Close encounters of the black bear kind

Since arriving in Alaska, I’ve gotten really good at dealing with rain. Waterproof stuff sacks, dry backs, plastic covers for my camera–it’s all become the norm. Fortunately, though, the rain broke a few times, and I’ve been treated to gorgeous glacier views and experiences. So far I’ve encountered the Mendenhall, Exit Glacier, Grewink Glacier and this weekend we’re flying out with skis and pack rafts to the Wosnesenski.

I’ve also come nearly face to face with a few bears. The first encounter occurred while I was hiking alone at the Mendenhall. I came around a corner and had the eerie feeling that someone was watching me. Someone was–a black bear sat 10 feet away, calm and unblinking, just observing as I strode past.

The next encounter was a little less peaceful.

On Tuesday, Alayne and I caught a ride across the bay, strapped pack rafts to our backpacks and hiked across a saddle trail to Grewink Lake. We set up camp on the lake and then paddled out the the glacier’s face. The glacier grew in exponential frames as we grew closer and a sharp, silty current pushed hard agains our paddles. Just as we got close enough to be nearly overcome by the 6-7 story wall of ice before us, slow-growing clouds broke and rain pelted the lake waters. We quickly turned back to shore and inched our way to camp. Later that night we built a fire and watched light shift on the striated lines of the glacier.

The next day, we strapped packs, sleeping bags, tent and food on our rafts and paddled toward Grewink Creek. By way of the creek, Grewink glacier feeds directly into Katchemak Bay, which then meets up with the ocean. I’ll spare details of the wild, wavy raft ride through frigid glacier run off–which Alayne ended up swimming in–but I’ll give you this:

We were approaching a section of creek riddled with rocky channels and strainers. I’d drifted far ahead of Alayne on a hard, fast current that pressed me close to the strewn tree trunks I was trying to avoid. Just as I attempted to slow myself and scout an approaching channel, a black bear came to shore 30 yards ahead. I caught my breath. Oh fuck. The current pressed me forward as I searched the shoreline desperately for a place to pull off. A small gravel strip appeared to my right and I paddled hard for it, stabbing my paddle into the small stones, all the while watching the bear. He waded his heavy black body into the water and began to swim across. I dug my paddle harder into the gravel, fighting with the current that urged me forward, pushing me closer to the bear.

The bear hopped onto the opposite shoreline and moved out of sight. I released my hold and ducked into an eddy to wait for Alayne to meet me. “Did you see that bear?” she asked. Yeah, I laughed, my hands shaking. “I saw it.”

We met the ocean at low tide. Our rafts wound round seaweed channels that seagulls pecked at. Once in the open ocean water, we were greeted by sea otters and seals who curiously poked their heads above water to watch us.

Here are a few photos from the journey so far~

Bird’s eye view of climbers crossing Exit Glacier
Waiting out the rain in a hut on the edge of Harding Icefield
Pack raft approach to Grewink Glacier
Gaining perspective at the face of Grewink

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