Part 1 of a Series – see Series Introduction here
The first 43 miles of the Denali park road are gorgeous, just as the entire park is gorgeous. Most of today’s visitors don’t know what they’re missing by going only to the East Fork. But drivers know what they are missing. And it is A JOB to circumvent their Crazy Expectations of seeing tons of wildlife and iconic views of The Mountain, when we know what lies beyond. To be honest, even on an 8-hour tour to Stony Overlook or a transit bus to Eielson Visitor Center, we start the day with visitor suppositions and drive for 8 hours with their disappointments, but it is different with the road closure because we share those disappointments as we replace expectations with hope, out of necessity.
While almost all of us would tell you truly that the shorter trip and day is wonderful, and that the idea of returning to that “normal,” seemingly-endless day is a tad loathsome to our experience, I think we would tell you just as truthfully that we miss the Road and its scenery out west. While “we are making the best of the hand that’s been dealt us,” has become my daily mantra, I have to put a halt to the flashes in my mind of the lighting across the Polychrome Valley from above, the quintessential view of Denali from Stony, the peacefulness of walking down to the water at Toklat Rest Stop, and the wildlife possibilities beyond the East Fork.
One of the things I miss, as well, is having more time to share with my people all that is special about this park to me. I “normally” have more time to talk about the effects of climate change as it manifests around us. These days, I am talking about glacial wasting, shrubbification, and, of course, thawing permafrost, from beginning to end. Because it needs to be talked about and because they need to hear and contemplate it and because they are being affected by it in real time.
Our new, abbreviated trip is certainly impactful and I hope most drivers are taking the opportunity to connect the visitor to this collective experience we are having. I am not of the same mind as some who believe that the road and its westward potential are done. I don’t want it to be. I have seen too many touching, joyous, life-affirming, life-changing moments in people to want to give up on some solution to a return out there. I want to someday take visitors out beyond the East Fork again because it offers such a unique opportunity to be with them in the tundra – not physically – but driving along surrounded by it is the next best thing to touching it, and if I can help even just a couple of my passengers sense how magical it is, then I can feel I’ve done something right with my day.
Is the Bridge the solution to our return to the west? I am dubious. There seem to be too many issues plaguing this construction project and I wish NPS would reevaluate, especially with the heightened cost and destruction to obtain what they thought was the best idea early on. Frankly, I’m a little scared of the Bridge. And those that are not scared are mostly those that won’t be driving over it with a bus full of 52 strangers twice a day. It is not just a fear of the integrity of the thing, but the longevity of it, too. Have we put as much time and money into the other options as we have with the Bridge? If we are having to excavate to find suitable anchor points, why can’t we do that along the previous road trajectory? If the answer seems obvious to NPS and their contractors, then I would ask them to dumb it down for me and those like me who are confused and concerned. Let’s “Go West,” but with the care and respect that the magnificent west end of Denali deserves.
Scott Richardson just finished his 27th season as a driver of tour and transit buses at Denali, and has served on the DCC board of directors since 2022