Immersing myself in wilderness

One of my goals for working an SCA internship this summer was to immerse myself in wilderness.

There are many ways to challenge oneself in the wilderness: planning for long-term survival in the wilderness including packing the right supplies to stay warm, well-nourished, and hydrated in the specific climate; crossing challenging terrain including river/lakes, mountains, and snow/ice; and preparing to encounter dangerous wildlife and plant life such as poisonous plants, snakes with deadly venom, and large animals.

A trip into the wilderness is a challenge of one’s ability to plan and prepare for these challenges. The more one travels into the wilderness, the more they will understand their capabilities and how to properly prepare.

During the intern training at the park, I would try to walk to work rather than get a ride. The trail from the residential area to the Murie Science and Learning Center goes through the woods and I saw a few moose in there. I was always on the lookout for moose and bears. In our training we learned to talk or sing to warn wildlife that we are coming, so I would sing songs about bears like, “hey grizzle bear, I don’t see you nowhere, but I am gonna shout, just in case, so you don’t come out…”

Us SCAs got to go on a Discovery Hike during training. We hiked off-trail into the back country. The ranger leading the hike would often clap his hands and yell, “hey bear.” On that hike, we learned a lot about the plants and birds in the Alaskan tundra. Most of the hills were covered with spongy mosses and lichens which are like springy carpet to hike on, with dense willows and elders that are tall and spiky enough to cause a hiker to reroute. When we got to the higher bush on the hills, there were berries everywhere! We learned that it is okay to eat the berries, so some of us went to town…


Eating Berries in the tundra, Looking at moose

The whole hike we were on the lookout for large wildlife- wolf, moose, bear. We saw some moose from afar. It was hard to tell whether they were moose or bear from where we were, so it was good that we had our binoculars to check. It was cool to see the moose out in the same area as us, eating, and living their normal daily lives. We were visitors to their land.

I also did some bike riding in the park. It was great to get out onto the park road, and see the land pass at a slower pace, and be able to breath the fresh air and have the cool wind on my face. One of the rangers also liked biking, so we did a day ride from Savage River Station to Teklanika River and back. It was about 35 miles total. It was challenging to ride up the steep hills, but amazing to cruise down the large hills. The last 3 miles before the residential area is a steep downhill, so we were cruising about 30 miles an hour with views of mountains off to the side! We saw some moose, eagles, and a ptarmigan and porcupine.


Taking photos of wolf spotted from camper bus while driving on park road, dahl sheep on park road.

On the last day of training, we got to drive into the park. The only vehicles allowed past mile 15 are park vendor busses and park vehicles. This is good because the road is so narrow that when two cars meet, one needs to pull aside to let the other one pass. After two weeks of learning about the park, it was more than a field trip to be able to go into the park to see the landscape and wildlife.

The landscape changed with each couple of miles of the road. The road winds so that with each turn, a new view is revealed. Views of the mountains, river beds, and foothills covered with moss and willows, and with each turn there is the chance to see wild life. Like the tourists in the busses passing, us interns kept our eyes out the windows for that moose or bear that may appear as its mulling across the landscape looking for food. We kept our cameras out and giddily captured the animals doing their normal daily things.

And wildlife we saw- a bunch of dahl sheep on the road near polychrome, a moose, and two caribou. We pulled over with each animal to watch it for a few minutes. The dahl sheep sort of forced us to pull over as there was one on the edge of the road sun bathing, one in the ditch next to the hill side, and one on the hillside- they had surrounded us! The dahl sheep didn’t seem bothered by our van driving through their hang out spot. The one on the road barely glanced our way. The one in the ditch and the one on the hill were walking slowly with no obvious direction in mind.


Skipping rocks at Talkeetna’s riverfront with Mount McKinley behind the trees.

After training, my work began in Talkeetna, about 100 miles south of the main entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. Talkeetna does not have the vast park lands like Denali, but there are plenty of opportunities for skipping rocks at the river front and watching Mount McKinley, walking through the squishy sands in the sandbar and watching ducks swim by, running along the rail road tracks and dodging giant puddles and looking out for bears, biking down the swerving tracks of x-y lakes and looking out for moose.

