Part 1 – in which Heong nearly swallows a human toe and prepares to meet the grizzlies.
Where in the world can you take a ride on a tourist bus through pristine wilderness and get a running commentary on the flora and fauna from the driver (who is a qualified naturalist), who will also stop to let you off anywhere? And then, having seen grizzly bears, moose, caribou and other wildlife in close proximity during your walk, return to the road to hail a passing bus back? Only in Denali National Park, Alaska. The Alaskans have developed a system that provides a huge area of unspoilt wilderness for backpackers, hikers and tourists to enjoy in their various ways without impinging on the environment, as I discovered last summer.
The trip began in Seattle where our group of twelve consisting of British, Swiss, Germans and Australians met up with our American van driver. We would be driving north to Alaska via Canada (British Columbia and Yukon), stopping at campsites along the way. Arriving in Vancouver we stocked up on supplies (cheaper than in the USA), then hired mountain bikes to cycle around Stanley Park. Strict rules regarding speed and direction of travel were enforced by rangers to avoid collisions with walkers, runners and roller- bladers – quite a surprise for the British contingent used to more lax ways.
After white water rafting on Thompson River, we went on to Moose Meadows campground. By then we’d got to know each other quite well and everyone acquired a nickname that stuck for the whole trip. One of the girls, Nadine (who we called Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous – a TV comedy series) displayed a worrying penchant for open-water swimming in freezing cold lakes and streams fed by glacier melt water. Not only that, she somehow persuaded everyone else to indulge in the lunacy. Thus at every campsite that was situated beside a lake, all of us would be found shivering in out bathing costumes (or less), having plunged in and stayed for anything from a few seconds to half an hour. At Moose Meadows, Saffy alone managed to swim across the fast flowing river to the other bank. While the rest of us were trying to figure out how to mount a rescue without drowning ourselves, she nonchalantly dived back in and swam back to where we stood open-mouthed with amazement. Fortunately we had the sauna heated up, which we made a beeline for, just in time for Saffy to stave off hypothermia. After dinner that evening Pete our driver got his guitar out and got us all singing around the campfire, for percussion we used cutlery and logs, to great effect – it certainly kept the bears, if not the mozzies, at bay. We didn’t know that we were rehearsing for a public performance on a ship in four weeks time!
The next day we canoed down the river. That was one of our few activities we didn’t have to plaster ourselves with 100% DEET for, because mozzies don’t like moving water. Further north into the Yukon, we stopped at Sign Forest in Watson Lake where thousands of number plates and other signs were nailed to wooden poles. We added our own contribution by scrawling our names on a wooden board and nailing it as high up on a pole as we could reach via a human ladder – which toppled with the last hammer blow.
At Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital, the two British girls and I walked up Grey Mountain (1,400m) while the others went shopping. On the way up we had a fright when we saw some fresh paw prints with sharp claws on the path. Saffy was convinced that they were those of a baby bear. The mother must therefore be nearby looking for food (i.e. us). As we stood rooted to the spot in terror (we’d been warned never to run away from a bear because it thinks anything that runs is good eating), a man and his dog came down the path. We were about to ask him if he’d seen the bear when we noticed the dog’s paw prints. The poor man must have thought that we had escaped from a looney bin when we suddenly collapse into fits of laughter. Later, having descended to the road we were caught by a sudden downpour. Faced with two miles of road walking in the rain we decided to chance our luck by thumbing a lift from an old battered estate car that looked ramshackle enough for our bedraggled state. To our pleasant surprise, it stopped and the young couple in front invited us in, if we didn’t mind sharing the back with their two dogs. The dogs kept their distance and gazed contemptuously at us, but sitting on the floor (the back seats were removed), we were rather worried about the long nails sticking out of the broken tailgate, waiting to impale us should the driver make a sudden swerve. Fortunately he didn’t and we survived our first (and probably last hitch-hiking experience. Later we regaled the others with tales of our death-defying ride in a torture chamber following our close encounter with a grizzly that turned into a dog. We spent the evening in Takhini Hot Springs top warm up. It was a very pleasant experience to have raindrops pelting the face while the body is immersed in hot water.
Next stop, Dawson City, of Klondike gold rush fame. Here we partook of the famous ‘sour-toe cocktail’, where a petrified human toe is added to a drink of your choice (mine was lemonade). You were deemed to have completed the challenge, meriting a certificate which proclaimed the bearer as a person ‘capable of almost anything’, when the shrivelled, blackened toe had touched your lips. Disgustingly, one fat American tourist took the toe into his mouth and swirled it around before spitting it out into his glass. Just as well he didn’t swallow it, for the rules state that I noticed a rusty old axe in the corner of the saloon bar. We were informed that over the years a few toes had disappeared to souvenir hunters, or, possibly cannibalistic drinkers. The present specimen (which was only rinsed in water after each use) came from a lady in Edmonton, but nobody knew if she was dead or alive at the time of here rather generous donation. I personally couldn’t say that the toe imparted a distinctive flavour to my Schweppes, but then I’m no connoisseur of fine toes. Later that evening, we made amends by walking up Midnight Dome (915m), a hill that towers over the City. It got its name from an annual religious ceremony that was held on its summit. We held our own ceremony that night, but I have to say that it wasn’t particularly religious, as alcohol was involved.
Crossing the border into Alaska was an experience in itself. We took the ‘Top of the World Highway’, a high bumpy route. At poker Creek (the sign said ‘Pop = 2: 1human and 1 dog’), our passports were stamped with a picture of a caribou. We continued on to Chicken (‘Pop = 12 nice people and one old grump’), a town of one row of cabins and a separate hole-in-the-ground toilet shack. Naturally there was a pen of chickens and the café served everything chicken: I had fried chicken legs washed down with chicken soup. Colonel Sanders doesn’t get a look-in here. We all sent postcards to get the chicken stamp. There was a sign to Chicken Airport, which turned out to be just a short airstrip – not even a shack. Apparently ‘Chicken’ was the early pioneers colloquial form of ptarmigan (which abounded here); they couldn’t spell ptarmigan, so Chicken stuck.
Onwards to Denali NP, the highlight of our trip. At the Visitor Centre, we watched the video on bears, which every prospective hiker/backpacker was required to do. I then made three important purchases: a map, a bear bell (a miniature version of the Swiss cowbell) and a canned moose (a small stuffed moose in a tin can). The latter were to ensure my survival in the coming days – the bell would warn grizzlies of my presence (at which they would flee in terror) and as for the moose, well, bears prefer eating moose to humans, so I kept it in my rucksack lid pocket – where it still resides to this day – to be used as a decoy should the bear bell have the opposite effect. It also doubles as a mascot. Offensive weapons aren’t my style, so I didn’t buy a pepper spray – I figured that if a grizzly did come close enough for me to aim the spray at its face, my days (or seconds) were already numbered. And if I didn’t get it right in the eyes, the effect might be to turn it into a raging maniac rather than a blinded, tearful, cuddly teddy, pawing ineffectually at the air.