Klondike Road Trip Part 6: Bear Down, Alaskan Bears
Monday at 11:18 am
Miss our adventures in Tombstone Provincial Park (Yukon), Dawson City (Yukon), Kluane National Park, or backcountry hiking? Not see my escapade on the side of the mountain? Check out parts 1-5 of the Klondike road trip at the links!
If you’ve never gone backcountry camping before, you’re in good company. I didn’t have my first “haul all your gear 13 miles up a mountain” camping experience until last year, and let me tell ya, it is hard. But it’s also addicting. The physical endurance coupled with the serenity of the nature around you is a pretty exhilarating experience. And if you’re gonna do it, why not do it in the Yukon?
Just because we got out of a hair-rising situation on the side of Observation Mountain didn’t mean we were home free. We still had a night of camping and 22km of hiking ahead of us before we were back in civilization. We had decided to swtich up our trip itinerary and take the ferry from Haines, Alaska (not to be confused with Haine’s Junction, Yukon) to Skagway. Haines, Alaska was at least a three-hour drive from Haine’s Junction, where our car was parked, which meant we had to leave for our return hike before the sun had even come up. As quietly as possible, we used our headlamps the next morning to pack up our tent and set out for the 22km hike back to the parking lot. Even though we had gotten plenty of sleep (except for at 2am when I woke up and stupidly started thinking about Jason Voorhees), we were still bone-tired and bruised from the previous two days’ hikes, and the first few kilometers uphill were just a slog. Once clear of that we had a relatively easy hike out, and the weather was much more pleasant than our hike in. There was, however, a lot more standing water and the water in the creeks we crossed had risen to as high as my butt. How I didn’t lose my balance in the freezing rushing water and just wipe out in the creeks is nothing short of a miracle.
By the time we reached our car, 6 hours and 59 minutes later, we had nothing left to give. With boots totally caked in mud and bodies covered in bruises and scrapes, we collapsed in the front seats of our rental car. Like some kind of miracle machine, the little Coleman cooler we got at Walmart had kept our Gatorades almost ice cold while we were gone, a mercy granted to us after a long three days of pretty grueling hiking. We downed those things like we were Tom Hanks catching rain in Castaway and also inhaled a bag of Cheetos like it was our job…and then inhaled some Combos…and Doritos…and Dr. Pepper, pretty much undoing all the physical labor from the three previous days.
Our fellow campers had told us that the route from Haine’s Junction to Haines, Alaska was one of the most scenic in the world, and they sure as hell weren’t lying. We were getting spoiled by all the spectacular views on this road trip, and the drive through the Yukon, parts of British Columbia, and then finally Alaska, was easily top five all-time. There weren’t a lot of trees at first but what the first part of the drive lacked in trees, it made up for in glaciers. Fall hadn’t quite shown up yet in BC, so everything was still a lush green and we didn’t see a single soul on the road. Once we crossed the border into Alaska, however, we had inlet water to our right and rock face (and plenty of rock slide warning signs) to our left. As we drove, the number of people fishing on the inlet water seemed to skyrocket, no surprise given how many die-hard fishers make the pilgrimage to Alaska. At one point in the drive, we stopped to use the bathroom at a roadside restaurant whose parking lot was filled with tractor trailers hauling boats. I walked in and it was like in the movies where everyone stops and turns to look at you. At least a record didn’t screech to a stop, and the hard core rap that was playing (which in retrospect seems wildly out of place for the wilderness surroundings) kept on rolling. It was a moment so awkward that I debated addressing the crowd. Kinda like the time we were at dinner outside in Minnesota and I looked down to see a frog on my thigh. Startled, I pushed my chair back to jump up, forgetting that I was seated behind a step. I fell completely backwards, and when I jumped up to look at my stunned fellow diners, I yelled out, “I’m okay! I hate animals!” because I couldn’t get out the word ‘amphibians’. But in the case of the gangster rap fisher people of Alaska, I kept quiet.
