His remains were found on Friday, the same day that I hiked down the canyon from where I camped on Cathedral Mountain and walked a few miles of lonely park road in dawn’s twilight to the bus stop at Igloo Creek. It was the first fatal grizzly attack recorded in the history of Denali National Park.
I woke that morning about half an hour before my 5 o’clock alarm. It had been a night of fitful sleep, but not for fear of wildlife. The mossy tundra was soft as a mattress, but there was precious little horizontal space in the canyon to pitch a tent and my bed was far from level. I rotated several times during the night to alternately elevate my head and feet, just to make sure I didn’t wake up numb or charley-horsed.
Muscle cramps were a distinct possibility after the previous day’s hike. My pack weighed approximately 40 pounds, and rather than circumnavigate Cathedral Mountain, I chose to go up and over it. Though more arduous, it seemed better for both safety and perspective. (Being a flatlander from Florida, I’m still wonderstruck by mountain-top views.)
The mandatory safety video and orientation session with park rangers, as well as knowing my own limits, impressed upon me a distinct hierarchy of dangers posed by backpacking alone. First, one clumsy step might cause injuries that would leave me stranded. (On my first Alaska backpacking trip, I twisted my ankle at our campsite, seven miles up the trail. Thankfully, it wasn’t bad. Had the damage been worse, one of my companions could have hiked back to cell-phone range and called for help; but solo in Denali, that would be serious trouble.)
Second on my list of concerns: river crossing. In addition to possible injuries from a fall in swift currents, there is the ice-cold water, itself. The suggested path around the base of Cathedral Mountain included two crossings, certainly doable, but also avoidable. The crossings were meant to keep away from thickets of willow, which contain my third object of wariness: big wildlife.
Moose, not bears, scare me the most. Bears are highly intelligent, generally shy and their behavior seems fairly predictable. (Today’s news makes me wonder what happened. Was this photographer “successful” at being stealthy? Did he startle it by creeping through downwind bushes? Anyway, why get so close? And for what–a picture?)
OK, bears are pretty scary, but moose strike me as crazy. The photo of a big male in front of a city bus in Anchorage convinced me that I’d rather avoid confrontation. Thus, I minimized my time among willows, a favorite feeding ground of moose and a good hiding place for bears and other predators.
The camper bus dropped me at the infamous, bear-chewed sign marking the boundary of my assigned unit with one that was closed to hikers and campers. I followed the Cathedral “social trail,” so named because many animals (including humans) use it as a path down to the Teklanika River.
Low, scrubby brush adorned in bright autumn leaves of red and yellow punctuated the landscape. Visibility was good, but I took the rangers’ advice to the extreme and frequently announced my presence to all creatures possibly within earshot. It became an imaginary conversation that I carried on through much of my hike.
“Hello, Moose! Hello, Bear!” I called whenever I approached a blind spot. I created a new verse for the “Roll yer leg over” song just for the grizzlies and serenaded any would-be stalkers. I loudly greeted ground squirrels and asked them to tell their friends, “The Goat’s a-comin’ and he means no harm, just passing through and enjoying the view!”
It seemed to work. Except for the squirrels and eagles, I saw plenty of evidence (scat) but no animals in the flesh. (I had an eye-full the day before aboard the shuttle to Eielson Visitor Center: caribou, moose, Dall sheep, a momma grizzly with two cubs along the road, and a couple of massive solitary bears grazing on berries in the distance. We also enjoyed stunning views of “The High One,” Denali, itself.)
Near a pond, I came to a fork in the path. I shunned both the low and the high roads and instead followed the oft-repeated advice here: “Choose your own adventure.” I made my way up the slope.
Close attention to my surroundings yielded dividends beyond the strange combined sensations of security and awe that I felt while alone in this well-managed wilderness. I adjusted to unimaginably huge vistas and focused on the ground beneath and around me. Loose granite deposited by a now-absent glacier looked like a moonscape and made for poor hiking, but it held fascinating floral specimens such as a black lichens studded with neon green. My peripheral vision detected a subtle goat or sheep trail that might have been missed by looking straight at it.
My chosen path led me to another narrow stream and a possible campsite nestled between peaks and in the lee of a little ridge, but it was too soon to stop. I pressed on, upwards, stopping occasionally for snacks and photos of petite blue flowers among thick carpets of sphagnum moss.
I was glad for my choice in footwear. Rather than boots (which were strapped to my pack), I wore thin-soled trail running shoes and well-padded wool socks. Though wet from crossing creeks and stepping in squishy moss, they kept my feet plenty warm. They fit like a pair of ultra-light track spikes and felt like the perfect compromise between barefoot and protected. I could sense the contours of the ground and react nimbly to slippage. I suffered no twisted ankles and they added very little weight to the many steps I took up and down the mountain.
