Wildlife, Denali National Park and Preserve
I was taking a mid-afternoon hike in early August along the beautiful Savage River Loop Trail in Denali National Park, and was not more than half a mile from returning to the parking lot where I had left my vehicle. Grizzly Bear was on my mind because I had seen one from the highway just an hour earlier, a couple of miles or so before reaching the place where I was now.
As I topped a rise on the trail I saw six people in front of me standing perfectly still, their eyes fixed on something ahead. In a hushed but urgent tone they motioned for me to stop and look. There, perhaps 200 yards ahead and directly on the trail was a large grizzly bear. He was intent on digging a hole into which he sank his entire front limbs and head. I presumed he was digging up an arctic ground squirrel since I had seen a few of them in the area. It was obvious that the bear was hungry to be digging for his dinner so intently.
Tingling with excitement, I pulled the bear in as close as possible with my camera, wishing I had a better telephoto lens. At this point I did not yet know that I would soon be much too close to the grizzly for comfort.
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Bears are everywhere as this is the wilderness. As one guide put it while we were in the backcountry: "you don't know what's watching you while you're out here." Generally, bears avoid people. At least, that;s what most locals say. However, if you read Bear Tales, you'll get a different (and scarier!) perspective.
As much as I wanted to see bears, I didn't want to run into any while solo hiking. I was glad to see them from a safe distance.
The picture below shows a poster which describes how to act in various scenes when encountering a bear.
If all else fails, follow the advice of Bill Bryson: "My advice is that, if a bear charges you, run. If nothing else, it will give you something to do with the last eight seconds of your life."
Moose are abundant and can be aggressive in Alaska. We learned all kinds of good self-preservation tips from our guides at the Denali Backcountry Lodge. If you suddenly come upon a moose as you are hiking out in the wild, turn around and run away. Change direction and run in a zig zag fashion. Moose cannot run far or change direction easily - you can easily outrun a moose. They will tire of the chase very quickly.
Now, a grizzly on the other hand, is a different matter. Talk to the bear. (Seriously.) Wave your arms and make yourself look big. You may try to back away slowly diagonally, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. (Sheesh. Easier said than done.) Don't run because you can't outrun a bear. They have been clocked at speeds up to 35 mph, and will chase fleeing animals (or people). Bears often make bluff charges, sometimes to within 10 feet of their target, without making contact. Continue waving your arms and talking to the bear. If the bear gets too close, raise your voice and be more aggressive. Bang pots and pans (and of course we all carry around a set with us). Use noisemakers. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeak.
Now please try to keep those two self-preservation measures straight, and don't confuse them, or you could be a bear or moose casualty.
The hiker on the opposite shore was successful in frightening the bear away the second time, and now the grizzly continued downhill, crossing the river again to my side and coming directly toward me. All this while I had been walking slowly back toward the trailhead, and was now within about 200 yards of a small ranger station which sits beside the highway there. I was much closer to the bear than to the safety of the building, which was not much larger than a toll booth. Through the windows I could see that it was already packed with other hikers. A brave park ranger came out to meet me, urging me get back to the safety of the building, which I was only too eager to do. "Hurry, but don't run or walk too fast, " the ranger shouted. Doing so might have triggered the beast's instinct to chase.
I walked steadily, but it seemed to take forever. All the while the grizzly was closing the gap between us. At this point I felt like changing my tune to Nearer My God to Thee., the last song the orchestra was playing as the Titanic went down. Instead I just shouted bear gibberish. Walking backward and waving one hand over my head, I took this photo which I prayed wouldn't be my last.
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For dramatic effect click the web link below.
By the time I reached the safety of the ranger station the grizzly was about 20 feet behind me. Someone from the inside opened the door just in time for me to duck inside.
At last, with the door slammed in the grizzly's face, I watched through the window as he lumbered on by. The bear then turned and walked up the road for a short distance before disappearing again into the fastness of the Denali wilderness. I stayed put until the ranger assured me that the grizzly was far out of sight.
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As quickly as the grizzly had charged the man, he stopped, turned, and bounded up the hill away from the river. Breathing a sigh of relief, I thought the encounter was over. But I was wrong.
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Suddenly the Grizzly backed out of the hole he had been digging, apparently unable to unearth the ground squirrel. He turned, looked toward us, and then began to lumber in our direction. His gait quickly turned to a lope, and he closed the gap between us in a very few seconds.
The six people I was with included one older couple, and a young family of four. The older couple stood their ground, muttering something about being native Alaskans and having seen Grizzlys in the wild before. The family (man, wife, son and daughter) began a very fast walk back down the trail, away from the road and our parked vehicles.
I backed away more slowly, singing loudly and not caring how badly it sounded, just so long as the grizzly heard: I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track ... Valderee, Valderah ... my knapsack on my back. Bears have poor eyesight but very keen senses of smell and hearing. I felt that as soon as the bear recognized we were humans he would turn off the trail and avoid us.
To my horror, the bear continued to advance. At this point the older coulple were about 30 feet closer to the grizzly than I was and the young family was disappearing around the bend in the trail behind me. The older man was trying to take a picture, while his wife waved her arms franically and shouted at the bruin. This is exactly what all the books tell you to do in a such an encounter. The purpose for lifting your hands is to appear as tall as possible to the beast, and since the wild creature is not familiar with the sound of a human voice, the shouting is to frighten it.
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The bear approached, now slowly, to within 8 or 10 feet from the couple. The man quit taking pictures and joined his wife in yelling and flailing his arms. Apparently the trick worked. The bruin, looking a bit confused, turned and bounded off the trail and into the river. Although it does not show too well in this photo, the Savage River was swift- flowing and probably four feet deep at this point. However, the grizzly bounced easily through the water, over a gravel bank, and up the hill on the other side.
