Denali Mocha, anyone?

Posted By: Jan

April 18, 2014

Walking into the dining hall after a day of guiding in Denali, I glance around for the wooden clothespin hand printed with my name to locate my seat for the evening meal. My clothespin is hand painted by fellow staff member, Hannah Berry, and I love its familiar sight.  Tucked over a linen napkin, it shows I am seated with five others. Some faces are familiar, guests I’ve hiked with the past few days, and guests I have yet to meet.

First, the soup for the evening comes out (a wild rice and mushroom soup that has our mouths watering from the moment we catch a whiff from the kitchen) and a basket of still warm Alaska sourdough is passed around, with generous scoops of butter (we hiked today! We earned it!). We talk of what we saw on the hike…caribou, bear tracks, wolf scat, a lingering snow field the kids made snow angels in as our dinner plates arrive—pan seared NY strip steak with chimichurri, crispy Alaskan potatoes, and Alaskan green and purple beans.  Unbelievable that we are so far from grocery stores, and yet have this bouquet of smells and flavors before us.

A tiramisu, made by our baker and elegantly plated with an edible blue bachelor button flower grown in our green house, arrives before me.  I’ve always smiled inside to know tiramisu is Italian for “lift me up.”  Our host, John, dings a glass to draw our attention, and, in a ritual familiar to us all from last night, asks an appointee from each hiking group to give a short “hike highlight” from the day. 

The “foray” level group (the easiest level of hike with walks that may go up to a mile) had a tremendous sighting of a sow grizzly nursing her two cubs.  They were able to watch from the road shoulder through a spotting scope and shared binoculars. The “strenuous” group told a brave tale of crossing a stream and surprising a small group of caribou cows and calves.  The last group to give a highlight has appointed its youngest member, a 10 year-old girl.  She shyly got up and mentioned how a highlight was getting to see a fox with a  ground squirrel in it’s mouth, but mostly, she liked the cup of hot chocolate her guide, Shaleas, made for her when she reached the bus at the hikes end.

Why have cocoa at the end of a hike?  Weather in Denali is unpredictable, and a bluebird morning can turn to a cool drizzle in a heartbeat.  We embrace the constant changes of weather, wearing layers we can adjust and knowing that the changes in light can make the landscape so much more beautiful than any bright sunny day.  Our guides come prepared with our own clever accompaniment, however.  In the buses and vans, for the days when our hikes require an hour drive or so to get to our starting points, we bring thermoses of hot water, blue plastic cups, and a smorgasbord of hot drink items.  We mix up refreshing apple ciders, hot tea, instant coffee, and every adults favorite, the Denali Mocha (a mixture of cocoa powder and instant coffee-sometimes it seems nothing has ever tasted better at the end of a hike in the park!).  We have these little “bistros” pulled over at the side of the road, perhaps watching a moose browse in the distance, or in the parking lot of the Eielson Visitor Center. 

Whether your highlight from Denali is a quick inhalation of breath as the bus takes the curves along the road at Polychrome Pass, the moment you learn that Denali is home to breeding birds from 6 continents, seeing the top of the mountain for the first time, stepping off the road into “spongy tundra”, or having a “Denali Mocha” amongst the camaraderie of new friends after a hike,  we hope the opportunity to experience this National Park leaves you with a memory to last a lifetime.

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Denali Dispatch

It is our pleasure to present Dispatches, a journal of the goings on at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge. Written by members of our staff, Dispatches is an opportunity to peek into the special sightings notebook, brush up on Denali National Park issues, read about our ongoing projects in sustainability, and maybe get a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchens. Dispatches will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.