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The List

Caribou, Tundra, Taiga, BEAR!!

Hiking near Denali.

Wendy Wesser

Hiking near Denali.

The Alaskan wilderness has an allure for a few folks, not everyone for sure, but for some there is a strong draw. It truly is a last frontier.

As for myself, the idea of living in the “Alaskan Bush” finally overcame my better judgment. Off we went with my wife and son, and here we have been for the past 20 years. We started a small lodge operation to help keep the wolf away from the door, so to speak, and over the years have hosted a good many folks. We’ve shown them a bit of all that Alaska has to offer as well as giving them an idea of what it’s like living out here. Some folks “get it,” some don’t, but we have had a great time. It has been a learning experience, and still is.

That said, I do also want to add that it ain’t all wine n’ roses. But that depends on how you look at it too. We

sometimes learn more from our guests than they do from us.

I recall not many years back we received an inquiry from folks who had been here the summer before. It was challenging for the couple to get here from the faraway and crowded country they lived in, so we were pleased they were coming back. This trip they planned to spend part of their time on a guided backpacking trip. They had an itinerary ... like down to the hour. They also had a list of, not what they wanted, but what they “had” to do this trip. They “had to see bears,” they “had to see caribou,” they “had to have a campfire,” and they “had to touch the tundra and the taiga.” Well, okay then. I got back in touch with them and said we would do the best we could… but it is not a zoo out here, and we do not control nature. More like it controls us, which out here, it pretty much does. They arrived on schedule during a very poor stretch of weather, and were tired from two days of travel and jet lag. They laid back the first day and at 8 a.m. sharp the following morning they were standing on the lodge deck, backpacks on, ready to hit the trail. Now I have done a lot of guiding; a bit for hunting, some fishing, and a lot for hikers, backpackers and the like, and I normally enjoy it. This morning, thirty plus mph winds and pouring rain, while not a show stopper, I have to admit, did “dampen” my enthusiasm. But the fact that the visibility in the thick fog was a hundred yards at best, and that it was the thickest bear year we had ever seen, didn’t help much either. There were bears everywhere, and these are not “Park Bears”. We have run across bears who I’m sure have never seen people before. Given the conditions and circumstances, I gently suggested that we had time, and to give it one more day and see what tomorrow brings. Though not on schedule… they reluctantly agreed.

The next morning they were again on the deck loaded and ready. Although it was still raining hard and very windy, we did have visibility, so after a quick breakfast, off we marched…into the wilds. I have to admit, my heart was not in it, the wind and rain were relentless. While I did my best to stay upbeat and positive, and show them all I could, inside I was thinking, “Who in the Hell would enjoy this?” Not my idea of fun… We were traveling cross country just above timberline as most of our hiking is. By late afternoon half damp from rain, half from sweat, we dropped off the alpine ridge into a deep timbered draw, slightly protected from the winds. I did remember something about “campfire,” which sounded like the best idea of the day. We set up camp, everything was soaked from several days of pouring rain, and finding wood dry enough to get a fire started was not easy. I got a lean-to on the upwind side of the fire; got water on for coffee and tea and we started drying out a bit. How, I’m not sure, as the rains showed no signs of slacking.

In front of the timber around camp was a lush grassy meadow, running out to and crossing the meandering creek bottom which had beaver dams every few hundred yards, then it sloped steeply up the hill through scattered timber and into the rolling open tundra above. As we sat half under the lean-to warming and resting by the fire, I was thinking, man what a miserable day, cold, wet, and windy. I was watching my guests, who were quietly sitting, coffee in hand, arms wrapped around their knees, slowly scanning, just looking at the country. As I was wondering what they were thinking, the husband turned to me, smiled, and in broken English, quietly said, “Dis iz beautiful,” then he went right back to looking. And I thought…It is? I had to look a bit, quite a bit, but yea, it was…you just had to look a little to see it. And I suppose coming from a city of a million plus people as they were, things look a little different. I went to bed with a slightly changed frame of mind…

Morning brought blue skies and sunshine, which were more than welcome. As I came out of my tent I noticed the folks had beat me up, both dead quiet. The wife was squatting, looking at small plants on the ground, the husband stood quietly in the middle of the meadow, hands folded peacefully behind his back, again just slowly, reverently, taking in everything around him. Hum…After breakfast we grabbed day packs and lunch and headed up out of the timber to the high ground tundra above. Crossing a ridge not far from camp we promptly ran head on into two bull caribou, they pranced left and right, it was perfect for watching and photos. We watched several more caribou as we hiked, then started seeing a bear here and there, and later spotted one of the most beautiful bears I have ever seen. A deep chocolate brown at a distance quartering away, as he would turn broadside he would change to a silvery gray, a true “silvertip,” and a beautiful bear. As the bear intently fed on blueberries, we relaxed on his downwind side in the alpine tundra sunshine, just watching, ate our lunches and enjoyed the scene. About as good as it gets. Throughout the afternoon we slowly worked our way in a big loop back toward camp picking up a few more caribou, a grizzly sow and cub, and one bull moose with horns still growing in velvet in a timbered valley far below us. A better day is hard to find in Alaska, or anywhere for that matter.

Back in camp after a good dinner, tea and dessert, I stocked up some firewood for our guests’ evening fire, which they totally enjoyed. Although the sun was still up, it was after 10pm, I bid our guests good night and turned in. After a bit of reading, snug in my tent and sleeping bag…I dozed off.

I had not been asleep long when I heard coming from camp a couple dozen yards away, a soft, yet increasingly urgent heavily accented voice…”Mik”…”Mik”…”.MIK!” and before I was even fully awake I was rolling over, coming out of my bag, grabbing my 45-70 rifle and yanking open the tent all at the same time. I came out to see a rather large bore grizzly standing about 30 yards away, looking about as surprised as we were. Although it is rare to have a problem bear, there is always that possibility; you never really know what kind of a bear you are dealing with or what is going to happen till it starts. But there are clues. We exchanged a quick look, and the bear decided he did not like where he was, turned away ninety degrees and in half a heart beat was doing 30 mph out across the creek, up the steep side hill and gone. It’s what we call, a “Good Bear.”

I looked at my clients who were standing about half way between me and camp. He looked at me, his mouth went into a little round “O.” With eyebrows raised his open hand went flat over his heart, and he gave a half dozen rapid pats that showed a heart rate of what I judged to be somewhere around a hundred and fifty beats per minute. Well, bears were on the list…

We returned home the following day. Our guests spent their last two days at the lodge and while we have had many guests over the years, we have never had any who observed, appreciated, and absorbed more than they did. They missed nothing, saw beauty in all, and gave me a renewed appreciation of where and how we live.

Mike & Pam live at Caribou Lodge Alaska in the Talkeetna Mountains just SE of Denali.


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