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There are No Bears Here - A Mother Is Always Right

A Mother's Day Trip report by Down Wind Sports Owner Bill Thompson

When my son Blake was 18 months old we decided to take a trip to Alaska. We rented a car in Anchorage and leisurely drove north to Denali, one of our favorite National Parks. We set up camp at Savage River Campground which is as far as one can drive into the park with a personal vehicle. To access the interior of the park you have to ride in an old school bus. This cuts down on vehicle traffic in the park and helps to protect the wildlife and wilderness integrity of the park. We boarded the bus at the entrance of Savage River Campground and enjoyed a leisurely ride spotting moose, caribou, and fox along the way. Our destination was the Takaleeaka River where we would take a short hike and have a relaxing picnic. The bus dropped us off at Polychrome Rest Area where we stashed Blake’s car seat and started hiking down the road to the Toklat River. The plan was to travel downstream and find a spot to have lunch. Upon arriving at the bridge there was a park service sign stating that the area was closed due to “bear activity” Of course I reasoned that the sign meant that the downstream area was closed so I talked my very reluctant wife into changing plans and traveling up stream for our picnic. Shortly after leaving the road I was in heaven! We found prints of caribou and a wolf in the mud….there was even a beautiful print of a grizzly bear.

At this point she was getting nervous and saying that this might not be a good idea as there was obvious bear sign in the area. I on the other hand, with my expertise explained that these tracks were quite old as the mud was very dried and cracked. I also reasoned that because we were walking along a braided river which is wide open with very little brush for a bear to hide in we were totally safe. It was a stunning day by Alaska standards, beautiful blue bird skies and no bugs! We continued up stream and found the perfect spot to set up our picnic. We got Blake out of the kid carrier and set up a fine spread for lunch. As my wife was organizing, I laid down to soak up the rays of sunshine. I rolled my head to the left and opened my eyes and my heart stopped beating! Just over her shoulder about 20 yards away a mid-sized grizzly bear was walking towards us! I said “Oh my God!”

Grizzly Bear in Denali National park

I jumped up and told her to grab Blake and walk, don’t run! She got up and started downstream with Blake as I hurriedly stuffed the food into the pack and kept an eye on the bear. The bear was walking the brush line and swiping at the berries hanging off the bushes keeping an eye on us as we were on him! I quickly caught up with them and said not to worry that if the bear came after us we would just cross the river as the bear surly wouldn’t cross after us. We kept up our quick pace towards the bridge and road all the while looking over our shoulders keeping an eye out for the bear. Just before arriving at the road one last look back for the bear proved futile, it was gone! With adrenaline pumping through us we headed up the long hill towards the Polychrome Rest Area where we could pick up the bus again. At the rest area we overlooked the river valley and where our proposed lunch spot had been. A ranger came over and I asked him if he saw the bear down below. He said “Yes…he followed you for a while and then crossed the river!

Blake Thompson in Denali National Park
Denali