Life in Alaska
Outdoors & Recreation

100 Days in Denali Part II

Written by
Laura Lyn Gregory

When I first thought of my 100 Days of Denali adventure, I envisioned rolling in on my 100th day via dogsled. After all the planning, bus rides, hikes, bikes, snowshoeing, and driving, it was time to finish my journey. Denali’s winter dog sled concessionaire is through EarthSong Lodge out of Healy, Alaska. I contacted them early and they accommodated my unique request to enter east of the park and head west. Much of the trip was weather dependent. There had to be enough snow for the dogs to pull the sleds. Again, luck was on my side and my dream trip was about to come true. 

We had a training day that seemed to go by rather quickly, so when it was game time on day 95 of my 100 Days of Denali, I was pretty nervous. I was leading a team of six dogs into the Denali National Park wilderness alongside my husband, Josh, who also had a team of six dogs, and a guide who had a team of eight dogs. We were the first multi-night trip of the year heading into the park from the east. I had heard that the park rangers and their dog team had already made trail to the areas we were heading, but trails can be easily covered and lost in new or windblown snow. The dogs took off like a rocket after we pulled out the anchor that had slid under the sled. They weaved through trees like agility poles. I am a pretty cautious person who likes control and this was way out of my comfort zone. Once we got above some of the trees I could see the snow-covered park road which was now closed at mile 3. We went through the Savage River Campground and Mountain Vista Trail. It was beyond incredible to see the entire park blanketed in white. Down the trail I watched as our guide dipped out of view. I barely had time to react; we were going down a steep downhill. I tried holding on but I was flung into the air. I landed partially on the trail and quickly rolled into the deep snow because I knew Josh’s team was right behind me. Not more than a few seconds later his team came barreling down the hill. I was impressed that he stayed on!


The guide collected my sled, I got back on, and we headed up to the Savage River. Not all of the river was completely frozen. We ended up losing the park service trail and the guide had to take a look around. When he found where we were supposed to go he was quickly off. I took the anchor out of the ground and my dogs took off. Instead of following the guide’s trail, my dogs cut the corner and ended up in the deep snow. I tried to walk behind the sled to help them but the dogs quickly got back their footing. They surged forward and started to run while I was left dragging behind the sled. At first I tried pulling myself up but the dogs quickly followed the guide onto the ice. I don’t mind being dragged as much in the thick snow, but on ice … no way. I let go and watched my team cross the river. Josh let me hop on his sled but I quickly fell off when the dogs tried to leap across a crack in the ice. I began to think of my many talents as a human and that dog mushing is not one of them, but I got back on. I stayed on longer this time. 

We stopped to have hot cocoa and snacks. EarthSong Lodge provided all the food, snacks, and hot beverages for us. After our quick break we headed on. We were almost to our first little cabin at Sanctuary Campground when we had to travel across a hill at a pretty steep angle. I slowed the dogs hoping this would help but I saw the guide’s sled was tipped over. He righted himself and quickly headed off the slope. I tried hard to stay up but I also tipped over. I righted the sled and took one anchor out no problem.  When I went for the other anchor the dogs pulled and we were off. My footing was poor and I was soon being dragged alongside the other anchor. I didn’t want to let go but I didn’t want to hurt myself on the anchor. The guide again had to collect my sled and dogs. Josh continued to stay on like a champ. We got to the cabin and enjoyed a nice hot dinner and afterward I watched the sunset from the bridge over the Sanctuary River.

“We hiked the morning of day 98 on December 29. The sky was again clear, the sun was beginning to rise, and we were the only people for miles on end. I thought back on the summer months and the bustling array of buses traveling the now snowy road.”

I learned a lot about mushing that first full day in the park, including how dangerous it is to let go of your team. The guide was able to collect my sled and dogs each time so I was very lucky, and more careful in the coming days doing everything I could to stay on my sled. We opted to stay at the Sanctuary Cabin for the second day, snowshoed up and down the river, explored around the road corridor, and enjoyed relatively nice weather. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but the scenery was breathtaking.

