Confronation with the Locals Part 2

I had undergone a transformation over the past year and a half.  On the Colorado Trail in the summer of 2014, I found myself so scared of bears after hearing one huffing and stomping around in close proximity to my tent one night that I thought they were waiting around every bend.  I would get quizzical looks from people on the trail while passing them, for they had heard me singing quite loudly to myself before they had came into view.  The bears (both real and imaginary) would be one of the reasons I left the trail a few days later.  Fast forward a few months, I am camping out in a state forest in northern Michigan while taking a Wilderness First Responder Course.  On three of the five nights, I hear black bears tramping around the forest, sneezing and scratching their backs against big trees.  Yet this time, I had no fear.  To validate my feelings, I remained fearless and calm while being charged by a black bear mother with her cub half a year later in northern Alaska.

Though I now mostly lacked fear of bears, there has remained a niggling thought always present in the back of my mind.  Statistically, my odds of ever being mauled by a bear are extremely low.  Cases like Timothy Treadwell (who lived in close proximity to brown bears before being mauled in Katmai N.P.) demonstrated how tolerant bears are.  Yet, the cultural fear that was ingrained in me did remain.  I had read the accounts of people being attacked in their tents while they slept, or of those that had been stalked by grizzlies in areas not far from where I am now living.  Sure, these are extremely rare instances, but they are not reassuring for the emotional side of my brain.  And besides, all my close bear encounters up to this point were black bears, not grizzlies.  While black bears certainly can be dangerous, they lack the aura that surrounds grizzlies. Especially those of the far north.

Fall came and went with the changing colors of the leaves and tundra.  Snow began to fall on the mountains, ultimately creeping down until snow covered the entire valley.  Cold began to grip the land, as the lakes and ponds quickly froze up, while ice began to enshroud the creeks and rivers.  I continued my treks into the country and had not seen any sign of bears for quite some time by mid October.  It was highly likely that the vast majority (if not all) had denned up for the next 7 months.  However, that pestering thought remained in the back of my mind. Although even more unlikely than previous scenarios, there was the infinitesimal chance of coming across a winter bear, the worst kind.  A winter bear was hungry, relentless, and afraid of absolutely nothing.  These bears didn’t stay out late because they wished to socialize; rather they’re usually old, hungry and eager to lock their teeth on anything that moves. In traditional times, natives would carry spears with them on winter journeys in case they ran into the ice bear.  Dog mushers today still carry heavy weaponry on them in case of this possible scenario.  A number of years ago, there was such a meeting between a dog team and a winter bear on the pipeline access trail between Wiseman and Coldfoot.  A tragic event, that nobody would wish to repeat.  It was with these thoughts in mind that I traveled through the landscape.

Late in November, I had a group of Chinese guests that signed up for an aurora tour.  An aurora tour consists of driving guests from Coldfoot to Wiseman and hanging out at a historic gold miner’s cabin, where we watch the aurora if it presents itself.  Clouds covered the night sky and snow began to fall as we loaded into the van for our departure.  I had a sour mood, as I do not enjoy staying out late staring at clouds.  Thirty minutes later we were in Wiseman.  They shuffled into the cabin and I assumed my post next to the double barrel wood stove outside.  After building a fire, I began to scan the sky for any sign of aurora, while falling snow sizzled as it came into contact with the wood stove.  The guests weren’t interested in much in this area, besides getting some selfies with the aurora to post on Facebook, so it would be a relatively easy night.

As one could likely imagine, staring at the clouds gets pretty boring after a certain point.  I fiddled with the fire as much as I could, while I tried to find something interesting to look at in the near area.  Adjacent to the wood stove and cabin, there is a rough vehicle path that leads back to a summer resident’s storage area.  Looking down the path, I detected movement no more than 30 yards away.  That grabbed my attention.  I squinted, attempting to gain a better view through the falling snow.  Were my eyes deceiving me? It definitely seemed as if something was moving back and forth.  Something large.  I put the woodstove, between myself and whatever it was that lay out there.  Turning on my headlamp, I tried to gain a glimpse of what it was, if anything, that lay out there.  The beam from my headlamp struggled through the falling snow and dark night, but I picked up a gleam that looked like a pair of eyes.  “Oh shit. This isn’t a joke.” I thought to myself.  The dark shape had resembled a bear before and now I was almost certain.  I was a mere thirty yards away from one of my greatest fears, a winter bear.

