Wherever I go in the park, the outline of Mount Denali always looms above me, occasionally resplendent in all its glory but often embroiled in a game of hide and seek with the clouds. Attempting to predict the weather can be a lottery, but one way to guarantee sightings of the peak is by taking to the air.
“Don’t worry, we can cut through that,” says pilot and owner of Kantishna Air Taxi, Greg LaHaie, as I gaze nervously at the grey smudge above me. Falling in love with this area more than 30 years ago, he never tires of bringing guests eye-to-eye with the scared mountain’s giddy peaks.
Flying into the light, our 45-minute adventure takes us above ant lines of brave climbers making their way to a base camp, their tents scattered like colourful sweetie wrappers in the snow. We follow the curving trails of glaciers, where meltwater drizzles through the moraine in silvery threads, and we’re almost blinded by sunbeams reflected in myriad kettle ponds below.
With no roads connecting this wild country, flying is one of the only ways to explore. But once winter comes and the snow falls, another option presents itself: travelling by dog sled.
Dozens of professional mushers have made a base for themselves in Talkeetna, a small town in the Matsu Valley, south of Denali, where miners and trappers would historically pick up supplies. Regular winter snowfall and proximity to mountain foothills provide ideal conditions to train for the annual worldfamous Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome.
The sun is blazing when I arrive at AK Sled Dog Tours, but the resident dogs still bark loudly, forever eager to hit the road and run. On a tour of the kennels, I learn about what it takes to become a champion and am shocked to discover in winter each dog needs to consume up to 12,000 calories per day.
Although it’s possible to take a helicopter ride above glaciers to an area where mushers have a summer camp, I choose to try a dryland race rig – experiencing the rush of racing on a wooden cart with wheels. The sound of paws charging along roads and meadows as the dogs follow my commands is just as exhilarating as it might have been on snow. The added bonus is these energetic animals don’t need to eat as much food when we arrive back at the kennels, leaving more time for play.