Talkeetna residents keep busy doing these things and also going hunting for moose, fishing for salmon, canoeing and kayaking on the many lakes and rivers, camping in the state park, flying to remote cabins, and rafting down the rivers. I have had the opportunity to go canoeing with Richard, a Talkeetna resident. We have been going every other week to each of the lakes around Talkeetna: Fish, Benka, x-y, and next we will do Christensen lake.
We have seen loons on all three lakes, a baby loon, swans, a moose calf, ducks and ducklings, a golden eagle, and a beaver and beaver damn. We seem to pick the best days to go out canoeing as the clouds often clear just for our canoeing and we have only seen one other person out on the lakes. That is one thing about Alaska’s wilderness, there is a lot of wildlife and not a lot of people.

No matter where you are in Alaskan wilderness, you need to be bear aware. Some of my friends don’t go on certain trails because they have heard about bears being spotted there. I often feel guilty for going on these trails, knowing that I could possibly be putting myself in danger. But at the same time, I have only heard rumors about bears being in these locations and often see others using these trails. I wonder whether fear of running into a bear is a sort of superstition that haunts me while I am in the wilderness.

There is one trail that I only go to the second bridge because my friend said there are bears after that. But when I have asked locals about the safety of these trails, they tell me that they have never heard of a bear attack in Talkeetna. That makes me feel better, but at the same time, I don’t want to risk running past the second bridge.

Part of the initiative in Talkeetna to keep bears out of town is to store garbage bags in locked metal containers. These posters are all over town reminding residents and visitors to be bear aware.

I got the opportunity to go up into the park a few weeks ago, and had three days off, so I planned a back country trip. I haven’t spent much time in the back country and never alone, so it was lucky that my friend Kevin wanted to come. We didn’t do the actual back country camping where you need to bring a bear-proof-food canister that holds everything with a scent including used toilet paper, a weather proof tent and sleeping back for below-zero temperatures, and a lot of rain gear. As my first time in the Alaskan bush, I was completely content with staying in the employee cabins where we had the comfort of a wood-burning stove, a gas stove, cooking utensils, and mattresses and bedding! It was a five-start backcountry trip!

On our bus ride into mile 72, where the cabin was, we saw five bears, a wolf, moose, and a fox! So, by the time the bus dropped us off at the road side and we had to find our cabin, we were a little spooked and looking in all directions for bears, as we were travelling between two hills and through some thick brush of willows and blueberry bushes, which is one of the Denali grizzly bear’s favorite foods.

I was really glad that Kevin came because he had experience leading backcountry trips in Alaska. He not only made me feel more comfortable with traveling in the back country, but also with doing some of the camping things I have never had to do before - like lighting an old Coleman gas stove, and lighting the wood-burning stove. And he showed me how to do both, so I will know next time!

I also had to call into the communication center using a radio, which I had never done before. The first morning at the cabin we awoke to a bear eating berries on the hill opposite a river from the cabin. It stayed there eating berries for about 3 hours! It was cool to see the bear in its home doing its normal every day thing. Again, I was a visitor in the wildlife’s home. And so when I went to pick some berries for breakfast, I flinched at every sound, being ultra-aware of any movements in the willows around me, which all turned out to be birds.

Later Kevin and I wanted to try to find the Muldrow Glacier, which our friend told us was just an hour’s walk along the river. We checked our map and it seemed right to follow the river we could see from the cabin down the social trail. It was a nice hike on sand. We saw animal tracks of wolves that looked like they were chasing caribou, we saw a caribou rack left in the river, and we saw bear tracks followed by bear cub tracks. The tracks were signs that the animals were there, and that it was likely they could be nearby or return to that location, so again, we were highly aware of our surroundings, looking around to see if there were any bears around. When we found the caribou antlers, Kevin handed them to me for a picture. For some reason I didn’t want to touch them, so I just got a picture of him holding them!

After our hike, I was feeling confident, so I hiked up a hill behind the cabin to get a better view of the mountain peaks that were emerging from the dispersing clouds. As I hiked through the dense willows, I knew that I would not be able to see a bear if it were 50 feet away from me, so I made some noise by yelling, “hey bear,” and clapping my hands. At least it knew I was coming! The hillside was covered in bushes with plump, ripe blueberries! I developed a bear instinct as I grabbed handfuls of blueberries from bushes as I walked by! Not until I looked up did I notice the vast distance between myself and any other land feature…I was in the open tundra, and could see for miles. I felt free to roam the land where I pleased, confident in my ability to warn bears of my presence, and to survive in the outdoors on my own.

Not until I experienced this confidence did I realize it was one thing I sought in my goal for wilderness emersion in Alaska. All I knew before I came to Alaska was that these are the sorts of things that happen in the wilderness; we go in knowing only so much, and the value arises when we discover the unexpected and unknown.