It was the end of November. There was over two feet of snow on the ground and it had been cold. The temperature frequently dropping down below twenty below zero.  There wasn’t much life out and about at this time of year, certainly not enough for a bear to sustain himself.  I was legitimately scared.  What was I to do?  Do I go into the cabin and alert the group?  Should I retreat ten yards to the van that lay behind me? My mind was racing and my heart was thumping.  I grabbed the iron poker that lay at my feet and began to beat on the woodstove.  “Get out of here!”  “Go!”  It didn’t seem to work.  From my view, it was just moving back and forth, contemplating its next move.  I was literally shaking in my boots at this point in terror.  If bears can sense fear, this one’s sensors must have been going off the charts.

I finally decided that I would retreat to the van.  Bringing the poker with me, I retreated slowly then quickly moved the final few yards, slamming the door behind me.  My heart was still thumping and I thought I should get a better view of what I’m contending with.  I started the van, put it in reverse and angled the lights down the path to the left of the woodstove.  Angled correctly, I turned the brights on to find that my foe was a clump of alder trees, twenty five yards distant.  I had sworn it was a bear. “What an idiot,” I thought to myself.  I put the van back where it was and got out.  Looking down the path again it still seemed like it was a bear.  I cautiously walked down the path, for there still was a part of me that thought there was a bear there, and shined my headlamp on the location where my fabled bear was. Sure enough, it was just the trees.  I wandered back down the post and assumed my post once again with my tail between my knees, hoping the guests inside hadn’t noticed or heard anything odd going on outside.

I walked into the cabin to check in, “How are you guys doing in here? Nothing going on out there.”  We went back to Coldfoot a couple of hours later, with no sign of the aurora or problems with any of the guests, yet sure enough, my mind had conjured up a way to provide enough excitement for the otherwise dull evening.

Confrontation with the Locals

All summer I had stared at her. She lay glittering right across the river or just off the road depending on where you were, changing colors with the seasons.  If you think I am talking about a woman, I’m going to guess that you haven’t been to Arctic Alaska.  For there are no women here, at least none that make themselves available to a strapping young lad like myself.  Though I am talking about a mountain, Michelle Mountain*, just across the valley from Wiseman, AK.  As part of my job, I spend a fair amount of time in the town of Wiseman.  As part of my life, I try to spend a good bit of time in the mountains.   After spending quite a bit of time staring at Michelle Mt. from Wiseman, I decided that I needed to become intimate with her.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sad to discover I only have one picture of Michelle Mt.  This is one week from one week after the hike described in this post. Picture taken in Wiseman on the banks of the  M. Fork of the Koyukuk.

It wasn’t until mid-August that I finally decided to make an attempt up the mountain.  Late in the day, after tours and dinner, I made my way the 10 miles down the Dalton to the base of Michelle. I quickly made my way out of the rock quarry in which I had parked, beginning to ascend through the forest.  It was not long before I found myself above treeline, for I was climbing the west face of Michelle, which does not receive much sunlight.  The going was steep, yet not overly strenuous. I enjoyed the beginning of the fall colors, as the ground and surrounding vegetation varied from green to yellow and red.  I soon found myself rounding a large rock outcropping and at the top of the first ridge.  I had a wide view of the valley, but I could not see much higher up the ridge, likely only about 40 yards or so.  Looking around, I thought that this would be a perfect spot for a quick break.

The next thing I know, there is a black bear running downhill, directly at me.  There are a few standard guidelines for travelling safely in bear country. So far on this hike, I had followed none of them.  Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Travel with others: I was alone, as I often am on many hikes, bears aren’t deterred by single humans.
  2. Carry bear spray: If you live or travel in Alaska you will hear from many people who live in Anchorage or Fairbanks that you shouldn’t travel in bear country or if you do, you should bring shotguns or various heavy artillery so that you can kill these indestructible creatures. The favorite past time of many people in Alaska is to tell bear stories.  As one of my friends says, “You’ll hear stories of bullets bouncing off skulls or impossible to kill.  Don’t listen to them; they’re drunk or poor shots.  Many of these people haven’t even seen a bear.”  At the least, many recommend that you carry bear spray.  I had neither.

