“Holy Cow!” says Carrie Cahill as she greets the visitors who’ve gathered for a naturalist walk along the Horseshoe Lake Trail. “This is a really big group today.” Forty-one of us, including a half-dozen kids, stand at the trail head on a calm, warm, dry, and surprisingly bug-free morning in late July — ideal conditions for a forest walk. Several people are in short-sleeved shirts; a few even wear short pants. Some carry packs, walking sticks, or binoculars, but no specialized gear is needed for this hike.
Before we move down the trail, Cahill has a few things to say.
“How many of you arrived today?” she asks. Several hands go up.
“How many are staying more than a day?” Most people raise their hands. “How many are staying at least two days?” About half the group. “A week?” Only two of us still have our hands raised.
“I’m happy most of you are staying at least a couple days,” says Cahill, a spirited ranger with long brown hair, sparkling eyes, and an abundance of enthusiasm. “Did you know that the average stay at Denali is only one day? As you probably know, this is a really big park. I’m surprised people think they can see it in a day or two.”
Next, a short quiz.
“With this many people we’re not likely to see wildlife. But if you were hiking this trail alone, you might meet a moose. Does everyone know what you’d do?”
“Run,” someone shouts.
“Right,” Cahill replies. “If you encounter a moose, get out of its way as quickly as possible. Run away from it. If you hang around, you could get run over. Now–what if you meet a bear?”
“Stand still,” says a youngster.
“Very good,” Cahill tells him. “Stand your ground and talk to the bear. And wave your arms slowly above your head. Let it know you’re human. Never run from a bear; that’s the worst thing you can do, because it could trigger the bear’s predatory instincts. And remember this: you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than touched by a bear.”
Denali rangers repeat this message–run from moose, don’t run from bears–before every naturalist program. Of all the park’s critters, moose and bears are the two most likely to charge and injure a human if encountered at close range. The hazards of surprising a grizzly are well documented, but moose can be nearly as dangerous. This is especially true of cows with calves, and bulls during the autumn rut. Even with moose and bears, the odds of getting attacked are low. But it’s always best to be cautious, to play it safe.
Next, Cahill tells us that we’ll be seeing several varieties of edible berries and plants along the trail. Picking an occasional berry is fine, she says. “The only rule is that you have to eat everything you pick.” One final piece of advice: “Be here, in Denali. If you find yourself thinking about other things, like your job or where you’re going next, bring your attention back here. Notice what’s going on around you.”
I like that message: Be present. Pay attention.
The trail takes us into a forest of spruce, aspen, birch, and poplar trees. With 42 people, we stretch nearly the length of a football field, so Cahill stops frequently and has people gather around whenever she finds something of interest. Our first stop is among tall fireweed. A common plant with a tall stalk, long, willow-like leaves and fuchsia-colored flowers, the fireweed blooms from bottom to top. As Cahill explains, it’s one of Alaska’s end-of-summer indicators. When the uppermost flowers have bloomed and gone to seed, “it’s only six weeks ‘til the first snowfall.” Or so the story goes. Using fireweed to predict the weather , like anything else, can be tricky business. Still, it’s a little unsettling that in late July the fireweed’s flowers are already nearing the top.
Stopping at some aspen, Cahill suggests we touch the tree’s bark. It feels velvety. Unlike most other trees, the aspen has chlorophyll in its olive-green trunk. In winter, when other food sources are rare, moose will eat the bark to gain necessary nutrients. Looking around, we see that many of this forest’s aspens have had sections of their bark stripped away.
Later, Cahill introduces us to several types of berries: Blueberries, crowberries, cranberries, pumpkin berries. the first three are among Alaska’s most common berries but pumpkin berries are new to me. Orange and creased, they do resemble miniature pumpkins. Cahill says they taste like green peas; she likes to put them in salads. I try one. Sure enough it’s crunchy and tastes like a pea. I’ve learned a new berry to much on.
Soapberries too are edible. In fact these shiny red berries are a grizzly favorite. One researcher who analyzed bear scats estimated that grizzlies eat as many as 200,000 soapberries in a day, during their annual pre-denning feeding frenzy known as hyperphagia. soapberries aren’t as palatable to humans, though. As their name suggests, they taste like soap.
Cahill’s approach–go slowly, look around, pay attention–is effective. In a park known for its high peaks, expansive scenery, and big mammals, she has us looking closely at plants along the forest floor. We’re starting to notice some of the Denali ecosystem’s smaller–but critically important–components. We’re opening our senses, learning natural history, making connections. Take willow for example. Here’s a plant, says Cahill, that’s “an incredible thing for your outdoor pharmacy.” willows contain salicin, a natural aspirin substitute. Chewing their leaves can relieve headaches or muscle aches. A good thing to know when backpacking.
Besides producing natural painkillers, willows are the No. 1 food source for Denali’s moose–and they benefit from being eaten. “To have a moose bite you is a good thing, if you’re a willow,” Cahill explains. “When the tops of their stems are bitten, willows compensate by growing two or three new shoots. What this does, in effect, is make the willow lower to the ground, but also denser and bushier. This is a good thing in a subarctic environment.”
The trail eventually, brings us to Horseshoe Lake. Thousands of years ago, this oxbow lake was part of the nearby Nenana River. But as the river carved a new course, this meandering section was cut off. Bordered by spruce, birch, and cottonwood forest, the lake and its environs provide shelter and food for many animals: beaver, muskrats, fish, ducks, squirrels, kingfishers, songbirds, grouse, moose, and even a great-horned owl.
From a trail overlook we get a good view of the small U-shaped lake. Eventually, it will fill with sediments and become a meadow within the forest. And when enough time passes, the meadow will then fill with trees. Beyond the lake are the Nenana’s roaring, grey, glacially fed waters; and beyond the river is a heavily commercialized stretch of Parks Highway, with hotels, restaurants, and other tourism businesses.
Here, the line between wilderness and development is sharply drawn and Cahill uses this opportunity to briefly discuss Denali’s growing pains.
“There’s been an explosion of tourism growth here,” she says, “and that presents an interesting dilemma. How do we put on the brakes? How or when do we say ‘enough is enough’. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know that anyone does.
But I think it’s important that we begin asking the questions.
“A Guided Walk”, excerpted from Bill Sherwonit’s Denali:The Complete Guide, pp. 152-15, published 2002 by Alaska Northwest Books.