Thursday, May 28, 2009

Close Encounter

It is against the rules to approach with 25 yards of any animal in Denali National Park, with one exception. You cannot get within 300 yards of a grizzly bear. But what if the bear approaches you?

I found myself in this interesting predicament earlier this afternoon. As we sat atop a low bridge with off- duty ranger and photographer, Ken Conger, a lone grizzly bear slowly began to make its way in our direction.

For most of the afternoon, the bear had been in the same spot on the riverbed rooting around for roots and Eskimo potatoes. I never paid him much heed because he was too far away to make a good photo, around 300 yards away, which is the minimum distance that the park service allows you to be from a grizzly bear.

I was very excited as the bear ambled in our direction. Ken did not seem to be bothered by the bear’s approach, as he too was snapping away with his camera. Although he did tell me to stand up in case the bear decided to bluff charge us. As the minutes drew on, the bear came closer and closer, 200 yards, then 100 yards. As the bear got within about 60 yards of us, Ken decided that the bear was too close for comfort, so we made our way to the bus that had pulled to a stop on the bridge, and climbed on when the bear was just 20 yards away (within the 25 yard minimum specified for other more benign park species).

The Latin name for a grizzly bear is Ursus Horibillus (horrible bear). It is no wonder that grizzlies got that name as they are tremendously powerful and fast creatures. A grizzly can run 35 to 40 miles an hour. Though the diet of Denali grizzly bears is about 80% vegetarian, it is not uncommon for a bear to bluff charge an intruder into its large personal space. This is especially common when the bear has cubs.

In a bluff charge, the bear will run at you full speed and veer off at the last second. They will repeat this action over and over until they drive you off.

If you are being charged, you are supposed to talk calmly and slowly back away from the bear, never run. Though this seems like an unreasonable request to make of someone being threatened by a bear, I spoke with two park rangers who had been bluff charged by bears and stood their ground. The problem with a grizzly is that if you give it a reason to think you are prey or a serious threat, there is nothing that you can do about it attacking you except to play dead and hope that it loses interest.

Lock Up Your Bicycles

The grizzly is not the only threatening animal in the park. As me and my dad were about to hike in the Toklat region of the park, we read in a ranger office that a local wolf had been following bikers and chewing on their bikes as they sought shelter in buildings and vehicles.

To handle such problems the park rangers use a three tiered control system. The first tier is to harass the animal with noise to give it an appropriate fear of people. The second tier is to harass the animal with pain by shooting it with paint balls and bean bags. The third tier is to tranquilize the animal and move it to another area of the park. Denali does not use euthanasia except in an instance where the animal physically attacks people.

A Sheep With a Headache

One of my favorite things about Denali is that the park gives visitors great freedom to hike anywhere in the park (which has very few actual trails).

This morning, my dad and I took a shuttle bus about 50 miles into the park to a place called Toklat. It was during this ride that we saw some of the best wildlife that we have seen all trip. We got impressively close to bear, dall sheep, moose, caribou, and even a wolf. At the end of the ride, Dad and I disembarked from the shuttle bus and began our hike across a braided river bed, and up a mountain valley.

This valley is one of the first places I have ever been where it is possible to listen and not hear any human noise pollution. It was in this small valley that my dad found the remains of a freshly killed dall sheep. The hair, bits of bone, and the horns were all that remained of the goat, which was probably killed by a wolf that was seen in the area both yesterday and today.

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