My first weeks in Alaska brought about moments only possible in the Last Frontier. Everyday at midnight, I became delirious as the sun dipped down low and smooth over the Alaskan Range only to rise three hours later. In the sleepy mining town of Talkeetna, I listened to stories of altitude sickness and trekking glaciers from the first climbers in 2016 to independently summit Mt. Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. Inspired to feel the same success, I attempted to summit Mt. Healy only to get stuck in a snow storm.
For Alaska is where the fearless go to face nature only to be handed glory or doom. But the true brute and beauty of Alaska’s force is seen best in Denali National Park.
The park is over six million acres but its vastness is incomprehensible. Picture driving across an area bigger than the entire state of Massachusetts, but it only has one road made of gravel. After a certain point, you can only drive in on these crippled, elderly buses that slam you against the wall at every turn. The driver crept up Denali Park Rd., which snails up the mountains of the Alaskan Range. I gasped when I saw there are no guard rails and to the left is a steep drop of hundreds of feet.
After two and a half hours on the bus we had only driven 46 miles, but I’d had enough and asked to get off.
The Bulgarian man next to me said, “Ever since I saw “The Revenant” I think I will not leave America until I see a bear in the wild.”
“You’re a lunatic,” I said.
I laughed nervously at the thought of staring eye to eye with an animal that most guns can’t kill. To make matters worse, when the bus driver let us off, he said, “Be careful there is a high concentration of grizzly bears in this areas. Don’t get close as this time of year mothers are with their cubs so they’re prone to attack.”
Denali National Park is home to thousands of grizzly bears. There is a certain protocol when traveling in bear country. You make tons of noise, while hiking so you don’t surprise them. If you do see one, stay at least 900 feet away as bears can sprint at speeds up to 40 mph and are faster than race horses, let alone humans. If they do charge you, you must stand tall and scream loud to scare them away. Most importantly, do not run or the bear will see you as prey and chase you until they maul you to death.
They say that if you follow these steps you’ll be fine. But how do you know how you’re gonna act until you stare eye to eye with the king of the forest? To be honest, if I saw one charging me, I would not only run, but I would shit myself in the process.
My friend David and I got off the bus. The thoughts of bears completely left my mind when I saw the magnificent Polychrome Pass. The edge plummeted 500 feet to the cool tundras and a view of the snow capped Alaskan Range, stretching as far as the eye can see. Behind me, the Wyoming Hills gracefully tip toed past. Like most Alaskan landscapes it was as if I had stepped into a Bob Ross painting.
The bus disappeared with the same cloud of dirt as when it arrived. A calming peace overcame me as not a person could be seen or heard. In the valley below, a mother caribou nudged its young along to drink in one of its choked streams. A glossy raven sqwalked as it soared to its nest above. My childish excitement grew when a herd of Dall Sheep jumped up the cliff and came within feet of me. The tundras had recently thawed for the coming Alaskan summer and all wildlife was there to call it as their own.
An age old wind danced with the trees and ran its fingers through my hair. I watched in awe as the titanic mountains moved in and out of the clouds as they have for eons. In the wilderness, it doesn’t matter what job you have, what bills you have to pay, or any other dull responsibilities of modern life. The timelessness of the wild plunges you into the present. This is why people have been coming to the Denali area for over 3,000 years. Its why I’m here today.
It’s called “Polychrome Pass” as the mountains give off a whole spectrum of colors from the shine off the volcanic ash, but one boulder stood out amongst the rest.
“That big boulder has a different color from the rest of the rocks,” I said pointing to a rock with a gold tint on a nearby hill.
We hiked up the mountainside towards the rock until we noticed that it had these strange bumps that seemed to form a head. Then the rock moved and we jumped back. I took a picture, zoomed in, and realized we were walking up to a wild grizzly bear.
“Let’s get the Hell out of here!” I said as the chill of a glacier crept from the mountains and into my spine.
Even from afar, its sheer mass engulfed a side of the mountain. The bear got up to look at its cub nearby and shake off a deep rest. It then turned its head and looked right at us. The bear tilted its neck with a wide eyed look of curiosity, but I did not share the same wonder. David remained calm and slowly backed away, but I was stuck shivering in pure fear. Its hollow brown eyes watched us until it receded into just another shiny rock upon the mountains of Polychrome Pass.
When the panic subsided, I sighed a breath of relief and hopped on the next bus heading closer to Mt. Denali. It was a moment of travel I knew all too well. I was a stranger in someone’s home, feeling grateful for the opened door, but knowing I should never overstay my welcome.
Article by Spencer R. Morrison