Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where Has All The Wilderness Gone

We're in Alaska, where game outnumber people a gazillion to one. Where subsistence living is the law. Where natives live off the wild that feeds them salmon, caribou, sheep and moose.

And we're in Denali National Park, where the wild consumes more than 6 million acres.

In deference to the native diet and the rustic nature of this land, I want to taste caribou. Especially after I find a domesticated version (reindeer) is served in a stew ($6 a bowl) at a grill just inside the park border, near the Visitor's Center. What fun.

So we talk our friends into joining us for lunch at this little grill just inside this wild, rustic park. But first, we travel by shuttle (few cars are allowed) a short ways into the aspen and spruce wilds to learn about dog sledding, the only way people can get around inside the park in the winter.

We meet the dogs that live and work here, who survive this wilderness. We watch the rangers hitch up a team, then demonstrate on a gravel trail how engaged these dogs become when at work. These are powerful, focused dogs, thrilled because they get to pull, to mush, to run. To live in this consuming wilderness.

OK.The demo's done. Time for lunch. I'm excited.

We reboard the shuttle that cuts through this wilderness, then ... What's this sign? "Visitor Center Campus." Campus? What does it mean, Campus? We turn the corner and HOLD ON! We've passed through a wormhole or somehow got dusted with floo powder. Because we're not in the wilds anymore.

We're in Denali Grand Central Station, where tour buses, trains and tourists outnumber the game a gazillion to one.

I climb off the bus, reluctant to let go of my last connection to the wild, to step into this human traffic jam. It's surreal.

The four of us instinctively huddle close and scratch our heads. Where are we?  Which way do we go? People clog the pathways so we can't see beyond. My friend Rhodda hollers "Look!" "Baggage Claim." And, by golly, there's a log  facility with a sign over the door that says "Baggage Claim." What baggage?

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