However, I did do a few things correctly.  I instinctively raised both my arms into the air, protruding out in a wide formation, trekking pole still grasped in one hand. As I did this, I began to yell at the bear in quite a loud manner. “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!”  The bear was either really anxious to say hi or did not like me very much, for she did not stop.  As I continued yelling, as if I was a broken record, she continued to rapidly make her way toward me.  During this time, I had no fear. My thinking was extremely clear. I debated whether or not I should throw my trekking pole at her.  I also thought that the bear would not stop.  This whole process felt like minutes, but only occurred in a matter of seconds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the few women in the Arctic

Finally, she stopped at a mere 10-15 foot distance away.  She did not rise up or change in action, but noiselessly stood there, staring intently at me.  At this point, the record was still broken for I continued to yell, “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!” on repeat.  She quickly became bored with the conversation after about 5 seconds(“These stupid humans only knows 2 words.”) turning around and walking back up the slope.  This seemed to appease my internal mechanisms and I stopped yelling.  She continued walking, stopping to glance back every 20 feet or so. As she stopped, I’d yell once again. “Go on, get out of here!”    She responded, “What rude manners, these humans are oh so insensible.”  As she made her way to the edge of the slope, I caught a glimpse of a cub trampling through the willows.  She joined her cub and they ambled over the edge into the unknown.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Check out dat butt. Dang girl, you fine! You can see the cub’s ears/head directly to the right of mama.

At this point, I could either continue up the mountain, proceeding up the slope and over the edge to where the bears likely now lay, or I could retreat down the mountain and call that enough for one day.  I elected to choose the latter option.  As much as I would have liked to continue up the mountain side, I don’t think I left a positive enough impression on Mama Bear to chance a second encounter.  Michelle remains for another time, meanwhile continue to dazzle me with her everlasting beauty.

 

*While there may not be many women in these parts, there sure are a high number of natural features that bear names of women from the past, who lived in this valley!  There’s Clara Creek, Emma Creek, Emma Dome, Minnie Creek, Minnie Dome, Kahlabuk, Rosie Creek….the list goes on.  However, I still prefer the living, breathing kind over the names.

Bears and Berries

A much needed rest day followed after finishing our exhausting and seemingly never ending trek, off the Copper Glacier.  Morale was high within the group and rightfully so.  The night before we had shed multiple pounds of glacier gear, obtained our next full ration of food and were now preparing for times back in the land of green.  One thing that we did not forget to leave behind though was our adventurous spirit.  After a late breakfast, my tent/cook mates and I set off on our own mini expedition in search of blueberries, for our planned biscuits later that afternoon.  We headed towards to a nearby mountain, hoping to find a substantial patch above the brush line.  Weaving through alder trees and following game trails we made it to the top, but unfortunately our trip was fruitless as we were only able to find small handfuls of the treasured blue delicacy.  Our adventure was not for naught however as we stopped to lie in the sun and enjoy the feeling of the dry ground again, before heading back to camp.  The rest of the day consisted of people doing all sorts of activities such as meeting with their mentor, reading, washing socks, playing in the nearby creek and napping before we all met after dinner for our somewhat nightly meeting.  During the meeting, there was a rustling in the bushes behind us and we all took a quick glance and spotted the tall brown spine of an animal before it scampered away.  We figured it to be a moose, due to the large amount of moose signs we had spotted around our camp.  Nevertheless, we were happy with the probable increase in animal interactions for the rest of the trip, after seeing nothing but the occasional fly or worm in the snow, during our time on the glacier.

Our journey continued the following day with us dropping off any extra supplies at the airstrip, for Kirk to pick up later in the week.  My group then set off, moving across the huge gravel bed in the direction of a lake about a mile away.  Our initial destination was a little over five miles away, with the additional option of adding another mile and a half depending on everyone’s physical state.  How great it felt to be back in our hiking boots on dry land! After wearing the heavy plastic boots for over 3 weeks, we felt as if we were barefoot as we moved across the rocks.  We also happily noticed a big difference in our pack weight.  Carrying 70 plus pound packs the last five days or so on the glacier strengthened our muscles to the point where our now 55 pound packs, which felt heavy previously, felt like we had nothing on our backs!  There was nothing that we thought could go wrong as we quickly moved through small streams and over the gravel bed.

That is, until we hit the dreaded quick sinking mud.  Before the glacier, I was the one who always prodded others to keep moving through our evil nemesis, but my wisdom seemed to have escaped me as I sank almost up to my knees in mud. It takes a fair amount of effort to pull your feet out but I think the hardest part is determining where to put your foot next.  All the mud looks similar and it is often difficult to determine if you will sink or stand.  We were able to make it out and after crossing the main channel of the creek we moved along the opening to the lake.  However, we weren’t out of danger yet.  While crossing the opening of the lake to reach more tundra, we found ourselves sinking once again.  It wasn’t quite as bad as before, but in my opinion, it was a whole lot scarier to be sinking in mid thigh deep water compared to dry land.  After reaching the other side, climbing up to the top of the hill and finding a blueberry patch, we promptly dropped our packs, got on all fours and crawled around eating blueberries for the next half hour.  Talk about a nice transition back onto the tundra!

