Part 4 of a Series – see Series Introduction here; bus on Polychrome photo from NPS
Every day that I turn around at the East Fork River, I gaze up at Polychrome Pass and ache for that view. My mind wanders further to Highway Pass and I wonder what magic is happening out there. Have the animals completely taken over? Were there hundreds of caribou who wandered aimlessly all over, undisturbed by countless buses? How many calves were taken by bears or wolves with no human encroachment on this life and death miracle? My heart breaks every time I think that I may never again drive over Stony Hill and behold the magnificence of Denali towering over the tundra of Thorofare Pass. The moose are feeding in ponds on the way to Wonder Lake now. Those huge antlers are dripping water as the bull raises his enormous head, mouth full of pond vegetation and there is no one there to disturb his meal. My heart hurts, but how lovely for the animals that once again own their home.
I posted this to my Facebook page several days ago. While the thought of so much of the park being mostly undisturbed at the moment is lovely, I find myself just as concerned with the inability to connect people to this vastness. The National Park Service touts positive visitor feedback for the shortened road, but they do not have the daily personal visitor contact that bus drivers have. I would venture to guess that their positive feedback can be directly attributed to the messaging bus drivers are giving every day. Every day we answer questions such as ”What more is out there?” “How is it different from here?” “Do you see more animals out there?” “Is the mountain closer out there?” “Does it look different?” Then there are the people who are returning guests with memories and reflections on what they miss. The look in their eyes as they remember is unsettling.
The uniqueness of the Denali bus system brings with it the ability to have drivers truly connect with the public. We have time uninterrupted by all the trappings of our modern world to make a difference. Some days are certainly better than others for connecting with the hearts of people, but when we do it is profound. Sadly most visitors do not have the time, ability or courage to backpack or bike in the park. Does that mean they shouldn’t have the opportunity to experience as much of it that they can? Should all the people who come and only see the park by a bus never again be able to gaze at Denali from Stony Hill or observe a couple hundred caribou wandering over Highway Pass? Should no one ever again visit the Eielson Visitor Center or camp at Wonder Lake or be given the opportunity to hike off the road beyond the East Fork River? Maybe, but when I realize that the area occupied by a 92-mile-long road, even with the 300-foot-wide wilderness exclusion around it, is only 0.0006% of the park’s 6 million acres, I have to believe that every visitor deserves the chance to travel it all. I have to believe that the good we can do by exposing people to a tiny view into this exotic, incomprehensible, beauty outweighs the trauma of the moment.
Is the cost of the bridge too much? Probably, but the money is there and at this point no one is going to give it back. There is no way to reprogram it to something at Denali that may be more worthy. Is the environmental toll of building the bridge worth it? Doubtful. It is not pretty, that is for sure. Is the bridge a Band-Aid on a gaping wound? Yes, but if we can showcase this project as an example of the response that will be needed everywhere as infrastructure fails in bigger, more populated areas, maybe we can encourage more people to battle climate change. This bridge is happening and the changes that are already visible on Polychrome are heartbreaking. I want to hope that as we move forward into our new Polychrome Pass that the best we can do for the memory of the old Polychrome Pass is deliver the message of its fate from climate change. Polychrome’s fate should teach us that our world needs each and every one of us to step up before infrastructure fails at more levels in more places, not just a remote park in far away Alaska.
Nancy Russell has worked for decades along the park road as a tour driver and a transit driver, and for the National Park Service on the road maintenance team. She has served on the DCC board of directors since 2021.