During my past Alaska trip I traveled by myself most of the time. Since I’m an avid hiker, not hiking wasn’t really an option, even though that meant facing a potential encounter with a bear while I’d be all by myself. So when I seriously injured my ankle only four days before my departure in a cycling accident, I thought that someone up there was trying to tell me something… When doctors at the hospital told me hiking would be a definite “no” for the upcoming weeks, I was incredibly sad. However, I generally don’t take no for an answer and by the time I was about to go hiking, my ankle had already somewhat improved.
Let’s first start with my previous hikes in bear country. I’ve been in Alaska many times but I always hiked with a partner. As all my trips were for business, I never got to do a lot of hiking but sometimes there would be an occasional afternoon off for a stroll. Other than spotting some black bears on the Harding Icefield Trail back in 2007, I never encountered a bear when hiking in Alaska and neither did I on my trips to various parts of Canada. However, I did have a close encounter with a black bear in Yellowstone National Park once, which was quite an exciting yet pretty scary happening. You can read all about it here. Ofcourse we shouldn’t have ran away, but it was just my instinct and I still regret it. Bears are so much faster than humans so in case the bear would have taken a jump, we would have been in serious trouble. Luckily he did not but it made me realize they are unpredictable and you never know when to expect a bear out on a trail.
Maybe even more so than various regions in the US or Canada, Alaska is bear country. It’s not that bears are to be seen everywhere (in fact, I’ve only seen them when actually searching for them in Katmai National Park and a few times along the road) but they CAN be anywhere. Sometimes, they may be in the bush or behind a tree you just walked past without ever even noticing you passed a bear. My persistence about wanting to do the Harding Icefield Trail all the way to the end this time, made me realize I would have to take a next big step in my “career” as a hiker, which is hiking solo in bear country.
I know that in case you may be reading this as an American or Canadian, hiking solo (as a female) in bear country may not be a biggie for you, but I grew up in something that we like to call “Dutch wilderness”. Also known as nature parks protected by fences, where you will occasionally run into Scottish cattle or even a deer when lucky. I’m not used to hiking with wildlife, it’s not something I grew up with, neither something I have had a decent chance to get used to. So before I went to Alaska, I re-read all the rules about hiking in bear country for the 100th time and borrowed bear spray and a sports horn from a local. She told me that in fact, the sound of that sports horn would probably scare the bear more than the spray.
Apart from a few short walks that never lasted longer than 10 minutes, my first real hike was in Denali National Park. Denali is famous for its wildlife and can be experienced from special busses that will transport you through the park. Even though I always tell people it’s not a safari nor a wildlife excursion, I saw no less than 7 grizzlies that day. One even came up close to the bus I was in, an awesome experience, yet showing me that they are big and not to be messed with.
In the afternoon I had about an hour “off” from the bustrip I was on, at Kantishna Roadhouse, all the way at the end of the Denali Park Road. Since I wasn’t interested in participating in the optional activities (goldpanning or a dogsledding demo) I decided to explore the surroundings. They had a one mile riverside trail that I decided to check out. After following the river for a while, it went into the bush and there I found myself in the Alaskan middle of nowhere. The sound of the lodge and surrounding buildings had already faded so there I was, all by myself. The bush around the narrow trail was thick and I found myself whispering “hello bear – please don’t come out to say hello”. As it was my first “real” hike since I came to Alaska, my ankle wasn’t ready for it yet, so after about 15 minutes (and no idea how much of the trail I’d done and how much further it would take me) I decided to turn back because I started to feel uncomfortable. Nobody knew where I had gone and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be missed if I wouldn’t return to the bus. And I already had visions of being eaten by a grizzly. Such an anti-hero.
The next week I mostly did office work and took a short stroll on Hatcher Pass nearby the office I was working. It was an open alpine area and I was sure not to encounter any bears there, however anything is possible in Alaska. I also spent a couple of days in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, where we (the bunch of people I went ice-climbing with) found a fresh and smokey pile of bear scat on one of the trails. According to the guide, it hadn’t been there very long so I was pretty glad I wasn’t by myself.
By the time my last days in Alaska arrived, I was about to head down to Seward for my hike up to Harding Icefield. As you may have read in one of my previous Alaska posts, this was one of my must-do’s in Alaska. Over the past years, I had gotten kind of obsessed with the urge to hike this trail all the way to the end, so when the time was finally there, I was as anxious as I was excited. It’s a strenuous trail and despite my ankle being anything but recovered, that was the least of my worries. The bears were those that worried me. When I Skyped with Martijn the night before (he happened to be on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula in Homer) he told me: “You can do this, you know how to handle in case you walk into a bear.” Now I just had to believe that myself…
First thing I did upon arrival at the visitors center was check with the wardens if they’d seen any bears on the trail recently but they said they hadn’t seen any in days. Then I asked them about the trail conditions and they said “it’s perfect, you’ll have a really good time out there (while the anti-hero in me was thinking “please say it’s bad and that you don’t recommend me going out there by myself”, but they didn’t …) They told me to keep an eye out for “moving bushes” as during this time of the year, the bears would searching for berries and that in case I’d see a “moving bush” get away from it as far as possible, without putting myself in danger. Another thing they told me that my best weapon would be my voice, to make the bears aware or my presence.
