Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Grizzly times in 'Camp Bearanoia'

By Robert Downes

   One of the 'trophies' of backpacking through Denali National Park in Alaska is coming home with the story of a bear encounter.  

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   It's not hard to find grizzly bears in Denali.  I saw at least eight of them on my way through the park during a solo backpacking trip in early fall. They have a savage beauty arrayed in many colors: a blonde she-bear and her cubs are backlit in gold against the sun; a roly-poly silver griz digs furiously at a ground hog's den, while the critter makes its getaway out the back door; another mama, silhuoetted black against the sun, marches with her cubs up a broad river valley, about a mile behind a solitary backpacker.
   I don't much care for bear stories, which tend to inspire more persecution and slaughter of the animals which are basically trying to mind their own business.  Alarming bear stories are a perennial favorite in men's magazines and hunting journals, mostly with headlines along the lines of 'Night of Bloody Paw Prints -- I Survived Being Torn Limb-From-Limb by a Killer Griz." The human race has a macabre fascination with bears and a conviction that they're bloodthirsty killers, even though in reality they're predominantly herbivores who turn tail and run at the sight of a human.  
   By contrast, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of hikers die each year of bee stings out in the wild, compared to the occasional bear attack.  Nonetheless, I know of any number of men who wouldn't dream of hiking in the woods without a pistol or a long-gun for fear of a bear attack. Our fear of bears is clearly a meme -- a thought virus.
   Of course, I had no gun on my hike into the wilderness of Denali, but it's also true that I couldn't avoid the infection of the bear-fear meme, despite being well aware that there was little to fear from being jumped by a grizzly while hiking all alone, far out on the Alaskan tundra at a time when the ravenous bears were in their hypophasic stage -- eating as much as possible to fatten up for winter.
   No, nothing to fear at all. Or was there?
   Landing in Anchorage, I picked up the newspaper and noted that a wildlife biologist had surprised a brown bear on Kodiak Island and had his head knocked off his body with a single swat.
    But I was still bolstered by the fact that not a single hiker has ever been killed by a bear in Denali National Park, mostly because the park enforces strict guidelines to ensure that the grizzlies never encounter human food, and so, never equate us as a possible source for assauging their hunger.
   I arrived in the park on Sept. 9 -- a time when the sun was slanting low on the horizon with the aspen trees fluttering gold in the sidelight.
   On the ride up from Anchorage in a train with a plexiglas roof for sightseeing, my car was shared with a tour group of  41 gay guys -- not what you'd expect of Alaska. There were clear views of Mt.McKinley on the 8 hour trip -- a rarity, since only 20% of visitors ever see the 20,000-foot mountain, which is usually obscured by its own weather pattern.
   Arriving at Denali, I found that it's rather complicated to get camp sites, a bus ride through the 90-mile park, and a backcountry permit (evidence that perhaps one should plan ahead, rather than trying to wing it). But things work out, and I spend the night in the
Morino backpackers campground. It gets below freezing that night, but I have longjohns.
   The next day, I camped at Sanctuary River, a lonesome place, and go for a long walk at nightfall. I see a beautiful, long, limber lynx sauntering next to a Swiss couple's tent on my way back — the first I ever saw.  I fumble for my camera in the twilight and it looks back over its shoulder at me with the mildest air of curiosity before strolling into the gloom.
   The door to the ranger's cabin at the campground is a porcupine of hundreds of spiked nails pounded from the inside out to guard against any griz who might attempt to break in for a taste of pancake mix or whatever.
    Dinner is freeze-dried beef teriyaki and rice made by pouring two cups of boiling water in a bag. I'm so hungry that I eat this stuff before it's fully hydrated - it chews like a bag of pencil erasers and tastes much the same.
   Off on the tundra, the grizzlies are feverishly devouring what they can in preparation for the long winter hybernation, when a thick coat of fat girdles them from temperatures dipping to 50 below. Gooseberries are a favorite food, and I read that the bears eat as many as 240,000 of them each day.  How this figure was arrived at, I can't imagine -- some biologist had to poke around in a dead bear's stomach and intestines and make an estimate, perhaps. Also, it occurs to me that the bears must ingest a powerful mash of twigs and leaves while stripping the berries from the branches.
   At any rate, they're not likely to have any of my crapulent freeze-dried stuff, because the park requires you to pack it all in bear-proof container which appears to be made out of a thick bowling ball plastic.  It fills the better part of my pack.

