Category Archives: Trip to Alaska 2014
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!
The salmon run has begun in the Kenai River! Brian and I both caught our limit, or “limited” as the locals call it, by catching three Sockeye Salmon yesterday! We fished for two days in the green, cloudy Kenai, up to our crotches in cold water, catching nothing. Things changed quickly when the fish arrived. Yesterday, on our third day, the salmon run seemed to start right in front of our eyes.
For the first hour the fishing area was quiet, then suddenly fish started thrashing around on lines every few minutes and jumping out of the water nearby. They were everywhere, swimming by the hooks we were dragging through the water. We were waiting for fate or chance to help us land a hook in their mouths as they passed by.
Sockeye Salmon swim up the Kenai River on the way to their spawning area. The fish are focused on spawning and have stopped eating, so bait is ineffective. We fished with only a bare hook and a small weight on the line. We entered the river in chest waders designed to keep us dry. We cast our lines, let the hooks sink, then dragged the hooks along the bottom of the river in a sweeping motion. A sharp jerk at the end of the sweep would hopefully land the hook in a fish’s mouth. They swim with mouths open, so randomly hooking one in the mouth is actually a good possibility.
The picture at right is my very first Sockeye! This is definitely the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. It fought hard, too! These fish are fun to catch, and their meat is bright red and delicious. I’ve heard it’s good luck to kiss your first salmon but I forgot to do this. My lack of a wet, slimy kiss for my fish did not seem to hurt my fishing, because I quickly landed another two salmon! With my limit of three on a stringer near shore, there was nothing left to do but sit back and happily relax as everyone else fished for their limit.
When we were done fishing, we headed back to “fish camp” on the Kenai Peninsula to clean and package the fish. Brian’s mom and her husband visit the fishing camp each summer for several months, and it’s a great place. It’s an improved lot with a couple buildings and spots for several trailers, so Vanifest fits right in here. It also has a fish cleaning table topped with plastic cutting boards, two vacuum sealing machines, and two large freezers.
We settled into our positions at the different processing stations at the fishing camp and began working on the fish. The Sockeye Salmon is the most sought after salmon in Alaska because the meat is fantastic. It was exciting to see all the salmon four of us obtained from just one day of fishing. We worked together to clean, sort, and vacuum seal the fish in meal-sized packages. After the four of us worked on the salmon for about an hour, we had a nice sized stack packaged and ready to freeze. This wonderful fish is as wild as it gets and was processed with love. I like knowing the origin of the fish I’m eating, which seems to be rare these days as most of us are pretty distant from the sources of our foods.
This fish is great. We’ll try to bring some back to Boise to share!
We just finished the long drive from Boise, Idaho to Skagway, Alaska! We’re off the bouncy, remote Alaska-Canada Highway, or “Alcan” for now. The Alcan starts in British Columbia and travels north through the Yukon Territory all the way to Alaska. It features endless seas of trees and huge mountains. About half of it is really boring and the other half very scenic. It’s easy to view animals up close without ever leaving the car. This has been one of my favorite parts of the drive. Here are some of the animals we’ve seen on the drive: