Exploring Wild Alaska: The Bear Necessities
Updated: Mar 2
The anglers seemed oblivious to the black bear. He was only a few metres from where they stood in a small metal skiff, casting for silver salmon. Ambling to the water’s edge, he paused, sniffed in their general direction, then plunged into the lake. As a fishing exercise, the bear failed completely. He didn’t even manage to catch the attention of the anglers, most of whom barely glanced in his direction. They must have been seasoned Alaskan outdoor types, I decided – the kind of people who viewed belly-flopping bears as all part of a day’s fishing.
Crouching in another small, open boat a short distance away, I had watched the whole ursine episode with baited breath. I couldn’t believe our luck at sighting a bear, let alone witnessing such brash behaviour. It was the latest in a series of bear encounters – all involving water – that had begun two weeks earlier at the start of my Alaskan wildlife adventure.
Grizzlies in Denali
“Shout if you see a bear, and I’ll tell you what kind of rock you’re looking at.” Pete, our driver-guide, shot us a wry smile as he clambered aboard the Denali National Park shuttle bus. Half-hearted laughter rippled through twenty rows of seats as he started the engine. We pulled out of the car park next to the Alaska Railroad station and trundled towards the start of the 137km Denali park road – the only vehicle route probing six million acres (24,585 sq km) of protected wilderness.
Denali National Park is a subtle wildlife destination. Its ‘big five’ status conjures images of East African style plains liberally scattered with herds of grazing mammals, predators prowling the fringes. But Pete had a reality check for us.
“Denali isn’t the Serengeti,” he told us. “It’s a subarctic environment with mostly small, slow-growing vegetation. It takes a lot of acres to feed one good-sized vegetarian.”
We wouldn’t see great columns of caribou streaming along river valleys, mingling with moose and trailed by wolves and grizzlies. All those ‘big ticks’ were here, he explained, but we had to remember that a certain amount of luck was required for our six-hour journey into the park to cross paths with wildlife. No off-road pursuit of big game was allowed in Denali.
Tarmac gave way to gravel at Savage River where we spotted a lone caribou bull, half-hidden in a willow thicket. There was a brief staccato burst of camera fire before we moved on towards Primrose Ridge and Sable Pass, our bus weaving through the rucked-up splendour of Denali. The rust-red cliffs of Polychrome Mountain reared to our right, while to the south, fanning out through the foothills of the Alaska Range, braided rivers sparkled in the August sunshine like silver dreadlocks.
During one of our stops, Pete informed us that the three white specks on a ridge high above the Toklat River were Dall sheep. And at the Eielson Visitor Centre – tucked into a mountainside with terraces overlooking the Muldrow Glacier and Alaska Range – the slopes were riddled with the burrows of ground squirrels. Every now and then, one of the rodents would pop upright, vying for attention with the scenery.
It would take more than a squirrel, though, to divert my gaze from 6,194m (20,320ft) Mt McKinley, ghosting in and out of view through the clouds. Even a grizzly bear might struggle to upstage The High One. A grizzly swimming in a lake, chasing a duck, on the other hand, would be an irresistible head-turner.
Five hours into our journey, we were about to descend to Wonder Lake, renowned for its reflections of the Alaska Range, when Pete brought the bus lurching to a halt. A young grizzly was cavorting in a kettle pond next to the road, rolling on its back, diving underwater and making half-hearted attempts to catch a lone duck. The bird seemed to be teasing the bear, swimming towards the floundering fur-ball just close enough to elicit a chase, before easily paddling out of range. After a few minutes, the bear got bored of the wild duck chase, climbed out of the pond, shook itself vigorously and sloped off across the tundra, its blond hair wet and spiky.
Hiking the backcountry
For day visitors to Denali, it’s a long time on one of the official buses, travelling in and out along the park road. Also, apart from the occasional stop where you can stretch your legs and perhaps explore one of the short trails at the Eielson Visitor Centre, a day trip doesn’t give you enough time to experience the park’s true sense of wilderness. For that you need to hike into the backcountry.
Self-sufficient and bear-wise campers can set off into the wilds, trekking between trailheads along the park road. Or, for those who crave a little more comfort, the old gold-mining community of Kantishna makes a superb base for a couple of nights. Located at the road’s end, it’s home to Denali Backcountry Lodge – a tight huddle of cedar cabins along Moose Creek.
The following morning, despite the ominous presence of head nets in my room, I signed up for a hike to the summit of Mt Busia. Throughout the previous day on the bus, I had marveled at the fireweed and other plantlife growing by the roadside – and I wanted a closer look.
Before setting off, our guide, Kathryn, briefed us on how we should behave in the event of a bear encounter. “Don’t run, form a group, talk loudly and make yourself look bigger by flapping your coat.” She went on to explain that moose – especially with young – were also potentially dangerous. “They’ll warn you if they’re not happy by showing the whites of their eyes.”
As it turned out, the only critters requiring evasive action during our three-hour yomp up Mt Busia were mosquitoes. Head nets drawn tight, we walked briskly through alder scrub on the far side of the river, before scaling the broad-backed mountain. When a slight breeze began to dislodge the winged menace, Kathryn took the opportunity to reveal the small wonders of the tundra. She showed us the nodding white plumes of grass of Parnassus, the purple blooms of poisonous monkshood and the dainty nodding heads of harebells. We picked blueberries and lingonberries, the tart fruits almost fizzing in our mouths. You could also eat wild celery, Kathryn told us, while in the old days gold miners used to brew a cough remedy from coltsfoot.
