Denali - The Inner Journey (Day 1)
Denali National Park
September 5th 2017
9 AM. I just woke up. It's raining outside the shelter of my tent. I can hear the rain hammering the fabric. Yesterday, I have walked across Unit 10 of the park. I saw seven Grizzlies. Yes, seven. I don't know if it's common to see that many in a single day. When you're alone, without weapons to protect your life, it's scary. I don't carry bear spray because I don't like the idea of spraying a bear in the face. Isn't it obvious that he's not gonna like it? And what if the wind is blowing towards me? I see bear spray as another human invention to help him reduce fear. Bears are not our predators. They won't hunt human unless they are hunting for their food. Grizzlies are unpredictable though. It's better not to startle them. And a mother black bear with her cubs will kill you to protect her babies. She'll kill you first and ask later if you had good intentions or not. So it's better to make noise and stay attentive to where you're going. After you're dead, a black bear might eat you. A grizzly won't, he'll just cover you with some branches and leave you rot.
I saw the first three grizzlies just after I finished to eat my breakfast. I had put the food back into my bear-resistant container and walked only for a couple of minutes when I saw three grizzlies together in the distance. They all raised their head and ears towards me. I knew I was too close but I hadn't seen them coming. I froze. They seemed curious but not aggressive so I slowly lifted my camera and took two pictures. I was really nervous but their peaceful reaction reassured me. Slowly, I backed off and they went back to digging berries or whatever they were doing before. I wonder if they smelled the food. I'll have to be more careful next time I stop to eat.
I kept walking along the Toklat river. That's how it's called but it's not really a river. It's more like a gravel stream flowing down from a Glacier. I was progressing through a vast open valley and I could see far in front of me until the ground starts to rise and transform into snow climbing into the clouds. The glacier was still far away from my tent, maybe 20 miles, it's hard to say. That's not where I was headed anyway. Today, my objective is to find a pass through the mountains to join Unit 12 to the West. Somewhere along the Toklat river, that's where I saw the next bear. It was a big grizzly all by himself, probably a male. He was standing in the middle of the gravel bar making it impossible for me to continue without going around him. He was literally standing in my way and, while I was wondering about what to do, he turned his head and noticed me. I was scared that he would come to me but he didn't seem to care much about me. Fortunately, the valley was wide enough for me to go around him while keeping myself a couple of hundred miles away but unfortunately, I would have to walk through dense willows at least as high as me. I struggled through the bushes hoping the bear wouldn't come for me on the other side. When I came out on the other side, he looked at me again but this time he became curious about me. He dropped on his four paws and started to walk towards me. I kept moving forward, not too fast not to appear like I'm running away. Bears can run as fast as 40mph (60km/h) so you don't want them to think you're a prey trying to escape. Also, my backpack is really heavy with the food container and all my gears. So I was slow and tired carrying around a backpack that smells of food. Fortunately, I pushed further and he left me alone. Later, I saw a mother with two cubs crossing the river in the distance. They were probably just trying to get away from me.
When hiking in bear territory, everything takes more time because of the precautions you have to take. Eating for example is a whole process by itself. First, you need to find a spot with a good visibility 360° around you because bears will smell the scent of the food miles away down the wind. And they will get curious about it. As I'm alone, I can't cook and watch for bears at the same time so I try to sit with the wind blowing in my back. Anyway, if a bear is around with a good nose for fettuccine alla carbonara, I'm sure he'll be on my back in no time. So I have to keep watching all directions regularly. Once you're all set up with your stove, you have to unscrew the top of the food container to take out the food. Boiling the water from the stream takes forever because it's frozen cold and if you don't treat it with purification tablets, you have to boil it well. Plus, there might be glacial silt in the water. Once you're done eating, you still have to wash all the cookware so it doesn't smell of food. That's done without dish soap not to pollute nature so it takes some time to wash it properly with cold water and small rocks. Then, if I'm going to bed, I brush my teeth and store the toothbrush and the paste in the food container because bears will be curious about the smell. If you're going to sleep, you have to eat 100 yards away from your tent and then walk another 100 yards away to store the food container so that the tent, the cooking site and the food container are all at least 100 yards away from each other. Because of this I usually stop to eat at most twice a day. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
It's almost 10 AM and it's still raining. Yesterday, I had to cross the river so my shoes are still wet. And today, I have to find the mountain pass to Unit 12 near the green dome. It's time to get out of the tent, pack and move on.