Husky House

Posts Tagged ‘bears’

A bear of a ride….

On May 18, Bill and I departed Fairbanks on a road trip to Denali, Anchorage, Seward, Alyeska, Anchorage, and Denali.  The original destination was the Exit Glacier 5K in Seward, we had done the same round robin trip last year and enjoyed it so much that we thought we would do it again.  We had not planned to stay in Denali on the way south, as our favorite lodge was not yet open for the season, but a wild hair to bike another leg of the Park Road changed that. Last year we had biked from Teklanika (30) mile to the Park entrance, and I still had the crazy idea to eventually bike the entire Park Road, although in segments.  The tourist season had not officially started, so the buses were not yet running into the Park, allowing us to drive into Teklanika at mile 30 and bike roundtrip from there to Polychrome at mile 46.  The elevation ranges from 2655′ at Tek to 3900′ at Sable Pass to 3055 at East Fork River to 3695 at Poly, so it is a bit of up and down on gravel roads.

It was a beautiful day for a bike ride, with Mt McKinley fully visible

As luck would have it, it was a beautiful day, although a little windy, and since only a few Park Rangers and trainee buses were on the Park Road, it was peaceful and solitary.  After the last Ranger stopped and talked to us on Poly on her way out, about 7 pm, we were alone on the road that runs through 6 million wilderness acres, an expanse that people come from all over the world to see, and it is in our backyard.  We are so blessed.Bill wrote an email that accounts the ride, and I am inserting it here.  I just wanted to set the stage a bit.  Since I always have to say something, I will insert my comments in a different color.  Here is Bill’s account:

A perfect spring outing on the bikes. The day was sunny, windy and bright for the two of us, my wife Susan, the jock and I, to bike into Denali Park.  A friend of ours had done this trail a week earlier and the challenge was set for us to do the same.  The 35 mile ride was on a gravel hard packed surface, which sometimes was more loose than hard packed making peddling even harder.  It was onward and up and down steep hills as may be evidenced in the  photo as the old fart is pictured riding….or more likely struggling up to Sable Pass from the bottom of the valley.  Susan is, as always, up ahead and taking photos waiting for me to catch up.  It is very early spring in mid May and things have not begun to bloom or green up but the animals are stirring into the approaching summer.  We have already seen caribou, a wolf and numerous little marmots.  It is a hard ride though.  The picture shows me in my front tire fixation mode as the hills were increasingly tough for this senior citizen to negotiate along with keeping balance on some very loose gravel areas.  In the mid afternoon there where a few park vehicles to give us a fine dust coating as well.  Later we would have gladly welcomed their presence.

A look at the road surface

Bill peddling up Sable Pass

A couple little guys who emerged from their hole alongside the road and just loved having their picture taken

As the afternoon stretched into early evening, we reached Sable pass which is well known for being in the middle of bear country….and bear scat was already plenty evident. I guess for those who have never seen it they are like huge dog turd piles.  We stop at the Sable pass sign and I mimic a scratch and a much needed rest.  Bears really do use the sign to scratch and thus the park service decided to add some ticklers to help scratch their thick coats and hide.  You can not see it but there are little tufts of fur on some of the metal pieces.  And note that at 3900′ at Sable Pass we have to go down (to 3055′) and up to another pass a little over four thousand feet (3695′).  NOT EASY FOR OLD FARTS……but onward and upward we go.

The sign on Sable Pass has tines for the bears to scratch themselves

Finally we made it to the top of Polychrome Pass and you can sure see that we have gained some considerable altitude in this photo.  However, as we started down the road to go back in the early evening we found that while the park vehicle traffic had ceased, we were seeing bear scat and are obviously not alone.  We are now grasping what is more obvious  which is that we are NOT at the top of the food chain.  I was well behind Susan and was on the way back up to Sable struggling to get each pedal up when I look up and there comes Susan who tells me that she is not riding back to me for my health.  She tells me that there is a bear following her from the other side of the pass.  We dismount and stand together assessing what to do.  We have a long way to go back down and if it sees us try that as it comes around the bend upwind from us, it will likely make chase.  (We were a mile from the top of a four mile climb eastbound up Sable Pass and bear or not, there was no way I was going back down that hill) These bears can run at 33 miles per hour which makes even a down hill bike chase a loser for us.  I am assessing options and figure I will get the pepper spray out.  The wind was pretty constant and about ten to twenty miles per hour and in our face so pepper spray was really out of the question as it would just blow back into us.  So I told Susan to stand behind me and about that time the bear comes into view about forty yards up around a bend walking its pigeon toed gait toward us.  He is about a two to three year old three to four hundred pound male and likely hungry as it has come out of hibernation.

At last, Polychrome Pass, our turn around point. This is where we saw the last Park Ranger .

Mr Bear when I first saw him ambling down the road on his evening stroll

There are a lot of thoughts going through my mind like why didn’t I bring my gun etc.  I am also determined not to show fear of any kind and am surprised that I am actually pretty cool about this whole thing….or maybe in shock.  I am wishing we had something coming to our defense but know that as late as it is no vehicle traffic is left…most of those folks are already eating pizza.  I am thinking of a big rock but no time, hell, even a spear would be nice too.  We are on the up slope of a steep road cut from the side of the mountain and it has walls of some twenty feet high on our left and falls sharply off down another forty feet on our right.  THERE IS SIMPLY NO PLACE TO GO!!  Noting the bear is about thirty yards away and NOT showing any signs of avoiding us, I then tell Susan we will advance slowly with our bikes between us and the bear with raised arms and shout LOUDLY.  I am using as much command voice as possible, repeatedly yelling, “Get off my damned road!” with as much authority as I can muster.  I don’t remember what Susan was yelling but she was giving it her all too. (I was yelling “Hello Mr. Bear ” and waving my arms over my head) The bear meanwhile just keeps right on coming, in a rambling sort of stroll toward us and as it gets to about twenty feet from us I am thinking if he charges I will use the bike to try to shield us.  The rest will have to be as it must be.  I am mentally bracing myself for one hell of a thumping as it comes to about twelve feet from us.  Watching closely I notice it does not have its mouth open and its hackles are not up which are not signs of aggression.  It is not snorting or snapping its jaws either.  Suddenly it looks me right in the eye and in one spontaneous motion bolts ass over teakettle down the hill.  I see it tumbling and rolling head over heels down the forty feet and momentarily wonder if it is hurt.  Not so as it rapidly gains its feet and moves smartly on the valley floor continuing in its same direction of travel and AWAY from us. Susan actually manages to get a photo of it.  The photo preceding it is of the same bear as Susan first sees it coming up the hill and assumes it will not keep advancing….only it does and seems to her to have an increased interest in her.  In fact it moves into a trot and it is at that point that Susan decides it is good to come back to me so I can serve appropriately as bear bait. (No comment, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”)

Mr Bear after he tumbled over the side, a lot less concerned over his adventure than we were


And as if that weren’t enough adventure for one day, about two miles further down the road, as we were coasting down the east side of Sable Pass, still mulling over the bear encounter, we see another bear walking on the road.  My comment was, “Not another one.”  This bear knew that we were veterans and smartly took his cue to yield the road, but not before rising to sniff the air and check us out.  In both cases, we followed the NPS bear safety procedures, and are happy to report that they worked!  The following day, we made the requisite  bear encounter report to the Park Rangers.