We came around the bend on the Parks Highway after driving north from Anchorage for a few hours. I was in the passenger’s seat concentrating on the road ahead, as to not upset my stomach. Just beyond the horizon, I finally got a glimpse of The High One: Mount Denali. It was a sunny day and the clouds had just lifted, offering a view of the tallest point in North America. Standing at 20,310 feet, the mountain was still 150 miles away from our location in the town of Talkeetna, yet we could clearly see the grandeur and peaks. I couldn’t wait to get closer on our trip into Denali National Park the next day. Of all the visitors who make their way to the remote wilderness of Alaska, only 30 percent end up seeing the top of the mountain; it’s so tall, it has its own weather system.
We made it to the park entrance the next day, and got on a bus that would take us more than 60 miles into Denali National Park – a four-hour journey one way. We brought along plenty of food and water for the ride since we were going to spend one whole day exploring a national park the size of Massachusetts. We were on the lookout for wildlife and especially – for me – another glimpse of The High One. The caribou and ptarmigan were easy to spot, and our bus driver stopped to let us observe and take photos. About an hour into the park, we spotted some grizzly bears walking, so large and captivating even at a distance. Each turn around the cliffs, down in the valleys, across riverbeds, and through the taiga and forests was more spectacular than the previous. The farther we drove, the more wild and removed it felt on this single road surrounded by nothing but protected, beautiful landscapes.
The federal government has set aside 635 million acres of public land across the country as a whole for management and protection from private ownership, and it’s the specific way we manage these lands that makes them an integral climate change solution. These lands are designated as multi-use, which includes logging, energy extraction, and recreation, but at least half of the land in these areas requires protection from depletion of natural resources in order to remain a sustainable solution to climate change. Today, that is not always the case. There has been a tremendous attack on public lands — from federal government recommendations to slash the size and protections for at least 10 of our national monuments to the proposal of opening them up to oil and gas exploration, mining, timber harvesting, and commercial fishing. These changes would cause irreparable harm to important habitats, ecosystems, and landscapes across our country, and it is so important to fight to keep these lands public in the face of climate change.
We got to the Eielson Visitor Center and started to explore this amazing place where mountains surround you on all sides in layers upon layers of height and color. We hiked a mile up the side of a mountain, which gave us close-up views of the tundra and distant views of Mount Denali. In Denali National Park there are very few trails, so the guides encourage you to hike anywhere you like. This seemed so backward to everything I had learned about how to treat nature and protected land. But, Denali National Park is 6 million acres, and the number of visitors who hike in and explore the park isn’t enough to disturb the land. The spongy tundra beneath my feet felt like walking on a mattress. It was difficult to create your own path, and it inspired creativity and foresight to figure out the best way forward. I had never experienced such apprehension and freedom in one single moment than hiking off-trail in the wilderness of Alaska.
I was so grateful to experience this wild place as people did 100 years ago in 1917, when it was set aside as a national park. Saving public lands for future generations to experience is becoming ever more important in the face of climate change. Already, Alaska is experiencing such high temperatures that the permafrost on the top layer of the soil is thawing. This thaw creates bubbles underground that release methane, a greenhouse gas, and changes the landscape. Tree branches are drooping because of unstable ground, and evergreens, a cold-climate species, are experiencing a biome shift.
We started our four-hour journey back on the bus after encountering cute little arctic ground squirrels and luckily only seeing bears from a distance on our hike. I pulled some grass and rocks out of my hiking boots and brushed the dirt off my pants from a “graceful” slide down the side of a mountain. This was something I normally haven’t experienced after a hike, being covered in the elements from the area. Denali is spectacular, and was unique to experience the landscape by forging my own path. I imagine this may be the same feeling past explorers had – being in tune with what is around you, observing the elements, and making decisions on how to proceed in one of the most wild places. My hope is that people 100 years from now, those who will celebrate the park’s 200th birthday, can have that same experience.
Megan Van Loh is the senior programs coordinator at Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy. She is glad to call Minnesota her home, and when not working she enjoys visiting her family in Duluth and partaking in all things North Shore related, while living in Minneapolis and taking advantage of the biking paths and corner coffee shops. This post was originally published on Climate Generation’s blog.