On day three we headed west to the Igloo Cabin. We had more river crossings and hills planned for the day, but I did pretty well and stayed on the entire day! On the huge drop before sliding onto the Teklanika River, the guide did take my sled for me just in case! After seeing how steep it was, I didn’t mind. I just wanted everyone safe. I had a difficult time slowing the dogs down at times, even while stomping hard on the brake the dogs were able to run on.

Once we arrived at the cabin, which was right across from the Igloo Campground, we had almost the whole day left to explore. We hiked up Igloo Creek and found abundant wolf prints! The wildlife we were able to see included snowshoe hares, willow ptarmigan, and grey jays. It was a beautiful sunny day. After walking almost to Tattler Creek and Sable Pass, we saw a way to get up to the park road.  We walked back to the cabin using the Denali park road, where we had a vantage point over the river bed and enjoyed watching the sun slowly sink below the mountains.

After another delicious dinner we made frequent star checks. One goal of mine was to view the northern lights. The stars began to appear but the moon overshadowed most of them. It was going to be a long night if I wanted to photograph the aurora. I went to bed but woke up every hour to check for the lights. The moon finally set around 4 a.m. and I ventured out of the dark cabin, entering the dark night. The dogs were fidgeting on their lead line and I also heard the soothing ripples of Igloo Creek. I was so thankful that the clouds hadn’t snuck in to cover the sky. Instead I saw millions of stars and a green band of the northern lights! I walked 50 yards from the cabin and was out photographing in the bitter cold for over an hour. Every once in awhile I would swear I heard an unfamiliar noise of a tree branch snap or crunching snow. Luckily, I didn’t actually see another critter. I slipped back into my sleeping bag and slept another few hours.

“I woke up every hour on the hour in hopes that the moon would set below the horizon so the aurora would light up the sky on day 98, December 29, 2017. My persistence paid off, but the snow was so high I had to almost climb through the snow to take this photo.” 

The morning was cold and breezy. We walked on the river until we could easily access the road. With the force of the wind it felt like we weren’t going anywhere. I walked behind Josh to help block it. We went off the road in a ravine and dug out seats for ourselves in the snow. I was pretty tired from my middle-of-the-night excursion and ended up falling asleep! After about a half hour, Josh woke me up and we watched the sun rise above the mountains. Soon it was time to get the dogs ready to head back to the Sanctuary River Cabin.

By day five of this trip I had gotten much more comfortable mushing my dogs. I knew their names and would praise them along the way. Hopping back onto the Teklanika River I almost fell over, but instead I was elated when the sled thunked on the frozen ice and I hadn’t made a thunk myself. Crossing back over the river we ran into some water. The area we were going over was not frozen but it was not super deep. It was deep enough to go over my boots and soak my socks. As I was thinking about my cold feet, I thought of the dogs and how cold their feet must be! After 25 yards in the water I helped push the sled back onto the frozen ice. We had to stop immediately back on the ice to knock off the slush that had accumulated on the bottom of the sleds. After relieving the sleds, we headed back over the snow-covered tundra. When we made it back to the Sanctuary River cabin, we quickly took off our gear to dry and changed our socks. With the adrenaline of moving on the sled, I didn’t notice how cold my feet really were. We had another great meal before heading to bed.

Waking up on day 100 of my 100 Days of Denali National Park caused a mix of emotions. I was excited, exhausted, and emotional. What an incredible journey it had been. As we suited up the dogs for one final run back to the park headquarters I was able to reflect on my days. At one point I saw the guide disappear, it was another steep hill. This was my test! I slowed the dogs down as much as I physically could. There was a turn in the hill and I could feel the sled slide; I was going over. The sled shook and before I knew it, the sled and I were in the brush on the ground. I got up and corrected the sled. I pulled the anchors and away we went, with me still on the sled! I was so proud of myself for staying on and not giving up. As we continued I felt thankful there was enough snow to go on this mushing adventure and I appreciated all the opportunities I had been given. We mushed past the Savage River Campground and back into the spruce forest. We were getting close. We had some bumps and jumps avoiding trees and little creeks. As the opening approached, I almost shed a tear. I was back at the park headquarters. I had made it through 100 Days in Denali National Park, across all its seasons.

