I spent my first few days in Denali National Park, Alaska, on adventures with my friends Carla, Qionghua, and Mickey. We mostly stuck to the Savage Creek area near the entrance to the park.
After they left, though, I wanted to get further in to the backcountry. Savage River was mostly wet tundra and low mountains, and I hoped to find more of the classic Denali landscape of gravel bars and jagged peaks. I had just enough time to squeeze in a two-night solo backpacking trip before I’d need to return to Anchorage to catch my flight home. So, I bought a ticket on a park bus out to Unit 10, the west fork of the Toklat River.
My goal was to head up the east bank of the river, cross if possible once it branched, maybe see one of the source glaciers, and come back down the west bank. That seemed a little ambitious for two nights, but I could forgo the glacier visit if necessary.
Right off the bus, my first job was to cross the west fork of the river, which led up into the neighboring unit. This taught me some of the unique challenges of river crossings in Denali. I could hear rocks clacking against each other before I stepped into the cold water, and when I got into the main current I felt them rolling against my ankles. Looking down at the rushing water made me dizzy, so I gazed at the horizon until I’d shuffled across. I made it – I was officially in the backcountry now!
I started up the gravel bar, and scared up some picturesque wildlife. I was so busy trying to photograph a young golden eagle, a female caribou coming up the bar didn’t notice me until I finally saw her and waved. That got her attention.
It was a nice day, if a little hazy from distant wildfires, and I was very happy I’d decided to get further into the park. I was four miles upriver from the road and officially out of sight of other people. As far as I knew, I was the only person in this valley, and on my own with the tock-grumble of rocks shifting in the river to keep me company.
I began to look out for a campsite, but the gravel bar narrowed and the mountain slopes became steeper. I spotted a light-colored animal moving up on the hillside. There are Dall sheep at high elevations in Denali, but I hadn’t yet seen any. Was this my chance? I lifted my binoculars.
It was not a sheep.
I’d never seen a grizzly bear before, and being alone and on foot, I was a little alarmed when I lifted my camera to get some photos and realized he was closer to me in each one. He was headed straight down the hillside toward me.
The rule of thumb with a wild animal is that if it changes its behavior because you’re there, you’re too close. But was he walking toward me on purpose, or had he just not noticed I was there? The rangers said bears generally leave the area when they recognize a human there.
I waved my hands over my head, the official “I’m human!” signal for Denali bears. He kept coming on. Ok, then that meant I needed to move out of his way, to maintain the 300m minimum safe distance. I couldn’t continue upstream without walking closer to him, so I reluctantly retreated downstream. Backtracking is never an appealing option with a heavy pack on your back. But then again, a close encounter with a grizzly bear isn’t appealing either, when you’re alone in the wilderness.
I felt a little better when he went to the river and bent down to it. If he was just getting a drink of water, I could get some more photos. Surely he’d seen me by now, and would go upstream when he was done drinking.
But instead, he straightened up and came toward me again.
Now I was nervous. I turned back downstream, questioning the pace of my retreat. I couldn’t walk too slowly, or the bear would walk right up to me; and I didn’t know how quickly I could walk without starting to look like prey. After all, I was kind of starting to feel like prey. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the bear sniffing at the gravel as he came. Was that where I’d just walked? Was I just in his way, or was he actually following me?
There was no way I could cross the river to get out of his path. It was a single channel, and the current piled water against the boulders to form surging pillows.
So I matched the bear’s pace, trying not to stumble too much on loose rocks. Even if he wasn’t following me, how far back downstream was he going? The gravel ended unexpectedly in a four-foot plateau of loose rocks, and I had to backtrack toward him to go around. I didn’t think I was beyond the minimum distance anymore.
Then I looked back and he was halfway across the river. He swam easily through the silty water, climbed the far bank, and shook himself. Sunlight caught the spray of golden fur and water.
He didn’t look back at me, only headed across the far bank and up the low slope of the mountains. I left him as he started searching for roots to dig up.
