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Bears for the Boyz

In which our three international amigos go for the classic Alaska experience. The final installment of a three-part E-Novella.

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We’d climbed Mt. McKinley faster than anticipated. Now me and my African partner, Sibusiso Vilane, had time on our hands. To the summit and back, we’d climbed alongside a tough, funny Japanese soloist named Makio Kanzaki. Now the three of us were grouped into an informal and distinctly unusual trio.

Sibu had been a game ranger in Swaziland and South Africa, fighting poachers and leading tours to see big bad wildlife like lions, elephants and Cape buffalo. Makio was a trekking guide from Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu, a place known for its thriving sea life.

Two days of laundry and pizza binges in Talkeetna had already brought us to the brink of terminal boredom, so during one manic, Red Bull-fueled discussion we decided to hop the train to Denali National Park and hike around for on-the-ground sightings of classic American megafauna. As de facto ambassador for two visiting outdoor professionals, the pressure was on me to produce some glamorous fanged predators.

However, when Sibu and I caught the Alaska Railway’s Denali Star next morning, Makio was nowhere to be found. He was the wandering type. He’d even spent a year soloing through outback Australia on a dirt bike, so we figured he’d toodled off on some impulse walkabout. We boarded the train among legions of hefty American tourists, and after several hours of scenic luxury were deposited right on the park’s doorstep.

There we began the usual hassles required to get past the frontcountry of any American park. After a day of full campgrounds, hoop-leaping and slow hitchhikes (see Gods of the NPS) we finally boarded a decrepit green Aramark shuttle bus and rattled on in to the small Igloo Creek Campground, located 35 miles up the Park’s 91-mile gravel road.

We found a vacant site, but it had a large backpack leaning against a tree. The tag said “Makio Kanzaki.” Its diminutive owner was nowhere to be found, so Sibu and I strolled along Igloo Creek in the evening light, finding plenty of wolf tracks and bear scat, but no actual mammalians. Eventually Makio rolled down off Igloo Mountain for a happy reunion, and once he finished gushing about colliding with a bull moose in the willows, we got his travel story.

He’d overslept and missed the train, then taken a faster bus north, arriving just in time to get a frontcountry site. At the backcountry desk, Makio found out where we were camping and took an earlier shuttle in. We would have been on the same ride, but Sibu and I were stranded roadside that morning, changing our bus reservations via satellite phone as hundreds of near empty-pickups and SUVs roared past, ignoring our pleading thumbs. Now, finally, we were established at wildland’s edge.

Igloo Creek was perfect for our plans. After humping gigantic loads up and down Denali, we had zero desire to go backpacking. We just wanted easy living, leg-stretching strolls and immediate gratification in regards to oodles of cool wildlife. The weather was certainly cooperating; It was hot and dry. To my mind that meant the animals would be up high, on the mountains around Sable Pass.

A short bus recon the next morning confirmed my suspicions, but we still saw Dall sheep, moose, and three grizzlies within the first hour. Unfortunately, this particular driver was obsessed about scolding passengers like errant kindergartners for even whispering. It was not a good scene. We bailed from the bus and its increasingly irritated passengers once we arrived at the East Fork of the Toklat River. There, we took off southward up the broad, gravel riverbed toward the snowy peaks of the Alaska Range.

We didn’t see much wildlife, but it was all gorgeous, and an excellent opportunity to introduce my friends to two other classic Alaska experiences, namely river crossings and bushwhacking. The swift braids of the Toklat were frigid and fast, but it was kiddy-pooling by Alaska standards, never more than knee deep and 30 feet across. Even so we had to clamp down hard on the solid footwork, and dance around for minutes to get our frozen feet back.

Ever-athletic Sibu managed to pole vault across one of the narrower braids. Makio almost pulled off a repeat but couldn’t stick the landing and fell back prone into the frigid gray flow, thoroughly soaked. As the group’s token geriatric, I just gritted my teeth in resignation and waded all of it.

The hillsides bordering the East Fork looked like open and easy tundra but, as is often the case in the great green north, were actually 10-foot-deep in alder, willow and water birch. Still, it was fun winding our way through the tunnels, especially since grizzlies had power-mulched the understory, digging around for tubers. Some of the turf had been ripped up so recently it still smelled of wet earth. Sibu was used to seeing big predator tracks, but Makio’s eyes went wide as an anime’ child’s at the first monster bear print.