“I finally got the hang of mushing my dog team on day 100, December 31, 2017. We were coming up to the Savage River, our final larger river pass.” 


I have hiked, biked, snowshoed, skied, mushed, driven, climbed, and flown through my 100 Days of Denali. I have photographed everything from bears and wolves to ptarmigan and pika. While I was fortunate enough to see so much wildlife and scenery in Denali, not every day was epic for photography. I learned to appreciate the smallest wildflower or bug, not just the larger mammals. People come from all over the world to see the mountain, bears, and moose, but Denali National Park is full of life. Throughout the journey I learned quite a bit about the park and myself. I started this journey curious and excited, but hesitant to adventure on my own, hike on my own, and travel on my own. Although I finished the year of 2017 more confident, I realized how much I enjoyed company on my trips. I appreciated the park rangers I got to know, the support from my family and friends, all those people I met, and all the people who followed along on social media. I not only feel like I have had a full year of adventure in Denali, but I feel like I became part of it. When I started on day one, I didn’t know what would come from spending 100 Days in Denali. Of my 100 days, I saw 98 bears, but only saw bears on 25% of my days. I saw 158 moose and saw them on 53% of my days. I was fortunate enough to see Denali, the mountain, on 40% of my 100 days. Now that this challenge is complete, I feel very accomplished and grateful for the experience, and surprisingly I can’t wait for more Denali adventures.

No items found.

100 Days in Denali Part II

Life in Alaska
Outdoors & Recreation

Author

Laura Lyn Gregory

Although I have only been selling photos for a few years, I have been photographing from a pretty early age. When I was around 8 years old my mom took my brother and me to the Grand Canyon. It was there, my first National Park, where I went through over 12 disposable cameras photographing the beauty I was seeing. I saved up my money for a few years to buy my first 35mm camera. I was pretty excited walking into the camera shop and selecting my new artistic instrument to capture the world around me! About 6 months later I remember watching a commercial for DSLRs. With that commercial came a new era in photography. I saved up again and purchased a DSLR when I was in college. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to pursue a business in photography until I was in graduate school. I took photos of what wildlife there was in the middle of nowhere in Illinois and did some family and action photography. I got married after my first year of graduate school and we spent our honeymoon in Alaska. This is where I truly fell in love with the state. Its beauty was beyond describable and the photos, even though I tried, did not fully do justice to the scenery. A year and a half later I applied for an internship in Fairbanks.  Without much hesitation, I accepted an offer and we moved on up!  Since then we have tried to see and experience as much of Alaska as possible. I am for the most part self-taught. In high school I took a few classes in film photography, a beautiful process that I would love to keep alive someday, but for now I photograph with DSLRs. My passion is wildlife photography but I also enjoy scenery and real-life/natural photography.

When I first thought of my 100 Days of Denali adventure, I envisioned rolling in on my 100th day via dogsled. After all the planning, bus rides, hikes, bikes, snowshoeing, and driving, it was time to finish my journey. Denali’s winter dog sled concessionaire is through EarthSong Lodge out of Healy, Alaska. I contacted them early and they accommodated my unique request to enter east of the park and head west. Much of the trip was weather dependent. There had to be enough snow for the dogs to pull the sleds. Again, luck was on my side and my dream trip was about to come true. 

We had a training day that seemed to go by rather quickly, so when it was game time on day 95 of my 100 Days of Denali, I was pretty nervous. I was leading a team of six dogs into the Denali National Park wilderness alongside my husband, Josh, who also had a team of six dogs, and a guide who had a team of eight dogs. We were the first multi-night trip of the year heading into the park from the east. I had heard that the park rangers and their dog team had already made trail to the areas we were heading, but trails can be easily covered and lost in new or windblown snow. The dogs took off like a rocket after we pulled out the anchor that had slid under the sled. They weaved through trees like agility poles. I am a pretty cautious person who likes control and this was way out of my comfort zone. Once we got above some of the trees I could see the snow-covered park road which was now closed at mile 3. We went through the Savage River Campground and Mountain Vista Trail. It was beyond incredible to see the entire park blanketed in white. Down the trail I watched as our guide dipped out of view. I barely had time to react; we were going down a steep downhill. I tried holding on but I was flung into the air. I landed partially on the trail and quickly rolled into the deep snow because I knew Josh’s team was right behind me. Not more than a few seconds later his team came barreling down the hill. I was impressed that he stayed on!


