The National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016, and dirtbags nationwide are finding creative ways to commemorate the NPS Centennial. (My favorite so far is the Dirtbag Diaries’ Milepost series.) I, on the other hand, lack artistic sensibilities, and am thus marking the occasion in the same way I celebrate everything else: by eating. Without further ado, then, I present the next installment in this series about things I’ve eaten, or seen eaten in national parks.
There are a lot of reasons I prefer winter to summer—skiing, for example, and the fact that it’s totally fine if I just want to walk around in the same puffy down vest for basically three months. I spend the summer months missing foods I love but that I know will make me miserable when it’s ninety degrees outside, like tomato soup and grilled cheese. I might also be six.
That’s actually what I like best of all about winter: when it’s cold, you have to eat more to stay warm. Basic physiology, people.
On my first winter wilderness foray, I didn’t eat enough, which is an unusual problem for me. It was so cold our stoves all stopped working; white gas scarcely made it out of the canister before freezing into sluggish goop—not that it mattered much, since anything you managed to cook froze almost instantly when served. It got down to forty below overnight.
I ended up with frostbite on both feet, which resulted in a bouncy snowmobile evacuation two days before we’d planned to exit. The frostbite specialist I saw back in Anchorage confirmed that my cold injuries were due at least in part to insufficient caloric intake, and forbade me from doing anything fun until the sun resumed a more regular schedule.
The rest of that winter was rough, so I made myself a promise I knew I could keep: Like war-ravaged Scarlett O’Hara right before the intermission of Gone With the Wind, I vowed, I would never be hungry again.
Almost exactly two years later, my toes had mostly recovered and I’d forgotten the tingly feeling that accompanies nerve damage in one’s extremities, so I readily agreed when Bix suggested a long weekend in Denali National Park.
Fun fact: You can’t really recreate with your dog in most national parks, since they’re not allowed beyond roads and parking lots, but since Alaska is pretty much still the Wild West—Last Frontier and all that—they don’t mind if you skijor with your dog on the road.
It was thanks to this allowance, which felt like a loophole, like I was getting away with something, that I found myself flying down the Denali National Park Road on a pair of cross-country skis, pulled along by forty-five pounds of enthusiastic West Texas Dirt Dog muscle.
It was too cold to stop moving, even during what passed for daylight in the mid-January Alaskan interior. We paused only once, stepping off the road to let a team of sled dogs pass us.
That’s right: Denali backcountry rangers still conduct their weeks-long patrols by sled dogs, which in all honesty is even more badass than it sounds. They harness up a team of these gigantic sled dogs—not those little huskies, like you see in the Iditarod; they’re built for comfort, not for speed—and three weeks’ worth of food for themselves and the dogs, and then they traipse around the park making sure things are in order. For three weeks. In Interior Alaska. In the dead of winter.
The kennel is situated at the winter road closure, three miles into the park, and you can park your car in the lot and walk right up and pet the actual dogs because see previous re: Wild West. They name each year’s litter with a theme: one year the puppies will be named for climbing knots (Clove, Prussik, Munter); the next year’s pups might be named for volcanoes or famed Alaskan mining claims.
Left to their own devices, the dogs curl up outside their little huts and cover their noses with their tails, which is of course practical but also almost too adorable to bear. As soon as they hear someone coming, though, they explode into action, barking and hollering and carrying on so much you can hardly hear yourself think.
You can hear them from miles up the road—wolves howl in the distance to remind you that you’re in Alaska, where they don’t fuck around, and the dogs call right back. It’s a little eerie, especially if you’re attached to a medium-sized dog who kind of resembles a knockwurst, but it doesn’t get much more primal than that.
It doesn’t get much colder, either. On our first day in the park, Bix and I were having so much fun we forgot the sun starts to say its goodbyes around 3 PM that far north in January, which meant we were skiing out in near-darkness. The mercury dropped in the waning daylight, and by the time we arrived back at the car, it was so cold my eyelashes froze shut if I blinked.
We arrived at our dry cabin just outside the park boundary famished. I ate half a pound of salami before dinner, and I would’ve eaten more if only I wasn’t so egalitarian about meat divisions, which is to say that Bix ate the rest when I wasn’t paying attention.
At some point, as we melted butter into our hot cocoa and waited for the Northern Lights to make an appearance, I realized I didn’t know what had become of the dog. We peered inside, and there he was: curled up on a sleeping bag, his tail neatly over his nose.
Bodhi is not a sled dog, though, as he proved that weekend, he can certainly eat like one. I, too, managed to exceed my nutritional goals—including the salami, I consumed approximately 12,000 delicious calories in those three days, which I can’t imagine is exactly what Scarlett had in mind.
Still, I didn’t have much choice: it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in the wilds of Denali National Park. (Sorry. I’m so sorry.)
(I’m not sorry.)