We continued moving on and after stopping for another blueberry break, we continued on over the hills before slightly dropping into the valley.  The area was stunning with pine forests comprising the valley floor, a view of Mt. Sanford in the distance and majestic rock formations making up the surrounding mountain sides.  We had reached our initial X, but the marshy area did not seem to be very campable, so we decided we would wait for the other groups to arrive before proceeding.   It took a while for the other groups to catch up, so I made myself busy eating more blueberries before taking a nap on my pack (And no, it is not possible to eat too many blueberries).  All agreed to proceed and we made our way through the nearby pine forest before stumbling into a deep marsh.  It was quite the predicament, with us far from our entry point and the water becoming deeper with each step.  I decided that we would push through and we laughed as some of us stumbled over the hummock like bottom into waist deep water.  This extra mile and a half took a bit more bushwhacking through the brush than we had endured earlier in the day.  At one point after coming out of the brush, onto the rocks of a drainage, we glanced up to the nearby mountainside to spot a sow (mama grizzly) and her two cubs moving up the hill.  They looked back at us, as we shouted up to them, before bounding up through the bushes.  I had seen my first grizzlies and 3 of them at that!  Shortly thereafter, we broke through the brush once again out onto a larger drainage, arriving at our camp for the night.  We celebrated yet another birthday during the evening with a rare camp fire, before the celebration was cut short with a downpour that had most of us scrambling back to our tents.  After the rain had stopped, we came out of our tents to find a rainbow over a point further up the drainage.  A perfect ending to our first travel day back on the tundra.

Before heading to bed the previous night, we decided as a group that for the next 5 days we would go without time.  Our watches were placed in the bottom of our packs and we agreed not to look at them.  When waking up, the first person up who thought it was a reasonable hour woke the others who were cooking breakfast and we would begin our day.  Our travel would take however long and the rest of our day would carry on.  I was LOTD once again and the instructors entrusted us with a lot of responsibility.  On this day, we would be travelling independently without instructors for the first time on tundra.  Independent student group travel and independent student group expeditions are two of big cornerstones of NOLS, forcing students to practice their leadership, communication and interpersonal skills we had learned in order to lead and maintain a successful expedition.  Our route would be the most straightforward we had in days, maybe even the whole trip.  We were simply heading 4 miles and 2000 feet up the drainage to a spot that would set us up perfectly for the next day where we would be travelling through a pass. The day was fairly uneventful by our standards, travelling along the rocks with a few crossings through the rapidly flowing creeks before reaching our X.  During our travel, we did find a spot where someone had leveled out the rocks for a tent.  That was quite disappointing to say the least.  There were many places (during the expedition) where we thought that we were likely the first humans ever at that spot but not today.  It’s also unfortunate that people don’t clean up after themselves.  This spot didn’t leave any trash, but for the others: why would you go into some place to enjoy nature only to damage it?

We ambled up to the grassy hill above the drainage, which may have been our best campsite the whole trip.  We were able to see back into the valley behind us, at the interesting rock formations on either side of the drainage and also up at the glacier near the top of Tanada Peak.  The grass was perfect as well with sporadic mounds that made for the most comfortable seats you could imagine. Our first day without time had worked out perfectly.  There was no worry that we were travelling too fast or too slow and it did not matter how many breaks we took.  It certainly took out a lot of unnecessary stress and the other expedition members and I were ecstatic with the results.   A long meeting was held later that night since a lot of both interpersonal and personal problems had arisen over the past couple weeks. During this time, the rocks on the mountainsides danced in the light of the sunset.  Another beautiful evening in Alaska.

