Only in Alaska: Living – and traveling – in bear country

Bears: everybody fears them, everybody wants to photograph them from behind a tour bus window. In my neighborhood, black bears constantly get into garbage cans – when people express disappointment at not having seen any bears on their vacation, I encourage them to hang out on my street on garbage day.

Alaska has plenty of bears, and if you follow a few rules you’re unlikely to ever encounter a bear in the wild.There are really only two types that you might encounter casually: the black bear and the brown (or grizzly) bear. I often meet tourists who are too timid to venture on even a basic nature walk after I warn them that they need to be bear-aware. This attitude is unfortunate, because they don’t realize two things:

1. Bears in Alaska don’t just hang out in the woods, so you’re not necessarily “safe” by staying in town. Though urban bear encounters are generally confined to the fringes of town, last year a grizzly wandered down a popular greenbelt into downtown Anchorage, the state’s largest city.

2. If you follow the right procedures, you’re unlikely to encounter a bear in the wild.

Here are a few tips for avoiding bears, and what to do should you encounter one:

  • The best rule, the holy grail of all rules, is to make noise. I’m a trail runner, an activity that is the third-most dangerous in bear country (just behind getting between a sow and her cubs or a bear and its kill) since it involves moving (slightly, in my case) fast and quietly. I used to carry bear spray (and we’ll get to that) but now I just yell. As my friend told me, “if you run into a bear, you weren’t making enough noise.”
  • On a related note, in my opinion you should forget bear bells unless you’re putting them on your dog’s collar. They don’t make very much noise and give you a false sense of security. Better to sing, yell or clap your hands.
  • Learn to identify a black bear and a brown bear – your response should you run into one will differ depending on the bear. Despite their common names, color is not always the best indicator of a type of bear, so shape and size are important. Black bears are smaller than brown, and are flat between the shoulder blades while grizzlies have a large hump.Black bears also have a straight profile, while grizzlies have a dished-out shape.

If you encounter a bear:

  • Don’t run – you’ll never outrun a bear and you don’t want to encourage it to chase you. Stay calm, talk to the bear to let it know you’re there, and raise your arms to make yourself look bigger. If the bear stands on two legs, it’s just trying to get a better look at you.
  • Don’t climb a tree – bears are better at it than you.
  • Don’t give it food. It might come back for more.
  • Throw something on the ground to try to distract it – a camera or book.

If you’re charged/attacked by a bear:

  • If it’a a black bear, it’s likely bluffing. I’ve had several friends charged by black bears, and each time the bear veered at the last second.
  • You can use bear (pepper) spray on a black bear, but I’ve read that pepper spray only annoys brown bears, which is why I don’t carry it any more.
  • If attacked by a black bear, fight back! Punch it in the nose, kick it, whatever.
  • If attacked by a brown bear, play dead. Cover your neck and head. Typically a brown bear will stop attacking once it doesn’t feel threatened any more.

Remember, bear encounters are not that common, and shouldn’t keep you from enjoying Alaska’s trails. Simply making a lot of noise will reduce your chances significantly.

Come up and visit!

A Long Weekend in Denali National Park

There are a few ways to experience Denali National Park and Preserve. One is to arrive like a rajah on the second floor of a domed rail car or lofty motor coach, and stay at one of the plush corporate lodges. From there you can book a number of excursions that include flight seeing, river rafting, and guided hikes and tours.

Or you can arrive independent of commercial companies, bus into the park, and backpack through terrain absent of trails but full of grizzlies, caribou, and panoramic views.

Our approach was a compromise between the two options above. A good friend who works for one of the large tour companies got my husband and I free round-trip tickets for the train as a gift for our one-year anniversary. While the tourists arrived from their hotels via motor coach, we parked our car in downtown Anchorage and boarded with large packs. From there it was a spectacular 8-hour ride to the park. The sky was cloudless, and Mt. McKinley (“Denali” or just “The Mountain” to locals) was looming — a rare sight.

After we disembarked we took a shuttle to Riley Creek Campground, just inside the park boundaries. We walked in, but were clearly outsiders; the campground was full of RVs and campers. We couldn’t find any bear-proof storage bins so we left our food outside the tent and hoped for the best. Not the smartest thing to do, but I figured if there had been any bear problems we would’ve heard about them. It turns out that our biggest problem was aggressive and fearless squirrels.

The next morning, our only full day in the park, we caught a 9:30 a.m. “shuttle” (read: school bus) that took us on a several-hour journey to the Toklat River, just over 50 miles in. Along the way our driver stopped for caribou, eagles, and one large but distant grizzly. The park road, 91 miles long, is unpaved and only open to shuttles; the ride is dusty and bumpy, but one of the coolest and easiest ways to access Alaska’s backcountry. You buy a ticket for as far in as you’d like to go and can get off and on wherever you want.

We arrived at the Toklat just after 1 p.m., and since it was such a perfectly warm and sunny day decided to take a hike up an enticing valley across the river.

We crossed the river, filled our water bottles from a bubbling spring, snapped the following photos,

and went on our wary way. We followed a glacial stream up the steep valley until it became more of a canyon. As we climbed, the orange walls became steep and towering and when we looked back, the top of Denali rose heavily above the mountains (see first photo).

It was one of those rare perfect Alaskan days — the sun was warm, there was a slight breeze, and no bugs. We found a patch of meadow and took a short nap before continuing up the canyon. We reached a surreal-looking landscape where the stream we’d been following split and flowed from several sources. This was our stopping point.

Since we had to make the last bus out of the park at 7 p.m. we didn’t have time to scale one of the higher ridges, much to Lael’s disappointment. Reluctantly, we made our way back down the creek, across the river, and on a waiting school bus. Back at camp we devoured our pasta and were in bed far earlier than is normal.

It turned out that our glorious weather was short-lived — it began raining sometime during the night and when we woke up everything was soggy. I peeled my damp pants on over my sweaty, dusty skin and made my way through the rain to the nearby general store, where I indulged in a latte and hot shower ($4 each). Civilization was never too far away. We boarded the train back to Anchorage later that morning, scrubbed and happy.