We woke and went through the motions of a chilly, windy breakfast. There was a sense of urgency to get up and get going.
Soon we were back at the mouth of Crystal Creek and Intermittent Creek. This was where we’d come down from two days ago, after spending the night on Eielson Pass.
We would not be retracing our steps. Instead, we would return via a more direct approach to the road. To do so, the Denali Guidebook said that we should get up on to a high bench on the east side of Glacier Creek.
I spied a grassy slope at the mouth of Intermittent Creek that appeared to give access to the upper tundra. The slope sure was steep, but it got us where we needed to go.
The mountain was out, and the views from up here were outstanding.
I knew we were on the right track when we picked up a clear trail across the tundra. The walking was smooth sailing – I could lengthen my stride and take in the surrounding scenery.
We looked back, and the sight was breathtaking.
Not only was Mount McKinley in plain view, but the dark moraine of Muldrow Glacier was spread out below it, like a black river of coal. Jackie took some pictures of me with the mountain, and then she struck a pose so I could get some shots of her, too.
So we were both facing the mountain for at least 30 seconds as I shot a round of pictures.
At last I said “Okay, I got it,” and Jackie turned around.
Something over my shoulder caught her eye. She looked alarmed.
“Jamie, there’s a bear! It has babies, Jamie!”
I jerked my head around, and sure enough there was a sow, with two cubs.
They were maybe 40 yards away.
Way too close.
And coming closer.
There was no time for any more communication – we instantly went into textbook procedure. We were immediately side by side, steadily stepping backwards while facing the bears.
“Hey bear, hey bear,” we said. I’d like to think that our voices sounded calm and steady.
At the sound of our voices, the mama bear whipped her head around and looked right at us.
She was only 30 yards away now.
I had my right hand on my bear spray.
I waved a hiking pole over my head with the other. Jackie did the same.
The female only looked at us for a moment…
… and continued right on past us.
She wasn’t interested. The cubs followed.
They moved at a brisk, focused pace. It wasn’t a run, but they surely weren’t just walking either.
I relaxed and smiled with exhilaration, and grabbed a fleeting picture as they disappeared out of sight.
I hadn’t felt so much adrenaline in my veins in a long, long time… probably not since the last rapid I rode in the Grand Canyon.
So we stood and let it sink in, expletives flying.
I realized we were lucky to have been stationary at the time, taking pictures. It may have been a much different experience if we were still on the move, walking briskly into a head-on collision.
After a few moments, Jackie said “Hey there’s another one!”
Sure enough, there was another bear in the distance. It was about 200 yards away, concentrating on stuffing its face with blueberries.
Blueberries… ripe blueberries were everywhere here, on the expansive tundra that we had to cross.
The distant bear was docile, and we got the impression that it was a male.
Maybe that’s why the female just ran by us. Maybe she was just trying to get away from that male, and then the sight of us only strengthened her resolve, like “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Speaking of getting the hell out of there, we kept a sharp eye out and continued forward. Our nerves settled after about thirty minutes, and we felt comfortable enough to take a quick snack break. We chose a nice spot in the grass with good visibility. It looked down on Camp Creek, a key navigational landmark.
We excitedly chatted about the recent events. Soon we re-packed and got ready to start moving again.
Another bear appeared in the distance. It was maybe 300 yards way.
He was more active than the previous one we’d seen, darting this way and that. He looked a little smaller than the others, so we were convinced he was different one than the previous bear.
He was far away, but I was able to get a good look through the zoom lens on my camera. We stood for a moment, watching. He was randomly going this way and that.
…but then he starting running directly at us.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
We dropped off of our perch, down toward the creek at our normal pace. The good news was that we immediately disappeared out of sight from the bear.
The bad news was that we couldn’t see the bear anymore… and didn’t know if he was still coming toward us.
About five minutes went by. We crossed the creek, and eventually it was logical to assume he hadn’t followed after us.
So on we went, on across the blueberry buffet.
In the foreground of the above photo there’s a small, lateral gully that had to be crossed. We came to the top of the hill that led down into it.
As we did so, we gained a complete view of the gully for the first time…
And yes, there was another bear down at the bottom, neck-deep in berries.
He was directly in line of where we wanted to go, but fortunately it was possible to give him a wide berth.
We’d just seen five grizzly bears in less than an hour. I wanted to get off of this tundra to the gravel bar of the river, ASAP.
“But just think, when will you have another chance to eat fresh, organic, Alaskan blueberries?”
Miraculously, we made it to the Thorofare River without another bear sighting. The trip was almost over – the park road was laid out before us.
The road was up on a cliffed-out bench, but there was a visible gulch that would give access to it. The bus drivers call the spot “Grassy Pass.”
We spotted two other pairs of hikers along the channels of the river. A couple of caribou went by, too.
The Thorofare River looked like a big one. I’d read that it can be a dangerous crossing, but it was easy and well-braided at the place where we went through it.
This trip was easily our most outstanding experience of the whole season in Denali.
See more photos from Day Four: