An Alaskan Bear Makes All the Difference
Alaskan wilderness not far from Anchorage
Although Captain Kirk might disagree with Alaska’s claim to be the last frontier, it’s hard to dispute that Alaska is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is home to vast open spaces, forests, mountains, glaciers, fjords and an abundance of wildlife. Normally, I prefer to make my own arrangements when I’m travelling, but Alaska’s one of those places where there’s little public transport. And it’s easier to go on a tour. So I booked myself for a two-week, small-group camping tour.
Our first stop was Wrangell St. Elias National Park, the biggest national park in the U.S. We set up camp at a site appropriately named The End of the Road – the road ends at the river bordering the campsite. The town of McCarthy is on the other side of the river but the only bridge across is a footbridge. The town is home to about sixty people, most of whom enjoy the sense of isolation and don’t want to be overrun with camper vans. One of the residents we met said he moved to Alaska because “there was no room to pee in Minnesota.”
Although the town is inaccessible by road during summer, there are parking areas on both sides of the bridge. In winter, the locals drive their cars across the frozen river. If a car breaks down on the other side of the river, it’s simply left there – too expensive to tow away. This means the area close to the river is made unsightly by lots of rusted old cars. But once you get away from the camping area, you can appreciate the full majesty of the forest and glaciers.
Climbing the glacier in Wrangell St. Elias National Park
We went for a walk on one of the glaciers and then did some ice wall climbing. I’d never done any rock or ice climbing before and at first, it seemed quite daunting. The plan was to start at the top of the ledge, rappel down and then use our crampons and ice axes to climb back up the thirty feet high sheer wall of ice. This height is strictly for beginners, but it looked more than high enough while I was peering over the edge. I wondered if this was such a good idea after all. But over the edge I eventually went and after the initial lurch, quickly got into the swing of things and rappelled down to the bottom.
Then it was time to work my way back up to the top. On my first attempt, I soon discovered my boots weren’t laced tightly enough and it made it difficult to support myself using my crampons. I retied my boots and started again. Even though I was attached to a safety harness, the fear of falling was on my mind and as I ascended, I banged in my ice axes as hard as possible. This wasn’t such a good idea, because then I had trouble getting the axes out of the ice. I wore myself out doing this and decided to descend, have a rest and try again. On my third attempt I made it to the top of the ledge and hauled myself up. I was thrilled and happily ignored the fact that some of the others had effortlessly zoomed their way on their first attempt.
After an exciting but tiring day, it was good to relax back in the campsite. Many people think Alaska is freezing all the time but it was summer and we were blessed with good weather. It was warm enough to be comfortable in a t-shirt. The people who had earlier decided that ice climbing wasn’t for them had spent the day swimming.
I also loved the fact there were so many hours of daylight. We didn’t get far enough north so that the sun never set, but some nights sunset wasn’t until 12:30 in the morning. It never really got dark and the sun was up in a few hours. This drives some people mad as they can’t get to sleep while it’s light (think Al Pacino in Insomnia) but I liked it. With more daylight hours, I found I had more energy.
The only annoying thing was the mosquitos – the worst I’ve seen anywhere in the world. There were swarms of them everywhere. Everyone was going mad spraying the 100% DEET insect repellent on themselves. Some people wore mosquito head nets. The next morning, most of us were covered in bites.
Our next stop was Valdez where we took a landing craft through Prince William Sound and then hopped into our kayaks for an eight hour trip. With waterfalls running down the sides of the inlet surrounding us, we paddled past floating chunks of ice out to a tidewater glacier. Then we watched pieces of ice break off from the glacier and splash into the water. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
Grizzly Bears in Denali National Park
From Valdez we made our way to Denali National Park, home of Mount McKinley – North America’s highest mountain. We took the sightseeing bus through the national park and spotted caribou, mountain sheep and a grizzly bear in the distance. I was thinking this was pretty lame. The bear was nothing more than a brown blob in the distance. But then we came across a she-bear and two cubs eating grass by the side of the road. The bus stopped and the grizzlies wandered around the outside of the bus so we got a good view of them.
Then we did some hiking in the park and spotted a few moose. The closest we came to a dangerous animal was a squirrel that was loose in a supermarket back in town. It skittered up and down the aisles, pursued by a posse of storekeepers and leaving surprised shoppers in its wake. It jumped in amongst the loaves of bread and was eventually captured and escorted from the premises.
We had an evening in Anchorage where we proceeded to gatecrash an oil workers’ toga party. Anchorage is full of people employed by the oil companies and one person on the tour worked for BP. It turned out that the hostess wasn’t pleased to see these extra guests and she spent most of the evening trying to get rid of us. We still managed to have a lot of fun, though. This included receiving instructions on the best way to wear a toga from a drunken Scotsman (“Have you nae worn a kilt before lad?”).
After this detour we went on a cruise through the Kenai Fjords and saw more glaciers and lots of wildlife including humpback whales, porpoises, puffins, seals, sea otters and bald eagles. We sampled some of the nightlife in Seward – which seemed to be populated with lots of weird bearded characters that headed straight for the females in our group.
We were treated (if that’s the right word) to a performance by Hobo Jim – Alaska’s official state balladeer and then ended up at a seedy bar called The Pit (which was even less glamorous than it sounds).
Kayaking out to the tidewater glacier in Prince William Sound
We finished the evening by departing from The Pit – eight crammed into a limousine (the most convenient form of transport available at the time). I don’t expect people staying at the nearby campsite are usually dropped off by limo.
We finished the tour by taking a floatplane trip to a beautiful wilderness lodge on the other side of the bay from the town of Homer. We had a very relaxing time there and did some more kayaking. We got to see some sea otters lying on their backs with their pups sitting on their stomachs. A perfect way to end a wonderful two weeks.