McGinnis Glacier

 
 Eating a sandwich after crossing the Delta River.

Eating a sandwich after crossing the Delta River.

I bought a pack raft at Beaver Sports in Fairbanks on a rainy weekend in early July and used it the next weekend to visit the Hayes Range across the Delta River. I’ve crossed the Delta River several times on foot in the winter while it was frozen over, but the swift, freezing water had kept me at bay during the summer.

On a Friday with perfect summer weather, I parked alongside the Delta River across from McGinnis Creek. I started hiking upstream to get in position to float across, but one the river’s many braided channels pinched against the woods on the edge of the river plain, forcing me to inflate the raft earlier than I wanted. After floating across that channel, I hiked farther upstream with the raft on top of my head to a much broader channel that flowed past the mouth of McGinnis Creek. The water was very swift with some rough waves, probably a borderline Class II-III, but I barely caught a splash even though I left the spray deck at home.

I pulled into an eddy alongside the gravel on the west side of the river and climbed out. Even though I could see the Richardson Highway just across the river plain, I already felt extremely isolated. I stopped to eat the sandwich I brought for lunch, then folded up the raft and stowed it in some bushes before starting up the creek. I had only walked a mile or so when I saw some animals moving up ahead. After ruling out moose and bear, I determined the two large brown objects were bison. They were at least another half-mile away, and as I continued toward them I saw another dozen or so at the edge of the foliage off to my right, including a couple of orange-yellow offspring. These bison migrate to the Delta River in the summer from their winter range off the Alaska Highway. When they saw me, they all stopped and watched me intently, then ran off into the brush as I got closer.

I continued along the creek as it curved into a valley, but after a mile or so the creek pinched against an impassable wall of rock. The current was raging, so I had no other option but to bushwhack through steep forest to get above tree line. I made it out of the woods after what seemed like an eternity, sweating and bleeding. Topping out on a small hill, I could see across a wide expanse of rolling tundra above the west side of the river, completely deserted except for a few moose roaming around. 

After surveying the landscape and consulting my map for some time I decided to shoot for a pass between two hills a few miles ahead that would minimize elevation changes and place me at a good spot to camp overlooking McGinnis Glacier. The peak of Mt. Moffit was situated directly over the pass from my vantage point, as if trying to hint where to go. I set off across the soggy tundra, and without any wind the insects were merciless.

The sun was setting as I arrived at the pass. As I peeked over the other side, McGinnis Glacier suddenly came into view, sprawling over the valley floor below me. McGinnis Peak and Mt. Moffit were enshrouded in clouds, but I expected the clouds to clear later that night. I watched the light fade on Donnelly Dome and the Delta River as I set up my tent, then crawled in and set an alarm for 3:45 a.m. so I could catch the sunrise. I woke up to the sound of rain a couple hours later and glanced outside the tent to see everything enveloped in fog. I went back to sleep, a little less confident the clouds would clear.

When my alarm went off, I glanced out my tent to see Mt. Moffit glowing an insanely vibrant pink color. I immediately lost all sense of drowsiness and rushed out to start taking pictures. The clouds swirling around the tip of McGinnis Peak were on fire, and the snowy upper reaches of McGinnis Glacier glowed bright beneath craggy mountain ridges. As the light changed to an orange hue and started to illuminate the foothills below the tall peaks, I saw four Dall sheep rams emerge on the ridge across from me. They strolled across the ridge with the mountains and glacier in the background, one of those epic “only in Alaska” scenes that I get to experience now and then—the kind that seem like they are incredibly rare, but would probably feel much more common if I lived in a tent in the mountains and was awake every day at 4 a.m. After the sheep disappeared on the other side of the ridge, I crawled back in my tent and went back to sleep.

 Dall Sheep crossing a slope at sunrise in the Hayes Range near McGinnis Glacier.

Dall Sheep crossing a slope at sunrise in the Hayes Range near McGinnis Glacier.

I woke up around 8 a.m. and stepped out of the tent. The landscape in front of me looked very similar to Denali National Park, except I was a lot closer to the giant 11,000'+ mountains you get to see from the bus in the park and there were no people anywhere nearby. I knew storm clouds would arrive later in the afternoon but I still had a few hours to explore, so I headed toward the ridge above McGinnis Glacier where I had seen the sheep earlier that morning.

I set my camera on my tripod at the top of the ridge and descended about 50 feet with my radio shutter release, intending to take a shot of the landscape with me in the frame. While waiting for clouds to stop blocking the light on Mt. Moffit, I noticed a Dall sheep ram staring at me on the slope to my left only a dozen yards away. I ran back up the ridge to get my camera, switched to my 300mm telephoto lens, then started walking back down the ridge only to see the ram had disappeared. As I reached the spot where I had first seen him, I suddenly spotted him standing farther down on the ridge looking up at me. Every other sheep I had ever encountered had quickly put ground between me and it, even if I wasn’t really that close. But this ram started slowly walking up the ridge toward me, and came close enough that I could hear him snort. He dropped onto the slope to my right as he passed me, stopping about 10 feet away and posing as if he wanted me to take his head shot. He continued slowly past me, but as soon as I turned my body to follow him with the camera, he panicked and started to run up the ridge. He froze suddenly when he saw my tripod and backpack at the top, then disappeared behind the ridge. I went back to taking landscape shots, spotting the ram ambling aimlessly along the ridge behind me a couple of times before he disappeared for good.

 A curious Dall sheep ram.

A curious Dall sheep ram.

At that time, I saw what I thought was a huge eagle twisting in the air, but it turned out to be a fighter jet maneuvering in the sky, and, soon after, I heard its roar as it sped past through the valley. I did see an actual eagle flying over McGinnis Glacier a short time later, but couldn't tell if it was a juvenile bald eagle or a golden eagle.

As much as I wanted to stay another night, I knew I might get caught in a nasty mountain thunderstorm if I stuck around much longer, and the big mountains were likely to disappear soon, anyway. I started back to my campsite. The wind had started blowing hard and I found my tent had collapsed while I was away. I packed up and started hiking across the tundra, grateful for the wind as it kept the insects away. As I neared McGinnis Creek, dark clouds had already overtaken the mountains behind me and most of the land I had just crossed was covered in shadow. I started descending through the steep forest down to the creek, having to retrace my steps a few times to bypass cliffs while constantly yelling to scare off bears and moose. I emerged from the forest onto the creek bed and began following my footsteps back to the river.

Finally, I reached the edge of the Delta River and retrieved my pack raft. Golden light was shining on the river and the mountains on the far side. The river was heavily braided where I crossed, with some of the braids so shallow in places that my raft got stuck several times. I couldn't see my car when I reached the last braid, which made me worry I would have to walk a long distance to find it when I reached the far side, but as I started floating down the channel it quickly appeared around some brush just 100 feet away. I pulled my raft out of the water, shook the silt off, then deflated it and tossed it in the car. I had been gone for roughly 32 hours, but it felt like several days.

I’ll definitely be visiting the mountains and glaciers across the Delta River again next summer. There are several other adventures I’ve been considering for some time which suddenly seem much more attainable with a pack raft. I can't believe it took me this long to get one!