by Hank Leukart
August 28, 2007

Accepting wet feet

A harrowing attempt at crossing the McKinley River in Denali National Park, Alaska.

The McKinley River with tens of braids in the distance

The McKinley River with tens of braids in the distance (view all Denali, Alaska: Days 1 - 3 photos)

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ENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska — Before my brother Brian and I began our backpacking and camping trip in Denali National Park and Preserve last week, we read with disbelief in Lonely Planet Alaska that the average Denali backcountry hiker averages only five miles per day, and more people have been killed by drowning in the park’s freezing rivers than by the sizeable grizzly bear population (in fact, no one has ever been killed by a bear in Denali). We didn’t understand. Though we were a little worried that Denali sounded strangely like a Bermuda Triangle where people walked at half-speed and rivers could swallow humans whole, we didn’t pay much attention. Accustomed to hiking well over 10 miles per day on other hikes, we planned a five-day, 55-mile trip, packed meticulously well-stocked backpacks with extra meals for safety, and braced ourselves for the most challenging wilderness adventure of our lives.

We began at Wonder Lake, a campground deep in the heart of the park, which served as a perfect jumping-off point for our excursion. Even our trip to the lake wasn’t easy; to get there, we flew into Anchorage, drove six hours in a rental car to the entrance of the park, and then hopped on one of the park’s school-bus style shuttles to complete the additional six-hour drive through the park to the Lake. When we finally arrived, we donned our 45-pound backpacks and bounded into the backcountry.

Our itinerary, one we borrowed from Peter Potterfield’s Classic Hikes of the World and then expanded, included a number of major obstacles (our personal twelve trials, we joked), the first of which was the McKinley River, which separates Wonder Lake from the park’s southern half. In some areas, the river is more than a mile wide and over ten feet deep, and because the river is glacially-fed, the water temperature hovers near freezing. Often, the river is completely impassable, and when we arrived at the park, a ranger told us it would be nearly impossible for us to cross it. But we had our hearts set on a trip that followed an old mountaineering trail leading to the base of the astounding, 20,320 foot-high Mount McKinley, and that necessitated our crossing the river. The ranger told us that if we had “extensive river crossing experience” (who has that?!) and were “really committed,” we could wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and attempt to cross the river at first light when the water-level was lowest. In retrospect, we probably should have realized that “really committed” meant a lot more than simply waking up early in the morning.

The park ranger suggested that we use our willpower to follow his mantra, “Accept wet feet,” and cross the many rivers during our trip wearing our hiking books, which required spending the entire trip in wet boots. The alternative, of course, required carrying a second set of shoes in heavy backpacks for the entire trip. In deep, fast-moving, silt- and rock-filled rivers, sandals are not an option because there is too high a risk of breaking a toe or foot — and when you’re a three-day walk from medical attention, you don’t want to break anything. We decided that the ranger’s mantra sounded too, uh, wet, for us, and we decided to carry light sneakers in our packs. After camping about a mile north of the river the night before, we woke up early as instructed (we thought we were “really committed”), packed everything from our backpacks including our hiking boots into waterproof bags, and made our way to the river’s edge.

“As I looked into my brother’s eyes, I could see that he thought we were going to die, and I telepathically agreed. I thought to myself, “This is how those stupid people you read about in newspapers die in the wilderness.””

Counter to intuition, the best place to cross a braided river like the McKinley is at its widest point, when the river’s water spreads across many channels (or braids). The individual channels are shallower and slower moving than at river’s narrowest point, where all of the braids are combined into a dangerous, freezing, fast-moving current. Using our topographical map and compass to guide us, we walked to the river’s widest point and began crossing.

Each braid was harder than the previous; at first the water only reached our shins, but in later braids it reached our knees, our waists, and eventually, about halfway through our crossing, it reached our chests. Silt made the water opaque, so we painstakingly searched for the best place to cross each braid by throwing rocks into the water to test depth as we slogged through a labyrinth of rock bars between braids. We used all of the crossing techniques we knew (facing upstream, walking sideways, using walking sticks, and stabilizing against each other), but the crossing became progressively more difficult as the river became deeper and we became colder and wetter (water at 36 degrees Fahrenheit without a dry suit is unbearable for any length of time).

Eventually, we became trapped on a small rock bar with very little space to move up or down stream. We knew (by throwing rocks) that the next braid was at least as deep as the last, but there wasn’t much we could do to change the situation without crossing braids in reverse and moving backward, so we decided to try crossing the next channel from our current position. As we stepped in, the water reached above our waist, but we knew it would be passable. Then, we took a second step and discovered that the river-bottom had a sheer drop-off.

In an instant, water was above our heads and we were floating downstream at 20 miles per hour in 36-degree water with 45-pound backpacks strapped to our backs.

As I looked into my brother’s eyes, I could see that he thought we were going to die, and I telepathically agreed. I thought to myself, “This is how those stupid people you read about in newspapers die in the wilderness.” Absolutely terrified, we desperately began swimming toward the far river bank as we bulleted downstream. The river channel curved slightly, and in a moment of pure-adrenaline combined with unrestrained terror, my brother frantically clawed his way onto the rock bar on the far bank. I slammed my legs and feet down into river bottom to try to slow myself and get to the shore, but the rapid current was pulling me much too fast and my legs simply buckled under me. Suddenly, my brother held out his walking stick. I grabbed it, and with all of my strength, pulled myself to the shore and desperately lifted myself out of the water.

Emotionally, it wasn’t over. For over 20 minutes, my brother paced up and down the 20-foot rock bar trying to warm his body and screaming about the pain in his hands (did I mention the temperature of the water?). I stood almost motionless, in shock, with my body incessantly and involuntarily burping water and air out of my lungs.

The worst thing about our making it halfway across the river was that there was no way to turn back. Under other circumstances, we might have turned around — but turning around meant crossing not only the same deep, treacherous channel all over again, but also crossing every channel we had already crossed. Hoping that the trip couldn’t possibly get any more difficult, we continued.

Thankfully, the worst was behind us, and after five hours of grueling river crossing, we arrived safely at the other side. We pitched our tent, put our wet clothes out to dry, and finished sleeping from where we had left off at three in the morning.

Little did we know that the harrowing experience of crossing the McKinley wouldn’t even be the most difficult part of our trek.

Read about grizzly bears, caribou, and blueberries in the second part of this three-part series about backcountry hiking in Denali National Park. Don’t worry; I promise that the series doesn’t end with my brother or me dying.

The Denali Park shuttles look like school buses stolen by Smokey the Bear.

The Denali Park shuttles look like school buses stolen by Smokey the Bear.

Beautiful flowers cover the Alaskan backcountry.

Beautiful flowers cover the Alaskan backcountry.

Fantastic mountain peaks and lakes enhance Alaska’s Denali.

Fantastic mountain peaks and lakes enhance Alaska’s Denali.

Mountain lakes can be seen throughout Denali National Park.

Mountain lakes can be seen throughout Denali National Park.

Mountain lakes can be seen throughout Denali National Park.

Mountain lakes can be seen throughout Denali National Park.

Shed caribou antlers sit on the ground in Denali National Park.

Shed caribou antlers sit on the ground in Denali National Park.

Our tent sits in a mountain pass under an overcast sky in Denali, Alaska.

Our tent sits in a mountain pass under an overcast sky in Denali, Alaska.

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