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After climbing uphill for about 40 feet, the grizzly stopped and paused for a moment. He then turned, and shot back down the mountain even faster than his first charge. My heart lept into my throat. I felt sure I was within a a millisecond of witnessing the poor hiker's demise. But a second time the bruin stopped. He looked to me to have been close enough that the frightened man could smell the stench of the bear's breath. It amazes me that a 600-pound bruin could accelerate and then stop so quickly.
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Shortly after the bear affair I was driving out of the park. My heart was still racing from the encounter with the grizzly and my whole body must have been flushed with adrenalin.
That's when I saw him in the rear view mirror - a park ranger, blue light flashing, motioning for me to pull over. "No, Sir," I told him, "I had no idea I was going 15 mph over the speed limit." I went on to explain to the officer that I never speed. In fact, I told him, my wife and children all call me "Pokey" because I'm always driving so slowly.
The ranger wasn't impressed, so I continued, "I've just been chased half-a-mile by a grizzly bear," I told him, "Look here!" I showed the officer the photos on my digital camera. That's when he accused me of stalking the bear and provoking him in order to get a once-in-a-lifetime photo. He told me about another man whose remains had been found elsewhere in Alaska. Beside that man's scattered bones and blood-stained, shredded clothing was his digital camera containing the last pictures he had ever taken, "They were remarkably like your own photos," the ranger told me. He accused me sternly, "You could have gotten yourself killed."
By this time I was shaking. How dare the ranger accuse me of stalking the bear, when I was the one who had been stalked. I had just been through one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, and here he was suggesting it was somehow my own fault.
"OK, OK," the ranger said, just calm down. I believe you; I'll let you go this time." But first he asked if I would stay there long enough to tell my story to a park biologist. He sent a radio message and 15 minutes later we were joined on the side of the road by a studious looking man who was very interested in hearing a detailed retelling of the bear encounter. He told me this was unusually aggressive behavior for a grizzly in Denali National Park, and he closely examined my photos to see if he could identify the particular bear involved. Then I was released, and drove north.
New adventures awaited.
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Up the bank on the other side of the river was the front half of the loop trail, where I had been hiking just 30 minutes earlier. I looked over and saw that there were several other vacationers on this section of trail. Closest to where the bear emerged from the river was a lone male hiker.
The grizzly approached this man even more agressively than he had the couple, appearing to me to be aggitated by this second human encounter. The bear made a bluff charge to within a few feet of the man, then stopped suddenly. Apparently the man had read the same instructions for scaring away a bear that we had because he was clawing at the sky and yelling loudly, "Shoo, bear, shoo; go away, bear!"
While taking advantage of the situation to make tracks back toward the trailhead, I stopped just long enough to take this shot, praying all the while for the man's safety. Although in this photo it appears that I am on the same side of the river as the bear, actually I was shooting across the river, which makes a bend at this point.
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Eh, don't worry...it's just a bear with huge teeth and claws to shred you apart!
Ok, so yes....they are scary. However, they are made out to be ferrocius. Truth is, bears don't want contact with humans. They only attack when made to feel defensive. ie. You walk up on them around a carcas, or their sows. Or perhaps them.
There are many trails you can take wherever you are in Alaska. It's not always easy to see them until perhaps too late. This is why it is recommended to wear a bell on you, shout as you go here and there, and carry either pepper spray ( i know, that sounds funny, I'm still trying to accept that myself), or possibly a gun.
If you take a tour, you don't have to worry. If you go hiking, then it's a possibility. More people are killed every year by lightening than by bears. Alaska has the highest concentration of bears, along with B.C. in Northern America.
I recently bought a book on Bear attacks, and being from Florida and never encountering a bear, or being in that possibility, I figured it would be a good idea. I'd recommend educating yourself before hiking with the possibility of meeting a bear.
Here's a shot of an arctic ground squirrel at the Eielson Visitor Center picnic area. It was really checking me out! Groundsquirrels are one of the animals most easy influenced by handouts from people. It is illegal to feed animals in the park and it also doesn't help them. Human food does not give them the nourishment they need to survive the winter and they will be stocking up on the wrong foods. Human feeding also creates a larger food source, thereby increasing numbers of these rodents in park areas where people are. A large amount of these small animals will also attract bears as they are a major source of protein for them. Unlike in other parts of Alaska, there are no salmon spawning in this park and very little in the way of fish. Therefore, bears depend on the squirrels. Bears coming to these picnic areas where people often are, is dangerous and in the end could make the bear a problem bear. That would most likely result in its being shot. Don't feed the wildlife
Respect the animals and their home. Remember that we are the visitors to Denali National Park. The animals living here are engaged in a daily struggle to find food and water necessary for survival.
Don't leave any food, garbage, food containers and so on.
!!! Do not approach within:
0,4 km (1/4 mile) of grizzly bears
25 m (75 feet) of wolves, caribou, moose and Dall sheep
300 m (300 yards) of eagles, falcons
100 m (100 yards) of fox, wolverine lynx or coyote dens
1,6 km (1 mile) of wolf dens
P.S. Check out the travelogue "Alaska Animals" to see the postcards I brought from Denali :-)
In what almost amounts to the center of the state, Denali supports a thriving populations of mew gulls. Besides the mosquito, the gulls are probably the most intimate with park visitors, hovering around every waterway and tour stop along the park road. Like the gray jay in the lower forty-eight states, the gulls will strike at morsels in your hand or light on the smallest speck in the road. Keep clear whenever possible and yield the way. The gulls are highly territorial.
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