Going wild for Alaska
Native American Eskimos have an old adage about dealing with bears: Don’t run or blink and they will know you are a wise one.
Personally, I’m not convinced.
Despite the national park warden’s firm advice to stand our ground, I imagine every sinew in my body stretching to sprint should I cross paths with 450kg of teeth and claws.
In Alaska, where bears far outnumber people, heart-pounding encounters of this sort are a real possibility.
Dominated by swathes of uninhabited plains and forest, and consciously set apart from the Lower 48s, this state straddling the Arctic Circle is often touted as America’s last true wilderness.
Appropriately, I’m visiting in the centennial year of the US National Parks Service, a body set up with the intention to protect and preserve places just like this.
On the country’s southwest peninsula, Katmai was originally declared a National Park Monument following the biggest volcanic eruption of the 20th century in 1912. But in recent decades, The Valley of 10,000 Smokes, an eerie plateau of ash sliced by deep gorges, has played second fiddle to the bears.
On the beach or along a trail, chances are you will bump into one at Brooks Lodge, a relatively accessible camp (even though it’s still a flight and float plane ride from Anchorage) inland on the banks of Brooks Lake.
Tents and wooden cabins are set back from the water, framed by charcoal-tipped birch trees spiralling like mascara wands and brushing the foothills of snow-streaked mountains.
I meet my first ursus along a narrow forest trail. A nervous sow stands on hind legs with her cubs and utters a series of teacher tuts to send me scurrying into the thickets.
I’m torn between fear and fascination; it’s hard to disassociate the cute, tufty-haired baby bears from their cuddly counterparts who used to accompany me on picnics as a child.
I’m here early in the season (mid-June) when the sockeye salmon are starting to run, and bleary-eyed brown bears – hungry from hibernation – are slowly gathering at Brooks Falls to fill their boots.
The elevated viewing platform overlooking the popular fishing spot can be packed with queues of 300 people in July, the height of the short season, but right now, I have the place to myself.
As salmon struggle furiously upstream, catapulting over the weir, bears employ a variety of techniques to make their catch. Some energetically pounce, others snorkel below the surface and the most successful hunters simply sit in the ‘Jacuzzi’, a small whirlpool, and wait.
A clear hierarchy is quickly set: a big war-wounded male takes centre stage, while timid females and juveniles wait in the wings. Entering the picture with a cowboy swagger, a young pretender digs his hind spurs into the soil, clearly demonstrating “there ain’t room in this town for the two of us”.
Distracted by a bountiful, protein-rich food source, these animals show little concern for humans. But it’s a different story further north in Denali, Alaska’s first national park (designated 1917) and home to North America’s highest peak, where smaller but more dangerous berry-foraging grizzlies have rightly earned their name.
Commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 to open up Alaska’s mineral-rich interior, the Alaska Railroad now operates as a heritage tourist train with a route running from Anchorage to Fairbanks via Denali.
Snaking through steep, climbing forest and sparkling lakes, we pass remote villages unreachable by road and off-radar regions where outlaws might easily hide.
Avoiding the Disneyfied, built-up park entrance, nicknamed Glitter Gulch, I head to Denali’s ‘backcountry’, Kantishna Hills, where the only access is by light aircraft or a six-hour bus ride.
Sixty-something New Zealander Kirsty has been driving the same daily route in and out of the park for 30 years, and as we hug hairpin bends and steer through gaping valleys, she shares fond memories of her individually nicknamed single-deckers as if they were cherished family members.
Wearing a broad Stetson and permanent grin, flamboyant guide Steve welcomes us to Kantishna Roadhouse, one of the few lodges out here in the wilds. He’s one of the many young, seasonal workers who merrily spend days off exploring with just a backpack and sense of adventure.
Following a briefing on the appropriate action to take should I encounter one of the park’s dangerous animals, I fail to share the same carefree confidence.
“If you see a bear, stand still; for moose, you should break into a zig-zag run,” instructs a guide.
What if you bump into a bear and a moose, I wonder, but decide it’s best not to ask.
By now, bearanoia has set in so I join a guided hike through knee-height dwarf spruce and bouncy tundra decorated with the smallest azaleas in the world.
We wind up at artists’ hotspot Wonder Lake, a location favoured by photographer Ansel Adams, where placid water presents the perfect mirror image of the Alaskan Range.
At 20,310 feet and rising 0.5mm per year, Mount Denali (previously referred to as Mount McKinley, but now officially known by its native name) stands head and shoulders above neighbouring mountains, but characteristically, it’s covered in cloud.
“Don’t worry, we can cut through that,” says Greg LaHaie, pilot and owner of Kantishna Air Taxi.
Our 45-minute scenic flight takes us within a breath of the peak, above ant lines of brave climbers and the curving trails of glaciers.
Flying into the light, Greg loops rainbows into sugary doughnuts, reflected in a myriad of kettle ponds below. Glacial melt water drizzles through moraine in silvery threads, reaching into the vast, empty Alaskan interior, a realm of incomprehensible nothingness.
More ice – and more people – can be found further south in the state’s most accessible national park, Kenai Fjords, a photogenic four-hour coastal train ride on the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage.
On a full-day boat tour skirting the Harding icefield, mountains rise from rainforest and glaciers tumble into the sea. Salmon-feeding orcas prospect between islands numbed by petrified forests, while an attention-seeking humpback repeatedly breaches to a raptured audience of tourists.
But I’m most charmed by the sea otter, a whiskered old man who paddles backstroke in the harbour and has a magpie instinct for collecting items and hoarding them in his pouch.
In summer, 30,000 people descend on Kenai’s gateway town Seward – ten times the actual population.
On a trip to Bear Creek Weir, where salmon are rumoured to be running and bald eagles glare from treetops, I meet Nicholas, a 14-year-old native Athabaskan who prefers to steer clear of outsiders.
After striking up conversation, he deems I’m “OK” for a tourist and enthusiastically tells me about the Inuit Games he hopes to compete in this year. Eskimo One Kick is his favourite discipline, although he also likes Seal Hop, where competitors rest on their knuckles in a press up position and race by bouncing forward.
Given his ancestry and local experience, I imagine he has the perfect escape tactic for dealing with bears. But when I ask, he simply shrugs his shoulders and without blinking replies: “I hope for the best.”
Wise words indeed.