Monthly Archives: August 2014
Most people don’t go too far above sea level during a kayaking trip in Glacier Bay. With at least 100 miles of great paddling to choose from, that’s usually the focus. We spent 13 days kayaking in Glacier Bay, so we took time to do a few day hikes as well.
The most memorable was a hike near Scidmore Glacier on the third day of our trip. Brian looked at a topo map and realized the high point next to us would have a view for miles around, only it was covered in horrible, Alaska brush. If you’ve ever hiked in Alaska brush, then you know this is to be avoided at all costs.
We could see a small, gray canyon winding its way up the mountain. We could try to climb this canyon all the way to the top of the highest ridge, about 1800 feet. We had no idea if it would work, but the route just beckoned to us. We navigated to the bottom of the canyon, crossing several glacial streams on the way.
Then the fun began! The gully was gushing with crystal clear water, flowing down a tumbled bed of granite boulders with the occasional small waterfall. There was no brush and the route was fun, cool and splashy. It felt like canyoneering as we worked our way up the granite boulders in this flowing mini-gorge. We enjoyed a really fun ascent up to the ridge.
Near the top of the ridge, we exited the canyon and hiked up a small summit. At the top we took in amazing views of the East Arm of Glacier Bay with several glaciers curving down to the sea, and Scidmore Bay dotted with small islands.
Some other good hikes on rough paths took us near Reid and Lamplugh Glaciers. The jagged, blue ice of these huge glaciers was fun to view from different angles. We also saw plenty of Ptarmigan while out hiking, including Ptarmigan chicks. We picked wild strawberries at several camps. Our time on land in Glacier Bay was really memorable.
Grizzly Bears were everywhere. There were blonde bears with cubs, fat bears feasting on berries, and even a dark brown bear which was, according to our bus driver, a “bad bear”. This bad bear had recently killed another bear in the park.
Brian and I sat aboard an old, rattling school bus making its way through the Denali backcountry, about to begin our second backpacking trip in the park. We saw at least a dozen bears that day. Our bus driver saw the bad bear approaching a backpacker near the road, so he stopped and asked the backpacker to get on the bus right away. The backpacker looked back, jumped a bit when he saw the bear approaching, and then boarded the bus in a hurry. He remained on the bus and we continued down the road, away from the bad bear.
What a way to begin our trip. We planned to spend two nights in the Denali backcountry in the Mount Eielson area. We were extremely lucky to get a permit for this area. Our guidebook said getting this permit was akin to winning the lottery. Our route would be off-trail and trip reports indicated heavy bear activity in the area, so we were ready for some excitement. We would start by hiking up a wide glacial valley, then make a loop around Mount Eielson before making our way back to the park road by hiking along the bottom of another river canyon.
The first portion of our hike in the bottom of a huge valley was nice. We hiked over a flat plain of jumbled gray rocks with an occasional icy crossing over several braids of the river. We hiked a few miles and decided to make camp since it was late in the day. I stayed behind and set up camp as Brian went off to explore Bald Mountain. He said he would come back if he saw bears near camp. I didn’t want to be alone with the bears.
Brian started up Bald Mountain. I began setting up the tent, looking around for bears every now and then. About ten minutes went by. My eyes swept across the valley bottom, scanning for brown, furry shapes against a gray background. I froze as I zeroed in on two brown bears moving swiftly across the valley bottom. It was a Grizzly sow and cub. They were crossing the river only about 200 yards away. My heart stopped as they turned toward me. I looked at Brian as he climbed a green tundra slope across the valley, just a small speck of orange now, completely out of earshot. I was alone and the bears were coming my way.
Then, the large brown bear and small cub changed direction and crossed another section of the braided, glacial channel. Now they were running away from me. My heart began beating again as I watched them retreat. The cub swam across the deep channels effortlessly and the large adult moved powerfully through the water. Soon they were out of sight. Brian had seen them, too, and I could see his bright orange jacket moving down the mountain.
I’m getting more comfortable sleeping in a tent around bears, although I still prefer the comfort and safety of the van. Usually, if I see a bear while backpacking I sleep poorly at night. Every little noise fuels my imagination. Once while backpacking in Yellowstone National Park, I awoke with a start to a growling sound. I lay in my bag, frozen with fear for a few minutes. When I realized the sound was just my brother snoring I had to laugh.
