IMG_6815 (Large)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.

IMG_0384 (Large)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.

IMG_6927 (Large)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.

IMG_6824 (Large)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.

IMG_6826 (Large)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.

IMG_6850 (Large) (2)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.

IMG_6788 (Large)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.

IMG_6874 (Large)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.

IMG_6913 (Large)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.

IMG_6896 (Large)We camped near the bottom of Green Point and awoke to fierce winds. We cooked in the tent since it was our last morning in the backcountry and the conditions outside were frightful.

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.

IMG_6938 (Large)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.

Lisa Hackett

About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, drive from Idaho to Alaska solo, live and work in a van in the wilderness and dodge encounters with wolves and bears. Seriously. More

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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