by Hank Leukart
August 29, 2007
Bear ye! Bear ye!
Avoiding bears in the Alaskan wilderness requires impenetrable canisters and creative chanting.
A Denali grizzly bear stands near the Park road. (photo by Brian Leukart)
This the second essay in a three-part series about backpacking in Alaska. For the whole story, start with the first essay about our harrowing McKinley River crossing.D
ENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska — As my brother Brian and I trudged forward through the thick, head-high underbrush on Denali National Park and Preserve’s six million-acre sub-arctic tundra following a harrowing McKinley River crossing, our continuous shouts of “Bear ye! Bear ye!” could be heard for miles. After watching the park’s bear safety video before venturing into the wilderness, we obediently invented this chant, paring it down from a longer, original rhyme we created: “If a bear ye see, stay ye be!” (Actually, our original chant was much longer but became too cumbersome to help us remember anything: “If a bear ye see, stay ye be. If a moose be there, run with care; and if while running with care, if a black bear be there, throw sticks and stones to break its bones — and the same goes for wolves.”) None of the chants made much sense, but regardless, we knew that the best way to avoid surprising a bear — which is all too easy when you can’t see five feet in front of you due to the underbrush — was to announce our presence by yelling, “Bear ye! Bear ye!” The park prohibits venturing within a half mile of a bear, but accidental encounters do happen.
Bears don’t like to be surprised, but they love eating backpackers’ camping food. Thus, the park issues every backcountry hiker an impenetrable bear-proof canister (though my brother and I worried that if a bear ever got hold of a screwdriver, the bears would quickly rule the park). We were required to carry anything with a scent (food, deodorant, toothpaste) in the containers and follow the rule of the Golden Triangle: your tent, cooking area, and bear canister storage area must all be at least 100 feet from each other. These canisters serve two purposes: first, they prevent hikers from losing their food supply to a bear, which can be a disaster if you are a three-day walk from civilization; and second, they condition bears over time to learn that they can’t get food from hikers, and as a result, bears learn not to bother them.
During our first night on the Alaskan tundra, while keeping a constant eye out for bears, we pitched our tent on an arctic forest floor (called “taiga”), made up of spongy moss and grassy vegetation atop springy tree root systems. We quickly named this terrain “mystery mattress” and delighted in the comfort the surface provided us during the night. But we quickly learned that while mattresses make for wonderful sleeping, walking on them is a nightmare. In the wet, lowlands of Denali, even without much underbrush, “mystery mattress” hiking can be four to six times slower than hiking on a trail. After an especially wet and squishy day in Denali’s lowlands, my brother complained, “I feel like I just worked out on a Stairmaster for six hours straight.” I have no interest in spending six hours on my gym’s Stairmaster to test this theory, but I’m confident it’s accurate. As we became better acquainted with Denali’s terrain, we soon realized that hiking ten miles per day was outside our realm of possibility. We also laughed nervously that we were instructed never to run from a bear — with this kind of terrain, running from anything dangerous was impossible no matter the predator. Frequent rain showers made the situation even worse (the skies are so often overcast that Mount MicKinley is only visible every third day), and we promptly learned that the only thing more difficult than hiking on miles of spongy mattress is hiking on miles of soaking wet, spongy mattress.
Because the glacially-fed rivers in Denali don’t hold many fish, the park’s grizzly bears’ diets are 85 percent vegetarian. Fortunately for them, the frequent rain makes possible one of the area’s most mind-boggling features: thousands and thousands of acres of wild blueberry bushes blanket almost every square inch of Denali’s lowlands. At first, we felt bad stepping on any berries until we discovered that the park’s blueberry supply was inexhaustible. At the beginning of our trip, while looking out over hundreds of miles of tundra covered with blueberries, my brother ironically exclaimed, “I’ll never get sick of blueberries!” knowing that after eight days, we surely would.
As we slogged through Denali’s wet and mushy tundra, we often spotted fresh, staggeringly large bear tracks in the mud. We simply hoped that the track-makers didn’t decide to change from the stalkees to the stalkers. Probably due to our frequent yelling of, “Bear ye! Bear ye,” we thankfully never came in close contact with a grizzly bear during our time alone in the wilderness.
But one night, we stood in the middle of a seemingly endless Denali tundra with literally millions of wild blueberries blanketing our world in every direction, as far as we could see. Exhausted, we collapsed on the ground and began munching on the blueberries in our vicinity, which seemed tastier than any we had ever eaten. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who thought so.
Obscuring the horizon, less than a eighth of a mile away, we spotted a majestic family of caribou. They, too, were munching on the wild blueberries as the sun set behind Denali’s striking mountain ranges. We watched them with curiosity, and with just as much curiosity, they watched us eat. Eventually, with our eyes fixated on the animals and our mouths stuffed full of blueberries, the sun disappeared below the horizon, and the caribou disappeared into the darkness.
Somehow, we never got sick of those blueberries.
Find out how we finally escaped the wilderness and conquered the treacherous Muldrow Glacier in the finale of this three-part series about backpacking in Alaska.
A grizzly bear’s foot imprint sits next to Brian’s hiking boot imprint in muddy clay near a Denali riverbed.