Denali's Trailless Wilderness
|The elusive grizzlies|
Our last full day in the range, Dan and I become mountaineers of a sort: we ascend Sable Mountain, a dark, massive, domelike peak. Following the creek to a 4,800-foot pass, we then ascend the mountain's northeast ridge along an easy-to-negotiate, mile-long slope that gently rises 1,100 vertical feet. No climbing expertise or special gear is necessary only physical conditioning, a steady pace, and warm clothes. A cool, blustery wind blows across the ridge, giving the day a wintry feel; we put on extra layers of fleece, wool caps, and gloves.
Above 5,000 feet the ground is mostly bare, except for scattered mosses, lichens, grasses, and three types of flowers: purple mountain saxifrage, which grows here in fuchsia-colored clumps; a hairy, purple flower named kitten tails; and blue mats of mountain forget-me-nots. None are more than an inch high. There's little evidence of wildlife along this rocky slope, though we do see ravens, rock ptarmigan, and buntings.
Once on top, we get to fill in the"rest of the picture" that Sable Mountain had blocked the day before. To the south and southwest are Denali Park Road and many familiar landscape features I've previously seen only from the road corridor: Sable Pass, East Fork of the Toklat River, Polychrome Pass and Mountain, Toklat River, and Divide Mountain. Much farther to the southwest, poking its North and South Peaks above the clouds and Alaska Range foothills, is the park's icy crown, Denali. This mountaintop overview helps to put things in a larger perspective, connects the different landforms like pieces in a puzzle.
The summit also provides our first bear sightings: On a tundra bench nearly 2,000 feet below (and within several hundred yards of the road) is a grizzly family: a chocolate mom with three yearling cubs, all of them very dark brown. And across the road, no more than a half-mile from the others, is a large, blond grizzly that's grazing in a small meadow surrounded by willows. A couple of buses have stopped along the road and I imagine the passengers excitedly watching and photographing what are likely their first Denali grizzlies. Though they're much closer than we are to the bears, I wouldn't trade spots. There's a huge difference between watching a bear from a roadside, while inside the protected confines of a vehicle, and seeing one while you share the same wild landscape.
The wind blows harder on top, 35-40 mph with even stronger gusts. We duck out of the wind for lunch. Even in our protected nook, the air is cold and I add still another layer of fleece for warmth. There's little besides rock along the summit ridge: a few small patches of moss, grass, and lichen. Just below the top, there's also a two-inch-long "hair pellet" made of dense fur, a couple of tiny claws, and some bone fragments. This summit, then, is occasionally used as a raptor's lookout perch.
Dan decides to take a different, more circuitous, route back to camp, so he's the first to leave. Watching his descent I spot three more bears, a mom and two yearling cubs, grazing in a creek bottom on Sable's north side. The grizzlies are a couple valleys over and there's no danger that Dan will run into them. Still, it's a little unsettling to suddenly see so many bears, even from a distance.
Hours later, now back in camp, I get an even closer look at griz. Leaving the tent one last time before going to sleep, I glance around and briefly glimpse a large, blond animal in the creek bottom, several hundred yards up-valley. A moment later it disappears and I wonder if I'm imagining things in the dim late-evening shadows. But the animal soon reappears: It's a grizzly all right, probably a young adult. The bear again moves out of sight, this time around a bend. I share the news with Dan, who quickly exits the tent. What a time to see a grizzly! Fortunately it was headed away from us at a fast pace, perhaps because it smelled or otherwise sensed us while walking along the creek. Dan stays outside another fifteen to twenty minutes, but the bear is gone. In the morning, we too will be leaving perhaps never to return. We feel lucky that, our last night here, we've shared this valley with a grizzly.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication