Mark Carwardine goes for a paddle in Alaska and comes face-to-face with bears as he explores the wilder side of a wild state
I stopped paddling and listened. It wasn’t so much a rustling in the undergrowth as a stomping, and it was happening no more than 10 yards away. It sounded like an army of overweight Morris dancers, minus their bells, crashing and cavorting their way along the edge of the forest. It had to be a bear, I thought. No other animal would have the nerve to make so much noise. I started paddling back a few strokes to counteract the incoming tide, which was pushing my kayak dangerously close to the strange sounds, when a wet nose suddenly appeared between the leaves of a nearby bush. It was a bear. A black bear. And it wasn’t much bigger than my next-door-neighbour’s pet rabbit.
Bear cubs, and their much larger relatives, are a highlight of any trip to south-east Alaska. There are higher densities of brown bears in the region than anywhere else in the world – an estimated one bear per square mile in some areas – and black bears seem to be almost as common. Not surprisingly, the locals all seem to be authorities on bears. Some like them, others don’t. But they all talk about bears in the same way the British talk about the weather and, when conversation lags, they revive it with comments like ‘Lots of bears around for the time of year’ or ‘Bears raided the garbage again last night’. It makes small talk so much more interesting than the more familiar half-hearted discussions about rainfall and cloud cover.
South-east Alaska is real wilderness. Not just holiday brochure wilderness, but genuinely wild, remote, rugged wilderness. It is the jewel in Alaska’s coastal crown. Majestic snow-capped mountains rise steeply from sea level to form sheer-sided fjords, towering ice-blue glaciers calve into freezing cold seas, and waterfalls cascade through dark green valleys of ancient coniferous forests. One of the last remaining strongholds for real wilderness mammals – not only the bears but wolves, wolverines and mountain goats as well – it is also home to large numbers of whales, seals and sealions, and more bald eagles than anywhere else on the planet. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are no fewer than 10,000 adult bald eagles in south-east Alaska, plus a few thousand young ones as well; in some places, there seem to be so many that you actually notice if there is a tree without a bald eagle perched on the top.
The entire region – known simply and affectionately as ‘Southeast’ by most of its human inhabitants – stretches from Icy Bay in the north to the southern tip of Prince of Wales island in the south. Composed of a narrow strip of mainland mountains, and over a thousand offshore islands, it is just over 500 miles long and about 120 miles from east to west. No more than 70,000 people are lucky enough to call Southeast their home. Most of them live in the three largest towns – Juneau (30,000), Ketchikan (14,000) and Sitka (8,400) – while the remainder live in about 30 much smaller communities sprinkled along the coast. Long before Europeans arrived, the area had already been home to three linguistic groups of native people: the Tlingits, the Haidas and the Tshimshians. Well-known as expert wood-carvers, and particularly for their totem poles, they no longer lead traditional nomadic lives but now live in a few permanent villages instead.
In July, I joined a small group of 14 people, including three crew members, aboard a 68-foot ketch called the ‘Island Roamer’. We spent two glorious weeks cruising the inlets, channels and straits of the Inside Passage, which meanders its way through the heart of south-east Alaska. This is not the sort of place you visit for a weekend, at least not from somewhere like London or, in my case, Guildford. We had taken a long-haul flight to Vancouver, immediately joined another flight north to Prince Rupert, then took myriad buses, ferries and taxis to Seal Cove Sea Plane Base, caught a sea plane to Ketchikan in order to clear US customs, and then took another flight to the bustling little town of Petersburg. After the usual death-defying water landing, in a small sea plane with more character than seats, we eventually joined the boat.
Every day, we cruised among the labyrinth of islands and islets, passing seals fast asleep on icebergs, unaware that they were drifting right past our hull; watching Dall’s porpoises riding the bow waves just a few feet below us; counting bald eagles as they soared overhead; listening to great walls of ice crashing from glaciers into the sea; and looking for whales. In between sails, we examined tidal pools along the shore, hiked past ancient coniferous trees and explored abandoned native villages that were gradually being reclaimed by the forests. How on earth the skipper managed to navigate his way from one spectacular anchorage to the next, through some of the tiniest channels and creeks, I’ll never know. But then I can’t even find my way around London without reversing up one-way streets.
Every night, after a full supper, we had an informal, feet-on-the-table confab about the events of the day, and then made plans for the day ahead. We sat on deck, supping bottles of beer or glasses of wine, and listened to the sounds of the night: a slight breeze in the treetops, a hooting owl, a crying loon, or strange rustlings in the undergrowth nearby. Sometimes, we untied a couple of kayaks and paddled quietly into the low, faint mist, exploring the little nooks and crannies that even the Island Roamer could not enter.
The highlight of the trip was a day spent around Yasha Island, at the point where Chatham Strait meets Frederick Sound. It was here that we had six staggering hours in the company of 40-50 exuberant humpback whales. They were the most active whales I had seen anywhere: performing full breaches out of the water, slapping their flippers and flukes onto the surface, and bellowing strange roars that sounded as if they were being made by a band of hippos playing didgeridoos.
