So, what does one do when deposited back at the trailhead at 8:30 in the morning? When, by 8:30 in the morning, the day has already included the thwarting of an all-day hike by a too-close encounter (thankfully injury-free) with two grizzly bears and then with a moose and calves?
If you’re me, even thus traumatized, a day set aside for hiking can’t be that that easily diverted, especially when the weather is even vaguely amiable. If you’re me, you take a car nap (because exhaustion follows quickly on the heels of intense stress), you make another round of coffee in the trailhead parking lot (because you’re always prepared for that sort of thing when you’re a dirtbag car camper), and you find somewhere else – more popular – to go hike (because weekends are made for hiking). On this day, already being at the Glen Alps trailhead outside of Anchorage, Flattop Mountain was the obvious choice.
3 miles roundtrip. Steep. And one of the most popular trails in the region.
I’m normally a fan of less-traveled trails and less-visited scenes. Not so in Alaska; not so in grizzly country. Not right now, at least. I’m now a fan of busy trailheads and lots of faces on the trail. I see little potential for solitude in the Alaskan landscape. But I do see lots of challenge and beauty. And, as long as I’m an Alaskan (read: for the rest of the summer) I’ll be out in it.
Flattop Mountain is a great trail. That perfect balance of hard and visually rewarding. I was surprised at the number of people (including smallish children) that scaled the rock scramble at the top to find their way to the summit. And, true to name, it is a wide and flat top. A bit too windy and drizzly for lingering long, but the clouds were moving in and out such that I got to enjoy some great views of, alternately, cloud-shrouded mountains and long swatches of Cook Inlet beyond Anchorage.
There’s certainly a reason this is such a popular trail.
And being so close to an urban area allows for recovery and contemplation with all the modern comforts one could hope for to round out an eventful weekend.
I am now a true Alaskan. I’ve faced down a grizzly (two, in fact) and lived to tell about it (without injury and without using my bear spray, though I did have it at the ready).
Hiking in grizzly country is a different experience than hiking anywhere else. I hike with bear spray; easily accessible in a holster on my belt. I hike with my hands as free as possible; because why have bear spray if you don’t have a hand accessible to grab it with? For me that means camera in my pocket and just one trekking pole instead of two. I hike loudly. In other places, I hike quietly and stealthily; I want to see birds and other wildlife (preferably from a safe 50 yards for the latter) and move through the wilderness like a ghost. Here, I want to announce my presence; I don’t want to sneak up on anything. I do still want to see wildlife – but from a safe 300 yards. So I shout as I hike, “hey, bear! …ho, bear!” (Some folks sing, play music, or wear a bell. I’ve tried those things, but I think shouting works best). It’s really just a different mentality. Hiking in Yosemite was introspective and meditative; I could wander, lost in thought, or I could zip down a trail, letting the miles melt away like so many worries. Not so here. Hiking is a conscious decision to interact with a wild unknown. There’s a vigilance to it; I’m constantly scanning my surroundings, looking for movement or animal signs. If I’m passing through areas with limited lines of sight, I do call out periodically (more or less frequently depending on the terrain).
When I first arrived in Alaska, I went through bear safety training with the Forest Service. It was thorough and memorable. I learned how to judge a bear by its physical characteristics and by its behavior; how to react defensively and aggressively (when needed); and I practiced spraying inert bear spray at a moving target.
I’ve slowly developed a certain comfort level with hiking in grizzly country and accepting the risks that go along with it. When Paul was here and we backpacked in Denali, we had several safe, thoughtful, and nonconfrontational grizzly observations and encounters. I’ve hiked solo a fair bit now too. I’d say I’m a confident and capable hiker and wilderness user. That claim was put to the test yesterday.
It’s been super rainy on the Kenai Peninsula, so I decided to spend my weekend up near Anchorage, hiking in the Front Range of the Chugach State Park. I got a 6:30AM start from the Glen Alps Trailhead heading, not up the popular Flattop Mountain (a steep 1.5 mile ascent to a summit with a great view), but instead out onto the Powerline Trail to pick up the Williwaw Lakes loop. The length of that trail – 16+ miles – prompted my early start.
A few cars were already at the trailhead and most folks seemed to be heading up Flattop, probably trying to beat the forecasted afternoon storms. I quickly made my way to Powerline. It’s a highway of a trail following, unsurprisingly, huge power lines. I passed a couple out walking their dogs but otherwise the morning was one of solitude. The trail to the lakes is a narrower single track trail dropping down through some low trees, crossing a creek, and then curving through meadow, tundra-like terrain. Mostly knee-high grasses and wildflowers with great lines of sight and sporadic stands of willows.