Sept. 11 -- Into the Wild

   I hike down a mountain and into the backcountry south of Eielsen Visitor Center along the Thoroughfare River.  The cool thing about backpacking in Denali is that each party gets its own section of the park.  Far down a river valley, I see mountains rising from a landscape that looks much the same as it did 20,000 years ago.  This prehistoric grandeur fills me with both awe and dread. There's a deafening, cold silence to these mountains that thunders with the presence of God and little else that's known to humanity.  You feel infinitely small, alone and unprotected -- yet also exhilarated beyond words. It's a raw place that touches the raw part of your soul.
   I hike far out on the tundra, finding the footing to be quite unsure in the tough grass which grows in ankle-turning clumps. I establish "Camp Bearanoia" on a cliff overlooking a mile-wide riverbed.  Rockbed is more like it, since the icy stream flows through a desert of stone.
   Camp Bearanoia proved to be a spooky experience, since it looks like I'm near what appears to be a bear trail. The park has so many warnings about bears and hiking alone, but that's how I tend to swing, so... I take care to cook my dinner a couple hundred yards from my tent, placing my bear-proof food container a few hundred yards in the other direction. You also have to take care that your clothes haven't caught any of the steam from your food as it's cooking.
   Snuggled in my tent, I take a stab at reading "Cry of the Kalahari" about animal studies in Africa. In the book, a young couple recount their experiences with lions, who stroll through their camp at night and become a familiar presence.  I'm dead tired and go to bed
early, but toss and turn all night with one eye open, thinking of those lions, and the possible grizzly bears wandering the trail beneath the ink of the sky, just a few feet from my tent.
  But dawn produces another beautiful Indian Summer day with spectacular views of the mountains, including McKinley which shimmers with the brilliance of a vast white diamond over my valley. I walk for miles up the riverbed toward a distant glacier and the mountain which is mine to circumnavigate. I scout for bears along the cliffs, especially when the river valley narrows to a few hundred yards, but it appears they're off foraging elsewhere.  It's a  magnificent walk — it's like being back in the Stone Age -- and I take off my shirt, absorbing what's left of Alaska's dying summer.
   On the hike out, I'm both relieved and disappointed not to have run into a bear.  Spotting them from the bus window on the 90-mile ride through the park is one thing, but to encounter a griz in the wild would be sweet -- assuming you didn't get your head kinocked off.
  Returning to the mountain trail beneath Eielsen Center, I stop to examine some tracks in a stream running though some high brush. They look almost like human footprints to me, but I know at once that they are those of a bear, made perhaps minutes ago. The trail takes me through some high reeds which are easily over my head; you're warned never to walk through such terrain, but it's the only way out and I feel curiously unafraid.  I sing a George Michael song that has been popularized by Limp Bizket:  "Oh I think it would be nice, if I could touch your body -- I know not every body has a body like-a you," and plunge on.  I hope that singing loudly will alert any bear that's browsing in the brush to avoid an unpleasant surprise.
   Reaching the station several hundred feet up, I'm enjoying the view when a young couple come up to me.
  "Was that you that just hiked up?" the guy says.  
   Yeah.
  "Well, while you were bending over looking at something down at the bottom of the mountain, we were all watching this big black grizzly looking at you from that little hill down there.  When he saw you, he turned around and ran away as fast as he could."
   Damn, that bear was within 100 feet of me, and I never saw him.
   But maybe it's for the best. Several years later, I met a park ranger who said he used to work in Denali.  I mentioned that I had heard that no hiker had ever been killed by a grizzly bear in the park.
   "Yeah, no hiker that we know of," he said with a grin. "But people do get attacked by bears out there. It's just not something the Park likes to spread around."
   He told me about photographer who was jumped by a bear and had to pretend to be dead while the beast took several bites out of his leg. And of another who was mauled and lost  part of his face while his girlfriend screamed and screamed... So I guess I don't feel so bad about having had such a slight encounter, if I can even call it that.  As they say, what you don't know can't hurt you.

   For the best of Robert Downes' travel stories, check out "Planet Backpacker," about a solo trip around the world -- available on Kindle from amazon.com or from Apple iBooks.
Click on the logo to order 'Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Bumming Around the World" from Amazon Kindle -- $4.99 for the illustrated ebook.