Outdoors & Recreation

The Smell of the Wild

Written by
Lisa Maloney

"Most longtime residents I’ve spoken to agree, those giant ungulates are scarier than the bears that sometimes eat them".

Bears are ... odiferous. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve hiked with people who swore they smelled bear urine alongside the trail and, once, wafting body odor from a bear who must’ve just ambled by. I never caught a whiff. 

My nose works fine for other things, though. For example, skunk cabbage, a pungent, cabbage-like plant that bears love, and the spicy, pine scent of tiny Labrador plants on the tundra. So it was only a matter of time until I finally hit the bear-smell jackpot. My friend Heather and I were hiking the Hanging Valley trail—an offshoot of the popular South Fork Eagle River hiking trail in Southcentral— and had just turned off the main trail when we hit a wall of the sweet-rot smell that says “dumpster nearby.” Or bear kill. 

The trail’s short but steep uphill slope, grassy fringe, and border of aspens all created the best concealment for miles. We craned our necks looking for circling ravens or buzzing flies—any other sign that indicated a bear might be perched atop a kill, waiting to defend it with prejudice. We saw nothing. 

Less than a quarter mile above us, the trail crested a small rise and broke into the open tundra, revealing great visibility for miles. We forged ahead, hoping we’d just hit a clump of some unusually stinky plant. But with every step we took, the smell got worse. We snuck sideways looks at each other, slowed our pace, and finally ground to a halt to confer. 

Heather is a traveling nurse, and this hike was our last chance to get outside together—but better to miss out than become bear chow. So the trail wasn’t an option. As is usually the case, the trail followed the path of least resistance, tracing up the crease where the hanging valley met our broad, glacier-carved valley ... and right through whatever it was that smelled like dead things, possibly the hulking, slavering, red-eyed bear out of everyone’s worst horror-movie nightmares. 

We could change our plans and just hike the South Fork main trail—or if we really wanted to get up and into that hanging valley we could go back and follow the main trail a short distance up the valley, then scramble up and over the steep ridge that formed part of the hanging valley’s “wall.” The way was steep, but not rocky; as long as we didn’t lose our footing in the rain-saturated greenery or get too disoriented by the dense clouds creeping down the mountains, we could manage. 

We decided to pursue the hanging valley by going back to the main trail, and from there scoping out the best-looking line up and across the tundra. But here’s the thing … even when you’re doing “bushwhacking lite,” with an open line of sight and vegetation that doesn’t reach past your waist, what might look easy usually isn’t. 

That clear line through the bigger bushes? It is populated by scrubby, thigh-high willows so tough that they make tentative handholds as you work up the steepest parts of the slope. And those bigger bushes? They’re as dense—and sopping wet after days of rain—as they seem, springy branches woven together into a net that’s ready to catch and hold. But hey—at least they weren’t head-high alders or devil’s club. 

The slope was steep enough that our forward progress sometimes felt more like crawling than walking—stopping to raise our heads and look for any sign of bear. It wasn’t long before our pants and supposedly waterproof boots were soaked through, squelching as we felt for the ground’s surface, hidden below the thick greenery. (That’s the thing about waterproof boots—they’re just as good at keeping water in as they are at keeping it out.) 

On the mountainside: Hanging Valley Trail

We waffled periodically—squinting up at the clouds that seemed so determined to engulf us, then down at the valley floor to gauge visibility—but persisted. Then we hit another patch of the same stench that had turned us back from the trail, an invisible hit of sewer-gone-bad. But this time it was just a dab. If that were the smell of a bear kill, it’d be the tiniest one in history. We poked at the undergrowth with our trekking poles, trying to figure out what could possibly be causing the smell. Odd, but no hazard in sight. On we went. 

Tundra ridges and mountains are famous for faking you out—every crest in the undulating surface creates its own artificial horizon, making you think you’re about to hit the high point, until another swell of ground rises into view. We were close to the crest of the ridge, though—just below the clouds and at the best point to start angling back to the trail—when we hit yet another patch of stench, dabbed along the upper edge of the line of willows with as much regularity as if someone had gone by with a spray bottle. 

Looking back down the mountain toward the trail we should have been on, Heather spotted a brown creature browsing on the uphill side of the aspens. “Look,” she said. “Is that...?” 

Yes. A moose. In mating season, hidden where we couldn’t have seen it while approaching from downhill. Suddenly the spray bottle analogy made sense. And while we were relieved not to see a bear perched atop its lunch, ready to take all on-comers, we felt even more relieved not to have startled a cranky, hormonal moose. Most long-time residents I’ve spoken to agree, those giant ungulates are scarier than the bears that sometimes eat them. 

Ryan Hagerty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Having identified the hazard, we made better time up the ridge and found the trail again before the clouds got down to us. It’s funny how our brains erase some parts of hikes while they retain others; I’d promised Heather a straight shot up to an alpine tarn once we got into the hanging valley, but we had to follow the valley for a couple of miles first. 

On the way back, fog swirled so thickly that we could barely make out the river in the valley down below. Happily, that cesspool of stench—which we could only assume was the moose itself—had moved on by then and we were able to follow the trail back down, satisfied and just a little proud of ourselves for still making it to our destination. And now that I’ve smelled (rutting) moose pee, I can stop questioning my nose or others’. 

Whatever you smell out there, it’s legit.


No items found.

