Friday, July 21, 2017

Hiking With Bears

Another cool thing we did on our Alaska trip was a little bit of hiking.  We didn't do nearly as much of the kind of hiking I'd hoped to, but two hikes in particular were thrilling as well as physically exerting.

The first occurred on our second day in Alaska.  Close to the campground we stayed at our first night (and just a little bit down the road from where we'd unsuccessfully attempted to see the bore tide) was the Bird Ridge Trail.  I love to hike, and especially on unpaved ground (paved usually equals too much traffic/other people in my opinion), and here was this trail calling my name.  Plus, somehow, DH had heard that this was a good (ie popular) Anchorage area trail.

So we decided to hike at least some of it.  Being realistic, we know that we are two fat overweight old middle aged people who don't do a lot of hiking. Being realistic, we figured that doing all 4.6 miles would take us most of a day.  Being realistic, we decided to hike until one or both of us was tired/sore and then we would turn around and go back the way we'd come.

Since we'd planned to leave the campground and do some exploring of the Kenai Peninsula that day, we drove the RV down to the parking lot at the trailhead.  That was when we noticed that the parking lot was empty.  Totally empty.  Which seemed odd for a supposedly popular trail.  But, we just counted it as our good luck that apparently we were the first hikers of the day.  Maybe we'd see some wildlife to go along with the scenic views the trail was sure to offer.

Climbing up from the parking lot (yes, up) DH was thinking not so much of the steep incline, but of the lack of other hikers.  We'd only made it to the restrooms (pit toilets) where the wide path from the parking lot narrowed into the actual trailhead when he stopped and pulled out his phone.  Not to take a picture--there was nothing there but the usual two brown wooden potty shacks and trees--but to see if he might have internet service.  Which, amazingly, he did.  And he used it to look up Bird Ridge Trail.

That was when the lack of other hikers on this 'well liked' trail began to make sense.  A little over a week before, a 16 year old hiker was killed on the Bird Ridge Trail by a bear. The bear had since then been located and taken care of (in other words, killed, for the safety of other humans), but locals were apparently still avoiding the trail.

We decided to hike it, and continued on.  It was a kind of difficult trail, with lots of steep climbs.

We may have been a bit jittery, as once we were startled by a squirrel in the brush.  Both of our minds immediately went to "BEAR!" when we heard the rustling, and then our bodies surged with relief when a ground squirrel came into view.

Slowly, as we followed the trail that ascended more often than descended, we began to see glimpses of the Turnagain Arm through the trees.

After hiking for about a half hour, we found ourselves nearly to the base of poles the power lines were hung from.  That seemed like surely we'd climbed fairly high.  Looking out, below we could see not just the water (high tide) in the inlet, but we could also see the road we'd basically started from.  Yes, it seemed like we'd hiked a good ways.  DH said that was probably good enough for a first hike, and we decided to turn back at that point.  (Later, we discovered the power lines we'd though were so high were probably only about 300 feet above the level of the highway.  *sigh*  we're wimps.)

On the way up to that point, we'd passed a pile of bear scat on the trail.  I, with my vast manure knowledge from years of working at horse farms, declared that it was fairly dried and had been picked at by birds, so was old enough to not worry about.  On the way back down, just a little bit past that pile of old scat, DH noticed a tree that had what he declared to be an elk scrape on it's trunk.  The scrape wasn't wide enough to be moose, he said (mighty hunter that he is), and it was way too high up to be deer, so it must be an elk scrape.  And he had me stand next to it for height reference--it started well over a foot above my head) while he took a picture.  Then he walked closer to examine this wondrous cervidae calling card.

Except when he got right up to the tree he noticed that the very top of the scrape had three distinct tracks in it.  Not usually what a deer or elk makes when they rub their antlers against the bark of a tree.

"That's a bear scrape!  Those are claw marks!"  he exclaimed at exactly the same time more rustling was heard in the brush two feet away from us.

We both jumped, and so did a hare.  Phew!  A bear might have scratched that tree, but a little harmless hare had made the rustling noise.

We laughed at ourselves all the way down the trail and back to the parking area.  Scared by a squirrel and a bunny rabbit.

Our second heart-pounding hike was a few days later, after DS2 had arrived in Alaska.  He had come to do some serious hiking (millennial that he is, he has hiked in the Adirondacks as well as a small section of the Appalachian Trail) on his Alaskan vacation.  He had not just the gear for it, mostly carried in his rigid frame backpack he'd used one of DS1's old sea bags to hold and safe-keep during the flight from Michigan to Alaska, but also a sidearm for protection while hiking the wilds of Alaska.  Other than a couple days at the family reunion, DS2's plans for Alaska included two 3-day/2-night backpacking excursions with some friends of his that he'd been hiking with since college.

Before he left us to rendezvous with them, DH and I hiked a few miles with him.  The trail was Bear Mountain Trail.  A short trail, just over a mile in length, and we hiked it all the way to the end.  It was a beautiful hike, through a low spot where the trail was a narrow (two 2"x6" boards paralleling each other) boardwalk, then meandering up through brush and wildflowers and trees until you reach the summit and a beautiful view of Skilak Lake. It was most definitely bear country, and we saw many sign of bear including a much fresher scat pile than we'd seen on Bird Ridge Trail (I guesstimated it to be not more than six hours old) and a tree with was obviously well marked by one or more bears.

The tree had many puncture wounds on it, most with old, dried sap, as well as a newer scrape that was still oozing sap.  Looking closely at the marks on the tree, I spotted several bear hairs in more than one wound.  They were brown, meaning somewhere nearby was either a grizzly or a brown bear.

bear scrape

I think that was the point at which we decided that DS2 needed to take the lead for the remainder of the trail, with me and DH alternating between middle and last in line.  Amazing how much braver you feel hiking in bear country knowing there is a pistol readily available should you meet up with an overly protective mama bear.

We never did see a bear on that hike, or any others.  Just lots of awesome scenery and more than a few flowers that I don't get to see back home in Michigan.

No comments:

Post a Comment