We both slept well that night, despite the bear sighting. Brian isn’t afraid of bears. During his last trip to Alaska, he went backpacking in Denali without even packing any bear spray. “Bear spray” is a large aerosol can containing a mixture of cayenne pepper which can shoot about 40 feet. This is kept in a holster while hiking, and can be sprayed at a bear if it approaches in an aggressive manner. I can’t imagine being a small, vulnerable human in the backcountry with no bear spray to reach for if a big, aggressive bear approaches. I’ve never actually fired my spray at an animal, but it’s comforting to know it’s there.
The next morning we ascended a narrow river canyon up to a high pass. It occurred to me although these canyons provide a good route around mountains, they are also bad places to confront a bear. Luckily, we traveled through these confined corridors without seeing any animals.
We enjoyed beautiful mountains and misty clouds at the pass. We hiked down the other side, then the weather began to clear. We climbed Green Point and found the best berry patches yet on its green tundra slopes. The berries were so plentiful we quickly filled a one liter bottle by harvesting berries from a small, 30 square foot area. Clearly the bears enjoyed this area, too. We saw a lot of bear scat and dig marks on the mountain.
The summit of Green Point was very hedonistic. Clouds shifted and mountains hid and then came into view. We looked down at the gray, crunchy, wavy surface of the Muldrow Glacier. We could see several small “lakes” in the middle of the glacier with sunlight reflecting on the surface. Little icebergs floated in some of them. The gray floors of the wide valleys surrounding us appeared completely flat from this view point.
We crossed several glacial streams and hiked up a very steep, loose gully on the hike out. This gully was pretty sketchy but it seemed to be the most used route to get back up to the road so we decided to take it. Some huge rocks came loose as we made our way up. We stayed out of each other’s fall lines and watched the rocks tumble down the gully beneath us.
We boarded a bus and began the three hour ride back to the visitor’s center. For most of the year, Denali doesn’t allow private vehicles into the park. Visitors must ride the bus. We hadn’t brought quite enough food on the backpacking trip and I was pretty hungry. Other bus passengers had all sorts of tasty treats and I felt like they were deliberately flaunting them. I thought about tackling a passenger who talked loudly about their sweet and salty kettle corn, but I kept my hands to myself.
What a fantastic trip. The bears certainly added extra excitement to this hike and I feel lucky to have had the encounter with the sow and cub. I’ll never forget the feeling of jelly in my joints when the bears were moving in my direction, and I can’t wait to go back and do more exploring in this wild park.
The Denali backcountry office was a flurry of activity when we arrived. Brightly colored backpackers were everywhere. It was Friday afternoon with a gorgeous weather forecast for the weekend. In Denali, the backcountry has no trails so you choose a “unit” when getting a permit, and then hike off-trail within that unit. The number of hikers allowed in each unit is limited. By the time we got there most of the units were full. We wanted to hike on dry tundra and rock above an elevation of 3500 feet, since this is generally the most enjoyable terrain in Denali. Instead we ended up with a permit for a brushy hike along the Savage River at an elevation of about 2500 feet.
Although the terrain wasn’t ideal, our backpack trip was spectacular. You don’t have to go far in Denali to feel the intensity of the wilderness. Even the bus ride out to the beginning of our hike was memorable. The sky was blue, the mountain was out, and right before our drop off spot the bus screeched to a halt to observe a large grizzly strolling toward the bus.
The bear kept its head down and mouth slightly open as it ambled along a gravel bar near the road, its large claws clicking on the rock with each step. It never even looked at us as it nonchalantly crossed the road right behind the bus and then munched on some soapberries nearby. The bus continued less than a mile and then stopped for us to get off. With the image of the bear fresh in our minds, we stepped off the bus and began our hike. We crossed the cold, braided Savage River and then headed into the brush along the river banks. We quickly tired of the brush and approached a small ridge to see if travel along the top would be easier.
As we climbed the ridge we surprised a moose and calf in the brush. They froze. We froze. They were so close that I slowly reached for my bear spray, uncertain what would happen next. We could see only the mother moose’s head above the brush. Her ears were pointed and alert. After a few moments they ran away and we breathed a sigh of relief. Now we had encountered both a moose and a bear at close range, and our trip had just begun!
