alaskan range, which proved to shield most of Mt. Denali. However the rest of the mountains still provided a view worthy of any during our breakfast. 

The guys prepping for breakfast

Breakfast started with the usual, instant oatmeal, trail mix, and a banana rollup (banana + PB + tortilla). However one of the benefits about the inhospitable brush that we had trudged through was the countless amounts of blueberry bushes, which happens to be the Grizzly bears main staple. It didnt take more than about 20 min to fill my camping mug to overflowing with blueberries. The result was another one of those moments, eating oatmeal with fresh hand picked Alaskan blueberries while enjoying one hell of a view. 

Eating freshly picked blueberries for breakfast

With a morning like that it was easy for all of us to lose track of time. Before we knew it we saw a trail of dust making its way towards us in the distance. We all realized at the same time "Oh crap, the bus!" Que the mad scramble to pack up camp. I had the most gear already packed so after just a few minutes I threw my pack on and took off flying to try and hold the bus for the others. Running through this mean tundra bush with a 45lb pack on was no easy task. Wither it was your pack, pants, or jacket, something was always being caught or snagged on the tundras prickly grasp. 

I missed the bus by about 60 seconds. Defeated, I waited on the side of the road for the rest of the guys. Because the area around the road had bush that went well above your head, it was pretty damn funny hearing what sounded like an angry bear with an affinity for human cursing fight through the bush before eventually stumbling out half scraped to hell. 

With our luck continuing, or perhaps with Santa's blessing doing its work, it turns out we hadn't missed the camper bus. Not 2 minutes later and the bus pulled up. Knowing the routine, we opened the back latch, tossed our gear in the back with the rest, and quickly hopped on board. It must be a requirement to be a little off in order to be a bus driver in Denali, because this driver, Jeremy, was equally as much of a character as the last. His narration was perhaps the worst we have ever heard, which is what made it so great. As guides ourselves, we know that jokes are essential to a good narration, and his best joke of the day: "nobody quite knows how Wonder Lake got its name, perhaps thats something that we'll just have to....*pause for effect*... wonder about."

Wonder Lake campground and the camper bus

With plenty of time to get to our unit, we detoured out to Wonder Lake. If you see any pictures of Mt. Denali taken with a lake in the foreground, its almost guranteed that its Wonder Lake. It's an iconic location to view the mountain from. I had decided long ago that one of my goals was to swim in Wonder Lake, becuase everyone is always too busy taking of pictures of it, I've never seen a photo of anyone actually swimming in it. 

There was a lot of foot traffic to the closest areas of the lake, so we went off the beaten path in search of our own spot. We found a nice little peninsula that protruded further out into the lake. Being that it was my objective and I wanted to be first, I quickly stripped down and jumped in. And I'm not sure what it was, being out in the wilderness like that, it calls out a hidden wild side in you, and we couldnt help but heed that call. The water was cold, really really cold. But we could care less, we were all out swimming in it, experiencing a moment in a purely primal sense. I even lost my sunglasses when I went under, which forced me to stand perfectly still for several minutes in the borderline freezing water while I let the bottom settle in order to find them. Bare ass naked, whopping and hollering, I'm sure we put on quite the show for more than a few tourists on the adjacent shoreline. Writing this I am forced to put myself back in that moment, and I cant help but laugh to myself as I'm remembering what that felt like. 

Heeding the call of the wild

Assuming that what we were doing might be frowned upon by the park rangers, we quickly got all our gear back on and hit the trail toward our next unit, which was within a hikeable distance from Wonder Lake. The hike was filled with brilliant fall colors. It only took us about 3 hours to reach the backcountry and begin our search for a campsite, which is no time at all compared to distance normally covered into a unit. It was at this point that we encountered a problem. 

Some of the fall colors of the tundra

We found ourselves on the edge of the Katishna river bed. We had anticipated this encounter and we were prepared to attempt a crossing. The only problem with this is that the river was bigger than we expected... alot bigger. The river bed was at least a mile wide, and there several dozen branches of river that forked throughout. Some sections were only a few feet wide and a foot or two deep, other sections were 75 feet wide and up to your shoulders. After a few hours of trying to weave our way through the path of least resistence, we were forced to call it quits. With the possibility of a storm on the horizon and the unpredictiability of the river on the way back, the safe call was to find high ground for the night. 

Early attempts at fording the Katishna River

It turns out that we were very glad we made that call. Not more than an hour or two later, and not more than a few minutes after we got our tents up, the rain began to fall. We stashed our gear under our vestibules and made dinner on the riverbank. I had perhaps the worst dinner of the trip on this night. I foolishly ate an entire packet of instant mashed potatos, which usually lasts 3 meals, along with a full packet of instant rice. The result was a ridiculous amount of mashed potato/rice mush that seemed to cement itself within my stomach. Unsatisfied, I retired to my tent along with the others in order to escape the rain for the night.

Making dinner with Tanner on the riverside

Over the course of the night I developed one of the worst fevers/headaches that I have ever had and that lead to perhaps one of the longest nights I've ever experienced. The morning was rough for all of us. All of our gear was wet, a few of us didn't have rain flys for our packs, and the prospect of another night in the same conditions was not encouraging. I was inquite a lot of pain with my fever so the decision was easy for me, I could not continue on. Perhaps if I had been in good health we all might have continued, but that made everyones decision easy as well, they were not dissapointed to call it as well and come back with me. The 3 hour hike out was rough, and then we posted up under a small tree in the rain while we waited for the next camper bus. It took about an hour but it finally arrived. The sanctuary of the dry, warm bus was much welcomed. However that was still the worst bus ride of my life. 5 hours down that bumpy dirt road with that headache was without a doubt one of the worst things I have ever experienced. 

My new friend that I whittled to keep my mind off the headache

By the time we made it back to the parking lot we had come to the decision to not wait for the other Subaru, which was probably toughing it out another night, and book it to Anchorage. Drifting in and out of consiousness, I dont remember much from the 10 hour drive, however there was one moment that I remember waking up to that briefly brought me out of the sickly state that I was in. I woke up to the sound of Bret riffing on the harmonica while he was driving, and it took me a second to realize that he was able to accomplish this with a harmonica contraption that goes around the neck. I took a brief moment to appreciate that these were the type of guys that I was traveling with, and then slipped back into my uncontious state for the rest of the drive.

In route I told the guys I couldn't bare sleeping in a tent in my current condition, and with all of the wet gear they weren't in favor of the idea either, so I convinced them to split a hotel room if I could find one for a reasonable price. Enter "The Puffin Inn." The most glorious and luxurious hotel room I will probably ever experience in my life. Sure it was maybe 2 stars at best, but after what I had just experienced over the last 24 hours it seemed like a room fit for a king. That sweet sweet hot shower and the dry, not rock hard bed, were the most welcomed luxury any one person could ever ask for. We even watched Invincible on the tv as we settled down for the night. It was a state of nirvana mixed with an unbearable headsplitting fever. In the morning it even had a mediocre continental breakfast, which for us was a 5 star brunch buffet. And because we are all broke college students who just worked the summer at minimum wadge, we treated our pockets to as many apples and instant oatmeal packets as they could carry as we ran out the door. 


We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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