National Geographic

How Can 6 Million Acres at Denali Still Not Be Enough?

The icon of Alaska’s wilderness symbolizes the tension between preservation and use at U.S. national parks.

PARK RANGERS here call the high season—from June through early September, when Denali National Park and Preserve hosts the majority of its 500,000 annual visitors—the “hundred days of chaos.” Indeed a midsummer morning at the park’s Wilderness Access Center, located at the start of Denali’s fabled 92-mile-long Park Road, can feel a bit like rush hour at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Loudspeakers announce bus boarding times, and visitors from many nations crowd the ticket counter.

Most of Denali’s visitors are cruise ship passengers who see the park and its prolific wildlife largely through bus windows. “But if you’re seeking solitude, it’s not hard to find,” says ranger Sarah Hayes, who helps backpackers and hikers prepare for their adventures. “We’ve got six million acres of mostly trailless lands where wild animals roam undisturbed. And it’s accessible to anyone who hops off the bus.”

Picture of mantis shrimp eyeAs my bus rolls out, noses press against windows, hands clutch cameras, and people speaking half a dozen different tongues excitedly speculate about wildlife sightings. I ask several passengers what’s on their wish list. “A moose!” “A grizzly!” “Caribou!” “A wolf!”

At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.

“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”

At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.

“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”

Rising 20,310 feet above sea level, North America’s tallest peak is a stunning sight, although in warm weather its slopes are often shrouded in clouds. The mountain was a big part of the legend and lore of the Athabaskan-speaking people who gave it the name Denali, meaning Tall One. In 1896 gold prospector William Dickey renamed it Mount McKinley in honor of Ohio politician William McKinley, a staunch champion of the gold standard who one year later would become the nation’s 25th president. For decades Ohio’s congressional delegation successfully blocked attempts to rename the mountain. Then last summer the Obama Administration used its executive power to restore the original name.

Seeing the mountain, spotting a grizzly, or catching a glimpse of a wolf are the top three reasons people give for coming to Denali. As recently as 2010, a visitor stood a better chance of seeing a wolf in the wild than seeing the elusive Tall One, which is visible on just one in three summer days. But since 2010 the number of wolf sightings has plunged. According to a study of wildlife viewing opportunities along the Park Road, observers recorded wolf sightings on only 6 percent of trips in 2014—down from 45 percent in 2010. Park biologists report that the number of wolves inside the park has dropped from more than 100 a decade ago to fewer than 50 last year. I came to Denali, in part, to discover why.

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John McAfee’s Flying Circus Wants You!

John McAfee stands in the New Mexican playa in front of his trike ultralight, during a Sky Gypsies aerotrekking camping expedition. (Tom Clynes)

John McAfee stands in the New Mexican playa in front of his trike ultralight, during a Sky Gypsies aerotrekking camping expedition. Click photo above for slide show.

Big ideas come easy to John McAfee. First he pioneered antivirus software, then instant messaging. Now the mercurial magnate thinks he’s on to something truly extraordinary: personal Icarus machines.

“And now, I’m going to count from one to five,” John McAfee says, his baritone dharma-salesman voice resonating through the small theater filled with meditating pilots. “And when I get to five, go ahead and open your eyes. Ready?”

One…

I’ve always considered myself an überskeptic, immune to the whole range of hypnotic experience. But I’ll be damned if John McAfee doesn’t have me believing one morning in early January that I can fly like a bird.

The day after my arrival at McAfee’s Sky Gypsies compound in the sparse and spectacular border country of southwestern New Mexico, I’m on the back of an open-cockpit, winged tricycle, swooping through the air above the Peloncillo Mountains. Up front, in the birdbrain position, McAfee pulls the control bar toward his right hip and sends us diving into Skeleton Canyon.

“This is what Icarus dreamed of,” McAfee yells, as we pirouette around a granite spire, then level off five feet above the floor of the Animas Valley, skimming over ocotillos and longhorn cattle at 65 miles an hour. McAfee stomps the throttle and aims for the crown of a small butte, then flicks the bar forward to spirit us over the top.