I watched the sheep high up on the mountains while eating my breakfast and hanging around camp the next morning.  Some of those fellers do not move or change position for hours.  There was one that I watched that did not do either, from the time I began watching to a while (No time, no worries) later just before we left.  Today was another independent travel day and this time the instructors had left before us, getting an early start up the pass. The initial part of our travel was moving three quarters of a mile and up 1500 feet through a pass to the other side of the mountains.  It took us a while to ascend the steep pass as we moved along a small creek under the hot sun.  During one of our breaks, we paused near a pool of water in the creek and dunked our heads in, the freezing water instantly cooling off our heads and faces.  The views back toward the valley were remarkable, as we climbed higher, with the towering Mt. Sanford peeking out from behind the clouds in the distance.  The grass quickly gave way to a rock filled drainage near the top of the pass.  This final steep ascent was our last obstacle on this side of the mountains and we stood atop the pass, greeted by more mountains and a raging creek on the other side..  From here, we planned to travel another four miles downhill before cutting towards an opening in the mountains to our camp, besides a lake.  Moving downhill, we were forced to zig zag across the raging, but shallow, creek multiple times due to dead ends at each side.  One of our interesting sights of the day was our encounter with a rock ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan is the state bird and they surprisingly did not scatter as we approached them.  One of my peers was following one less than a foot away with the intent to kill the poor bird.  I’m glad he didn’t. Eventually, we moved up the side of the mountain and made a long traverse across multiple rock fields.  This part was actually fairly dangerous because the rocks are usually either thin or unstable, so one has to be pretty particular with where they place each step.  Along with river crossings, rock fall terrain is one of the biggest hazards in most NOLS courses.  In the past, there unfortunately have been a few instances where students have died in similar situations and terrain.  Travelling in a single file line, we wearily continued moving across the rocks, stumbling a few times, before coming across a sheep trail.  After descending into a drainage and climbing a final steep hill we had made it to camp.  There was nothing on the agenda for the evening so I helped set up the tent before heading back to the kitchen.  We had no idea what time it was, but that made it even better as we enjoyed a great meal with views of Mt. Jarvis and other mountains on the glacier in the distance.

Our final day of student travel took us down the drainage into the valley below, five and a half miles to the northern end of Sheep Lake.  We were initially supposed to receive our re-ration on this day, but we had pushed it back a couple days before since we would not have made it on schedule.  For the first time, our hiking groups split off into an all boys and all girls group, and we set off after the girls, leaving the instructors at camp.  A question that one of my friends posed to us while we were hiking was, “Would you do another 50 days of this, for free, immediately upon finishing next week?” I answered, “In a heartbeat.”  This expedition had so far been the adventure of a lifetime and as someone had said earlier in the trip, each day becomes the new best day of the trip.  There were no bad days.

Travelling down the drainage was easy with no creeks to cross over or many trick spots to navigate.  We soon reached grassy area again where we were reunited with our delicious blueberries after a brief stint away from these scrumptious treats.  We continued over relatively easy terrain, crossing a small creek before plopping down in an area filled with blueberries for an official blueberry break.  There is not a day without a blueberry break when they are present. We reached the lake shortly thereafter where we were met with a familiar humming sound.  A plane was coming up the valley towards Sheep Lake.  Was that Kirk? Why was he coming now?  We had told him we were not planning on arriving until tomorrow.  The plane’s floats touched down and the pilot slowly moved along the lake turning towards us, as a member of our group yelled out to him.  As we approached the now “docked” plane, we saw that it was an Alaska State Trooper! Trooper Dan Dahl was kind enough to speak with us dirty and foul smelling creatures for a little while, also letting us look into his cockpit.  He was just flying to the lakes within the park and familiarizing himself with the area in order to prepare for sheep hunting season, just over a week today.  What a cool job! He is in charge of this area and flies around on patrol like he was doing that day.  After a quick picture with us and the plane, Dan went off to speak with the girls, who were at the other end of the lake, before turning back into the wind and taking off.  Soon after watching him soar through the valley, we reached camp after marching through a final boggy section that surrounded the lake.  To cap off the day, we were camping in an area that was filled with the most blueberries we had seen yet!  I gorged myself on these treats while enjoying yet another camp with spectacular scenery.  In the evening, we faced a thunderstorm but the rain and lighting dispersed as quickly as it came, leaving another calm night. With a re-ration in the morning, we were unfortunately reminded that this unforgettable adventure would soon be coming to a close.  But it sure wasn’t over yet!

Gravel bed near the Copper River

Gravel bed near the Copper River

Mt. Wrangell

Mt. Wrangell

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking up drainage towards Tanana Peak (back left with glacier)

Looking up drainage towards Tanada Peak (back left with glacier)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Near the top of the pass. Mt. Sanford looms in the clouds

Near the top of the pass. Mt. Sanford looms in the clouds

"Castles" at the top of the pass

“Castles” at the top of the pass

Glacier in the distance. Mt. Blackburn on the left

Glacier in the distance. Mt. Blackburn on the left

Glacier in the distance again. Mt. Jarvis on the right. Mt. Blackburn on the far right

Glacier in the distance again. Mt. Jarvis on the right. Mt. Blackburn on the far right

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Southern end of Sheep Lake below the Mountain

Southern end of Sheep Lake below the Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sheep Lake.  Mt. Blackburn visible in the distance

Sheep Lake. Mt. Blackburn visible in the distance