Trip report: bear-watching in Denali National Park, Alaska
At the very least, a trip to Alaska has to include a glimpse of its most famous predator, but William Gray got far more than he dared hope for when he went in search of bears at Denali National Park in the Alaska Range.
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. They must have been seasoned Alaskan outdoor types, I decided – the kind of people who viewed belly-flopping bears as being 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 20 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, with 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 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 then. Those ‘big ticks’ were certainly about, he explained, but we had to remember that a certain amount of luck was going to be required for our six-hour journey into the park to cross paths with wildlife. No off-road pursuit of big game is 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 rose 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 told 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 burrows of ground squirrels.
Every now and then, one 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 to a lurching 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 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 can also eat wild celery, Kathryn told us, while in the old days gold miners brewed a cough remedy from coltsfoot.
Heads down on our botanising 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 spotted two grizzlies briefly, 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. It’s a popular weekend retreat for Alaskans, particularly those who like to fish for halibut in the deep waters of Kachemak Bay. Part of the town is strung along a 7km 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, and 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, checking for bears. My occasional loud hand clapping to warn of my presence shattered the brooding silence. At overgrown sections I was even moved to song.
After two hours, the trail ended at a deserted beach and I scrambled along the rocky shoreline. It was reassuring hearing the rhythmic swish of waves and being able to see more than a few metres in front. 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 past, then turned its attention to the strandline and a possible 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 full-grown cubs – along the shore. As far as bears were concerned, however, my most memorable encounter was yet to come.
“You’re possibly in the coolest floatplane in Alaska – there’s nothing faster.” Curtis said as he fired up the Cessna Caravan’s single-prop engine. He filled our headphones with Eric Clapton’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 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.
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 50 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. Soon after, 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 creek bed 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 at the edge of Wolverine Creek, looking rather perplexed. 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.
SAMPLE PACKAGE TOUR: Tailor made Alaska specialist, Discover the World can create any itinerary. Departing May to August, the seven-night Alaska by Rail, Road & Sea costs from £1,218 per person (based on twin share), including: accommodation; rail travel; bus tour of Denali National Park; five days’ car hire; and ferry from Valdez to Whittier. Return flights to Anchorage with Icelandair start from £680 per person.
A two-night stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge costs from £615 per person and includes transfers, all meals, and activities. Two nights at the Bay Avenue B&B in Homer costs from £134 per person.Bear Viewing at Redoubt Bay costs £463 per person, June to August, including floatplane, a three-hour Big River Lakes cruise and lunch.
GETTING THERE: Iceland air (www.icelandair.com) has direct flights from Keflavik to Anchorage (6.5 hours) with connecting flights from London (3 hours). Alaska Airlines (www.alaskaair.com) flies from Seattle to Anchorage (3.5 hours). Cruise ships and ferries ply the Alaska Marine Highway (www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs), while destinations on the Alaska Railroad (www.alaskarailroad.com) include Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks and Seward.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FROM THE UK: International travellers visiting the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) must apply for authorisation. Online application at esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
TIPS & WARNINGS: Denali’s bus ride provides a better chance of seeing wildlife than hiking, as you have a higher vantage point.
If you plan to explore bear country on foot, make some noise! Bears don’t like surprises, so alert them by clapping, shouting or singing. Don’t hike after dark. Don’t run or climb trees; you can’t outrun a bear and black bears and some grizzlies are good climbers. In the event of a mock charge, stand your ground, wave your arms and shout until the bear stops, then slowly back away. In the very rare event of an attack, drop to the ground, face down, hands behind your neck, still and silent. If camping, use bear-proof containers for storing food and avoid cooking anything that can make your clothing smell.
WHEN TO GO: High season is June to August when daytime temperatures range from 15-27° C. In May and September prices are lower. Although Denali National Park is open all year, the bus service only operates mid-May to mid-September. Further info: Alaska Tourist Board at www.travelalaska.com
DISCOVER THE WORLD,Tel: 01737 214 291; www.discover-the-world.co.uk