As we turn eastward in a broad, climbing arc, I glance over my shoulder and catch a glimpse of nine other airborne craft. They fly behind us in fast-and-loose formation, silhouetted against a backdrop of looming mountains. McAfee leads the squadron across a parched plain toward a sprawling, dry lakebed, and eases us down until the rear tires make tentative contact with the playa. Then, confident that the surface is solid, he cuts the throttle and plants the trike firmly on the ground. One by one, the others drop out of the sky and come to rest in a semicircle.

McAfee takes off his helmet and reaches into his saddlebag for a self-heating can of coffee as three women in red-and-black jumpsuits hop from their machines and run toward each other with hugs and hoots. The hugs become tackles, and the tackles devolve into a giddy wrestling match in the dust.

Opening the coffee, McAfee slices his finger deeply on the pull tab. Someone runs for a bandage as McAfee holds the wound together with his uninjured hand, squinting as he takes in a panorama of Mad Max flying machines, dust-kicking wrestlers, and jagged mountains pinned under a cerulean sky. As the dripping blood turns the dust at McAfee’s feet into dark mud, he glances at his watch and a broad smile creeps across his face. It’s high noon in the middle of nowhere, and John McAfee’s flying circus has arrived.

It’s hard to imagine another sexagenarian multimillionaire having as much fun as McAfee, the lead evangelist of the new adventure sport he has dubbed aerotrekking. According to McAfee, people can indeed fly like birds, and they don’t need full pilots’ licenses or constrictive, gas-guzzling tin cans to do it. What they do need are wide open spaces, a bit of training, and a new class of flying machines with kite wings, motor-driven rear propellers, and handlebars for steering. Variously called weight-shift ultralights, personal air vehicles (PAVs), or simply trikes, the machines have a range of 300 miles or about five hours in the air.

McAfee’s backcountry version of ultralight flying may or may not catch on, but if it does, it wouldn’t be the first time the world has found itself swept up in one of his improbable schemes…

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Outlaw’s Guide to Iceland

It’s Europe’s last great wilderness, a land of geysers, glaciers, fjords and farmer-poets. A land where your best guide is a thieving, murdering outlaw who’s been dead for a thousand years.

 (Tom Clynes)

Puffin hunting atop Drangey Island. Click photo for slide show.

“This boy Grettir—well, he was trouble from the very beginning.”

High atop Drangey Island, Jón Eiriksson stands at the nub of a jagged rectangle of stones, looking out at the fjord and the mainland beyond. Above him, sea birds wheel in the salt wind over Drangey, a green-capped spike of rock thrust down, like an axe head, into a tongue of the North Sea. Jón pulls off his cap and runs his fingers through a tussock of white hair, then he sits down on a half-buried stone.

“Grettir is our neighbor, you know,” Jón says. “He was born on a farm near Midfjord, a place called Bjarg. That means ‘stone’ in Icelandic. When he was young, he was a handsome boy, with red hair and a broad face. But very rough and mischievous. He made clever poems, but they were mostly scornful. His father and nearly everyone believed that he would amount to nothing.”

Jón talks in the familiar terms one might use to describe a ne’er-do-well kid who squeals his tires through the subdivision. But at the age of 72, Jón isn’t quite old enough to have known his juvenile-delinquent neighbor.

Grettir was born a thousand years ago.

I had arrived in Iceland three weeks earlier with photographer Michael Moore, determined to follow the path of Grettir Asmundarson—the warrior, poet, ghostbuster, and outdoorsman popularly known hereabouts as Grettir the Strong. This medieval Jesse James outwitted his pursuers for nearly 20 years, roaming and wreaking havoc across the harshest and most remote corners of 11th-century Iceland. As any Icelander will attest, and as Jón tells us, “Grettir was not only the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, but also the greatest outlaw.”

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