While we gently bobbed around on the deck of the Island Roamer, watching in awe, the whales split into five or six separate groups and spread out across the sound to feed. They were everywhere one minute and, as the last of their tails disappeared beneath the surface, gone the next. There was almost an eerie silence as we waited, cameras at the ready, for their next impressive display, although it was virtually impossible to guess where they were going to reappear. It could have been right in front of the boat, immediately behind, on either side, within a few yards of us, or up to a mile away. Sometimes we noticed bubbles rising to the surface, giving us just a second or two to get ready. Then suddenly there would be as many as a dozen whales – each weighing up to 30 tons – erupting out of the water in one great foaming mass. With fish leaping out of their huge open mouths, and water pouring down the sides, they rose to a height of nearly 20 feet before sinking back into the depths. Every time it happened we ‘aaahd’ and gasped, whooped and cheered, and then calmed down just long enough to get ready for the next repeat performance.
It was one of the most exhilarating – and tiring – six hours any of us had ever spent. Later that evening we anchored in a deserted inlet and sat on deck in the half-light of the setting sun, absorbing the memories. With the haunting cry of a loon floating across the water, and a light mist hanging no more than a foot above the surface, we reminisced about the whales and tried to work out if we really had taken the photographs we had seen through our camera viewfinders.
On the last day, we went bear watching at a place called Anan Creek Bear Observatory, which was set up by the U.S. Forest Service and nestles in a creek on the mainland, near Wrangell Island. The briefing the night before had been so thorough we had felt like a crack SAS team being briefed immediately before a dawn raid. We weren’t allowed to wear perfume or aftershave (presumably the kind of advice given to crack SAS teams); we had to leave all food and drink on the boat; we had to promise never, ever, to leave the trail; and, perhaps most important of all, we had to stick together. Oh, and by the way, we were told, if we happen to come face to face with a bear – as one is prone to do on occasions like this – we mustn’t run. We were made to repeat what we mustn’t do – we mustn’t run.
We were met on shore by a specially-qualified guide in an official green uniform, who introduced himself as Dave. Dave was as qualified as they come. He had passed all the exams – the ones where they stick trainees in front of charging bears to see how they react – and had a bumper-size canister of Bear Spray hanging nonchalantly from his leather belt. The other important thing to remember, Dave told us, is to make lots of noise. Bear watchers have to forget all their instincts about creeping around quietly to watch wildlife, because bears don’t like surprises. It’s much better to let them know you’re coming. So we dutifully put bells round our ankles (more images of Morris dancing) and set off along the mile-long trail singing a rousing rendition of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. If we had wanted to surprise a bear, I couldn’t imagine any better way than to hire 15 Morris dancers to sing Teddy Bear’s Picnic out of tune. But the hike was uneventful and we reached the observatory having encountered nothing more dangerous than a week-old bear scat.
In July and August every year, black bears and a few brown bears gather to feed on the salmon runs of Anan Creek. The observatory itself consists of a plush wooden platform, with sweeping views along the creek in both directions, and a makeshift hide nearer water level. There were bears around from the moment we arrived – a female brown bear with three young cubs, whooping it up around her heels, and a lone brown bear splashing about in the water below. They seemed completely oblivious to the row of enthralled human faces watching them from no more 20 or 30 yards away. Once in a while, a black bear also wandered down to the water’s edge, grabbed a salmon as quickly as if it were picking a pre-packed fillet off a supermarket shelf, and then carried it back into the forest.
Reluctantly, after several hours which had seemed like several minutes, we left the wooden platform and began the short hike back to the Island Roamer. We had barely walked a few yards when a huge brown bear suddenly appeared on one side of the trail immediately ahead. Half the group were rooted to the spot. The others were off quicker than honeymoon pyjamas. The shocked bear stared at us blankly, while regaining its composure, and we tried not to stare back – as if we were trying to avoid eye contact with the school bully. After a moment, it turned around and, with a brief condescending glance in our direction, ambled back down to the river.
No matter where you are in this wilderness, whether you know it or not you are never far from a bear. If you don’t want to encounter one, the local advice is to stay at home; if home happens to be in south-east Alaska, of course, sometimes even that doesn’t work. But to outsiders, who never really come to terms with the sheer beauty and wildness of Alaska, it seems an enormous privilege to live in a place where you can still turn a corner and bump into one of the largest and most impressive predators on earth.
When to go: June through to August is the high season, although May and September can also be suitable with fewer tourists and mild, if changeable, weather. However, a small but increasing number of brave souls are heading north in the winter.
Getting around: Buses go between the major cities but public transport is limited overall. Car hire is readily available (as is motorhome hire) and fly-drive deals can be good value. However, vast areas of the country are not serviced by road and it is also possible to underestimate the distances between towns. Ferries are the main method of transport around the Southeast. Internal flights and air-taxis may be necessary if you want to cover large distances or really want to visit the interior. A railroad runs from Seward to Fairbanks, taking in Denali National Park on the way. However, out of the summer season the section from Anchorage to Seward is closed. During the summer a service also operates from Anchorage to Whittier, which meets the ferry at Valdez.
Things to do: Goldpanning, whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking, mountain biking, birdwatching. In winter there is dog sledding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
Flora and fauna: Bears should be respected at all times and menstruating women should be particularly cautious when out in the wilderness. Avoid wearing perfumes and other perfumed cosmetics and make noises so that you don’t surprise one.
However, for most visitors, the biggest nuisance is the biting insects. Mosquitoes are common in summer and are most active in the morning and at dusk. Just as bad are the black flies and no-see-ums. Cover up and take plenty of DEET-based repellent.