Sugarloaf Mountain Loaf

May 6, 2015 | 2 comments

As I staggered up to the narrow plateau where most of my other hiking companions were already resting, I felt sharply aware of how out of shape I was for this steep of a trail. Nothing can really prepare you for a nearly vertical trek up 2,000 feet of elevation in less than 2 miles (ROUGH estimate), especially when you’ve been in flat Florida for the last 6 months.
View of Denali Park area from the ridge
Nonetheless, panting and gasping for breath as I broke out of the treeline, the view was nothing short of spectacular. I could see all of the headquarters of Denali National Park and Preserve, from the visitor center to the post office all the way back to C-Camp. 

Alaska Railroad from above

As we sat there, the glint of the Sunday train caught my eye, and I realized that exactly 1 week ago, I was on that train with no understanding of quite where I was, or any comprehension of the scale and grandeur of the wilderness stretching for thousands of miles around me. And now here I was looking down on that train from above, it just a tiny sliver inching along, with a whole new perspective on place and the meaning of being here.

The group I was hiking with from the park was great. Everyone went at their own pace and stayed in small groups so there was no pressure to keep up with anyone, or fear of being left behind. I was comfortable taking up the the back of the pack with Cassie and Naomi, and we picked our way up the steep outcropping after our rest, enjoying the views, the blooming pasque flowers, and the warm sun.


A particularly challenging part of the trail

We climbed up and up and up. Those who had done the hike before said the first part was by far the hardest, but by the time we reached the next highest ridge line, the three of us in back voted to call it good. The rest of the group continued on to the summit, probably another mile and a half ahead and perhaps another 1,000 feet up. I definitely felt like I could have made it all the way, but I would have been the slowest by far, and extremely sore by the end.

The ridge continuing to the summit
Naomi, Cassie, and I hung out on the ridge for a while looking for pikas and ground squirrels, watching a herd of faraway Dall’s sheep, and taking in the views. It was probably one of the best days I’ve had here yet, despite the challenge of the hike. And honestly, it felt kind of nice just to go and enjoy it without pushing myself to the top. I got tons of great photos, had wonderful conversations, and was really able to just relax and reflect on where I am right now — in more ways than one. 
Breathtaking view from the ridgeline

Ground squirrel!

Oh hey, I’m not behind the camera this time!
Panorama towards the peak

Pan looking away from the peak
Eventually we decided to head back down (a possibly more harrowing feat), slipping and sliding the near-vertical descent back to the parking lot. 
We stopped by the only “grocery” store open on the way home, only to find it strongly resembled the bushtown stores of my experience several years ago in Nome. Because it’s not yet tourist season, the store was mostly just big empty shelves with a few very expensive staple items and an extremely large selection of liquor. Typical Alaska. I stocked up on what I could (Hair shampoo! Glorious hair shampoo that I forgot to bring last week!), and we headed back to C-Camp.
But the day was about to get even better. Not long after I got back and changed, my roommate returned from her day hike elsewhere and invited me out to dinner with her and a friend to a restaurant 18 miles down the road. Now, you must understand, I normally HATE going out to eat. But after eating pasta, peanut butter sandwiches, and rice and beans for the last week, the thought of “real” food was irresistible. So was the opportunity to get outside of the park.
The restaurant was packed, being one of the only places open this time of year. It was full of grizzled backpackers wielding big dirty packs, a few early-season travelers, and lots of locals and seasonal workers like ourselves.  The restaurant itself is somewhat of a tourist attraction, home to part of the movie set from “Into the Wild,” and a generally busy pub atmosphere with moose antler chandeliers and taxidermied wildlife on the walls. 
But the food. The food was beyond delicious. I ordered a yak burger (yes, made from Alaskan-raised yaks, who knew!) that was most delectable thing I have eaten in recent memory, and had plenty left over for the next day.
When we got back to camp that night it dawned on me that this whole week I’ve felt happier than I’ve been in months. Even the very (very!) minimal challenges of life here make it so you take nothing for granted, and things that would have been inconsequential at one point in time, now hold a greater meaning and deeper joy. I just feel so grateful to be here, and so happy to be so happy again. 🙂


  1. Andrea

    Thanks Chuck! I like our family too… We're pretty cool. 😉 Great story about the FedExed cuban bread! That does sounds like the perfect remedy for homesickness. 🙂

  2. chuck stephens

    Thanks for sharing your journey! The Willingham/Eureka!Factory family is awesome, and though we're having our own separate adventures, it's good to know we're all adventuring here on the same Earth! If there's anything you need that you can't get up there just holler. Once when I was in Hawaii, a friend sent me a loaf of cuban bread FedEx next day delivery and it was the most incredible homesickness remedy ever! (Not that you'll have much time to sit around getting homesick with all that Alaska right outside)

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