America is celebrating 100 years of its National Park Service. Sarah Marshall visits Alaska, arguably the country’s last true wilderness.
Native American Eskimos have an old adage about dealing with bears: Don’t run or blink and they will know you are a wise one. Personally, I’m not convinced. Despite the national park warden’s firm advice to stand our ground, I imagine every sinew in my body stretching to sprint should I cross paths with 450kg of teeth and claws.
In Alaska, where bears far outnumber people, heart-pounding encounters of this sort are a real possibility. Dominated by swathes of uninhabited plains and forest, this state straddling the Arctic Circle is often touted as America’s last true wilderness.
Appropriately, I’m visiting in the centennial year of the US National Parks Service, a body set up with the intention to protect and preserve places just like this.
On the country’s south-west peninsula, Katmai was originally declared a National Park Monument following the biggest volcanic eruption of the 20th century in 1912. But in recent decades, the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, an eerie plateau of ash sliced by deep gorges, has played second fiddle to the bears.
On the beach or along a trail, chances are you will bump into one at Brooks Lodge, a relatively accessible camp (even though it’s still a flight and float plane ride from Anchorage) on the banks of Brooks Lake.
I meet my first ursus along a narrow forest trail. A nervous sow stands on hind legs with her cubs and utters a series of teacher tuts to send me scurrying.
I’m here early in the season (mid-June) when the sockeye salmon are starting to run, and bleary-eyed brown bears – hungry from hibernation – are slowly gathering at Brooks Falls to fill their boots.
The elevated viewing platform overlooking the popular fishing spot can be packed with queues of 300 people in July, but right now, I have the place to myself.
Distracted by a bountiful, protein-rich food source, these animals show little concern for humans. But it’s a different story further north in Denali, Alaska’s first national park, where smaller but more dangerous berry-foraging grizzlies have rightly earned their name.
The Alaska Railroad now operates as a heritage tourist train with a route running from Anchorage to Fairbanks via Denali.
Avoiding the Disneyfied, built-up park entrance, nicknamed Glitter Gulch, I head to Denali’s “backcountry”, Kantishna Hills. A six-hour bus ride later, flamboyant guide Steve welcomes us to Kantishna Roadhouse, one of the few lodges out here in the wilds. “If you see a bear, stand still; for moose, you should break into a zig-zag run,” instructs a guide. What if you bump into a bear and a moose, I wonder.
By now, bearanoia has set in so I join a guided hike through knee-height dwarf spruce and bouncy tundra decorated with the smallest azaleas in the world.
We wind up at artists’ hotspot Wonder Lake, a location favoured by photographer Ansel Adams, where placid water presents the perfect mirror image of the Alaskan Range. At 20,310 feet, Mount Denali (previously referred to as Mount McKinley, but now officially known by its native name) stands head and shoulders above neighbouring mountains, but characteristically, it’s covered in cloud.
“Don’t worry, we can cut through that,” says Greg LaHaie, pilot and owner of Kantishna Air Taxi. Our 45-minute scenic flight takes us within a breath of the peak, above ant lines of brave climbers and the curving trails of glaciers.
More ice – and more people – can be found further south in the state’s most accessible national park, Kenai Fjords, a photogenic four-hour coastal train ride on the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage.
On a full-day boat tour skirting the Harding icefield, mountains rise from rainforest and glaciers tumble into the sea. Salmon-feeding orcas prospect between islands, while an attention-seeking humpback repeatedly breaches to a raptured audience of tourists.
On a trip to Bear Creek Weir, where salmon are rumoured to be running and bald eagles glare from treetops, I meet Nicholas, a 14-year-old native Athabaskan who prefers to steer clear of outsiders. After striking up conversation, he deems I’m “OK” for a tourist and enthusiastically tells me about the Inuit Games he hopes to compete in this year.
Given his ancestry and local experience, I imagine he has the perfect escape tactic for dealing with bears. But when I ask, he simply shrugs and without blinking replies: “I hope for the best.” Wise words indeed.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of Bridge & Wickers (bridgeandwickers.co.uk; 020 3642 8551) which tailor-makes a classic 10-day Alaska journey staying at Hotel Captain Cook (Anchorage), Kantishna Roadhouse (Denali), Seward Grand Lodge (Kenai Fjords) and Brooks Lodge (Katmai) from £6,900 per person. Includes some meals, transfers, Icelandair flights from London to Anchorage via Reykjavik, domestic flights and Alaska Railroad Gold Service tickets.
Icelandair (www.icelandair.co.uk) offers the fastest route from the UK to Alaska (via Reykjavik).
Got to travelalaska.com and VisitTheUSA.com to find out more.