August 13, 2015
I first met Denali when Belinda, Katherine, Rebecca, and I hiked her backcountry. The backcountry is a wide and open landscape without trails. Denali Park is similar with only one road in and the same road out. Buses provide all transportation within the park. Thus, day hikers, backpackers, and folk who want to see the park inside from the bus all ride together. When hikers reach a portion of the park they want to hike, they yell out, the driver stops, and they jump off and watch the bus head on down the gravel road. If they are not alongside the road when the last bus heads back out of the park, well, they get a free night out.
One rule of backpacking the park is to not camp within sight of the road. With that in mind we jumped off the last step of the bus our first of six mornings in Denali, crossed the road and dropped into a drainage. Giving the caribou wide berth we headed across the rising plain. After fourteen hours of hiking drainages, tundra (which is like hiking across a carpet with basketballs below), moving through heavy brush, crossing glacier water creeks that left your feet numb, we topped a slight rise bordering a wide brushed drainage to the east. We looked behind us. We could still see the road. Well, it is a wide and open country. We turned back to south and had little doubt we had another four or five hours of hiking before we reached topography hiding us from the road. We looked at each other and silently thought, “Can anyone see us from the road?” Enough was enough and we made camp.
That evening we cooked and ate supper. Afterwards we placed our food about a football field away from where we cooked. Then we set up the tents another stone’s throw from our cooking area and the food—in triangle fashion. A long day behind us, the road in sight some ten to twelve miles away, the sun still hours from setting, we bedded down.
A light mist gave the morning air a grayish tinge. Animals, mostly caribou, were on the plain grazing. It was quiet. After a while we gathered the food and cooking gear, made oatmeal and coffee, and watched caribou move toward the hollows. As backpacks settled on shoulders as sore that morning as they were the evening before, we headed off toward hills rising in the south. Maybe this evening we sleep out of sight of the road.
Last week someone said that Obama’s giving Denali’s her name back (dropping Mount McKinley) is a symbolic gesture. Well, yes. After all, Denali never changed her name. She kept it and the people had kept it.
However, placing the name Mount McKinley on Denali was also a symbolic action—a symbolic action based in systemic racism. When the US government acted to change Denali’s name, it was an action to suck power and identity away from both the ancient people and the soil of the landscape. McKinley, like the naming of so many American mountain and rivers, was to subjugate the land and peoples of the Alaskan landscape to the US government and US business. The naming of McKinley is but one more example of how the Doctrine of Discovery is played out in US American identity.
Symbolic or not, the name change is a step toward a better relationship with the landscape. Though it may be decades in the coming, Pahto, whose name has never changed for her or the people of the Yakama Valley, may once again be known for who she is rather than the assimilated name, Mount Adams (another embarrassing naming of a president).
For many landscapes in the America’s, the recognition and honoring of Denali for whom she is, is hope the folk walking the ridges and swimming the rivers will again know them by their name.