Trail closed, bear in the area.
That was the sign that I saw just a few weeks ago, when I got off the bus at Eielson Visitor’s Center, a four hour bus ride from the entrance to Denali National Park. There are two trails that start near the center, The Loop Trail, which is very short and easy, and the Alpine Trail, which runs up a steep ridge above the center, gaining about a thousand feet in a mile. I was already leaning towards the Alpine Trail, which was a good thing, because the Loop Trail was the one that was closed due to bear.
I’d already seen grizzlies in the park – I’d zoomed my camera to its limits trying to photograph the two that I’d seen out the window of the bus.
It was the first time I’d ever seen a grizzly bear outside of a zoo. I was surprised that these bears, which I’d heard described as “brownies”, seemed so blonde. And for such gigantic animals – a male can weigh nearly 800 pounds – I was also surprised by how cuddly wuddly they seemed. It totally makes sense that this animal called horribilis in Latin has also been an inspiration for a staple in a child’s toy chest. And why people take chances to get closer to these animals.
The Eielson Center has a beautiful view of Mt. Denali (or Mt. McKinley, if you prefer), which was clearly visible that day, very few clouds. And there was quite a crowd out on the patio, enjoying the view while munching on snacks.
Moments after I stepped into the center, I noticed a couple of rangers speaking urgently into their walkie talkies and walking towards the door. They shooed people indoors, and once everyone was safely inside, stopped people who wanted to leave.
Grizzly bears were in the parking lot. Before I even thought about it, I was walking towards the door.
The truth is, I wanted to go out and see the bears up close. I’ve felt this compulsion before – a few months earlier, I’d spotted a crowd of cars stopped on the side of the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. A crowd had gathered to watch a black bear cub foraging on the side of the road. I was out of my car in a flash, camera in extended hands, going closer and closer until something in me – oh, let’s call it logic — clicked and I got back in the car.
That same sense clicked in again and instead I asked the ranger if there was a window out onto the parking lot. There wasn’t, but I chatted with her for a while about the bears, and whether the trails would stay closed for the rest of the day. She said it depended – they would keep an eye on the bears and watch where they were going. They were careful about this, she added, which is why there hadn’t ever been a grizzly bear fatality in the park’s history – a record that held until this past Friday, when a hiker, whose motivations are not hard to understand, apparently became enthralled with photographing a grizzly bear and….well. The phrase “food cache” has been used in the news coverage.
When the Alpine Trail re-opened, my friend and I set out for the hike, and about half way up, I turned around to look down at Eielson. In the distance, well beyond the visitor center, I spotted three blonde rocks. Then we noticed they were moving – it was the grizzlies that had been in the parking lot. A white Parks Service truck was trailing the bears from a distance, watching their trajectory.
That surveillance made me feel a little better as we wound up the trail, although I was still in the grip of a strange mix of hope and dread. I didn’t know what exactly was waiting around each switch back. The ranger had said that grizzlies did like the trail we were hiking on — she’d spotted bear scat on the trail the previous morning.
Of course I didn’t really want to run into a grizzly bear. And of course I did.