By Clark Fair,
I had just turned to see my fellow hikers, Monte and Bryan, perhaps 100 yards back, stopped along the high mossy terrace above Benjamin Creek, gesturing and pointing at something I could not see. Another ptarmigan, perhaps. Or maybe just another element of the unbelievable scenery.
I didn’t wait to find out. In the contemplative “Zen” of the moment, I was eager to keep moving. So I put my trekking poles into motion and moved forward again over undulating caribou moss and between patches of scrub birch and willow.
Striding over a gentle rise, I saw a mass of red-blond hair, and for just an instant I flashed on my golden retriever back at home. But I knew immediately I had stumbled upon a brown bear, and a moment later I realized there was more than one: a sow with at least one cub.
I had my wits about me enough to realize two things: The wind was in my face, and the bears were feeding with their backs to me.
Within seconds I was below the rise again, turned 180 degrees, and hastened back to my companions, poles held above my head in an X, as if to say, “Stop! Don’t come this way!” I glanced behind me as I hurried along, hoping to see no furry forms in rapid pursuit.
“Brown bears!” I hissed. “Two or three of them! Just over that rise!”
“Bryan just saw a brown bear, too,” Monte said.
“Yeah,” said Bryan, gesturing to open terrain below us and about a third of the way to the creek. “Down in that grassy spot. It was big, too. It went into that brush over to the left, but I don’t know where it is now.”
Then my own bears appeared, feeding as they ambled slowly to higher ground. There were four of them, a sow with three cubs. Palms gravitated to pistol butts, just in case.
Ten minutes earlier we had been blissfully unaware of the danger. We were a day and a half into a remote wilderness experience, and, despite multiple black bear sightings, we felt confident and enthusiastic about our ability to cover great distances safely.
Suddenly, we were in the midst of five brown bears with no help within miles of us, should disaster strike. Although our confidence was somewhat shaken, the truth is we couldn’t have been happier. We were exactly where we wanted to be.
It’s easy to become a part of the maddening crowd in our attempts to escape to the great outdoors.
We troll for king salmon among an aluminum armada on the Kenai River or cast for sockeye in a thicket of limbs and rods on the sparkling Russian River. We cram ourselves into overflowing campgrounds and share community outhouses, or we hike groomed, well-marked trails throughout our state and federal lands.
And we accept it, often because the burgeoning number of people who occupy the Kenai Peninsula — particularly in the summer months — means we must share our experiences and move in close proximity with others. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe.
But the reality is we can still have true wilderness adventures. Getting away from it all may be more difficult, but it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, and the reward is well worth the extra effort.
Within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge lies a massive wilderness, isolated within and given special protection among the refuge’s nearly 2 million acres. Entering this wilderness can set visitors far from the hubbub of civilization, grant them a humbling sense of insignificance and test their mettle in ways beyond the ken of those bound to the usual highways and byways.
Back to the wild
It had been many years since I had entered this wilderness, opting instead for quick day trips closer to the roads. And it had been many more years since I had hiked with my old high school buddy, Monte Edwards, each of us having allowed careers, family and distance to limit our friendship mainly to annual Christmas correspondence.
Last week, however, we changed all that.
Monte and his 21-year-old son, Bryan, who had never been to Alaska or seen a bear in the wild before, arrived Aug. 2, geared up and ready to go. The following morning, my friend, Drew O’Brien, acted as our portal to the wilderness as he ferried us across the smooth surface of Skilak Lake and deposited us at the Cottonwood Creek trailhead, promising to return and pick us up Aug. 6.
From that moment, we were on our own. Our rough-hewn plan: ascend the Cottonwood Creek trail to treeline, climb over the top end of the drainage, descend to and cross Benjamin Creek, then follow its high terrace to a notch in the mountains that would lead us down to Twin Lakes, nestled at the foot of an unnamed 5,200-foot crag. There, if we had time, we hoped to make a quick side trip over to Skilak Glacier before returning to Cottonwood Creek via a scree-strewn pass on the northeast side of the drainage.
Some things went according to plan: Bryan got to see bears — 12 blacks in addition to the five brownies. He spotted his first ptarmigan, first hoary marmot, first bear den, and caught his first grayling. He missed out on caribou but we did gather one discarded antler.
With Monte and me, he also crossed four icy stream channels barefoot, logged at least 30 miles of challenging travel, and climbed an aggregate of more than 6,000 feet. But his badly blistered feet, nearly 36 hours of intermittent rain and the constraints of time — in a land seemingly apart from such considerations — kept us from going beyond Twin Lakes to the glacier.
Still, in four days we saw no one else in our travels, walked on only four to five miles of actual trails and reveled in a sense of vastness and isolation impossible along the winding blacktop of civilization.
In the end, the sow and her trio of cubs eyeballed us for a few minutes, then wandered over a snow-splotched side hill and disappeared from view. This time, in this place, she seemed as content with her isolation as we were with ours.
Get geared up to get away
Preparation can mean the difference between an exciting adventure far from home and a miserable experience with help a long way off.
If you are planning your own backcountry excursion, here are some things to consider before you go:
- Study the area. Buy relevant topographic maps and take them with you. Examine the ups and downs of the terrain you’ll be traveling. Be prepared for that 1,500-foot climb into the next drainage.
- Travel with a GPS, or at least a compass, in addition to your maps. A GPS can allow you to establish waypoints as you travel, thereby giving you markers to find your way out, even in the densest fog.
- It may be expensive, but buying a satellite messenger or leasing a satellite phone might save your life in case of emergency. Satellite messengers are about the size of a cigarette pack and weigh less than half a pound, and they are capable of sending a 911 alert with your precise GPS location. Avoid relying on cell phones, which usually cannot receive service in wilderness areas and can be notorious for drained batteries.
- Arrange reliable transportation in and out of the area. Tell other people where you’re going and when you expect to return.
- Always be prepared to stay longer than you planned. The elements may conspire against you, and your boat or plane may be unable to reach you until hours or even days later. Bring at least a full day’s worth of extra food, and be able to stay as warm and dry as possible while you wait.
- Prepare for any weather. It may be warmer than you had expected, but it’s more likely to be much colder or wetter. Good, breathable raingear — coat and pants — is essential, as are a sturdy pair of water-resistant boots.
- Many backcountry travelers like to compartmentalize their gear, especially food, sleeping bags and changes of clothing, in waterproof stuff sacks.
- Speaking of clothing, it’s a good idea to have plenty of layers available to suit the conditions. Also, extra socks help keep your feet in good shape and feel great at the end of a long, weary day.
- Other essentials in isolated backcountry areas include a reliable stove and plenty of fuel, a water-purifying pump or tablets, a small medical kit, insect repellent and an emergency repair kit. Repair kits can be elaborate or contain such basic items as nylon line, duct tape, a bit of aluminum foil, a Swiss Army knife and maybe a coil of wire.
- Finally, self-protection (from bears, for instance) is undeniably important. Some travelers resolutely refuse to carry guns, opting instead for pepper spray or a similar deterrent. Others insist on having a sidearm or shotgun close at hand. Whatever the case, be prepared and be bear aware.