This bear is a grizzly bear that was supposed to be a polar bear.
Perhaps I should explain.
We made an adventurous plan last year for our September trip to Alaska. We would go way up north to the Inupiaq village of Kaktovik on Barter Island. Each autumn, polar bears gather there, awaiting the ice freeze that accommodates their passage higher into the Arctic Circle over winter.
We booked a tour with Akook Arctic Adventures – owned by local Inupiat Jack ‘Akook’ Kayotuk – that would take us into Prudhoe Bay and the Beaufort Sea to observe as many big furry, four-pawed visitors as we could find in four hours.
This was going to be a wildlife experience of a lifetime. I had even arranged to interview the Akook team for American Airlines’ inflight magazine American Way.
The journey had three stages: fly from Fairbanks in Alaska’s interior to the intriguingly-named town of Deadhorse westward along the coast from Kaktovik; stay overnight with resident oil workers and scientists, then fly across Prudhoe Bay to Kaktovik.
We managed parts one and two very well, settling in to our Deadhorse Airbnb, The Arctic Fox, hosted by a researcher named Tippy. It’s the only place tourists can stay aside from the pricey Prudhoe Bay Hotel (that does at least host a gargantuan buffet every evening. We couldn’t move after).
Fog. We woke up to a sea of thick, opaque fogginess across the town. Our flight to Kaktovik would be delayed, at the very least. The only thing we could do was wait.
Sitting in dinky Deadhorse airport for 6 plus hours, we prayed to the weather gods it would lift. We even watched almost all of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise on the lounge TV, as a sacrificial offering.
Our mutterings seemed to work. The fog lifted bit by bit as the day wore on, and by late afternoon we were allowed into the sky in our Ravn Airlines turbo prop plane.
The Arctic was on our wing tips.
High up, we even caught sight of the mighty Denali mountain, spiny with snow that glinted in the slowly setting sun.
Approaching our end destination we startling circling. It was clear that cloud was thick above Kaktovik.
We circled some more.
The pilot advised us that we might not be able to land if he couldn’t get a mile of visibility. He lingered. We begged with those same weather gods. However, the sun setting faster now, and fuel running down, we couldn’t push it any further and had to fly to Fairbanks. Back into the Alaskan interior and far away from where we’d wanted to be.
The weather, and some bad scheduling luck, put paid to our polar bear hopes. Optimism blasted out of us like a frozen breeze through trees, but we couldn’t give up. We had the last days of our trip to plan all over again.
We discussed all kinds of alternative (and outlandish) plans and activities, from trying to hire our own plane to get back up north, to white water rafting, but really there was no contest: we should get to Denali National Park and see North American’s highest mountain peak closer up. Maybe spot some wildlife…
Denali means ‘the high one’ in Athabascan Indian culture, and it’s a cool 20,310 ft tall. The mountain actually rises higher from its base than Mount Everest, meaning it’s not hard to spot on a good day! You might have heard it called Mount McKinley in the past – not that Alaskans wanted it named after the former U.S. President – but the name was officially changed in 2015, after decades of campaigning.
About those grizzlies.
First thing to say about grizzly bears, aka the North American brown bear: just because there are around 30,000 of them in Alaska, it does not mean they are down every path or lurking behind every tree. But it’s true there’s always a frisson and thrill when you’re hiking in bear country. You expect to surprise one every time you walk a trail, perhaps ending up as a fleshier alternative to the Alaskan bears’ usually berry-rich diet. In reality, bears are far too smart to hang around humans all that much, despite the headlines.
Travelling on foot as we were, and with only one full day to explore Denali National Park itself, we relied on a ranger-driven shuttle bus to take us as far into the park as we were allowed to go.
The bus was crowded when it got to our stop, so we didn’t even know that we’d get on, but get on we did. The ranger/driver hadn’t seen any bears that day, and we told ourselves not to get the hopes up.
But, as the bus advanced towards the end of its route, the ranger let out a soft cry,
‘There’s a bear, it’s right down there, look!’
Far below us on the left of the road, beautifully blending in with surrounding tufts of orange-brown brush grass, a snoozing male grizzly bear.
Necks craned, cameras jostling, we all squinted for a glimpse of the bear in the distance.
‘Was he there by the curvy bit of river?’
‘No, further forward I thought?’
‘No, that’s a bush.’
Without the ranger on hand, he really would have been very tough to spot from that vantage point.
Happy that we’d seen a grizzly, however distantly, we got off the bus expecting that to be all we’d see of him.
But here he was again.
He had sauntered away from the river towards where we now stood, still, utterly under his spell. As he mooched about between grassy clumps and thorny trees, our binoculared gazes avidly followed.
After about half an hour, he sloped off in search of food (towards two walkers who initially looked a lot closer to him than they actually were, phew) and we went our separate ways for a quick hike, turning to look now and again as the bear’s profile shrunk from view.
We were on such a high for the remainder of the trip.
While it had been a crashing disappointment to miss our date out in the snow with Arctic polar bears, we knew how lucky we’d been in Denali. To take the glass half full approach, if we had seen the polar bears, we would never have seen the grizzly!*
Now, if you go down to the woods…
*I’m still pretty p***ed we didn’t see polar bears though.