As we rounded the curve in the road above Wonder Lake, Chip Houseman and Helen Gromme waved to us from the edge of a tall stand of alder, a hundred or so yards below the road. They were obviously trying to get me to stop. I couldn’t tell what they were excited about, but I figured it was either a moose or caribou. The first rose-colored light was touching Denali’s 20,320-foot summit, and I knew from the direction Chip was pointing his camera that the moose or caribou was between them and the mountain.
This wasn’t my normal photography trip to Denali. My friend Michael Fitzpatrick, at 53, was in his final stages of brain cancer. In the back seat of the camper was Spence Wilson, my 85-year-old “surrogate” father. Both were a bit shaky on their feet. Because of the similar impacts of their conditions—which mostly affected their balance and walking—Michael and Spence, who had never met before this trip, bonded immediately. Although we had talked about them joining me in Denali for a number of years, it had never happened, and I knew this likely would be our last chance.
Chip was motioning for us to come quickly, and Michael and Spence, the consummate good sports, wanted to go but sensed my dilemma in having to wait for them. They urged me to go ahead and said they would catch up. I was reluctant to go without them, but grabbed my cameras and headed down the hill. When I turned and looked back, I saw Michael and Spence tripping over the tangle of dwarf birch, both falling, then taking turns helping each other up. They were mumbling and cursing one moment at life’s dealings and roaring with laughter the next. I couldn’t help laughing myself. In spite of their handicaps, they were having more fun than possibly the rest of us. It was a glorious Indian summer morning in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.