We were halfway through the park when I spotted the grizzlies.
"Bear, nine o'clock!" I yelled, grabbing my camera. A mother and her two cubs were in a meadow off the road, eating blueberries.
Nobody is allowed off the bus in Denali National Park, deep in Alaska, so the animals pay little attention to people. The fact a full-grown grizzly can weigh 362 kilograms and kill with a swipe of its paw might also have something to do with the bus regulations.
I love exploring remote wilderness regions. Jungles, swamps, deserts, the Himalayas; I've done many. Denali, (or "the high one," in Athapaskan) is one of these isolated places, only accessible in the brief months of the sub-Arctic summer.
My plan was to venture past the end of the park and stay at Denali Backcountry Lodge, bouncing the whole way in a shuttle bus on 100 kilometres of unpaved road bordered by gigantic glaciers, wild rivers, huge mountains and limitless tundra while searching for the Big Five for which the park is famous (moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolf and grizzly bear).
Mostly, though, I wanted to meet a grizzly.
Denali National Park covers nearly 2.4 million hectares of wild tundra and shelters 39 species of mammals, 167 species of birds and 10 species of fish. The park boasts several wolf packs, but only good luck will get you a view of those reclusive creatures. Caribou graze everywhere while skittishly keeping an eye out for wolves. Beaver inhabit many ponds, mountain hare and black bear are abundant, hawks and eagles soar high above. But it was grizzlies I wanted to see, and not from the inside of a bus.
We hadn't driven two minutes when we saw a moose.
"Three o'clock!" went the shout, and everybody rushed to one side of the bus, but all I could see was a big nose hidden in spruce trees. Five minutes later, a caribou bounded down the road before veering off into the tundra. Several Dall sheep roamed high atop a ridge.
The visual attraction of Denali, though, is the astonishing landscape, something like the great plains of Serengeti in Africa. Largely treeless, the view is endless. It's these vast open spaces that allow for frequent sightings of wild game, safe here from hunting and not afraid of man. Carving the valley bottoms of the tundra are broad turbid glacial rivers, running in wide, braided gravel floodplains where many animals are often seen.
After six hours grinding its way up steep hills and along sheer cliffs and through valley bottoms, our bus finally arrived at Denali Backcountry Lodge. It's a private lodge just past the boundaries of the park and as remote a resort as you could wish to find. Comfortably nestled on the gravel banks of Moose Creek with well-equipped wood cabins boasting comfy king-sized beds and hot showers, the only drawback is moose wandering through camp at any time.
Staff offered several guided hikes, and one afternoon near sunset when animals come out to feed, I persuaded the lodge naturalist to drive me to nearby Wonder Lake so I could hike by myself. Lots of moose and grizzlies at the lake, he said. He gave me the standard drill for all guests hiking in this wild region.
"If you stumble across a moose, run like hell. They are very territorial. Moose kill more people than bears (do)," he said. "On the other hand, if you come upon a grizzly, stand your ground and look big because flight triggers an emotional response in grizzlies to chase its prey. Bears can run faster than people."
Stand your ground and look big? Ha ha. Easy enough for him to say, I thought. How about I carry an AK-47? Nonetheless, armed with a banana (to snack on) I strode manfully down to the lake and had a ramble. Nothing. Not a bear or moose or even a duck. An angry hawk dive-bombed me a few times when I got too close to her nest, but that was it. Skunked.
As it got darker, however, it eventually dawned on me where I was -- all alone in a vast wilderness crawling with grizzly bears who eat people if offered the opportunity.
The awesome silence gave me the spooks. Wait, what was that? A crashing of tree branches, and I suddenly came face to face with my very angry guide.
"Have you lost your gourd?" he yelled. "Do you have a death wish?"
We both hotfooted it back to the road, where the going was clear, and climbed into his truck. The lesson was clear. It wasn't stand your ground or look big.
No, it was: "Never get out of the vehicle!"
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