The guide collected my sled, I got back on, and we headed up to the Savage River. Not all of the river was completely frozen. We ended up losing the park service trail and the guide had to take a look around. When he found where we were supposed to go he was quickly off. I took the anchor out of the ground and my dogs took off. Instead of following the guide’s trail, my dogs cut the corner and ended up in the deep snow. I tried to walk behind the sled to help them but the dogs quickly got back their footing. They surged forward and started to run while I was left dragging behind the sled. At first I tried pulling myself up but the dogs quickly followed the guide onto the ice. I don’t mind being dragged as much in the thick snow, but on ice … no way. I let go and watched my team cross the river. Josh let me hop on his sled but I quickly fell off when the dogs tried to leap across a crack in the ice. I began to think of my many talents as a human and that dog mushing is not one of them, but I got back on. I stayed on longer this time. 

We stopped to have hot cocoa and snacks. EarthSong Lodge provided all the food, snacks, and hot beverages for us. After our quick break we headed on. We were almost to our first little cabin at Sanctuary Campground when we had to travel across a hill at a pretty steep angle. I slowed the dogs hoping this would help but I saw the guide’s sled was tipped over. He righted himself and quickly headed off the slope. I tried hard to stay up but I also tipped over. I righted the sled and took one anchor out no problem.  When I went for the other anchor the dogs pulled and we were off. My footing was poor and I was soon being dragged alongside the other anchor. I didn’t want to let go but I didn’t want to hurt myself on the anchor. The guide again had to collect my sled and dogs. Josh continued to stay on like a champ. We got to the cabin and enjoyed a nice hot dinner and afterward I watched the sunset from the bridge over the Sanctuary River.

“We hiked the morning of day 98 on December 29. The sky was again clear, the sun was beginning to rise, and we were the only people for miles on end. I thought back on the summer months and the bustling array of buses traveling the now snowy road.”

I learned a lot about mushing that first full day in the park, including how dangerous it is to let go of your team. The guide was able to collect my sled and dogs each time so I was very lucky, and more careful in the coming days doing everything I could to stay on my sled. We opted to stay at the Sanctuary Cabin for the second day, snowshoed up and down the river, explored around the road corridor, and enjoyed relatively nice weather. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but the scenery was breathtaking.

On day three we headed west to the Igloo Cabin. We had more river crossings and hills planned for the day, but I did pretty well and stayed on the entire day! On the huge drop before sliding onto the Teklanika River, the guide did take my sled for me just in case! After seeing how steep it was, I didn’t mind. I just wanted everyone safe. I had a difficult time slowing the dogs down at times, even while stomping hard on the brake the dogs were able to run on.

Once we arrived at the cabin, which was right across from the Igloo Campground, we had almost the whole day left to explore. We hiked up Igloo Creek and found abundant wolf prints! The wildlife we were able to see included snowshoe hares, willow ptarmigan, and grey jays. It was a beautiful sunny day. After walking almost to Tattler Creek and Sable Pass, we saw a way to get up to the park road.  We walked back to the cabin using the Denali park road, where we had a vantage point over the river bed and enjoyed watching the sun slowly sink below the mountains.

After another delicious dinner we made frequent star checks. One goal of mine was to view the northern lights. The stars began to appear but the moon overshadowed most of them. It was going to be a long night if I wanted to photograph the aurora. I went to bed but woke up every hour to check for the lights. The moon finally set around 4 a.m. and I ventured out of the dark cabin, entering the dark night. The dogs were fidgeting on their lead line and I also heard the soothing ripples of Igloo Creek. I was so thankful that the clouds hadn’t snuck in to cover the sky. Instead I saw millions of stars and a green band of the northern lights! I walked 50 yards from the cabin and was out photographing in the bitter cold for over an hour. Every once in awhile I would swear I heard an unfamiliar noise of a tree branch snap or crunching snow. Luckily, I didn’t actually see another critter. I slipped back into my sleeping bag and slept another few hours.