As we got closer to Haines, we drove through an eagle sanctuary and saw six bald eagles just standing on a dried river bed. It was surreal and seemed like the most American thing since I dove off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown.We spent the night in Haines, a very small town on a peninsula in the Chilkoot Inlet. Most of the restaurants and shops had already transitioned to off-season hours so our dining choices were limited to bar food, pub food, food from a bar, or food from a pub. After all that hiking, there was nothing else we’d rather have eaten, and we gorged on anything fried we could find at the waterfront Harbor Bar & Restaurant. After dinner, we grabbed a beer at the Fogcutter Bar, the definition of a “locals’ place”. In short, the Fogcutter was everything we’d hoped it would be. Not only did it have a ton of kitschy stuff on the walls and ceiling (there was a Molson Ice sled hanging over us) and its own merch, including a t-shirt of a moose playing pool which I now regret not purchasing, everyone knew each other by name. El got a spruce tip beer, and when he asked who brewed it, the bartender replied, “Paul. His bar is down the street.” Even though it was technically a brewery (Haines Brewery), to the people who lived there it was just “Paul’s bar.”
Our ferry to Skagway was at 9:30 the next morning, so we got up early and grabbed breakfast at the Bear Den Cafe, a quintessential greasy spoon decorated with Loony Toons wallpaper, moose antlers, weavings, and random odds and ends like an Alf lunchbox. I loved it because it was the type of place where you get your own drip coffee and use one of the mugs from the random collection they’d assembled. They’re famous for their “bear-ritos” and, still famished from our hikes, I went with the ‘Big Grizz’, a cholesterol sky-rocketing beast stuffed with grilled steak, onions, hashbrowns, and cheese and smothered in delicious sausage gravy. The food and coffee were both indescribably delicous, and when we were home I even ordered a bag of the coffee online. The owner was an old hunter grandpa type, and since we were the only ones there he opened the adjoining gift shop early so we could get a magnet. I picked up a Haines magnet with a photo of a grizzly in the river, and El made a comment that we hadn’t seen a grizzly yet. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but El’s been really into bears since our Banff trip, sending me photos of them on Instagram and reading up on the different species, so he had been pretty disappointed not to have seen one on this trip. Surprised, the owner matter-of-factly told us to go up to Chilkoot Lake, and that if we saw “people stopped on the road and looking at something”, they were looking at a bear. He was so sure that we’d see a mama bear and her two cubs that we couldn’t resist heading in that direction.
The drive to the lake was itself entertaining because of the countless seagulls, Alaskan loons, and even a brown eagle having a grand ol’ time on the inlet water. Shortly after we started driving we saw some people standing on a bridge and decided to park our car. Sure enough, like the diner owner said, they were looking at a juvenile black bear sniffing its way through the riverside grass. Adding to the scene was a bald eagle perched on a rock not more than twenty feet from the bear. The bear was pretty far away and tough to see, but the fact that we were able to watch one in the wild was enough for me. As we walked back to the car, I excitedly said to El, “Yay! You finally got to see your bear!” to which he somewhat disappointledly shrugged, “Yeah, but it wasn’t a grizzly.” I said to him, “We’ll keep driving, but you might need to take what you can get, my friend.”
We drove on a few more minutes, and the road narrowed to where two cars couldn’t pass each other without one of them going into the river. Despite this, there were cars parked and people out with cameras. When we saw what they were looking at, El pulled our car over so fast that you’d think he was trying to set a world record. Across the river, not more than 400 feet from us, was a full-grown grizzly sow and her two “cubs” (they were f**king BIG) pawing through the water, fishing. We had an unobstructed view from the safety of our car and watched the bears as they stood on rocks and swiped at the fish around them. They were successful more than once, and it was surreal to see them carry a salmon in their mouths to the riverbank and feast. Even though all three of them were attempting to catch fish, it was obvious they were working together with the way they were navigating the rushing water. We must have taken a hundred pictures, but nothing could fully capture the feeling of seeing grizzly bears in the wild. We could have stayed there for hours, but we had a ferry to Skagway to catch, so we eventually tore ourselves away from the river and made our way to the terminal.
We still had plenty of vacation left, but somehow the road trip felt complete. It felt like we had accomplished something, and it was hard not to see the hand of fate at work: If we hadn’t eaten breakfast at the Bear Den, we wouldn’t have seen the gift shop. If we weren’t the only ones there, the owner probably wouldn’t have opened up the shop early for us. If I hadn’t picked up a grizzly magnet, El wouldn’t have mentioned that we hadn’t seen a grizzly. And if he hadn’t mentioned that, the owner wouldn’t have told us exactly where we could find some. Every decision that morning led to that moment: the moment Elliot finally got to see his bears…
Up next: Claim jumpin’ in Skagway
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