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Subarctic Heli-Hiking

Exploring the tundra outside of Denali National Park.

Words and photographs by Kiran Herbert

Covered in thousands of different plants—mostly varieties of lichen, but also arnica, valerian, moss, liverworts—Alaska’s alpine tundra almost resembles a coral reef, albeit a soft, malleable one at 3,000-feet. I prance around on the springy ground like a Teletubbie before our guide Emily reigns me in to join the group, a Gore-Tex clad assemblage of journalists and GMC employees.

We’re outside of Denali National Park and Preserve, on a press trip (read junket) sponsored by GMC Denali, the SUV line, but there isn’t an automobile for miles. As far as the horizon, it’s just the Alaskan Range and her wilds (there are so many peaks in the area, many remain unnamed). Era Helicopters, the region’s only heli operator, airlifted us to this BLM land far above the treeline for a heli-hike. Now hold on, I’m typically not onboard with heli-hiking for a couple reasons—the expense; the unnecessary environmental toll; the noise pollution—but primarily because it seems pointless: If you love hiking, taking a shortcut to the summit makes no sense.

In Alaska though, helicopter rides are more prevalent than Uber, and necessary for exploring large swaths of land that lack even the most basic of cut trails. I’m a frequent visitor of National Parks and Wilderness areas in the lower 48, but until coming to Alaska, I’d yet to truly comprehend the difference between conservation, the proper use of nature, and preservation, the protection of nature from use. The preservation of Alaska boggles the mind: what is wild remains so—even where we are, just outside of the park’s boundaries.

In Denali National Park proper, private vehicles aren’t allowed past the 15 mile mark, and although you can take a bus 92 miles in, most of the park’s six million acres remain largely inaccessible to all but seasoned alpinists and backpackers. If you do opt to hike within the park (away from the trails that surround the Visitor’s Center, anyway) you’ll be alone in an unforgiving environment, where bushwhacking and bear spray are necessities. Save for game trails, the forest forms a nearly impenetrable obstacle until you’re above treeline, which due to the harsh climate and latitude, happens around 2,300 feet. Alaskans don’t often hike uphill against downhill brush.

Since helicopters aren’t permitted to land in Denali, Era runs its operations adjacent to it in an area that has even fewer tourists. For three hours, my group walked for miles, constantly plagued by perception issues—that which seems close may be a full day’s walk away—and false animal sightings: “Never mind, it’s just a shrub.” We foraged for single-servings of Labrador Tea (it’s favored by the Inuit), posed with shed moose and caribou antlers, and took in one of the most foreign landscapes any of us had scene.

When time was up, Emily radioed for our pick-up. In need of dry socks and layers, I’m not sure many of us would have made the full day’s walk back to civilization. For 15 minutes from the helicopter though, we were able to trace our prospective route, over rivers, past grizzlies, and through dense Alaskan brush.

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