The Doors of Perception, Dancing with Bears and the Firestarter
I think my wife has been playing Beatles songs to me while I sleep. Backwards. I’ve always thought that “Yellow Submarine”, despite its marine setting and all its other connotations, has a certain pastoral feel to it, but now I’m convinced that when you play it backwards at just the right speed, you’ll hear the words “I love sheep” in a hypnotic, mesmerising tone. That explains how we ended up at a place called Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway, a road that stretches from Anchorage to Glennallen in the interior of Alaska. It was my choice, or that’s what I assumed anyway, but when you’re married to an addicted sheep-watcher, you start thinking a bit differently about why things happen.
No matter how we ended up there it was spectacular, even if somewhat sheepless. Although it was fall, for some reason we hadn’t really expected the barrage of colour that greeted us. It felt as if I were wrapped up in my own private LSD experience, a warped colourful vision of psychedelic yellows, whites, greens and browns as autumn trees nestled up to shining glaciers. Not that I know anything about LSD experiences – I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a road trip and an acid trip and I wouldn’t know Timothy Leary if he returned from the grave and explained The Revelation to me. Thankfully, I suspect neither can most of my reading audience (tell the difference between the trips or explain The Revelation), so you’ll just have to nod along with my metaphoric imagery.
After a couple of days in this multi-coloured wonderland, including a brief sortie to a glacier, we drifted further north towards the legendary Denali National Park. Most famous for Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America (6190m), it is also home to bears, caribou, moose, eagles and a multitude of smaller critters. My favourite of these smaller creatures is the arctic ground squirrel, not because it is particularly attractive, unless you’re one of those people who find over-sized rats with bushy tails cute, but because it is referred to as the “junk food of Alaska”. Apparently if any animal is a bit peckish, all he needs to do is pop out, have a quick look around and grab the nearest little squirrel bite – a bit like a Kentucky drive-through but without the eleven herbs and spices. Despite their doey-eyed, fluffy-tailed scampering, they don’t evade capture very well. Perhaps it is their ability to lower their body temperatures below zero when hibernating, and the concomitant effect on their brains, that has something to do with this.
I’d always hoped that when I visited Denali, it would be to scale the peak. I was here now and I had everything I needed. A good pair of hiking boots, a warm jacket, legs like pistons, the fortitude of Shackleton, a backpack and a beanie that makes me look as rugged as hell. What could go wrong? Of course I kept these plans well-hidden from my wife – she doesn’t seem all that keen for me to participate in activities that the more cautious-minded consider risky. Sadly, I realised that my timing was all wrong – the climbing season had been over for some time and the hillock was a bit larger than I thought. It was a tad chilly and my toes don’t like the cold. In addition, they were saying it would take about 3 weeks to do it. Those were the only reasons I stayed away. Oh, and apparently there’s a big ridge you have to walk along. And you can fall. I don’t like falling. But I would have done it, really I would. I promise.
It was with some reluctance that I set aside my mountaineering ambitions and was forced to see the park the way most people do – via National Park bus. Denali has a system that is a bit alien to those of us weaned on the ways of the Kruger National Park. With rare exceptions, no cars are allowed into the majority of the park and instead a series of shuttle buses runs up and down the small portion of the park that has roads. It’s possible to hike and camp with the right permits and preparation but few people seem to do this. It seems I’m not the only one who doesn’t like cold toes.
We managed to squeeze in a few short hikes, but for the most part, our experience of the park was from the bus. We saw most of the major mammals (including Dall sheep!), but compared to our parks back home, I found the wildlife experience a bit underwhelming. The sightings were few and far between and often at a great distance from where we were. This helps to explain the uncontained excitement some visitors to our country display when they see an impala around every corner.
For me, the grand attraction of the park was the landscape – varied, vast and impressive with an array of glaciers and rocks, seasoned with moraine, kettle lakes and eye-balancing tundra. Overseeing this magnificent territory sits Mount Denali, usually covered in cloud, a teasing temptress in a white frilly dress, watched intently by visitors in the hope that she will act inappropriately and lift her skirt for a moment and they will see her knickers. About one in three visitors to the park get to see the peak – we were fortunate to have clear views of the entire range on a number of days.
