I was taking a mid-afternoon hike in early August along the beautiful Savage River Loop Trail in Denali National Park, and was not more than half a mile from returning to the parking lot where I had left my vehicle. Grizzly Bear was on my mind because I had seen one from the highway just an hour earlier, a couple of miles or so before reaching the place where I was now.
As I topped a rise on the trail I saw six people in front of me standing perfectly still, their eyes fixed on something ahead. In a hushed but urgent tone they motioned for me to stop and look. There, perhaps 200 yards ahead and directly on the trail was a large grizzly bear. He was intent on digging a hole into which he sank his entire front limbs and head. I presumed he was digging up an arctic ground squirrel since I had seen a few of them in the area. It was obvious that the bear was hungry to be digging for his dinner so intently.
Tingling with excitement, I pulled the bear in as close as possible with my camera, wishing I had a better telephoto lens. At this point I did not yet know that I would soon be much too close to the grizzly for comfort.
Suddenly the Grizzly backed out of the hole he had been digging, apparently unable to unearth the ground squirrel. He turned, looked toward us, and then began to lumber in our direction. His gait quickly turned to a lope, and he closed the gap between us in a very few seconds.
The six people I was with included one older couple, and a young family of four. The older couple stood their ground, muttering something about being native Alaskans and having seen Grizzlys in the wild before. The family (man, wife, son and daughter) began a very fast walk back down the trail, away from the road and our parked vehicles.
I backed away more slowly, singing loudly and not caring how badly it sounded, just so long as the grizzly heard "I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track ... Valderee, Valderah ... my knapsack on my back." Bears have poor eyesight but very keen senses of smell and hearing. I felt that as soon as the bear recognized we were humans he would turn off the trail and avoid us.
To my horror, the bear continued to advance. At this point the older coulple were about 30 feet closer to the grizzly than I was and the young family was disappearing around the bend in the trail behind me. The older man was trying to take a picture, while his wife waved her arms franically and shouted at the bruin. This is exactly what all the books tell you to do in a such an encounter. The purpose for lifting your hands is to appear as tall as possible to the beast, and since the wild creature is not familiar with the sound of a human voice, the shouting is to frighten it.
The bear approached, now slowly, to within 8 or 10 feet from the couple. The man quit taking pictures and joined his wife in yelling and flailing his arms. Apparently the trick worked. The bruin, looking a bit confused, turned and bounded off the trail and into the river. Although it does not show too well in this photo, the Savage River was swift-flowing and probably four feet deep at this point. However, the grizzly bounced easily through the water, over a gravel bank, and up the hill on the other side.
Up the bank on the other side of the river was the front half of the loop trail, where I had been hiking just 30 minutes earlier. I looked over and saw that there were several other vacationers on this section of trail. Closest to where the bear emerged from the river was a lone male hiker.
The grizzly approached this man even more agressively than he had the couple, appearing to me to be aggitated by this second human encounter. The bear made a bluff charge to within a few feet of the man, then stopped suddenly. Apparently the man had read the same instructions for scaring away a bear that we had because he was clawing at the sky and yelling loudly, "Shoo, bear, shoo; go away, bear!"
While taking advantage of the situation to make tracks back toward the trailhead, I stopped just long enough to take this shot, praying all the while for the man's safety. Although in this photo it appears that I am on the same side of the river as the bear, actually I was shooting across the river, which makes a bend at this point.
After climbing uphill for about 40 feet, the grizzly stopped and paused for a moment. He then turned, and shot back down the mountain even faster than his first charge. My heart lept into my throat. I felt sure I was within a a millisecond of witnessing the poor hiker's demise. But a second time the bruin stopped. He looked to me to have been close enough that the frightened man could smell the stench of the bear's breath. It amazes me that a 600-pound bruin could accelerate and then stop so quickly.
The hiker on the opposite shore was successful in frightening the bear away the second time, and now the grizzly continued downhill, crossing the river again to my side and coming directly toward me. All this while I had been walking slowly back toward the trailhead, and was now within about 200 yards of a small ranger station which sits beside the highway there. I was much closer to the bear than to the safety of the building, which was not much larger than a toll booth. Through the windows I could see that it was already packed with other hikers. A brave park ranger came out to meet me, urging me get back to the safety of the building, which I was only too eager to do. "Hurry, but don't run or walk too fast," the ranger shouted. Doing so might have triggered the beast's instinct to chase.
I walked steadily, but it seemed to take forever. All the while the grizzly was closing the gap between us. At this point I felt like changing my tune to "Nearer My God to Thee," the last song the orchestra was playing as the Titanic went down. Instead I just shouted bear gibberish. Walking backward and waving one hand over my head, while clicking my camera with the other, praying that each photo wouldn't be my last. By the time I reached the safety of the ranger station, the grizzly was about 20 feet behind me.
At last, safely inside the building, the bear lumbered on by, then turned and walked up the road for a short distance before disappearing again into the fastness of the Denali wilderness. I stayed put until the ranger assured me that the grizzly was far out of sight.