Obviously, I didn’t want to camp here anymore. But I was nearing the end of my rope, so I only went another mile or so upstream before settling in. I’d have to trust to my ranger-issued bear canister, and the good hundred-yard distance I put between it and my tent, to keep me undisturbed during the night.
The next day I walked to where the river split and looked for a place to cross. Right at the junction was definitely not the spot. Even though the browner-colored east branch nearest me was divided, standing waves in the largest channel showed that the water was deep and fast. I headed upstream until the river braided more.
Here, I had a chance to make it. I wrapped my camera in plastic, knowing that it wasn’t fully waterproof. I wouldn’t get hypothermia if the river knocked me over, and would probably be able to swim out, but I’d probably lose my camera to all that fine silt. No mistakes allowed.
The smaller braids I crossed first were ankle deep and easy, though I couldn’t feel my feet when I came up onto the gravel again. The wider channel was a different matter. I walked up and down the gravel bar, trying several crossings and retreating when the river almost swept me over. I didn’t have a walking stick, so I put some of my camera gear to the test instead.
Finally I settled on a spot that would have to do and went for it. Halfway across I stepped into the main current and there was no chance of going back. The river swept gravel out from under my feet as soon as I shifted my weight, and all I could do was keep moving, facing upstream, stepping sideways and backward as the water swept my legs along with it at each step. The water was knee deep but the waves breaking against me splashed up to my waist.I leaned on my monopod and forced my legs through the river.
I staggered onto shore with numb feet and handfuls of gravel in my boots. It took me a moment to dump my adrenaline on the far side. What a rush that had been! I almost hadn’t made it, but at least this east branch was the big one. The west branch should be easier. I hiked to it across the broad gravel valley. Up close, the river was a bit bigger than I’d thought, and definitely not crossable at the junction where it was a single channel. I’d have to go look upstream on this one as well.
That was okay. I’d just started out, and I had plenty of time. And despite the haze from distant fires that still smudged the air in the valley, it was nice out, with blue skies ahead and a brisk, invigorating breeze lifting the hairs on the back of my neck.
Thunder cracked behind me.
I spun around and saw a monstrous black cloud at the edge of the valley. It was piled up against the mountain ridge directly back the way I’d come, and the rising breeze was blowing straight from it. Lightening broke in the dark cloud, and more thunder rolled across the valley.
I was in a really bad place to wait out a lightning storm. The land between the rivers was a large, barren V of gravel, and although most strikes would hit the high mountains I was the tallest thing in the valley. I eyed the metal monopod in my hand. Time to leave.
I’d barely made it across the west branch and wasn’t confident I could do so again. The east branch still looked easier, but I didn’t know where I’d find a good crossing. Once the rain started, the crossings could only get harder. I didn’t waste much time deciding. I started along the bank of the east branch and watched my footing, not the oncoming storm. The rising wind gave me all the information I needed on how quickly it was blowing toward me.
Watching my step was important. I’d already made the questionable decision to try crossing the less familiar east branch, and had failed to notice the darkening sky before my first crossing. That was potentially two mistakes, and the backcountry wisdom I heard growing up was that people don’t get hurt in the wilderness because they make a mistake. They get hurt when they make three mistakes that all compound on each other. If I went too hastily I could twist an ankle, and then I’d have to ride out the storm right where I was, by the bank of a river on a wide, flat bar. Now THAT could call lightning down from those high peaks.
With my eyes on the ground, there was no way for me to miss the most beautiful set of grizzly tracks in all of Denali when I walked past them. Four of them were laid out crisply in a patch of mud. I started giving “hey bear!” calls, though surely every living thing with a brain had cleared out of the valley except for me.
The river kept to its single channel. I considered and rejected some pretty poor crossing spots; attempting a dangerous crossing out of panic could also become that third mistake. But I was also beginning to imagine I might only find a crossing spot just when the lightning storm caught up to me – then I would be the tallest thing around AND be knee-deep in flowing water. Thunder was sounding from the peaks on either side of the valley now, just behind me.
