To witness Denali Mountain is to survey, in a breath, all of Creation and her majesty. The
feeling is eternal—a mere moment elapses on the clock, but the sensation encompasses worlds, and does not leave a person easily.
Mount McKinley is a name rarely lost on the average American high school graduate. Zero
in a bit on Alaska, and you’ll hear the more familiar term Denali to refer to this grand monument of nature. In the tongue of the local Athabaskan people, Denali means “The Great One.” It is not difficult to imagine an indigenous people so enchanted by their hulking neighbor that they should refer to it with such reverence; the mount is at once the signature of an awesome Creator, and it is an old friend.
At an elevation of 20,320 feet, Denali is the highest mountain in all of North America.
This is certainly epic in scope. And yet to behold and appreciate such a jewel, measurements
are hardly necessary. Simply take in her vistas, teeming with pristine portraits of life, wild
and unabated—you’ll see flora as varied as spruces, willows, and blueberries; the flowering
goldenrod and fireweed are the stuff of art. The sentiments they inspire are better expressed
by poets than anyone with a measuring stick. The fauna, too, make the heart skip a beat: birds
such as waxwings, Ptarmigan, and tundra swan, mammals such as grizzlies and black bears, gray wolves and Dall sheep. To witness these and so many more creatures, legion and quite at home, perfectly in their place, is a bit like peering into a Garden of Eden.
The mountain and surrounding areas are also host to the indelible print of man, but hardly
in the manner of an abandoned factory or parking garage. Human encampments at Alaska’s
Denali National Park and Preserve have been dated some 8,000 years back, and conjure ancestral memories of a people living in tandem with, rather than in opposition to, their natural habitat. So many archeological finds in the region are believed to be temporary hunting camps rather than permanent cultural hubs; this is perhaps indicative of an ancient wisdom, that such great land ought be honored and respected, not ruined by our human urge to conquer.
It is quite true to say that this region is a sort of window into the timeless; it is just as true that,
to the intrepid traveler, there is no better time than now to take in this region in transition. As
glaciers melt, their stamp on the environment recedes; permafrost too becomes water, and plant life encroaches. It is abundantly clear here that Creation is not a single act, but a continuous unfolding. Will the wolf survive? Will these same flowers blossom next spring? One gets the sense that things seen here today might not be around tomorrow; as such, any visitor’s snapshot experience is all that much more to treasure.
Shifts in the environment might change the garments it wears, but Denali itself is a mountain;
the geological record shows that, like so many mountains, it has endured much worse than we
might imagine, and has prevailed, will prevail for some time. But we humans are finite things,
privy to only so much. Do your soul good and humble yourself before Mount McKinley; best
we drink up the lessons of this breathtaking mass of rock while we can.
*Feature photo taken from National Geographic