So off I went. The first hour and a half led me through thick woods and I knew this would be the “trickiest” part of the track, bear-wise that is, as you have no oversight of the surroundings. The first 10 minutes or so I was fine but when I heard the first bits of rustling in the bush, I freaked out. It might as well have been a marmot or whatever, but ofcourse I thought “BEAR!” So by then I started talking to myself. I hadn’t seen anyone on the trail yet so I figured it would be best to use my strongest weapon, as the lady at the Visitors Center told me. “Hello bear – I know you are there, but just stay away. I got a horn and bear spray and am not afraid to use it” … of course I didn’t repeat that for the full hour ahead of me so I was singing (“Drop Dead Gorgeous” by Republica – last song to play before I arrived at the trailhead – never want to hear it again!) or just talking utter shit to myself. But it made me comfortable. As soon as I made my first stop to soak up some water, a couple of Italian hikers passed me and it turned out they had walked right behind me. Luckily they didn’t hear me sing …
I reached the treeline about 2 hours after I started and another 1.5 hours later I reached the Harding Icefield, without seeing any bears. On the way down the track was much more crowded but I’d seen pictures that didn’t scare bears so there I found myself again, talking to myself and my heart skipping a beat each time I heard something in the bush. “Hey Anto – you’ll be fine!” is what I kept on telling myself. About an hour before the end, I met a guy from Seattle who started chatting about hiking and outdoor life – we hiked together for the rest of the trip so it wasn’t necessary anymore to listen to my own shit – which I was really happy for.
Upon arrival back at the car I felt kind of heroic. Not only because I did that bitch of a trail with an injured ankle (I also was high because of painkillers at the same time, trust me on that one) but also because of the bears and facing my fear of a possible encounter. I had just done a 7 hour hike in bear country, all by myself.
When I returned home and told my colleagues back at the office that I did the trail by myself (most of them have hiked it in the past as well) they were like “WTF did you do???” … Some people say you can easily do it by yourself, some people say it was just plain stupid. I’d like to go for the middle. It may not have been the best idea but it could have ended worse than drunk in a local bar, feeling heroic, by the end of the day …
I’m happy I finished the trail without encountering a bear this time. Would I solo-hike in Alaska again? Sure I would, however I don’t think I will ever be entirely comfortable. There are numerous (fatal) bear attacks each year and even though the chance of getting hit by lightning is much higher than being killed by a bear, I will always remember that it’s bear country and that they can be anywhere.
My tips for solo hiking in bear country:
– Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. I’ve heard stories of people gone missing for days but also people who survived bear attacks. In case you get attacked, the sooner you get help, the better.
– Inquire (if possible) at a Visitors Center if there’s any recent sign of bear activity. If there is, better stay away or team up with other hikers. Generally a group of 4 is being told to be a safe amount of people together as there are (almost) no records of groups this size being attacked by bears. I’ve seen various trails in the Canadian Rockies fenced off due to bear activity, I would never consider ignoring those.
– Carry bear spray and know how to use it. I carried it right on my chest and even though it didn’t look too charming I wanted to have it close to me in case I would have to use it. I’ve seen hikers who carried it in the side pocket of their bags but believe me, you need to act fast if you are going to use it. Also, and very important, don’t use it when the wind is facing you. It’s no fun.
– Make noise. I may have passed a bear but at least they knew I was there because I was making noise all the time. Noise will alert bears that you are in the area and most of the time they will make sure they are getting out of your way.
– Watch out for bear scat. If it’s fresh, then better stay away. Also watch for carcasses – bears will protect these with their lives if they have to.
– Make sure you know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly (brown) bear. If a black bear attacks: flight back. If a brown bear attacks: play dead.
For a full list of what (not) to do in case you run into a bear, go to this page from the Alaska Department of Natural Sesources.
It’s funny how people react differently about being bear aware. Some people seemed really distressed (even when they were hiking in a group of 3 or more) and others seemed very relaxed. I saw solo hikers that didn’t carry bear spray which I thought wasn’t very wise on a trail where bears are seen frequent, but I’ve also talked to people who thought that black bears wouldn’t harm them. I’m sure they haven’t read that black bears can be as dangerous as a brown bear. Coming to an end, I think that everyone should decide for theirselves what they think is their safety procedure and what they are comfortable with.
How about you? Would you ever solo hike in bear country? Or did you already do that? And would you carry bear spray?