Motion Episodes

Greg Aiello Crosses the Teklanika River in the Alaskan Wilderness

Tags: Motion

On their hike through the backcountry of Denali National Park in Alaska, Greg and a group of his mountaineering friends navigate the braids of the the Teklanika River.

The mightly Alaksa range is a narrow East-West facing mountain group in South Central Alaska that is home to some of the toughest weather in the world and to the highest point in North America - Mount McKinley, which stands at 20,237 feet. Denali National Park and Preserve protects nearly 6 million acres of mountains, tundra and glaciers. Mount McKinley, more commonly referred to as Denali here, draws million into the park to catch a glimpse of its towering peak.

Greg has been exploring this park with his friends who used to be guides with him at Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides - Ian, owner of SYNG, Tim Bloom, lead singer of rock group, and Kelsey, now a carpenter living near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The park service granted the group rare access to Park Road, allowing them to drive their own vehicle 85 miles on Park Road to Wonder Lake, at the base of Denali.

After spending a night camping near Wonder Lake, the group tries out a piece of gear that's familiar to Greg, but new to his friends - the Alpaca Packraft. They'll need the rafts for the second leg of the coming journey. The plan to set out on a four day hike through the base of the mountains, crossing the Teklanika River, climbing over Calico Pass and then heading back to Park Road on a 17 mile float along Sanctuary River.

As the guys are getting ready to jump out of the van and begin their hike, they notice a mother grizzly bear and her cubs grazing on blueberries. The crew stayed behind, keeping an eye on the bears while Greg and his buddies began their hike. Fortunately, the bear and her cubs were more interested in the blueberries than a four guys with backpacks walking into the wild. To alert the bears to their presence, the guys make sure to make plenty of noise as they hike along.

But a half mile into the hike, they notice the same grizzly sow and her cubs again, and then another mama grizzly and her two cubs on the other side, as well as a Caribou nearby.

"We're fifteen minutes into the trip, and we're surrounded by wildlife," says Greg. "So far I don't want my money back. I just hope to not need my arm back."

Within two or three miles of their hike, the group decides to stop and make camp for the night, due to fatigue from brush-filled terrain and the beautiful views of the Denali range all around them. While the guys were hesitant to add another 6 pounds to their packs by carrying the pack rafts, Greg convinces them it will be worth it because of the variety of landscapes they'll be able to experience together.

On day two, the group wakes up to air filled with smoke from a nearby wildfire. Traveling all as experienced mountain guides, it makes it tough to decide how to travel when the group is all people used to being hike leaders.

"When you got a lot of chefs in one spot, it's not always easy to decide how many clams to put into the chowder," says Greg.

The guys keep their food in bear-proof metal cans while they travel, which not only keeps bears from being attracted to the smell of food but helps break the association the animals have between food and humans. As they enter a thicket, the hikers make sure to make lots of noise, the best way to prevent a bear attack.

The group nears the Teklanika River, which is a braided river, meaning it consists of a network of narrow channels separated by small islands. They hope to cross the small channels of the river on foot and get to the main channel so they can float downstream. Because crossing even a narrow river braid can be dangerous, the crew keeps their packs unbuckled so they can quickly let go of the weight if they fall or stumble.

After crossing several small braids and a half a mile hike across a gravel bar, they hit the main channel of the Teklanika, which is wider and deeper than the small channels. The crew inflates their pack rafts and gets ready to float on the river. After two miles, they ease to shore and pack them back up for the hike over to Calico Creek. At this point, the group is more than halfway through their trip, sharpening the group's focus.

"You're at a point of no return now," says Greg. "Even though I've poured over maps and google earth, just that feeling of being way back in the Alaska range like that... everybody kind of got into business mode."

With long Alaskan days and sunlight until midnight, it's possible to cover a lot of miles. Elevation isn't much of a concern for the hikers, as the range is only about 3100 feet at the base of the Denali range. The crew gets to the back of Calico Creek and decides to make camp for the night, exhausted from a long day of hiking and rafting.

The beauty of the green tundra and mountain range was breathtaking.

"I've never been in such a lovely, green mountain environment in all of my days," says Greg."This is so perfect."

The cilmb to Calico Pass was steep, but the quality of rock and terrain made it easier than it looked from lower in the canyon. The clilmb down into the Sanctuary River had a potential for problems, but the crew got good advice from the park's rangers to stay high on the right side of the valley during the descent, instead of staying in the creek bed. The scree - small shale rocks that litter the ground - make for a fun and easy descent.

At the bottom of the pass, they meet up with the Sanctuary River, where they'll break out their Alpaca packrafts and float back to the Park Road, where they began. But with the long Alaska days, the crew uses the morning to explore their surroundings, including Refuge Valley. Finally, the crew gets the boats ready and onto the Sancturary River.

"We finally get the rafts inflated and we're floating down this ideal river for beginners," says Greg. "It was one of the best floats that I've ever done in my life."

With the journey close to its end and the steady flows of the Sanctuary River delivering them from the mountains, the group savored the raw beauty of Alaska and the memories they would always have of this amazing trip together.

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