The Smell of the Wild

Outdoors & Recreation

Author

Lisa Maloney

Lisa Maloney has lived in Alaska for more than 25 years. A former outdoors columnist for The Anchorage Press, she also covered a nationwide hiking and backpacking beat for About.com, served as senior editor at Alaska Magazine, authored the award-winning travel guidebook Moon Alaska, and contributes outdoors and lifestyle articles to a number of publications. FB @HikingAlaska TW @HikingAlaska IG @HikingAlaska www.hikingalaska.net

"Most longtime residents I’ve spoken to agree, those giant ungulates are scarier than the bears that sometimes eat them".

Bears are ... odiferous. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve hiked with people who swore they smelled bear urine alongside the trail and, once, wafting body odor from a bear who must’ve just ambled by. I never caught a whiff. 

My nose works fine for other things, though. For example, skunk cabbage, a pungent, cabbage-like plant that bears love, and the spicy, pine scent of tiny Labrador plants on the tundra. So it was only a matter of time until I finally hit the bear-smell jackpot. My friend Heather and I were hiking the Hanging Valley trail—an offshoot of the popular South Fork Eagle River hiking trail in Southcentral— and had just turned off the main trail when we hit a wall of the sweet-rot smell that says “dumpster nearby.” Or bear kill. 

The trail’s short but steep uphill slope, grassy fringe, and border of aspens all created the best concealment for miles. We craned our necks looking for circling ravens or buzzing flies—any other sign that indicated a bear might be perched atop a kill, waiting to defend it with prejudice. We saw nothing. 

Less than a quarter mile above us, the trail crested a small rise and broke into the open tundra, revealing great visibility for miles. We forged ahead, hoping we’d just hit a clump of some unusually stinky plant. But with every step we took, the smell got worse. We snuck sideways looks at each other, slowed our pace, and finally ground to a halt to confer. 

Heather is a traveling nurse, and this hike was our last chance to get outside together—but better to miss out than become bear chow. So the trail wasn’t an option. As is usually the case, the trail followed the path of least resistance, tracing up the crease where the hanging valley met our broad, glacier-carved valley ... and right through whatever it was that smelled like dead things, possibly the hulking, slavering, red-eyed bear out of everyone’s worst horror-movie nightmares. 

We could change our plans and just hike the South Fork main trail—or if we really wanted to get up and into that hanging valley we could go back and follow the main trail a short distance up the valley, then scramble up and over the steep ridge that formed part of the hanging valley’s “wall.” The way was steep, but not rocky; as long as we didn’t lose our footing in the rain-saturated greenery or get too disoriented by the dense clouds creeping down the mountains, we could manage. 

We decided to pursue the hanging valley by going back to the main trail, and from there scoping out the best-looking line up and across the tundra. But here’s the thing … even when you’re doing “bushwhacking lite,” with an open line of sight and vegetation that doesn’t reach past your waist, what might look easy usually isn’t. 

That clear line through the bigger bushes? It is populated by scrubby, thigh-high willows so tough that they make tentative handholds as you work up the steepest parts of the slope. And those bigger bushes? They’re as dense—and sopping wet after days of rain—as they seem, springy branches woven together into a net that’s ready to catch and hold. But hey—at least they weren’t head-high alders or devil’s club. 

The slope was steep enough that our forward progress sometimes felt more like crawling than walking—stopping to raise our heads and look for any sign of bear. It wasn’t long before our pants and supposedly waterproof boots were soaked through, squelching as we felt for the ground’s surface, hidden below the thick greenery. (That’s the thing about waterproof boots—they’re just as good at keeping water in as they are at keeping it out.) 

On the mountainside: Hanging Valley Trail

We waffled periodically—squinting up at the clouds that seemed so determined to engulf us, then down at the valley floor to gauge visibility—but persisted. Then we hit another patch of the same stench that had turned us back from the trail, an invisible hit of sewer-gone-bad. But this time it was just a dab. If that were the smell of a bear kill, it’d be the tiniest one in history. We poked at the undergrowth with our trekking poles, trying to figure out what could possibly be causing the smell. Odd, but no hazard in sight. On we went. 

Tundra ridges and mountains are famous for faking you out—every crest in the undulating surface creates its own artificial horizon, making you think you’re about to hit the high point, until another swell of ground rises into view. We were close to the crest of the ridge, though—just below the clouds and at the best point to start angling back to the trail—when we hit yet another patch of stench, dabbed along the upper edge of the line of willows with as much regularity as if someone had gone by with a spray bottle. 

Looking back down the mountain toward the trail we should have been on, Heather spotted a brown creature browsing on the uphill side of the aspens. “Look,” she said. “Is that...?” 

Yes. A moose. In mating season, hidden where we couldn’t have seen it while approaching from downhill. Suddenly the spray bottle analogy made sense. And while we were relieved not to see a bear perched atop its lunch, ready to take all on-comers, we felt even more relieved not to have startled a cranky, hormonal moose. Most long-time residents I’ve spoken to agree, those giant ungulates are scarier than the bears that sometimes eat them. 

Ryan Hagerty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Having identified the hazard, we made better time up the ridge and found the trail again before the clouds got down to us. It’s funny how our brains erase some parts of hikes while they retain others; I’d promised Heather a straight shot up to an alpine tarn once we got into the hanging valley, but we had to follow the valley for a couple of miles first. 

On the way back, fog swirled so thickly that we could barely make out the river in the valley down below. Happily, that cesspool of stench—which we could only assume was the moose itself—had moved on by then and we were able to follow the trail back down, satisfied and just a little proud of ourselves for still making it to our destination. And now that I’ve smelled (rutting) moose pee, I can stop questioning my nose or others’. 

Whatever you smell out there, it’s legit.


No items found.

Author

Lisa Maloney

Read This Next