Alaska Tourism

Bears, Bikes, and Denali

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

In May 2010, I took one of the funnest trips I logged during my six-year stay living and working in Alaska. I joined a group of some adventurous and fun outdoor-loving Alaskans for a mountain-bike day trip into Denali National Park.

Before the National Park Service opens the main park road to tourist buses, it allows cyclists to pedal up this mostly dirt road. On that trip, I went with a group of four other mountain bikers, getting as far as the Polychrome Overlook. I didn’t see Denali. Clouds will cover the majestic peak more than half the tourist season, so I didn’t expect to see it. I did expect wildlife, maybe some waking grizzly bears, other wild animals, and beautiful terrain. On that front, the trip was a stunning success.

Denali by Mountain Bike, the Only Way to Travel in Mid-May

The adventure began, as you can expect, around a campfire after all of us had driven up from Anchorage (amazing drive, by the way). We secured a camping spot at the Riley Creek Campground, near the main entrance. This is still a surprisingly wild and beautiful area. Staying up late in the arctic night, we talked story around a fire and planned for an early start on a Friday morning in mid-May.

The next morning, we drove as far as the park service allows, not far from the Savage River Campground. From here, you bike in,

A group of five of us cycled¬†ahead of most of the other mountain bikers that day and reached the overlook, 31 miles from the Savage River parking area. It’s a beautiful stretch of road that climbs up 1,500 feet vertically, with a few long up and down hills. The terrain is mostly brown and still snow-covered that time of year. Along the way, we had to stop because of traffic, namely, a grizzly mother and her two cubs. We laughed a lot as she and her young one slowly walked down the hill, calmly crossed the road, and then ambled down the hillside. We saw another pair close to this group, of a mother and just one cub, on a ridge, framed against a mastic mountain backdrop. That’s five bears in less than one hour!

Respecting, Not Fearing, the Bears

For people who don’t live in Alaska or those who pack guns to kill wild critters, this would appear to be a terrifying moment. It was not, and is not.

Bears are relatively predictable, but still lethal. If you respect their space, don’t threaten their food source or young, and don’t startle them, they mostly will leave you alone. Mostly, respect them and their home. And I can say that having travelled hundreds of hours and many more miles in Alaska’s wild bear country, by bike and foot, not once having been threatened.

I have not published these shots on my websites before and forgot until I saw them again how amazingly breathtaking the “Great Land” (that’s what Alaskans call their state) is. I miss it, particularly this time of year, when the snow begins to melt and the big critters begin to explore, eat, hunt, fish, and be wild–the way they were meant to be.

Here’s the video I published almost exactly eight years ago today from that great trip.

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