When we backpacked into the wildness of Alaska’s Denali National Park, we thought that if we had any scary wildlife encounters it would be with the park’s plentiful grizzly bears. Mainly because when we picked up our backcountry hiking permit, we were required to view a video that advised what to do when encountering a grizzly. If you have any doubts about hiking into grizzly country that video will not ease your fears of being mauled by an 800 pound bear—close ups of roaming, growling, angry bears does not put your mind at ease. Trust me. I was ready to trade my tent for a hotel room ten minutes into the movie. But we struck out into the wilderness despite our apprehensions.
What the video didn’t mention was what to do when being charged by a 600-pound caribou. So when we spied a bull caribou grazing in the high tundra of an alpine mountain valley, we watched him disappear behind a ridge and continued hiking. We still didn’t give it much thought when he reappeared behind us over the ridge. But when he advanced belligerently with his head held high and his neck puffed out, we knew we had a problem. We were momentarily stunned, uncertain as to what to do. We were above tree line--no trees to climb. And the terrain was open and stark--not even any boulders to hide behind. We jumped up and down, waving our arms and yelling, which seemed only to provoke him more. Only when we clapped our hands did he stop charging and stamp his feet, staring at us as if finally realizing ”Hey this is not another caribou.” He stood motionless for a moment and then trotted back to the ridge, pausing for a final backward glance before melting into the Alaskan fog. He had come within 75 feet of us and my heart was racing.
Somehow this did not seem out of place in the raw wilderness of Denali. I guess when you are wandering through six million acres crammed full of incredibly scenic spruce forests, sub-arctic tundra, broad river valleys, caribou herds, and soaring mountain peaks nothing seems extraordinary. In a park that stretches more than 100 miles from end to end, and is larger than the state of Massachusetts, some animals may never have seen a human so they don’t know what to make of us.
This is a wild land and one not to be taken lightly and we had a real sense of stepping into the unknown when we hopped off the backpacker bus that shuttles backcountry hikers through the park. Only one road cuts through Denali; a two-lane gravel road that bisects the park from east to west and the buses are the only mode of transportation allowed—private vehicles need not apply. We hopped off into a gloomy drizzly day and trekked up into the high plateaus bordering the highway. We tramped through chest high alder thickets, whistling and talking loudly to alert any browsing griz along the way.
It was July but still brisk in the Denali outback. We hiked for the day and set up camp on a high shelf at 5000 feet on the shoulder of a mountain overlooking an open valley and a winding river. The wind whipped up a storm blew in overnight and our tent was buffeted all night long. A cold driving rain and low clouds enveloped our campsite, driving temperatures down into the mid-40s. The sun never sets in Denali in July and we slept through a dull light—fitfully, alert for griz prowling through camp. We never saw Mt McKinley's peak during the entire trip—the gloom set in for days, obscuring the mountain’s peak
The trip was incredible, awesome scenery, abundant wildlife and that sense one gets out in the wild, away from civilization and help. It feels good to be in wilderness and we came back cold, wet, tired, dirty and exhilarated. And yes, we did see griz, many in fact. But the caribou proved our fears were misplaced.