“I woke up every hour on the hour in hopes that the moon would set below the horizon so the aurora would light up the sky on day 98, December 29, 2017. My persistence paid off, but the snow was so high I had to almost climb through the snow to take this photo.” 

The morning was cold and breezy. We walked on the river until we could easily access the road. With the force of the wind it felt like we weren’t going anywhere. I walked behind Josh to help block it. We went off the road in a ravine and dug out seats for ourselves in the snow. I was pretty tired from my middle-of-the-night excursion and ended up falling asleep! After about a half hour, Josh woke me up and we watched the sun rise above the mountains. Soon it was time to get the dogs ready to head back to the Sanctuary River Cabin.

By day five of this trip I had gotten much more comfortable mushing my dogs. I knew their names and would praise them along the way. Hopping back onto the Teklanika River I almost fell over, but instead I was elated when the sled thunked on the frozen ice and I hadn’t made a thunk myself. Crossing back over the river we ran into some water. The area we were going over was not frozen but it was not super deep. It was deep enough to go over my boots and soak my socks. As I was thinking about my cold feet, I thought of the dogs and how cold their feet must be! After 25 yards in the water I helped push the sled back onto the frozen ice. We had to stop immediately back on the ice to knock off the slush that had accumulated on the bottom of the sleds. After relieving the sleds, we headed back over the snow-covered tundra. When we made it back to the Sanctuary River cabin, we quickly took off our gear to dry and changed our socks. With the adrenaline of moving on the sled, I didn’t notice how cold my feet really were. We had another great meal before heading to bed.

Waking up on day 100 of my 100 Days of Denali National Park caused a mix of emotions. I was excited, exhausted, and emotional. What an incredible journey it had been. As we suited up the dogs for one final run back to the park headquarters I was able to reflect on my days. At one point I saw the guide disappear, it was another steep hill. This was my test! I slowed the dogs down as much as I physically could. There was a turn in the hill and I could feel the sled slide; I was going over. The sled shook and before I knew it, the sled and I were in the brush on the ground. I got up and corrected the sled. I pulled the anchors and away we went, with me still on the sled! I was so proud of myself for staying on and not giving up. As we continued I felt thankful there was enough snow to go on this mushing adventure and I appreciated all the opportunities I had been given. We mushed past the Savage River Campground and back into the spruce forest. We were getting close. We had some bumps and jumps avoiding trees and little creeks. As the opening approached, I almost shed a tear. I was back at the park headquarters. I had made it through 100 Days in Denali National Park, across all its seasons.

“I finally got the hang of mushing my dog team on day 100, December 31, 2017. We were coming up to the Savage River, our final larger river pass.” 


I have hiked, biked, snowshoed, skied, mushed, driven, climbed, and flown through my 100 Days of Denali. I have photographed everything from bears and wolves to ptarmigan and pika. While I was fortunate enough to see so much wildlife and scenery in Denali, not every day was epic for photography. I learned to appreciate the smallest wildflower or bug, not just the larger mammals. People come from all over the world to see the mountain, bears, and moose, but Denali National Park is full of life. Throughout the journey I learned quite a bit about the park and myself. I started this journey curious and excited, but hesitant to adventure on my own, hike on my own, and travel on my own. Although I finished the year of 2017 more confident, I realized how much I enjoyed company on my trips. I appreciated the park rangers I got to know, the support from my family and friends, all those people I met, and all the people who followed along on social media. I not only feel like I have had a full year of adventure in Denali, but I feel like I became part of it. When I started on day one, I didn’t know what would come from spending 100 Days in Denali. Of my 100 days, I saw 98 bears, but only saw bears on 25% of my days. I saw 158 moose and saw them on 53% of my days. I was fortunate enough to see Denali, the mountain, on 40% of my 100 days. Now that this challenge is complete, I feel very accomplished and grateful for the experience, and surprisingly I can’t wait for more Denali adventures.

No items found.

Author

Laura Lyn Gregory

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