Halfway up Cathedral Mountain, I took a break from my heavy pack. I grabbed my camera, zipped a fleece jacket over my wool sweater, and scrambled up a conical peak with a big view of aptly-named Polychrome Pass. Recalling climbers’ advice, I pressed my core close to the rocks and tundra as I made my way on all fours. It must have been a strange sight for the eagles who soared gracefully overhead. All gangly limbs, wide eyes and grunts, I probably looked and sounded a bit like Gollum from “Lord of the Rings,” but I was rewarded with a stunning panorama and a downy eagle feather.
Pressing on to the lateral ridge, I looked for a manageable pass down the other side, back toward the road where I needed to catch the first camper bus in the morning. Loose ground, steep slopes and howling wind did not bode well for this descent. Down and up again I went a few more times, searching for an exit. I wound around the windward face and then took shelter from the wind by squatting behind a boulder while I consulted the topographic map.
Besides doubling back, two other choices presented themselves. Up and over involved a steep climb, at least another third of the way up the mountain with no guarantee of a makable descent on the other side. Down and around looked longer and just as sketchy, riddled with loose rocks—and beyond that, I’d have to pass through willow thickets and cross the Teklanika River, then hike its gravel bars around the mountain to Igloo Creek. The latter was not appealing.
I left my pack against the boulder, layered on another jacket and gloves, and started climbing up the windward slope. I felt a cramp coming on in a new place, the interior of my left quadriceps. That could be a problem, considering it was happening without my pack and I still had several miles to go, whatever direction. I stopped to stretch and then carefully proceeded to the top. The descent looked good. I returned to my pack and kept my legs moving while I sucked down some water and food, then strapped it on and made my way back up again. Thankfully, the cramp in my leg did not return.
The leeward landscape of Cathedral Mountain was a mix of lunar and loamy. Spongy moss and tundra filled a few relatively horizontal spaces between huge piles of rocks. A brook trickled where a once-powerful river carved the canyon below. With excellent visibility, I dared to hike in complete silence. I pondered what the soundscape monitoring stations might have recorded of my crazy chatter. Maybe it will alleviate the tedium of whomever analyzes those tapes?
I pitched my tent and stashed my bear vault downwind and downstream, then warmed up with a test hike down through the canyon, sans pack and in dry socks and boots, to find the road below. (I needed to estimate how early I should rise to catch the morning’s first bus.) I left just after 9 pm, binoculars and bear spray attached to my belt, a headlamp in my pocket.
Multiple sunsets occurred in rapid succession with each glimpse out of the canyon during my descent. “This place is absolutely gorgeous!” I exclaimed to whatever critters might be listening, as if they could appreciate a bad pun. I saw the road for a least a mile before I reached it, then turned back and drudged noisily through the willows in creeping dusk. Despite the evening’s chill, sweat began to saturate my silk long-johns beneath trousers and rain pants.
Something caused a minor rockslide just up the canyon from me. Perhaps a goat or sheep whose tracks I’d seen earlier in the day? I increased the volume of my monologues, and even started improvising lyrics from a Freedom Riders‘ song that I learned in a class on the Civil Rights Movement. “Buses are a-comin’…” became “The canyon’s gettin’ narrow…” and so forth, ad delirium.
Though it had a red light for preserving night vision, I never turned on my headlamp until I reached my tent. Even then, I only used it while repositioning the stakes, trying to make my sleeping space closer to horizontal. Once inside, I shed my jacket, boots, socks and rain pants, and piled up gear in further futile attempts to level my bed while drying out before I climbed into my sleeping bag.
I remembered to check the time, 11 pm, while I jotted notes from the day’s adventure. The sky still glowed dimly like a night-light. The occasional gust was the only accompaniment to the babbling brook which lulled me to sleep.
The sky glowed when I awoke the next morning. Packing up and hiking down the canyon went much quicker than I expected. It was a pleasantly quiet walk from where I joined the road to Igloo Creek. Perhaps a total of six vehicles passed during the few hours of my walk and wait.
The first camper bus I saw was heading out for the day (opposite the way I was going). I waved it along, but it soon stopped and backed up. Curious, I walked back to it. A woman onboard asked if I’d seen any bears.
“Not yet,” was my reply. Someone thought they saw one on the hillside nearby, but it went unconfirmed. “There’s room for one more on the bus,” she said. I politely declined. As the driver put the bus back in gear, I bid them good luck. “Same to you!” came her motherly response.