I could've gone to Denali National Park. I could've filed onto the crowded shuttle bus headed into the park and safely gawked at grizzly bears munching on ripe late summer berries. Grizzlies are fairly used to people at Denali — not to say they are tame, but they tend to ignore the tourists that eagerly take photos.
But instead of joining the thousands visiting a world-famous park like Denali or Yellowstone, I rented an overpriced economy car in Anchorage and drove south for five hours to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
No, I didn’t want any crowds. I actually wanted to be alone with the bears.
Could I grin and bear it?
Wrangell-St. Elias is a vast wilderness area, with peaks towering over 16,000 feet at its center. The majority of the park is comprised of mountains, tundra, bog and boreal forest so remote, two gravel roads barely penetrate it. The few hikers and backpackers that do visit often fly in by float plane.
The first night I found myself camped by a roadside lake, surrounded by dark spruce forest. And, yes, I was utterly alone. I hadn’t seen a car for hours.
About a third of the way through my delicious meal, I heard crashing in the forest across the trail. I started spooning the beans and meat faster. Branches cracked, bushes rattled. Whatever it was, it was coming closer.
I'd had some luck with the bears — at least with the smaller cousin of the grizzly, the widespread black bear. One had stumbled across the road. Another I spotted on a steep slope at quite a distance.
But I wasn't satisfied simply happening upon bears. The following day I set out to look for grizzlies in earnest.
Since the park is little visited, it lacks trails. I worked my way up a serious slope through conifers and clearings. In late summer, the tundra was yellowing. The incline increased and I ended up pushing my way through an alder thicket.
Unable to see more than five feet ahead, I realized this was just stupid. The same moment I would finally see a grizzly, I could also be touching it. I had watched Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (twice), but doubted I was qualified to handle any real encounters.
I vaguely remembered an educational sign at a salmon stream near Anchorage on how to act during a grizzly sighting. It read like a dichotomous key: If the bear snarls, back up. If it follows a snarl with a grunt, stand still. If it swings its head from side to side, don’t crouch. The end result of all options seemed the same to me: RUN.
Recently, a California hiker was mauled by a grizzly in Yellowstone National Park (and one narrowly missed becoming bear food there this weekend), the first fatal attack in decades. A couple had surprised a mother with her cubs. Many dangerous confrontations between humans and grizzlies appear to stem from surprised bears.
I found myself in a position to really surprise whatever was in the alder thicket with me. The situation became more unnerving when I heard a large animal moving some distance above. It sounded like it was digging among rocks.
I decided to leave it a mystery and walked out of the alders and back down towards the road as fast as possible.
Close encounters of the black bear kind
I left Alaska without seeing a single grizzly. But that doesn't mean my travels have been bearless. I've had far more luck with another type of bear — the black bear.
Before I go on, I'll have you know that all my bear experiences have been benign, and almost all have been in national parks, an association that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Over the past decades, human and bear interactions have improved dramatically, as better education and management have reduced encounters.
In other words, we went from feeding hotdogs to bears visiting picnic areas to using ursine-proof boxes to store food. Hikers and visitors are also much more educated when it comes to bear safety and precautions.
But that doesn't mean that we avoid them altogether.
Finishing a long day hike in Grand Teton National Park, I came upon a family of four, huddled together on the trail. The father vigorously jiggled a bear bell, the size of a thimble, in the direction of a black bear 20 feet distant. The bear, engrossed in a blueberry patch, was apparently ignorant of the bell’s purpose.
After 10 minutes of ringing and no bear displacement, a considerable hiker jam had formed. Eventually, one or two broke free and then the rest flooded down the trail, walking past the bear at 10 feet away. It never even looked up. I assume the family asked for their money back on that bear bell.
In Yosemite National Park, I paused on a trail for lunch. Opening a can of cold chili (yes, cold chili), I dug in. About a third of the way through my delicious meal, I heard crashing in the forest across the trail. I started spooning the beans and meat faster. Branches cracked, bushes rattled. Whatever it was, it was coming closer.
Scraping the last bits out of the bottom, I could see vegetation moving 30 yards away. I figured it was time to pack up lunch. I saw a snout sniffing the air and a black bear stood up. We made eye contact for less than a second and the animal bolted back into the dense brush.
While I was finishing my lunch, I narrowly escaped becoming his.
Black bears are mainly after food. Working in New York's Adirondack Park several years ago, a hungry and eager bear had left claw marks on the cabin door during the night.
Bear-ly there in Texas
In Texas, not surprisingly, encounters with black bears are rare. Black bears are actually threatened in the state. In the 1980s, the species re-colonized the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park after decades of being absent. Apparently, the bears had wandered into the park from mountains in Mexico, and are now thriving.
With increased management experience, bear boxes were installed, the public was educated, and there have been no incidents up to this point.
A few months ago I was able to observe two black bears while visiting the park. A few have also wandered into the deep woods of east Texas from Louisiana, and may become established there in the future.
Camping, backpacking, or hiking in bear country does require taking precautions in order to decrease the likelihood of tragic events like Yellowstone.
Keep in mind, larger groups are louder. Make noise while hiking to avoid surprises. Store food properly and be aware of the possibility of an encounter. In the Yellowstone case, the hikers weren't doing anything wrong, but had unfortunately run into a bear with cubs, the most dangerous situation.
Just remember to be bear-y careful at all times when you're in bear territory.