"Let us be guardians, not gardeners"
 ~ Adolph Murie

Spring 2022 - Denali National Park and Preserve
I have been in Alaska about a month now. I have seen much headed south from Fairbanks via train, and that of what I have seen is covered in snow. In a way, it seems to be the more proper Alaskan experience. I arrived in the first few days of February, and it is now March. The days continue to get longer, the sun shining more, and the snow slowly, very slowly, beginning to melt. On the train ride from Fairbanks to Denali National Park and Preserve, I was amazed by the amount of unsoiled woodland and tundra that exists. In the lower 48, I would have seen 20 different towns on a four hour train ride, but I saw only 2 here. Such large expanses of nothing but black and white spruce, aspens, and when above treeline, only willows. The amount of moose there are in interior Alaska shocks me daily. I have seen 100 moose by now, some recurring visitors. Such as the mama and baby that have taken a liking to my cabin and the area around it. They sleep and graze the aspen branches and willow stems out front of my cabin. I have gone snowshoeing on multiple occasions, and seen spruce grouse, willow ptarmigan, and snowshoe hare, plus more moose. Those excursions have been in the front-country of the park, as I have no car and am limited to how far I can hike in a day.
Today was a different story. I was able to take a gov-rig and drive out to mile 12.5 of the park road, at the Mountain Vista rest stop. Headquarters of the park lies in a very dense white spruce forest, at low elevation, around 1,700 feet. I had hiked part of the park road before it was open, but could not get far enough in to get out of the forest. Today I got my chance. As I drove the road, I passed my previous on-foot best.  A little further, as I felt the engine rev higher to make it up the grade of the road, the trees started to thin out. As I crested the hill, I was awestruck by the view I was gifted. I could see for many miles westward. A feeling I had been chasing all month long. I pulled the Jeep over to get out. 
Not a visitor in sight. I stood in awe. I could see the main chain of peaks of the Alaska Range on my left, and some smaller peaks to my right. Behind me, headquarters, in front, the unknown. As I looked southwest, I could see a massive peak where I knew Denali should be. I was extremely excited to think that I might be looking at the Great One. Come to find out, it was Sable Mountain, which lies about 30 miles west from where I was standing, and yet Denali lies another 70 miles southwest from me. Denali was shy. On that day the entire mountain was enveloped in clouds, just as expected. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, as only around one third of visitors are lucky enough to see the great peak. From there, after a few minutes of appreciation, and some pictures and sketches, I drove on. As I drove I saw 4 massive bull moose. Antlerless now that the mating season has ended, they had already shed their beautiful shovel-like antlers out somewhere in the snow. As I gazed at fellow eating willows, an adorable gray jay perched himself on a branch just next to my ride. 
I drove on, I descended ever so slowly into a small spruce forest. The forest itself was small in acreage, but very large in stature. I stopped the car to look out the windshield at the tops of the tall and skinny spruce trees stretching up to the clouds. It made me feel small. The best kind of small. A small you can only feel while enveloped in the embrace of the outdoors. As I approached the end of the road, just starting to reemerge from the spruce forest, I could see a large expanse of open tundra, as far as I could see. I thought, “this is Big nature.” Big nature is something I am always on the hunt for. It is the kind of nature you not only see, but feel, deep in your soul. You feel small, and in awe as you whip your head around, craning your neck to look out each window in the car, or stumble over roots and rocks on the trail because you can't keep your eyes off the scenery, as if the world is turning around you and just for a second you are in the middle of it. The feeling you get driving through unmarred expanses of a lodgepole pine forest, or as you peer into or out of a river-carved canyon, or as you walk among redwoods, knowing they will be there long after you are gone. This is Big nature. This is what I felt as I drove down the ice covered road to Mountain Vista. I made it to the end of where the road had been plowed and parked, got my backpack and camera, and set off to walk further.​​​​​​​
The road was closed to vehicles due to the amount of snow, but open to hikers. Still covered in 4 or 5 feet of snow, with a sturdy packed trail from other adventurous folks. I walked to the bottom of the pass, gaping and stumbling as I went. Too transfixed on the glorious mountains, trees and tundra to bother to keep my eyes on my next step. Finally, as the realization set in that I have to be back at work within 45 minutes, I stopped. Before I walked back, I wanted to get a better view of the land to my left. A clean and smooth snowdrift, constructed by frigid arctic winds, gave me a sturdy path to get to the overlook. As I stood there overlooking the Savage River and tundra around it, backed by a line of enormous jagged peaks, I had yet another moment where I knew I had found Big nature. I was overlooking miles and miles of wilderness. Nothing changed by man. Simply existing as it had since the last ice age cleared the glaciers away, exposing the ground to finally be engulfed in sunlight and new snowfall. It was beautiful. Peaceful. Serene. It made me slightly sad that I won't be able to see it in the summer this year once I ship out for my next adventure in New York. That can only mean I will need to visit again. I still have two and a half months to soak in every view I can hike to, and I plan to do just that.
As I edit this today on Saint Patrick’s day, I am overjoyed to say that I saw Denali for the first time today. That is a wonderful story, but I will save it for another day.

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