Denali 2020: Summer of the Bear

Summer of the Bear. Summer of turning 30. Summer of death by mosquito. Summer of fly fishing. Summer of jewelry making. Finished by fall colors and blueberry picking. Not a bad way to pass the Summer of Covid.

Hi ho, hi ho, It’s off to work we go….
Gotta get those hiking legs back in shape…

To give you an idea of where we lived and worked this summer, Denali Backcountry Lodge is located in Kantishna, which is at the end of a 92 mile dirt and gravel road that runs along the North side of Denali National Park. This is the only road into the park. After mile 15, no private vehicles are allowed (without special permits). The only way to access the park, other than on foot, is to use the bus system.

Denali National Park implemented the bus system to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, to help preserve the wilderness context of the area, while still providing access to visitors. Some buses are narrated tours of the park, sharing geological, biological, & cultural history throughout the drive, while also “on safari” looking for wildlife. Other buses are more of a shuttle bus to get you to places in the park to go for hikes or camping.

As a part of staying at Denali Backcountry Lodge, guests have a top quality drive in and out with extremely talented and knowledgeable bus drivers, while looking for the animals that call Denali home.

Nice place to keep cool

In a standard year, the park service runs tour buses to the end of the road and back, as well as the shuttle buses to the Wonder Lake campground, which is about 7 miles from our lodge. This season, the only way to get to our end of the road was on our bus – either as a day guest or an overnight guest. The park reduced the number of buses from something like 70 buses a day to about 7. Also their buses turned around at mile 67 – Eielson Visitor Center. Even the special road lottery implemented every other weekend this summer allowed drivers to go to either the first rest stop at mile 30, or the 3rd rest stop at mile 67. This meant we had Kantishna to ourselves… and so did the bears.

Our season kicked off with a tall, smart, old brown bear breaking its way into our main lodge, helping itself to the foods in our dry storage (didn’t like Sweet & Lo), as well as making its way into our staff lounge and taking up home under our main lodge building. The break in also allowed for some smaller locals to explore our main lodge building. Opening the lodge for the season was delayed for a few days as all the ranks of management team come out to clean up the garbage strewn around property and repair the main points of entry.

The Park Service wildlife specialist team was on the case, as this intelligent browser seemed to be making the circuit and visiting all the buildings of the Kantishna region, including busting the grease trap at the Roadhouse lodge and discovering the dry storage of dog food at the ranger station. They set out a live trap for the bear, with the goal of capturing, re-education, and re-locating this problem bear. Learning about a food source like this can potentially cause negative situations when people come to the area, so it’s best to remove the bear from the area to prevent future issues.

Scat & tracks collection for my evening program

A live trap for a bear is like a giant size version of the one you’d use for a opossum or raccoon at home: a large culvert type tube on a trailer is set in the driveway, with bait at the far end of the tube. The bear goes in the trap, pulls on the bait, and the door shuts behind it. Simple. Well…. not for this bear. This furry Einstein had been around the block a time or two. Reports & video say it went into the tube to check out the bait, came back out without triggering the door, then reached in through the windows to attempt to retrieve the snack. This big ole Yogi outsmarted the trap!

This bear was never caught, but we don’t think it came back either, as this bear was distinctly long. The bears we saw throughout the summer didn’t seem to match this profile. I’m betting it’ll find its way back to the lodge now that the people are gone for the season.

Throughout the season, we estimate we saw at least 8 different bears in the area. Which is 8 more than I’d seen in either of my previous seasons. Ranger Dave, the ranger stationed in the Kantishna region each summer, commented this is the most brown bear activity he had seen in the 20 years he’d been here. We had a mom and older cubs hanging out on Eagle Point ridge area; a mom and spring cubs frequenting the Camp Ridge area; then a handful of what we deemed “recently kick-out teenage bears”. Based on their size & behavior, we guess these are 4-5 year old bears that just got kicked out of mom’s space, and were trying to find their own space in the grand scheme of the wild world. Cubs typically stay with mom for about 3 years, then get the boot after the 3rd winter so she can mate that summer.

Spring cubs look like Teddy Grahams ❤

A young bear spent its summer around Camp Denali area, crossing the road often, startling cyclists and making them question their choice of biking in the wilderness, and leaving fresh piles of poo in the road to stir the guests’ excitement as we drove by each day.

I was greeted at the trailhead by a freshie one morning, keeping us on high alert for the morning. Previously on the same trail, we spotted a bear on our route ahead, so we had to re-route the hike to avoid “Bob the Bear”, as named by the youngest guest in the group. That was my first time re-routing a group hike due to wildlife.

Scared the crap right out of it!

Steve ran into a young bear on one of his hikes. The bear had a bit too much curiosity for his comfort level. He approached Steve & his family of guests to within 15 yards, before dashing about 20 yards perpendicular to the trail, then continuing its path past the group. Yikes.

Couple of outdoor dorks

I had the privilege of watching a bear swim across Wonder Lake one morning while on a hike with guests. We got to the top of Blueberry Hill and saw something splashing around in the water down below. We got out the binoculars and cameras to identify the swimmer as a brown bear out playing in the lake! It then swam away from the trail & road to the far side of the lake, just as another group of guests arrived to the lake. They were able to watch it with binoculars across the lake, but they missed the awesome water show just minutes earlier.

Another night, the bears were out and about, running along the road, down the tundra, scaring up some moose to run through property, then when they stumbled across the creek into property, someone sounded the air horn to alert everyone that bears were on property, but the noise scared them the other way. But I regularly saw bear tracks on the sand bars of the creek throughout the summer.

There are many other tales of bear encounters throughout the summer from all the staff and some guests, but all were positive encounters (meaning no charges or contact). It was a very unique season to be in the backcountry. Our guest numbers were overall low, but steady. This allowed for very personalized tours and great connections with our guests. Though we each only hiked about 60 on-trail miles with guests this summer (vs. the 200 miles I hiked in 2016), we definitely had great conversations and spent quality time with each guest.

Though Steve & I didn’t go on many outdoor adventures due to the onslaught of terrorist mosquitoes at the beginning of the summer, I did find a weekend to go plaster casting with Olivia! We took some bicycles to Eielson V.C. and rode back to the Thoroughfare River where there is a hot bed of animal tracks. Olivia bought plaster, so between her plastic skills and my, well, being there, we casted 10 tracks, including a bebe brown bear and a lynx!! (Also, I saw my first lynx this summer! My reaction was very unprofessional due to the disbelief of what I was finally seeing!) Thanks for the adventure weekend, Oli!

I spent some of my free time learning how to make resin jewelry. Definitely just a small hobby, but a fun learning process. I’ve shared some of it on my Instagram (@limitless.skye) if you’re curious. Mostly bugs and flowers to start. Each round taught me more lessons. My goal was to have some good enough pieces completed to give as gifts for my Secret Santa gifts for the Hallowistmathanks party at the beginning of August. Completed that goal. And guess what everyone else is getting for real Christmas! 😀

I already wrote about what Steve spent his free time doing — learning to fly fish! Check out my last blog post to read all about that. We are looking forward to a great road trip through the western lower 48, putting those fishing skills to the test. Stay tuned for how that turns out. Do we eat tasty fish each night or stare longingly at our ramen noodles, dreaming of what it could be?

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