The river finally opened into a braid as the first stray drops of water blew against my cheek. I splashed into it, took advantage of an eddy behind a rock in the main channel, and leaned on my monopod again. Out. The far side was still flat gravel, but it sloped up to low bluffs. Now I could hurry, and did – a big crack of lightning hit the mountain right in front of me. I ran for the bluff.
A few bushes clustered at the base. “Hey bear!” I yelled for good measure as I went by. I tried to judge a good distance from the bottom of the bluff, wishing I remembered more lightning safety rules. This would have to do. I shucked my pack, tore out my sleeping pad and tarp, and threw them down to make an insulated bivy. More lightning hit the mountain above me, and the raindrops massed into a shower. I put my pack on the sleeping pad, crawled onto both, and pulled the tarp over me. My world was a cocoon of green – green tarp, green pad, and my green pack inches from my face. And with the tarp flashing brighter from the accelerating strikes, I waited.
A record 13,000 lightning strikes hit the state of Alaska that day, starting 61 wildfires. Of those strikes, 39 hit the valley and surrounding mountains of Unit 10. Two struck within a mile of me; one in the west branch I’d crossed earlier, the other four-tenths of a mile up the mountain slope above me.
I huddled under my tarp, smelling the musty fabric of my pack, and contemplated the old saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Thunder was sounding from all sides. The lightning that heralded it would kill me instantly if it struck near enough, so this probably counted as a foxhole. But people always said the atheists and foxholes line with such smug superiority.
So I talked to my pack instead, and to the lightning, and even called out to the distant bears, and I told them about my desire to not get struck or eaten or go into cardiac arrest from a nearby ground strike. I told them how I really appreciated their forbearance so far. And the storm rolled slowly around me.
When my legs cramped too much, and the thunder began to lag behind the lightning more and more, I crawled off my pack and curled up next to it on the sleeping pad. I waited a good long while. Water condensed under the tarp, and I spread my raincoat between it and me to keep warm. Even after the thunder was all past me, and I was getting chilly from the condensed water under the tarp, I waited.
But I couldn’t stay there forever. I had a bus to catch the next morning. Finally I pulled aside the tarp and crawled out. The rain was a gentle sprinkle, and the thunder distant. I packed my tarp and sleeping pad back into my pack, feeling inordinate affection for them all. So much for continuing up to the glacial headwaters. I wasn’t sure I could cover the extra distance with so much time lost, and besides – I wanted my feet to point toward home.
Of course, the valley wasn’t entirely done with me yet. Soon after I filled my camelbak and resumed hiking, the river butted up against some exceedingly crumbly cliffs, and I decided I’d rather not pass under them while backpacking alone. I climbed up around them instead, pulling myself up a bush-crowded draw until the valley was far below.
I scared up a couple of ground squirrels, found a cool yellow stream, and slid back down to the gravel bar again. The west bank of the river was wider and bushier, so I made up plenty of silly songs to sing as I went along.
I only got three hours of sleep after I set camp that night, because the bus would come by at 8am the next morning and I still had miles to go before I’d reach the road. When I woke up and broke camp the valley was still the dusky gray of an Alaskan summer night. I passed a big caribou, then three more further down.
A mile from the road I saw my bear again, way across the gravel bar. Too bad the tour buses weren’t running this early, because the bus riders would have enjoyed a great view of him. But not nearly as good a view as they could have if they got off the busses, stepped off the road, and took a few hours to follow the rolling Toklat river along the gravel flats.
Of course, I hadn’t been too overjoyed about my own great view of him when it had happened. There’s more safety in seeing a bear from a bus. But ultimately he had turned away, and I felt more at ease seeing him now, on my way out. I’d gotten what I wanted from this trip, for sure. Solitude, big animals, and wild rivers – and yes, a little more excitement than I’d intended. But I’d gotten to feel at home in this wide valley for at least a little while, and Denali didn’t seem so dangerous any more.
By the time I set foot on the graded dirt of the road, the sun was just coming up behind the mountains.