Heads down on our botanizing ramble, there was something almost celestial about cresting the summit of Mt Busia and looking up to see Mt McKinley towering above the snowy ramparts of the Alaska Range just 30 miles to the south, its ice-fluted peak etched against a cerulean sky.
Apparently, only around a third of visitors see the mountain free of clouds, but our luck lasted into the next day as we drove out of Denali, retracing our route to the national park entrance. From one of the passes we briefly spotted two grizzlies far out on a gravel riverbed: tiny brown dots against a mighty backdrop of peaks running east and west of Mt McKinley. It was my final view of the big mountain – but not of bears.
A few days later, having travelled back to Anchorage by train, I continued south to the coastal community of Homer, a popular weekend retreat for Alaskans –particularly those that like to fish for halibut in the deep waters of Kachemak Bay. Part of the town is strung along a 7km long spit dangling enticingly towards Kachemak Bay State Park, a roadless wilderness near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Bears were not foremost in my mind when a water taxi dropped me off at a small timber lodge overlooking a shingle cove on Kachemak’s crinkle-cut coast. I had booked a sea kayaking trip, but with a few hours to spare, I decided to take a walk in the woods.
It took less than a dozen paces for the old-growth forest to draw a green veil behind me – and not long after, I began to notice fresh signs of bears. The scant trail was regularly marked with piles of dung, studded with undigested berries and pine needles. I found an almost perfect paw print in a muddy patch beside a stream, while several splintered old logs looked like they’d been used for vigorous pedicures.
I stopped often, chasing around the shadows of the forest, double-taking every hunched tree stump and shaggy mane of lichen. My occasional loud hand clapping shattered the brooding silence. On particularly overgrown sections, I was even moved to song.
After two hours, the trail ended at a deserted beach. Rather than backtrack through the forest to the lodge, I decided to scramble along the rocky shoreline. There was something reassuring about the sea, hearing the rhythmic swish of waves and being able to see more than a few metres in front of you.
Less than an hour later, having met up with my guide and launched our sea kayaks, we paddled back along the same stretch of coast. A black bear was sitting on the beach at the very spot I’d emerged from the forest. It glanced up as we drifted silently past, then turned its attention back to the strandline and the promise of a seafood lunch.
Sea kayaking is a hugely rewarding way to watch wildlife. It’s not only quiet and unobtrusive, but puts you on intimate, eye-level terms with species that are often difficult to track. During the same outing, we sidled up to sleeping sea otters and trailed a family of river otters – a mother and two nearly fully-grown cubs – along the shore. As far as bears were concerned, however, my most memorable encounter was yet to come.
Lake of bears
“You’re possibly in the coolest floatplane in Alaska – there’s nothing faster.” Curtis fired up the Cessna Caravan’s single-prop engine, filled our headphones with Bob Dylan’s opening riff to Layla, then taxied onto one of the waterways at Lake Hood – the world’s busiest floatplane base. Moments later, we were climbing above Cook Inlet, gazing down at Anchorage, its tower blocks clustered like quartz crystals at the water’s edge.
“There are four million lakes in Alaska that I can land this thing on,” Curtis grinned across at me as we tracked southwest towards Lake Clark National Park. The land to our right was indeed pockmarked with ponds and scribbled with meandering streams – a watery wilderness stretching towards rain-smudged mountains.
Without warning, Curtis tipped the Cessna onto a wingtip and I found myself staring down at the silty waters of Cook Inlet 400ft below. Something white caught my eye – as if the waves had parted to reveal a sliver of bone. Then suddenly the sea was dimpled with white flecks as a pod of fifty or more beluga whales simultaneously surfaced.
Thirty minutes later, we touched down on Otter Lake where Redoubt Bay Lodge nuzzled into forest like a well-hidden bird’s nest. Trading floatplane for a small, open motorboat, we nosed around the lakeshore, scouring the green tangle of ferns and trees. At first glance, it seemed impenetrable. It was only when our guide pointed out the faint animal trail, right at the water’s edge, that we began to get lucky.
Our first black bear was snuffling through reeds near the mouth of Weasel Creek. He vanished like smoke into the forest. Soon after, however, we spotted a mother with two five-month-old cubs. Walking single file, the trio was heading towards Wolverine Cove where salmon gather before squirming their way up a rocky creekbed to spawn. So transfixed were we by the bear family that we didn’t notice the lone male approaching from the other direction. And nor it seemed did the mother of the cubs.
There was barely 10m between the two when she suddenly sensed him and gave a low warning grumble. The male blundered onwards and the grumble became a furious growl as she launched into a full-blown charge. Her cubs scattered up a tree, their braying cries rising above the sound of thrashing vegetation as two adult bears collided. We glimpsed the mother again, rounding up her cubs and leading them briskly away over a ridge.
The male returned and sat, looking rather perplexed, at the edge of Wolverine Creek. I wondered what might happen next. Surely, we’d had more than our fair share of ‘bear luck’ that afternoon? It was then that the bear stood up and wandered over to a group of anglers who were fishing for silver salmon from a nearby boat.