We’d been told that bear viewing in remote Alaskan locations was a unique experience. Although we had expected to see bears in Denali (and we did, munching blueberries at a distance), we knew that bear lodges would offer a very different, more intimate experience. But the price scared us. Two nights’ stay at one of the cheaper lodges near Lake Clark, accessible only by boat or by plane, would be worth about three-quarters of a month’s travel. How unique could it really be? But we are past masters at self-justification – how could we travel all this way and not go there? It’d be like going to Kimberley without seeing the Big Hole. Or visiting Jo’burg without being robbed or hijacked. Besides, it includes a flight of an hour or so in a small bush plane – you pay a fortune for one of those flights just to sight-see – this one would be for free! Still, it was late in the season – what if we paid all that money and the bears had already left? But the bears were there.
Our pilot, Tim, a grizzled 68-year old Alaskan veteran, although initially uncertain as to who we were, squeezed the two of us and our luggage into his tiny plane, gave us a 30-second safety briefing (“if the door opens by mistake mid-flight, leave it alone, I’ll sort it out”) and we were away. If only all flying were like this – no queues, no scanners, no 200kg man with sweaty palms just itching to pat you down. It was a clear, turbulence-free day and we skipped along a few thousand feet in the air seeing mountains in the distance with the terrain below sliding from oil-rigged seascape to an other-worldly satellite photo impersonation. Tim provided the laconic, throaty commentary whilst I tried with limited success to snap photos without causing the plane to bank by hitting one of the pedals below my feet or elbowing Tim in the face as I contorted my body to get a better angle. It was glorious. And so was the landing – a smooth descent onto a narrow, debris-strewn beach – a few photographers already within sight, stalking some bears.
Within 20 minutes or so, we were out looking for bears too. Our first sighting was of a mother and two cubs snoozing on the beach. Finding them was pretty easy as they were being shadowed by a small group of photographers clad in full-body camouflage which extended to their massive cameras and five foot lenses. I whipped out my comparatively small fella and joined them.
We spent most of our time in this remote place observing, taking photographs and marvelling at the close-quarters access we had to the bears. Our guide drove us around in a trailer attached to an ATV to find them and their behaviour suggested some comfort with our presence. Despite our proximity, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking, they were unaffected. Up close, they appeared deceptively cuddly rather than the vicious man-maulers we’d been led to believe that they were. They roamed the long stretches of tidal flats at low tide and hung about nibbling grass in the meadows at other times. There was sun. There was rain. We sat. We stood. We snapped some pictures. It may well have been the most sublime animal-watching experience that either of us have ever experienced.
Our stay was way too short and it was with some envy that we looked upon the remaining bear-watchers as Tim lifted the small plane into the air and whisked us back to Anchorage. Despite our misgivings about the Alaskan capital, we’d always planned to spend a couple of nights there at the end of our trip to catch up on laundry and to give us a buffer in case our bear-watching was delayed because of weather. The denouement to our Alaskan trip, which had contained so many highlights to this point, ended up being even worse than we anticipated.
Relishing the opportunity to cook our own food in the Airbnb that we were staying in, San-Marié decided to whip up some pan-seared scallops. She failed to realise that the olive oil that she was using was not blended. It was pure … and flammable. As a result, when she added the olive oil to the scorching pan, a huge flame leapt upwards and threatened to attack the whole kitchen. I was sitting, relaxing in the small lounge, as I do, when I heard a yelp and a screech from the kitchen. I dashed over like the true hero that I am … and gawped uselessly at the unfolding disaster. Upon instruction, I scrabbled around to find another pan or pot with which to quell the burgeoning inferno. But the damage was done. When we had quelled the blaze, the kitchen walls were covered in soot, the extractor hood had turned a nasty grey and the fan was making a strange rattling noise. And so our last day in Anchorage was spent visiting Walmart to find cleaning products (a truly soulless place that should only be forced upon the malevolent and evil of this world) and trying to restore order to the newly blackened kitchen. I’m always happy to delegate to the experts, so I allowed San-Marié to take the lead in the cleaning, yet despite her best efforts, by the time we called the owner to come and assess the kitchen, there were still discernible signs of the carnage. Given that the kitchen had only recently been redone, she was remarkably pleasant about it all. After our departure, she tried in vain to complete the rescue job, but the kitchen hood was unsalvageable. In the end, Anchorage was a bit more expensive than we had anticipated.
And in case you were wondering, we still ate the scallops. And yes, they were very tasty too.
To view our Glenn Highway and Denali Gallery, click here.
To view our Brown Bear Gallery, click here.