EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
On the eve of the Air Force’s 69th birthday, I was able to travel to the highest peak in North America: Denali. I was hesitant in my usual optimism about the trip because of the logistical stress that long-distance travel brings to my family of nine. Now that I have visited Denali National Park and Preserve, and was entreated by its glorious nature, I would like to share my Sept. 17 experience.
I remember the day I received the Denali pass. It started out in the usual chaos that comes every September because of the end of the fiscal year. In the 6C-community, we like to refer to this time as our “Superbowl.” Not too long before 9 a.m., a bell rang through the Contracting Squadron’s hallway, which was the sound of an impromptu all call. There, standing in the middle of the CONS entryway was Chief Master Sgt. Brent Sheehan, the 354th Fighter Wing command chief. He called out for me and presented me with the Denali pass! I was surprised by this gift and accepted it joyfully. Sheehan asked about my family and I shared that I have a family of nine consisting of me, my lovely wife, and our seven children… the Youngbirds.
When travelling with my ‘ohana, which means family in Hawaiian, we ride in a white 15-passenger van. With six seats available after we load up, I offered the additional seats to anyone in my squadron. There were two takers: Tech. Sgt. Jamal Kareem and Senior Airman Karen Grinder. I gave out the travel itinerary and prepared for the Denali excursion on Saturday.
Around 8:45 a.m. the day of the trip, the Youngbird ‘ohana, Kareem, and Grinder began our journey to Denali. The keiki, or children, were buzzing with excitement about the road trip. They were excited about the drive and all the things we were going to experience that day. I piloted the 15-passenger albatross with Kareem as my trusted co-pilot. He and Grinder have been to Denali before so they assisted with setting expectations of the excursion, and those expectations were high.
After driving for several hours, we stopped for a late lunch in Denali National Park and Preserve. The service was great across the restaurant staff. We were greeted by a smiling hostess who quickly sat our party of 11, and followed our waitress to our table. Throughout the service, helped keep my keiki occupied with coloring paper, crayons, and by keeping the drinks filled and food coming (all with a smile of course).
Filled up with pizza, cheese fries, and soda pop, we loaded up the “tour bus” and continued to the park, eager to start the real adventure. We arrived at the Denali Visitor Center a little after 1 p.m. After a quick check-in and safety brief, of course, we were tagged and ready to drive through Denali National Park and Preserve, targeting the coveted 92-mile marker.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t make it to the 92-mile marker. Although the trip started with sunshine, at the 55-mile marker, we were encumbered with dark skies, rain, and a thick rolling fog that clung to the mountainside that caused us to evaluate the risk of going on, deciding instead to turn around to leave the park. Before arriving there, and on the way back, we saw some of the native wildlife of the Alaskan wilderness.
High with expectation of the many wondrous creatures filling up Denali, the passengers of the Youngbird Tours and Adventures van maintained strained focus on the surroundings, looking for any sign of wildlife. The first sign were white dots that speckled the side of the tall hills. I stopped the van on the side of the road so we could use our cameras to zoom in and verify what we were seeing. There, lollygagging on the side of the massively tall hilltop, were about 10 to 15 Dall sheep (or Ovis dalli dalli.)
The second set of creatures we saw were the willow ptarmigan (or Lagopus lagopus.) A small flock gathered at the side of the road, socializing amongst themselves and a few onlookers. I pulled the van over to the side and half expected them to fly off, but they didn’t. Instead, they stole a glance at their reflection in the side of my van and wandered off to cross the street. Now that the van was in park, the keiki jumped up in their seats to ogle at the white birds with fuzzy talons. We made the “warble” sound that they made. It reminded me of the sound a chocobo makes, if you’re familiar with that breed of bird.
There was a point during the trip where we traversed a cliffside with an astounding view below. I parked the van on a shoulder and went to go look. With fall in full swing, my color-blindness didn’t handicap the gorgeous colors that filled the valley below the cliff. A rushing stream split the forestry and I stood there, on the side of this cliff, happily amazed at this sight-seeing opportunity that Denali gave me. Another traveler pulled over to see what I was looking at, and they thought it was an animal of some kind. There weren’t any there presently, but we had no idea what we were about to encounter, a grazing grizzly! This urus arctos was grazing on a hillside about a quarter mile from where I got out of the van. Along with six other groups of travelers, we were out of the van taking pictures and making silly tourist sounds at the sight of this monstrous mammal.
That last “Beast of Denali” we observed was a moose (Alces alces). After turning around at the 55-mile marker, my passengers were still on the lookout for critters. One surefire way to know something is around is by counting the number of cars pulled over with binoculars sticking out of their windows, all eyes pointed upward toward a hill. Due to my color-blindness, I couldn’t see the moose at first but it became very clear when the setting sun hit its huge antlers. We stayed at this particular location for some time mainly because of how massive this moose was. It was a great way to end this adventure. We disbanded the party around 10:30 p.m. at the Youngbird Homestead in North Pole.
In 2004, I enlisted into the Air Force family. In the 12 years since then, I made a family of my own, teaching them the core values and other life lessons about how to be a good, contributing American citizen. My favorite part of the Denali trip was integrating these two families together to experience something new and amazing. My family thanks Denali National Park and Preserve and the Wing leadership for allowing us the chance to embark with fellow Airmen on this journey.