I took my time, stopping to photograph unique flowers and take in the sweeping mountain scenery. I also made sure to make plenty of noise approaching and in the willows. Entering the second thicket of the morning, maybe 15-30 seconds after my last “hey bear!”, I stepped forward on the trail to a space that had a big break in the willows to my left with an open view out (and with a solid wall of willows to my right). Instead of sweeping mountain scenery, I see two subadult grizzlies (guessing about 500 lbs each) bounding straight toward me. They were about 20 yards away at that point. We saw each other at the same time (I’m certain they didn’t hear any of my previous calling and were unaware of my presence until this moment as they weren’t charging me but just running on a path that happened to be right at me – or they’d heard me calling and were running away from where they thought I was). Surprising a grizzly is not something you want to do. At this point, even with each second feeling like it was moving in slow motion, I didn’t have time to think and my training and instincts kicked in. I brought my forearms up with palms facing front, and shouted sharply, “whoa!”, and reached for my bear spray. The bears closed in a few more yards before turning and running into the willows to the left. I’d unclasped the safety on my spray and was holding it at the ready. I could hear them panting and huffing in the willows (were they just out of breath from running or showing agitation? I opted to assume the latter). I started up a steady flow of words as I started to move to my left, back toward the trailhead, and, incidentally, right past the thicket I knew to be housing two huffing brown bears (I didn’t consider moving to the right since that was a great unknown, terrain-wise, and I couldn’t move backward because of the willows). Slowly, steadily, warily. “Hey, bears. I’m moving away now. Just passing by to give you space. Ho, bears.”
I move out into the open, gaining a view of the side of the stand of willows, still making noise, still holding my spray at the ready. I can still hear huffing and, though I don’t see any movement, I know there’s a chance they’ll come charging out toward me. I keep moving away down the trail. I pass through another smaller stand of willows and then I have a solid, extended view. I’m out of hearing range of their huffing but certainly still in their view. I pause to watch for a moment, pull out my phone to take a quick picture of the willows.
Seeing I have reception, I call Paul. He know my itinerary and knows I’d have good reason to call so early in the day when I’m on an all-day hike. I put him on speakerphone (for added voice and noise quantity) and fill him in on what happened, where exactly I was, and what I was doing (which was continuing to move down the trail away from the bears and back to the trailhead). I’m still moving away when I the trail drops down a bit and I lose sight of the willows; this is right at the time I lose reception and the line goes dead (I can only imagine how Paul must’ve felt at that moment!). I won’t have reception again for a while, as it turns out. I get back across the creek and start moving up toward the main (Powerline) trail, pausing from that distance to scan more frequently and closely with my binoculars. When I’ve gained a little elevation I see them again, about a quarter mile away and moving to my right. One disappears into willows and is gone. The other lopes along a bit more and then stops to sniff the air. Seems like we’re on the same page with trying to get our bearings. He stands up on his hind legs, facing my direction, smelling. Then he drops back down to all fours and seems to get distracted by grazing. I keep going, wanting to get back to Powerline’s higher ground and lines of sight. Once I’m there, I spot him again a bit even further away now (the other still seems to be long gone). I see other movement, closer, and watch a moose cow and two calves moving away from the bear and generally in my direction though angling well to my left. I continue to watch the bear for another minute or so. He’s still intent on grazing and is showing no signs of agitation. I’ve replaced my bear spray in its holster and thoughts of moving on and back to my car and phone reception are in my mind. Then I see movement out of the corner of my eye. It’s the cow and calves. They’ve popped up on the trail and mama moose is eyeing me from about 50 yards away.
Imagine my exasperation. My heart rate has finally slowed though I’m still on an adrenaline high and I’m nurturing a growing sense of safety (especially with being back on the main, wide trail). And now this. I’ve heard people say that moose present a much greater danger to people than bears; they don’t ever bluff when charging and are much more prone to quick, unprovoked aggression – and this one has calves to protect, which is definitely not in my favor. I stay silent and still, waiting on her, and reach my hand down toward my bear spray (multi-mammal spray at this point). But it’s not necessary. She dismisses me as an obvious non-threat and turns to walk away on the trail, glancing back periodically to check on me. Of course, she’s moving in the same direction I want to go.
I give her space (I wait until she disappears out of sight just to be safe), take one last glance at bear (still grazing far away), and continue heading toward the parking area. During this time, I’ve also been trying to send a text to Paul to let him know I’m ok. When I finally get a signal, I get a flood of texts from him. Poor guy has had a solid half hour to worry about me and my grizzlies! Once all is calm and my safety is verified, it’s a short and uneventful walk back to the car.
I’m super grateful for the effectiveness of my bear safety training. I’m proud of myself that I didn’t panic and that my instincts kicked in and I did everything I was supposed to do. I’m grateful that, given the circumstances, everything played out in a best case scenario sort of way. I’m grateful it was two subadults and not a female with cub (I’m certain I’d not be sitting here to write about that). And now… I have my own extreme Alaskan story to tell.