A wilderness with grizzlies is different from a tamer wilderness with just bees and snakes.
A week earlier, I sat on a Toklat River bridge watching a grizzly follow my trail. Then on August 24th, that bear (or one of a dozen others in the area) killed a backpacker who didn’t follow the park’s “Bear Aware” rules.
Denali National Park in Alaska is well run. Park Service rangers and guides repeatedly emphasize bear, wolf and moose safety. For bears, stay two football fields away. If one emerges from a closer thicket, stand tall, say “Hey Bear!” in a loud but calm voice. If a bear approaches you, wave your arms above your head to make yourself appear bigger. Talk firmly but calmly to the bear. (For a wolf, in contrast, use the tone you would with a bad dog.)
Rangers apparently try to reassure us by explaining, over and over, that most bear charges are merely to test you. If you stand firm, most bears veer away at the last minute. Reassuring?
They also offer this advice. If a bear “makes contact,” lie down and play dead. Keep your backpack on if you’re wearing one, because the bear may gnaw on the pack without hurting you. Adopt a fetal position. Lace your fingers behind your neck, as that will provide some protection there.
I found the advice less and less reassuring as these tutorials proceeded. That may have been the rangers' intent. Next was the contrast between grizzly and black bear attacks. Black bears are likely looking for dinner so I should fight back. Denali grizzlies are largely herbivores and will most likely attack because they're startled, to defend blueberry patches or for other non-carnivorous reasons.
Rangers didn’t give us pointers about how to fight back. To me the very least reassuring advice was the added detail offered by some rangers. “If a grizzly does start to eat you, then fight back.”
I was in Denali to appreciate the ecosystem. I saw three grizzlies, caribou, golden eagles, arctic ground squirrels, bear-flower, gentians, monkshood, reindeer moss and at least a thousand other species of plants and animals, most of which I couldn’t identify to species but all of which added up to an inspired bliss.
I dearly love the richness of life in true wilderness. Coral reefs, tallgrass prairies and alpine meadows are favorites. The overwhelming variety of color and shape gets to me.
My partner Linda took photos of our first bear from the safety of the bus. Private cars are banned. Wilderness could not abide the traffic that would jam the park's one road. Color coded busses take hundreds of people a day down the 92 miles of unpaved inspiration. The green eco-busses are the best. They’ll drop you off wherever you ask and pick you up whenever you hail them.
We'd signed up with half a dozen other wilderness fans for a hike led by a park guide. She had intended to take us down a mostly dry river bed, across dead rocks, with a brief excursion to an “alpine meadow shelf” at the end. We abandoned the planned route in part because this was one of the about three days a month when Mt. McKinley emerged from the clouds, and views of it seem to be much sought after. Our guide also probably noticed three of our little group, on hands and knees, thrilled by our first glimpses of the miniature flora. We took a vote, and she led us, trampling across this precious landscape, to a high ridge where we saw the mountain. Later she’d map the hike; not more than two hikes a year can cross the same ground in this six million-acre park. The tundra recovers slowly from trampling. Wilderness is foremost.
Golly how awed I am by the magic of an alpine meadow. We puzzled over gentians, saxifrages, betonies and identified many of them from a picture book our guide excavated from her standard guide backpack. Also in that pack, an emergency radio: she taught us how to use it in case she was incapacitated. She assured us she would stand in front if a bear approached. She described her personal hair-raising encounters with Denali bears, all of which ended well.
One large and showy herb we found was bear-flower. Grizzlies dig it up to feast on its potatoes or carrots or whatever lusciousness it grows below ground. We saw much bear-flower, and many yard-wide diggings scattered wherever the plants were thick. We saw bear tracks, bear scat, and more bear-flower holes.
Our revised plan was to circle down into the river valley after our glance at Mt. McKinley. As we indeed circled, we increasingly noticed that buses of all colors were stopping on the bridge where we’d been left off. There was an expanding traffic jam of public transportation.
Busses stop in groups for one reason -- wildlife. Phalanxes of binoculars in bus windows pointed down the valley that we could not see but were heading for. “Perhaps there’s a fox,” our guide said cheerfully. It did not seem likely that foxes would cause such a jam. Our guide reminded us once more of Bear Aware rules. As we approached brush patches she called out “Hey, Bear” – again and again. She pointed out that grizzlies seldom confront large groups (we were seven).
Indeed, we reached the river without incident. We hiked upstream over the dull rocks, had lunch amid soaring peaks and floating golden eagles. We thought we’d finished our adventure with our retreat back downstream as we sat on the bridge for more than a half hour waiting for our green bus.
It was not a dull half hour. Soon after we sat down, a grizzly emerged from one of those thickets we had Hey-Bear-ed our way through. We watched as it dug up the bear-flower in the very patches we had appreciated. We could see where our hike had gone. The bear was following exactly in our tracks.
This bear was not close. It was more than two football fields away. At that distance, even a large bear is hard to see without binoculars. The route of the bear was essentially perpendicular to where we now sat. Our guide said, if it turns toward us, we need to back off. I found that hard to believe. Did we really have to retreat from an animal so far away that the naked eye could barely make it out? But the park has rules. Two football fields. Caribou cannot be approached closer than 25 yards. The varied distances seem to be based on the needs of wilderness. Our closeness cannot be allowed to impact the animals’ behavior. Caribou, apparently, are not easy to impact.
In time the bear went over the mountain, and a bus arrived to pick us up. Our guide said, “It’s a different experience to see a bear from outside a bus. Yes?”
The experience stayed with me. I began self-consciously hollering “Hey, Bear!” whenever I approached a thicket or turned a blind corner. Days later Linda and I hiked another alpine meadow far away, with no bear scat, tracks or diggings. It seemed less wild. I felt more relaxed. A different, more peaceful sense of closeness with nature returned.
On August 24 Richard White of San Diego was killed and partly eaten. Rangers responded to a report of a ravaged backpack and blood. They found a camera and the body; they shot the bear eating it. White's camera told the story -- the grizzly grazing peacefully about about 50 yards, then turning, and walking toward the camera. White photographed; he did not stand, speak with a loud but calm voice, and back off as required by the permit he had signed.
I have learned to love the midwest's wild woods and prairies, that have been without grizzlies for many decades. I campaign to enlarge and restore them, to return them to the wildest state possible. I support bringing back natural predators as much as possible. Or do I?
This drama challenges me. I appreciate wilderness without fear very much.