In the end, we did indeed see wolves, but the moving gray dots were distant and nearly invisible against the equally gray river cobbles. We tried to get closer by stalking them behind a low ridge, but they did what wolves usually do, drift away in lazy fashion, vanishing like smoke. I could imagine the cagey canines rolling their eyes and going “puh-leeeze” before trotting off.

That evening we yakked and laughed around the picnic tables, looking at tiny bears on LCD screens and ogling Makio’s amazing variety of very cool dehydrated meals, all jumbled together in a bushel-sized trash bag he rooted through whenever hungry. For dessert, I passed a lemon-flavored energy bar to my friends, saying “Check it out. They’re marketed for women, but they’re really good.”

Sibu chewed agreeably while examining the wrapper, decorated with silhouettes of women doing yoga, pirouetting, and rock climbing. “Oh my goodness!” he guffawed suddenly. “You can tell just by looking that these women, they have power. Our women, they are all empowered too now, ever since Winnie Mandela.”

Eventually we asked Makio what his next adventure would be. “I want to find wife, get married,” he said very solemnly. Further questioning made it clear this was a goal he intended to pursue systematically. He’d even set a one-year timeline on the project.

“As long as you’re here, you oughta check out some American girls,” I suggested, talkin’ up my sister homies. Makio flashed a brief look of shock and then shook his head as if trying to physically dislodge the thought.

“Oh nooooo, too much trouble” he said without the slightest hint of sarcasm. “I just want nice Japanese girl.”

The next morning we set out again for Safari, The Sequel. The bus-window bear viewing was even better, but looking out through a windshield is no way to go through life, so after a short scout we bus-hopped back to an anonymous canyon not far from Sable Pass and started walking. The hiking was steep but straightforward, up a streambed blown clear by run-off floods. The geology was impressive too, with folded and tilted multicolored layers that pinched the canyon through a tight gorge between flatiron cliffs.

As we climbed, the weather kept building until dark clouds cruised the sky like battleships, trailing ominous streamers of opaque rain. Sibu and Makio were lagging behind, conversing on some subject of concern. Then Sibu told me Makio had forgotten his rain gear. On cue, the sky went dark, a wall of dust rolled through, and it began hailing.

Sibu and I dived into our shell gear. Fortunately Makio had a large foil bivouac sack with a mesh-covered face hole. He pulled it down over his head and walked around with his arms pinned inside, looking like a microwave burrito with legs, or a space Muslim in full burqua. We found a wind-sheltered spot in the bushes and took our licks until the squall passed, then retreated back downcanyon to avoid round two. We’d already done the weather thing on McKinley.

I was yakking loudly about how we were walking into a headwind so we had to be noisy because bears couldn’t smell us, when Sibu grabbed my shoulder and pointed, saying “Steve! Look! Look!”

A large brown mound was rippling back and forth in the chest-high willows a hundred feet ahead. It was a full-sized grizzly, foraging head down as it waddled lazily up-canyon. With each step the bear seemed to grow exponentially in size. It was already closer than optimal, and apparently hadn’t noticed us yet. Not good.

I began talking even louder, trying for a genial tone. “Hey Yogi, how’s the evening commute?” The bear never even looked up. It had to know we were here, but I got the distinct impression that frankly, it didn’t give a damn. Whether this was due to human habituation or ‘displacement behavior,’ (where animals ignore your stressful presence in a ritual of conflict avoidance, right up until the second they shred you) I couldn’t say.

The canyon was narrow and the bear was closing fast. Sibu and I looked at each other blankly and came to a unified conclusion. “I think we must climb up there right now Steve,” he said, pointing to a steep talus slope. When Sibu got excited he dropped into distinctly formal speech. Of course, the slope was no real refuge, but at least Yogi would have to expend a modicum of effort to run us down. It was really like standing aside to politely open the door for someone. I hoped Mr. Bear was cool with etiquette.

The three of us positively levitated 100 vertical feet up the slope, then turned to look back down into the narrow V. Said bruin was now preoccupied with turning over streambed rocks, probing for unlucky tidbits. Our nosebleed seats offered a superb view of powerful muscles rippling across its shoulders as it pried up bowling ball rocks and rolled them around like marbles.

Despite the bustle of three panting hikers tearing through their packs for cameras, the bear never even gave us a glance as it wandered and dug for several minutes, then ambled around the next corner. We deflated like balloons, laughing in excitement and relief.

“Your bears are very big here,” Makio whistled. And like that, I was off the hook.

-Steve Howe

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