We would be sleeping out here with these animals, and after seeing the bear there would be no doubt in our minds that it could be nearby, smelling our dinner cooking or watching us as we picked berries. It was exhilarating to know we were surrounded by big animals. These animals were roaming the same brushy paths as we were and eating the same berries, so we would need to be very careful.
We thrashed through brush, berries and wet tundra. Wet tundra, unlike its name, was mostly dry or lightly damp and varied in color from pink to green to pale yellow. Walking across it felt like walking across a field of very soft pillows. Our feet would end up about a foot below the ground surface with each step into the spongy mounds of tundra. Taking big steps up and down in this colorful stuff was fun but pretty physical, especially with backpacks. We only went about five miles in the tundra and brush but it felt like a heroic effort. We set up camp in a high spot among patches of blueberries with mountains in all directions. We camped there one night and hiked out the next morning. It was only a small taste of Denali’s terrain and we vowed our next hike in Denali would take place in elevations above 3500 feet.
Berries were everywhere in the Denali backcountry. When we would stop to take a break, often it was impossible to sit on the ground without sitting in berries. This was our first hike with our new book to help us identify Alaska berries. We found seven types of edible berries during our hike! At first we decided the Bog Blueberries were the best. Plump and light blue, they grow on low bushes and were plentiful near our camp. We sat down to start picking and ended up filling a one liter bottle with blueberries pretty quickly. We ate large amounts of blueberries fresh from the bush, then saved the berries in the bottle for dessert that night, paired with a bar of creamy white chocolate.
The next day as we hiked out we found the most delicious berry ever, even better than the blueberry: the revered Cloudberry. According to our book, this berry’s alternate name is the Apple Pie Berry. These wet, juicy, yellow berries had a delicious, complex and spicy flavor. They tasted just like a slice of apple pie flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. Wow. We ate all the Cloudberries we could find and declared the Cloudberry to be the pinnacle of berry deliciousness. I have never seen these anywhere but Denali.
It was a wonderful trip into the Denali backcountry and we’re looking forward to doing it again, hopefully this weekend. Unfortunately, the NPS permit system is difficult to work with (Backpacker magazine described it as a crapshoot and I have to agree) so we don’t really know what will be available. Our fate is in the hands of the NPS! Wish us luck!
It was day three of our trip. We were paddling in Beartrack Cove in the Beardslee Islands. It was 5 AM. Light crept from behind white peaks toward dark blue clouds in the sky. The ocean was calm and blue-gray in color with patches of round kelp bulbs floating on its glassy surface. Suddenly we heard the unmistakable hissing of whale breaths nearby. These loud breaths can be heard from a long distance away, but these whales sounded very close.
We rounded a corner and found two Humpback Whales feeding in a kelp bed. They wallowed in the kelp, their huge fins flopping above the water surface. Their breaths sounded more like deep roars than gentle hisses at this closer range. These 40 ton whales seemed completely focused on feeding. We slowly backed up as they rolled around and fed for a few minutes before moving on. We felt pretty small floating around in our boats compared to the size of the whales. After all, 40 tons is equivalent to the weight of about 500 people. These whales were huge.
That was our closest encounter, and we continued to see Humpback Whales almost every day during the rest of our trip. We would joke about reaching our whale quota for the day because they seemed to reliably appear on a daily basis. Often we would just be enjoying a quiet campsite on a beach when suddenly a whale would randomly surface nearby, hissing loudly, dorsal fin arching gracefully above the water surface. Sometimes we would be paddling our boats when we would hear the whales nearby and see them swimming at the surface, usually travelling about the same speed as our kayaks.
It was always exciting to see their huge fins and tails break the surface of the water. Humpback whales have even been known to acrobatically leap into the air, which is referred to as breaching. We really wanted to see a whale breach, as long as it didn’t happen too close to our kayaks. We didn’t end up seeing a breach this trip, which is just another reason to return to Glacier Bay in the future to visit the whales again.
It was exciting and a bit intimidating to be in our small sea kayaks with these giant whales in the water nearby. Viewing them from the surface of the water really accentuated their size and power.